Klondike Jim: Chapter Five

The first thing to do, then, was to start a fire. Starting a fire to survive in the Alaskan wilderness is a primordial struggle, an encapsulation of the struggle of life itself. It occurs to me now that it would make for an exciting topic for a short story. The story could end with a single beautiful image burned into the mind of the reader: a toasted marshmallow, perfectly browned and glowing with warmth after having been toasted over the fire’s merry flames. That’s a good way to wrap that one up.

So: starting a fire. The main danger with starting a fire in cold weather is that if the wood you’re using is damp — even a little bit damp — it can potentially release its steam in a sudden gout, exploding with lethal force. Many of the old pioneers would, in fact, start large pre-fires to thoroughly dry out their firewood before building their real fires in earnest, but I didn’t have the luxury of time, or a second location. I was going to have to risk it all and hope that I’d survive the effort.

There was, miraculously, still an intact supply of firewood in the monastery and I took several stout sticks and piled them in the fireplace in a circle (a method of fire-starting known as The Circle Method.) I lit one of the corners of the logs with some matches that were near the fireplace and — miraculously — the wood caught fire. I stood near the burning wood, now gaining in brightness and radiating life-giving heat, squinting tensely, awaiting the dreaded burst of steam that might well end my existence in a splinter of hot wood. But nothing of the sort happened, and I was relieved as the fire took on a cheery, avuncular appearance, like that of a successful, mid-career dentist.

As the flames capered and danced, they threw light and shadows into the corners of the room. I took stock of my surroundings. The building was old, but sturdy. The room I was in was clearly a great room of some sort, perhaps three stories tall with a still intact stained glass window dominating the south wall.

Bookshelves were everywhere, and I sprang toward one with excitement, only to find that the antique book I’d grabbed was filled with some sort of nonsense alphabet or unbreakable code. I reverently put the book in the fire — even though it was filled with words that could not be read, it still represented the idea of knowledge, and as such it could only be burned with a feeling of real love and respect. Many more books met similar fates over the course of the evening as I kept myself warm in the folds of the bearskin rug. As dawn broke, I discovered — to my chagrin — another much larger pile of wood in a corner of the room. In the future, I would burn that wood instead of books, except that I might get the fire started with books, because they burned more quickly then logs, which were really just books that hadn’t yet been written.

This gave me an idea for an amazing poem about logs.

Log: spinning in the night
You and your brothers
the legs of trees
running — in the night
running — toward the light
ephemerally and emphatically
most certainly dramatically
you will one day be a book …
about wood!

This was just fantastic. I’d survived the evening, and I even had my next assignment done for the state, should I figure out how to build some kind of pioneer WiFi and log onto BaseCamp. As dawn’s light broke through the stained glass window, throwing shimmering shards of blue and green and white across the slate floor, I stretched my arms out and yelled: “HELLLL YEAH DOG!”

It echoed in the cold, empty chamber. I punctuated it with a quick: “WOO!” And with that, I set out to explore my surroundings.