Schuckman: Camping is an art

Posted: May. 25, 2013 2:38 am Updated: Jul. 6, 2013 2:38 am

Gabe Smith would never consider himself an artist.

"I'm a camper," Smith says. "I'm a woodsman."

So the suggestion that his campfire is a work of art comes across as more of a slap in the face than a compliment.

"Please," Smith says. "There's nothing artsy about this."

What Smith fails to realize is the construction of a quality campfire is as artistic as a painting.

"It's more than a pile of sticks," Smith says. "I'll give you that."

Then he goes back to placing logs in their proper place.

Smith, who grew up in Rushville and now lives in the Chicago suburb of Romeoville, makes two trips to Siloam Springs State Park each year. He spends a week in either late April or early May camping, hiking and fishing in the park that overlaps the Adams and Brown County lines.

He returns each fall, too. Smith usually turkey hunts in the area at the time, but he always camps at Siloam Springs.

"That was summer camp for us growing up," Smith says. "Coming here was our family vacation."

Although he usually makes the trip back to West Central Illinois by himself these days — "My girlfriend is scared of bugs. Enough said," Smith chortles — he does his best to recreate the memories.

That means no electricity. No showers. Nothing but living off the land.

He packs a cooler with meat and supplies, but he tries to catch enough fish to clean and cook for his entire stay.
He doesn't bring any charcoal or fire starters either. The bed of Smith's pickup is loaded down with wood, and he collects small twigs and leaves that create the kindling needed to stoke a good fire.

Smith doesn't go as far as using flint to start his fire. He does bring a lighter and matches, but he refuses to put any ignitors such as gasoline or lighter fluid on the wood.

"It's called roughing it for a reason," Smith says. "Don't take the easy way out."

To that degree, he won't use newspapers or any paper products to light his fire.

"That's cheating," he groaned.

So he starts from the ground up.

Smith begins the process of building his fire by creating a small square of twigs and leaves, layering materials a couple of inches high. He criss-crosses some of the bigger sticks to create air flow that will give the fire life.

He takes three sizable logs and leans them against each other, creating a teepee for his blaze. Once he lights his kindling and the fire starts to crackle, he slides a pair of small or medium logs through the gaps to provide some meat to the fire.

He's very methodical in how he places each log, refusing to use pieces too big.

"Don't smother it," Smith says. "That's the worst thing you can do."

He keeps a box near the fire filled with small pieces of wood and logs he wants to use to stoke the fire throughout the night. He makes sure the box never sits on the ground, placing it atop a couple a trimmed-down logs.

"Moisture is the worst thing for a fire," Smith says. "I take precautions so the ground moisture doesn't soak into anything."

After all of that, Smith can enjoy his handiwork.

He pops open a collapsable stool and sits down next to the fire.

"Looks pretty good," Smith says. "One of my better ones."

Then he laughs outloud.

"You know what," he says, "I guess that is a work of art. It's beautiful."


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