By: Alan Halcon
As I positioned the tip of the hand-drill into the carved notch of the hearth, I couldn’t help but wonder how it is our ancestors figured out this ingenious way of starting a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together. Some how they had figured out the need to carve a notch into the hearth, where the dust, created by the friction between the hearth and spindle, could collect and eventually form a coal that could then be added to tinder and blown into a flame.
In early July, I was out with Christopher Nyerges and a group of individuals on one of Christopher’s wild food outings. It is always customary near the end of the outings to do some friction fire making, this time was no different.
Something about this time felt special, however. So much so, that I asked if anyone had a stop watch. Don, one of the attendees, happened to have one and agreed to keep time. Understand, it is very unusual for me to ask if anyone has a watch to time me. Again, there was something inside me that said this was going to be special… I was right! Not once, but twice, at 4 seconds each time, I successfully made a coal, beating my previous record of 6.5 seconds. This feat was timed with a stop watch, witnessed by 4 of the attendees including Christopher Nyerges… Little did I know, what started out as a typical day, would turn into a record breaking event.
A few days later, the subject of the handdrill came up again and there seemed to be some discourse as to whether or not it was really necessary to get a coal that fast. My response was an emphatic “of course it is, it’s a race to save your life” at which point I proceeded to justify my position.
Some of you may recall an article I wrote a few issues back titled “The Hand-drill Challenge.” In that article, I described the procedure I use for figuring out if the woods I found were going to be any good. It basically came down to “if I can’t get a coal in 15 to 20 seconds, I try different woods, because those woods are more than likely not going to work if I continue.” This is where the importance of practice comes into play. It establishes a baseline, a standard if you will, which you can measure your success against. My personal baseline is 15-20 seconds and has been determined by the constant honing of my skills.
Back to the speed of the handdrill, for those of you who have ever tried the hand-drill, you will have, no doubt, quickly found out that prolonged attempts will quickly tire you out, so much so, that continuing becomes futile.
The human body is only capable of producing any effective energy for a certain amount of time and depending on the individual it can be more or less than the other person. Sure, conditioning can help sustain your energy, but, none the less, it is not infinite.
In a survival situation time is against you and the last thing you want to do is expend every ounce of energy you have trying to get a fire, energy you may need for something else.
if I ask you to run at a full out sprint for twenty yards then take a 5 minute break and do it again time after time, I assure you, you will have more energy left than if I asked you to sprint a hundred and fifty yards, take a five minute break and do it again, over and over. Now, what if I asked you to do the same exercise at a higher elevation, where the air is thinner. Again, the 150 yard dasher would not even come close to having the energy left of the thirty yard dasher.
The other thing is the wear and tear on your hands. Blisters are a common occurrence of the hand-drill, due to the constant friction on the palms from rotating the drill. Not once have I gotten a blister from getting a coal in eight seconds or less. Blisters do, however, become more prevalent when it takes me more than 15 seconds. They can become quite painful and prevent you from doing other things. In fact, blisters, if not treated correctly, can become infected and when you’re in the bush an infection, or the inability to do something due to injury, is not something you want.
I know there are some out there that “pooh, pooh” and disagree with my logic, but, the facts are the facts. I also realize not everyone is going to be able to make a coal let alone do it that fast and that’s okay. At least, you know what your limitations are and whether or not it is something you should rely on, should the need arise. I should point out, in my case, friction fire is a last resort option for me. I don’t even want to spend the time looking for wood in a survival situation. I always carry multiple ways of starting a fire and in a survival situation the only sticks you’ll see me rubbing together are road flares.
There is only one time that I have taken more time than I normally would have, but I paid the price with zapped energy and blood... Literally!
Earlier this year, at Wintercount, Tom Robinson jokingly suggested, since I was so good, I should try “desert ironwood.” Me, feeling a bit cocky, agreed. So off we went to find a piece of ironwood from the surrounding area.
For those that don’t know what ironwood is, it is considered one of the most dense woods in the world. In fact, people in South America have a very fitting name for it “quebracha” translated means “axe breaker,” because anyone who has ever hacked at ironwood will have undoubtedly felt the effects of chopping this wood. Simply put, the axe has a tendency to bounce off.
After fruitless attempts at trying to get a coal alone, Tom jumped into help out. Even while using the buddy system, we were still unsuccessful. We concluded we needed more help. We quickly looked around for a likely suc… I mean candidate. After all, who in their right mind would try to get a coal with ironwood. Looking around we saw Cody Lundin bounding near our camp. So we did what any two self-respecting, ironwood coal chasers would do… we headed Cody off at the pass.
When we told Cody of our crazy plot, he looked at us with that “are you serious” look but agreed none the less.
The rotation of turns would be as follows: first Cody, then Tom and finally me. Cody took his position and started with a nice rhythmic pace. After he tired, Tom followed with a very similar pace. Finally, after Tom tired, I continued with an all out sprint. Cody and Tom had done an excellent job of heating up the woods on their attempts, so when I went I was a little more confident we were going to pull this off. While Cody fanned the dust pile with his hand, I continued applying all the pressure I could onto the spindle. Finally, after much effort, Cody yelled out “you got it!” to which I exclaimed “no, we got it”, while I winced in pain.
Cody suggested since I got the coal, I should take it to flame. I said there was no way I could because I was too busy looking for cold water to cool my hands. I had torn the skin on the palms of my hands and was bleeding due to the exertion I had applied during my turn. Cody gently transferred the coal to his tinder bundle and blew it in to a flame and so ends the saga of Cody, Tom and Alan. In the end, I think it took us about a minute and a half to get a coal.
In the end, I would never have exhausted that amount of energy trying to get a coal let alone allow my hands to get torn up. Is it really necessary to get a coal that fast? Maybe not as fast as I can, but it wouldn’t hurt.
Now I am chasing the 3 second coal and I’ll be sure to keep the readers of Wilderness Way on top of my progress.