Wolfe Publishing Group

    Telegraph Creek

    To Build a Fire

    Being an inveterate coffee drinker – it is my last remaining vice, and I’m not giving it up – I spend an inordinate amount of time before any trip calculating how I’m to get my life-giving dose of the sublime elixir each morning, regardless of circumstances. Normally I start each day by grinding some French roast beans into fine powder, then let my electric drip coffeemaker do the rest. Obviously, this is out of the question in any situation where there is no electricity – as, for example, during a backpack sheep hunt in the Yukon.

    It is possible to fudge the grinding. We are roughing it, after all, so using preground coffee is not an unbearable hardship. My little travel coffeemaker works much like a French press, but there is still the question of boiling water. Over the past 50 years of backpacking under various circumstances, I have tried just about everything, from the basic campfire dating back to cave days to modern Primus and Optimus stoves that run on naphtha gas.

    On a mountain in the Yukon, Terry (left) and Leif Austad, Dall sheep stalker extraordinaire, brewed up some lunch on the little Sierra stove.
    On a mountain in the Yukon, Terry (left) and Leif Austad, Dall sheep stalker extraordinaire, brewed up some lunch on the little Sierra stove.

    The early Antarctic explorers depended on Primus stoves, which is about as good a testimonial to their dependability as there is, and they are still very good, but they present problems; a hunter has to carry a canister of fuel, figure out how much he’ll need and ration it carefully. It means carrying a metal container up the mountain (full) and back down the mountain (empty).

    I brought up the question to George Calef, my Yukon-dwelling, sheep-hunting pal, wondering what I should bring. Worry not, he said, it is sorted, we have a system. I can carry some of the naphtha, I offered, I’ve got an aluminum container. Not necessary, he replied, we don’t carry fuel. Don’t worry. It is sorted. When hunting sheep in the mountains, it does not take long to get above tree line, and there you stay. There is no firewood and little in the way of brush for even a tiny blaze. Reflecting on this, when I reached the Yukon after seven days of driving, I was worried. My coffee requirements were looking threatened.

    George has backpacked and hunted in the Yukon for about 40 years, give or take a decade, and has learned how to live – and live well – out of what he can carry on his back – and like me, he needs caffeine to start the day. We were about halfway up the mountain the first day when we paused for a break in a grove of fir trees. George began unpacking the wherewithal for hot water. Got your coffeemaker, he grinned? I unpacked it and put it together.

    From his pack George drew a cloth sack with a drawstring. It had obviously seen many autumns, as had the blackened pot and what looked like another steel pot with double sides (a pot within a pot) that stood on a little metal pedestal. George plucked a dead branch off a tree and began breaking it into twigs little bigger than toothpicks. “Kindling?” I asked. “No,” George said, “Fuel.”

    From an old 35mm film canister, he pulled out what looked like a ball of cotton glistening with wax. He dropped it into the odd-looking pot, dropped some twigs on top and put a match to it. It flared, the twigs caught fire, and George dropped in another handful of twigs. He then flicked a switch on a little gadget connected by a wire, and there was a gentle whirring sound. As the fan in the base of the stove picked up speed it blew warm air through vent holes in the walls of the pot, and the twigs blazed fiercely. Another handful of twigs landed on top and caught almost instantly.

    “That’s it?” I asked.

    “That’s it,” George said, placing a kettle of water on top with flames licking up around it. That was my introduction to an unsung little stove called the Sierra Zip Stove, made by the ZZ Corporation in California. To call it ingenious is to understate the case by several degrees. At a stroke, it solves everyone’s cooking problems, and does so in about the most environmentally friendly way imaginable.

    The company bills it as “the friendly stove,” and “the best invention for backpackers since feet.” Here is how it works: There is a tiny fan in the base of the stove powered by one AA battery. Once you have flame and twigs in the canister, you switch on the fan. It works like a tiny bellows. Air between the walls is preheated so when the fan blows it onto the embers it increases combustion. Just keep feeding in the twigs, one or two at a time. The switch has two speeds so you can control the heat.

    How much heat can you get out of a pile of twigs in a can that is only 4 inches across and less than 3 inches deep? A lot. The company says 18,000 Btu/hour, which means nothing to me. Here is a more practical measure. One of George’s higher-tech friends said it could not compete with propane. From a standing start of zero the ZZ took on the gas stove and had a quart of water boiling before its fossil-fueled challenger had generated more than a few bubbles.

    Since one battery will last for six hours on high speed, a hunter needs only two or three batteries to keep him going for a week in the mountains. As for fuel, you don’t even need twigs. Pine cones or bark will do. Above treeline those are hard to come by too, but what is plentiful up there is heather, the tough little shrub that makes walking difficult. The upper slopes are carpeted in heather and every plant carries a few dead branches. In our second camp there was no wood at all, but heather aplenty. We did all our cooking over the ZZ stove fueled with bits of heather that looked like little broken pipe cleaners. This worked like a charm.

    The diminutive stove – with its tiny fan, AA battery and a few handfuls of dried heather – can boil water in minutes and heat large amounts of soup.
    The diminutive stove – with its tiny fan, AA battery and a few handfuls of dried heather – can boil water in minutes and heat large amounts of soup.

    The minute I got home, I went on the Internet, found the Sierra and bought a stove as well as every accoutrement made for it. These include a windbreak, a grill and a few other things. The stove itself nestles in the one-quart pot that comes with it, and a little skillet works as a top for the pot. The stove weighs a pound; the whole outfit maybe twice that.

    It seems to me it should be possible to rig up some sort of crank that would allow you to spin the fan at sufficient speed even without batteries. And the stove is not without faults – at least, the model I bought nine years ago. The switch is tiny, and the switch box is held together with a minuscule Phillips screw that requires one of those little screwdrivers you use to repair your glasses. Good luck replacing the battery in blowing snow with your hands numb.

    I tend to assess all sources of fire in terms of the ill-fated prospector in Jack London’s To Build a Fire. This might seem unfair unless you have awakened in a small tent on a February morning to find all your equipment under 8 inches of fresh, wet snow, as I have; or if you have been on a winter army exercise when the temperature hits 44 degrees below zero, and the wind-chill factor is -74 F. Your standards change somewhat.

    Even so, I count this little stove as one of the great survival developments of recent years. I now keep mine in my car wherever I go because, well, you never know when disaster will strike – and you just have to brew some coffee.

    Wolfe Publishing Group