Few people today, I suspect, will face the necessity of kindling a fire in the woods during a rainstorm, but you never can tell. I was taught to do so by my grandfather, who found it a useful art when the 16th Maine Regiment of volunteers bivouacked across Dixie in the disturbance of 1861 to 65. I was maybe 8 or 9 when Grandfather and I first went to the woodlot together to have a picnic and bring back a sledload of cordwood. It was a bright winter day and by no means a wet one, so we simulated, but afterwards when I tried his method in the rain I found the old soldier had taught me right.
He said if you were coming to a place often enough, you could leave dry twigs and snatches of birch bark in a tin can, tucked into the crotch of a tree, bottom-down, and that saved scavenging when the time came. However, suitable kindlings could be had on wet days if you knew where. Softwood trees - pine, spruce, and fir - always have small lower limbs of dead, dry wood, and while they may be wet outside, the inner wood is dry enough. First, find a piece of birch bark, which will always burn, wet or dry. Next, gather a lot of the little softwood limbs.
Get much more than you'll need, and remember that you don't know at the moment how much you'll need. Grampie looked about and found a blowdown, a tree that had died standing and after a few years collapsed to the ground. This one was resting against a live tree, so he showed me that the underside had dry moss that could be scraped away to help the birch bark get things started. Then Grampie axed a few small pieces of firewood from limbs laying about on the woodland floor, under the light snow, to be added to his kindlings after he got things started. "It'd be a foolish man," he said, "that'd freeze to death in a wooden country!"
Our instructional hour, that wonderful day, was not limited to starting a fire. We had first unhitched the horses, leaving the two-sled to be loaded later, and had tethered them to two trees so they stood shoulder to shoulder. We'd emptied two grain-bags of hay so they could chomp. They'd get a few oats in feedbags come noon, but for now the hay would satisfy them. Then we set our dinners on a stump by our fireplace so things wouldn't still be frozen when it came time to eat. And all the time we were also learning how to build a fire in a rainstorm.
Grampie said his method was exactly the same as the settlers used, except that he had matches and they had to rely on flint and steel. He said they did cheat a bit, because they'd drop a pinch of gunpowder on the flax in their tinder boxes, and if you didn't blow yourself up at the first spark, you'd have all the fire you needed. He said they'd catch a spark on the tow, then blow or fan it to a flame, use the flame on kindlings, and then put the tow out to be used another day.
So it was a little time, that noon, before we got to making a fire, and the horses were chomping away and paying us no heed. Grampie said, "Now!"
He took off his Scotch cap and laid it crown down on the ground. Then he laid in some birch bark. Not too much, but enough. (He saved a "charge" should the first one prove lacking.) Next, he broke his small twigs to bits and laid them on the birch bark in his cap. Then larger pieces of twigs, all crisscrossed like jackstraws, until his cap was brim-full. I helped, to be sure, and did as he did, and we were having some good fun.
"There!" he said. "Now, did you bring a match?" So from my shirt pocket I brought out the small bottle he'd given me at the house that morning, and he took out a wooden strike-match. He said, "Now, when you pack your matches in the bottle, always put the heads down. That's in case your fingers are wet when you come to want one."
But he had, all the same, dipped the heads of the matches in beeswax to be extra sure. (Paraffin would also serve.) He said if I ever had to use matches without wax to rub the head in my hair before I scratched one. "Sets up a friction and makes the match light up better, but if your hair is wet it doesn't work and you have to go home and get more matches." So things went, and I could see I was being educated.
GRAMPIE said, "Now, supposing you're off here on a rainy day, and everything really is wet, where do you strike a match?" That was a good one! Grampie opened his mackinaw to reveal the buckle on the belt of his pants, warm from his body and likely to be dry when everything else was wet. He snapped the head of his match across the buckle.
Under the twigs in his hat the birch bark sputtered as it caught fire, and at once the small twigs were ablaze. (The sides of the hat sheltered against a breeze!) Picking up his hat, Grampie held it for inspection, and when the twigs were doing well, but before his hat caught fire, he dumped everything out into our fireplace and laid on some small sticks of firewood.
"A tall silk hat and a coonskin cap aren't so good for starting fires," he said. "Silk hats cost too much to take chances, and fur doesn't last long once it gets a chance."
So the two horses and I listened as Grampie exposed us to his knowledge and wisdom. After the horses got their nosebags I had him to myself, and we had a tasty lunch thoughtfully insinuated into the sparkling discourse.
"Someday," said Grampie, "you'll make good use of what you learn today." 'Tis true, isn't it? And all you need to commence a fire in a wet wilderness is the right kind of hat.