You Can’t Outfox the Fox - Fire Building, Trickery, and Humor in the Backcountry

Andrew Marshall

Eastern Tennessee exists in a climate most favorably described as “moist”. If it isn’t raining in the summer it might as well be. The air is saturated with humidity, the forest undergrowth constantly dripping with moisture.

To Bob Marshall, this made it the perfect place to practice fire starting.

My grandfather was an intellectual outdoorsman. He believed that skills should be practiced under adverse conditions to make them easier when needed.  He also believed in rites of passage.

That’s how I found myself spending rainy days hunched over kindling in the damp little patch of woods behind my grandparent’s house in Chattanooga. My grandfather’s ultimate test, the skill that had to be mastered before he would take me on my first long backpacking trip, was to start a fire.

With one match. No accelerant or store-bought kindling allowed.

In the rain.

People who mostly adventure in the mountain west don’t really understand how difficult this can be. There are places in this country where you can start a fire simply by speaking harshly to a handful of sticks. I once saw a woman in Colorado get a blaze going by mounding some leaves under a log and singing “Disco Inferno,” in a pleasing soprano.

This is not the case in Eastern Tennessee. In the rainy season of the southeast, starting a fire requires expert knowledge of natural kindling sources, a scientific understanding of thermodynamics, and an architect's attention to stick placement.

My grandfather would build a fire next to my dripping teepee of twigs. He usually had a cheerful blaze going within a few minutes while I labored on in sodden frustration.

“You can’t outfox the fox,” he’d say with a grin, warming his hands over the flames before stepping over to give me a few pointers. What followed was a mix of hard skills and personal philosophy. The most important of the latter: a life well lived in the outdoors is one of infectious joy.  

My grandfather and I sharing a breakfast on one of our innumerable camping trips.

My grandfather and I sharing a breakfast on one of our innumerable camping trips.

 

Many people believe they are the smartest person in the room. My grandfather usually was the smartest person in the room. He loved building things, creating things, and puzzling over problems. He had a passion for the outdoors and he applied his prodigious intellect towards maximum fun in the woods.

He was also a trickster, especially in the mountains. Something about the smell of woodsmoke seemed to bring out the imp in him.

My grandfather’s tricks were subtle. Every backpacker knows to look for heavy stones hidden deep in his pack by traveling companions (if you do not know to look out for this...chances are you have hauled some stones up a mountain). My grandfather was not above this trick, but he preferred jokes with a little more artistry. He played the long game, and he didn’t mind if you never caught on as long as he amused himself.

For instance: he was an ace at telling time in the backcountry.

He would squint at the sky, hold up his left arm, grunt thoughtfully, and use his fingers to measure the distance between sun and horizon. Then he would say something like, “3:26...roughly.”

His accuracy was astounding, always within ten minutes or so.

No one ever realized he was looking at the watch on his left wrist. I only found out years after he was gone. My father clued me in.  It took Dad a long time to figure it out too, well into his late teenage years. The theatricality of the performance sold the trick, coupled with the fact that he truly did possesses an astounding degree of outdoor skills.

You can’t outfox the fox.

Another of my grandfather’s tricks was just as subtle. On uphill climbs when we stopped for water, he was always quick to offer his own bottle, so my brother and I didn’t have to dig ours out of our packs.

“I’ve already got mine out,” he would say. “Here, have a drink.”

At the top of the mountain, my grandfather would trade bottles with us since my brother and I had drunk all his water.  He would carry ours downhill.

It was two decades later that I realized the truth: he was ounce shaving. He let us drink his water to lighten his load going up, then took our water (that we hauled up the mountain!) for the return journey.

You can’t outfox the fox.

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My grandfather and I on a fishing trip in Tennessee. If I remember correctly, we ate this fish. I probably had to build the fire.

 

 

It took some time, but I eventually learned to start a fire with one match in the rain. Though we had dozens of adventures in the woods together, I never did go on that long backpacking trip with my grandfather. In my early teens, he was diagnosed with Hep-C. The disease was merciless.  By the time I turned nineteen he was dead.

Seven years later I completed a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. You better believe that I utilized my grandfather’s tricks time and again on the trail and in countless adventures since. I trust you will do the same. But remember to play the long game.

I never had a problem getting a fire started on the Appalachian Trail. All that training. I spent many nights watching other people fail though. Most people don’t really know how to do it. 

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There are plenty of opportunities for building one’s sense of humor on the Appalachian Trail.

 

I could give you the hard skills, but nowadays you can just look them up for yourself. The important thing is attitude and repetition.  If you want to practice both, I know a good spot on Lookout Mountain, in the clouds above the Tennessee River Valley.

Wait for a rainy day. It won’t take long.