The Handdrill Challenge
By Alan Halcon



Walking along the trail, I started to pay particular attention to the types of woods that could be used for the hand-drill. To my left was mulefat, my longtime favorite wood for spindles. To my right was mugwort, whose straight stalks make very usable spindles as well. Ahead of me on the trail, was a beautiful ash tree, whose wood I revered as my absolute favorite for a hearth.

This trail was full of woods that I had used or knew were usable. I was comforted in knowing that if I needed to make a fire with materials found on the trail, I could. As I continued on my hike, I realized that my ability to make fire might be skewed if I was in a region with unfamiliar woods. The grim realization that I might not be able to make a fire was very unsettling if I found myself in a location that I was not accustomed to being in.

So, my day hike turned into an exercise. Armed with a pocketknife, my knowledge, and my skill, I set out to make a fire with the hand-drill. There were two rules to this exercise. One, I could not use any woods that I already knew were good for firemaking. Two, I would have to find woods that were ready-to-go on the trail. This meant they would have to be dry and ready to use.

The plan of action was easy. If I could not get a coal in 20 seconds or less based on my ability in using the hand-drill, then I would move on to other combinations of woods. This is where practice is important. It lets you know approximately how long it should take you to get a coal. In my experience, if it takes me longer than twenty seconds to get a coal, it usually means the wood is not right, either in combination or individually.

By setting up these self-imposed limitations, a whole new world of possibilities opened. I started to notice many types of materials that might be suitable. There were myriad plants that had perfectly straight stalks, but they were green! Green wood was not going to get me the fire that I needed. A half hour had passed since I started this exercise, and I was not any closer to finding suitable wood. This started to worry me. It was getting late, and I only had about an hour of daylight left. I knew I could not let my fear of running out of time cloud my judgment. In a real survival situation, this might mean the difference between life and death.

I started to laugh at myself, because here I was worrying about making fire with the hand-drill. Yet, in my pack I had a lighter, ferro rod, matches and tinder. Just then I noticed a rather large lambs quarter plant that was dry. I went over and checked out the stalk. It looked like it might make a suitable hand-drill, though it seemed pretty pithy. I looked around and found a piece of a branch that would make a good hearth. I did not know what type of wood it was, so as "unidentifiable," it was usable for this exercise.

I took my knife and started to whittle the hearth out of the branch that I found. I like making my hearths about 1/4-inch thick, since that allows the wood to heat up faster. I continued by making the notch in the usual fashion about 3/8-inch wide and the apex coming to an end about 1/4-inch in from the edge of the hearth. I took the lambs quarter and cut out a section of the stalk where the overall length would be about 18 inches and the tip would be about 3/8-inch in diameter.

I began to twirl the lambs quarter drill in the anonymous hearth. Right away, smoke started to pour out. The dust that flowed into the notch started to turn black rather quickly, and the smoke started rising intensely. A few more spins of the drill and I stopped. I looked in amazement as the dust pile continued to smoke on its own, and in a couple of seconds started to glow. I was elated at the fact that I had used lambs quarter as a drill. I knew this plant was very nutritious when green, but who would have thought it could also make fire.

Happy with my results, I proceeded back down the trail to my vehicle. I wondered how else I could challenge myself with other skills. Perhaps I could do the hand-drill with one hand. Okay, maybe not.

As with all skills, it is important to challenge yourself in order to hone your skills. In my manual, The Hand-drill, I tell people to "think out of the box" and do not get caught up with the particulars. Had I tried to over analyze the use of lambs quarter, I might have dis-missed it as being too light and pithy. By taking a chance with it even though it was getting late as the sun was setting, I was able to successfully get a coal.

As Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take." As with firemaking, or any endeavor in life, you learn nothing if you do not experiment and try.

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