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Playing with Fire!

25 August 2014

Wondering why we do, what we do, when we do it,  is something I just do; I can’t help it. It’s usually when I’m in the zone somewhere amid the hills.  I get into the rhythm and with no deliberate intent,  I find myself pondering on my own actions as much as I do on the performance of today’s politicians or leaders from history.  So when I asked myself the question: Why have I suddenly turned to playing with fire?  I gave it some thought; and realised it wasn’t a sudden decision at all …

pwf2This then, is a story. A simple narrative about the how and the why I decided to try foraging for fuel instead of carrying it with me.  It’s meant to entertain as well as inform.  Enjoy it…

Those of us growing up and growing older,  in the relative prosperity of a post second world war western world, have become accustomed to acquiring the latest convenience that technological advance can offer us… I remember my dad modifying an industrial sized biscuit tin to act as a windshield and carrier for the family Primus stove. It was the action centrepiece when we all went out for weekend walks and picnics. And I remember how impressed we were when one day he removed from his sac, not the Primus, but a gleaming new bright blue Camping Gaz stove. Easy to recharge, no messing with petrol and paraffin, no priming, no pumping. Quick clean and efficient. Though I do remember the next trip out, dad was  back to using the biscuit tin carrier and windshield. Combined and uneven development he said. Two steps forward, one step back quoting Lenin, (he’d been taking a correspondence course at Ruskin College).

Fit for the purpose

Of course stoves like everything else have to be fit for their purpose. And once I’d begun my own everyman adventures (they call them micro-adventures today) I soon began pushing against this standard we call fit for the purpose.  Pretty soon I had a whole variety of butane and propane stoves for luxury “base-camp” camping. By which I mean pitching a frame tent in a camping site amid some hills; and heading off on day walks, or the odd overnighter on some hilltop. And in my early days of trekking I found a whole collection of better and lighter gas stoves. You can see a good selection of their ultimate evolution on the shelves of the outdoor stores today.

Esbit's pressed steel solid fuel (hexamine) camp stove. Issued with army field rations

Esbit’s pressed steel solid fuel (hexamine) camp stove. Issued with army field rations

Go light freak

But needs must, and by the early 80’s I’d become a go super-light freak. And long university breaks allowed me to indulged my obsession for adventuring.  With a three season pack weighing less than 6kgs, money for train fares and the occasional hitch-hike, I ambled all over the wild and wilderness places of Britain.

My cooking combination evolved into minimalism with the tiniest of  Esbit solid fuel stoves and one 500 ml Trangia, do-everything pan, supporting a substantial raw food diet with a hot drink as my meal highlight. And when I say Esbit, I do not mean the minimalist but luxury appliances of today; that’s to compare a caravan with a home made buggy. Though being a DIYer and having just scored a second degree in engineering, I managed to macgyver a few “boil-a-mug-of-water” devices to shave a few extra grams from the sac for one nighters on the tops of Bleaklow and parts.

So I’d probably become completely vegetarian about the time I started serious distance trekking above the snow line. Gas, let alone hexamine,  just didn’t cut it. I was melting snow for water, experimenting with cooking for sustenance; and really counting the grammes . I bought myself an MSR XGK stove because of it’s ability to burn just about any volatile fluid, (with the right jet) . Later I added an MSR Firefly to my collection because it could simmer my food, and shortly after an XGK II after tossing the original down some Italian mountain. (I apologise seriously and profusely for my negligence in contaminating the landscape). But that was it…

Trek planning became about optimising the choice of the most challenging or rewarding route, with the opportunity to get fuel.

The beauty of transhumance (working the summer pastures) in the Alps is the abundance of half empty tins you can find on a shelf in a vacherie (cow shed) or cayolar (shepherds hut). And how much soot some of them can make when burning under pressure. Inevitably I always ended up carrying at least 650ml of fuel more than I really needed. On it’s way to a kilogram in excess weight when you add in the weight of the fuel  bottle. But still it became second nature. The annual fuel bottle, stove and pump maintenance, the carrying of excess fuel and stove spares; and the planning of trek around the contradictory needs of me and my cooking stove; were all just part of the habits of living. Something not to think about, something to quietly enable all the other stuff I wanted to do.

So after more than 30 years, this summer was the first time I took a trek above 2000m without my trusted XGK II. On the first night, after foraging fresh snow melt from a nearby source I prepared to boil it for a hot drink and dinner. That’s when the thought struck: Why have I suddenly turned to playing with fire? The metaphysical implications were not lost on me.  Two thousand metres up in a true national park with very little likelihood of anyone being close, and having swapped out a trusted tool of thirty years, with no back-up, really was playing with fire.

I suppose I could say it began in childhood.

It was occasionally my job to light the house fire of a morning. So I knew how to light a fire; though even that job was eventually made easier with the introduction of a gas poker; and totally redundant with the installation of a boiler. But the accidental acquisition of a mountain of firewood & kindling lead to a revolutionary plan to heat our home with a wood burning stove.  It has a cooking plate on top, so that really kicked the foraging into high gear, and roasted chestnuts are now a regular feast in my home in autumn.  So it was that I soon became adapt at making the tinder, lighting the fire and knowing when to burn pine, or beech or oak.

chimineaWhich I suppose is why a couple of years or so later, as a Christmas gift my family gave me a giant cast-iron chiminea.  A kind of pot-bellied stove for the back yard.It’s purpose, I have no doubt, to afford me the opportunity to be outside, as much as possible.

And from this point onwards I must accuse two of my three brothers-in-law for encouraging me in this apparent delinquency towards a proper stove.  Mid-week Seoirse is a respectable city gent, but come the weekend when he chucks off the suit you’ll soon discover he’s a hoodlum. From Bandon down in Cork,  a farmers boy, he loves fire. We have great discussion on the subject mid winter, sitting outside, the roaring glow of the chiminea illuminating our glasses of beer into the colour of honey.

Seán on the other hand is an expert on drink. All kinds of drink. Though truly he’s a great chef and one of Darina Allen’s darlings. He’s mad for the foraging. So together the three of us fall into this delinquent hill rambling, food foraging, fire making gang. (The beer drinking comes later, safer that way). No thanks to me, the end results are always brilliant.

Now, I know this story is getting long, but bear with me, we’re almost at the end…

Well the end of the beginning anyways. All of this exploration of foraging and fire led me inevitably to a condition I can only describe as being  all fired up. And a whole history of grievances began to emerge about using gas and petrol stoves; as well as all the problems with matches, and lighters. There were so many, the list would be longer than the story…

Fuel always ties you down. Next to not being able to use a map and compass, it’s the most severe curtailment on your freedom when out wilderness trekking. So inevitably, involuntarily, I began thinking about what I could do to use fire. Now open camp fires are a no-no. The list of reasons why would be even longer than the list of grievances against stoves, so we won’t go into it here. Just don’t do it. And while we are at it, stop releasing balloons that fall into the ocean; the dolphins think they are jellyfish and eat them. It’s killing far too many innocent mammals off the Irish coast.

So that’s the story…

When in steps serendipity, also known as a Facebook ad.  It showed a picture of a Kelly Kettle in action, with real fire coming from the chimney. It was one of those fugue moments. You’ve had them. You know.  The point about this product is that it really has only two parts.  A fire-pit in which to make and safely contain a fire you make from fuel you forage, and a chimney that helps accelerate the air through the fire pit, sustaining a strong flame.  But the chimney is also a water jacket, so the heat rising up through it very quickly boils the water in it. Simples as it’s become fashionable to say. Though I doubt it would be much use to a meerkat, it seemed it might just be worth a closer look.  Real fire, from foraged fuel, designed to be contained and efficient. No fuel, or fuel bottles, no pumps or o-rings, no need for a spanner, a priker, spare jets, grease or other lubricants. I doesn’t really even need a wind shield; and I reminded myself of dad’s quote from college: Two steps forward…  Could this be the One step back ? The desire for a closer look was turning into an idea for a review. And it didn’t take long before I’d decided I’d see if I could check out it’s usefulness and utility while working on the new cloud edition of Best Walks in Ireland. That would test it’s metal and I’d be able to tell if the whole foraging for fuel idea was a practical alternative to gas and petrol, or just a cold-snap pipedream.

Three parts

And that’s the end of the beginning of this story. It will, like all good stories, have three parts. A beginning, a middle and an end. The middle will tell you all about the Kelly and the end about how to get the best from it. Then you can decide for yourself. And for those of you a little cautious about the idea of making fire without a stove, we’ll take a careful look at how you can easily acquire the skills…

The Kelly Trekker kettle and the kit they supplied me.

The Kelly Trekker kettle and the kit they supplied me without charge.

So being a journo/writer  I popped off an email to the lads that own and run KellyKettle. They were very obliging, interested in the idea, said they didn’t have much of an advertising budget but hoped the publicity would be useful:  Last November I received the bundle of goods illustrated above.  The Kelly Trekker  Kettle and matching cookset, all in stainless steel. After using it for 6 months, I decided to add a few accessories, and without contacting the lads, I went online to their website and ordered, a large cookset and a couple of mugs, to try-out a few more ideas, and test their online order and delivery system. (See reviewers statement below)

So I’ve been using it for ten months now.  Trekking chunks of the Pyrénean GR10, 65, 85 and Haute Route, explorations of various ancient Camino de Santiago over the same mountains; winter and spring trekking along the Atlantic littoral GR8+ ; winter and spring bird watching and day walking in Wicklow and the Mournes and a whole variety of other day-break  and picnic stuff in Ireland. As well as the purpose for which it was supplied; updating the walks in Best Walks in Ireland. But you can read all about my experience of using the Kelly Kettle  in the middle bit of this three-part post.

Reviewer’s declaration

I’m aware that the review of products not purchased is seen as an issue in some quarters, and that the writer may somehow be biased in the expression of opinions as a result. Here is my statement on the matter:

Review items: I have a good history of reviews under my belt, everything from pocket knives to computer servers, ball pens to mobile phones and wifi routers to Ryanair’s coffee. Many of these items are returned (not the coffee), many are purchased and I’m refunded by the client commissioning the copy. Sometimes, the agency or manufacturer will declare that the item is not worth the return cost, (although frequently being in Ireland, mailing to England, that cost falls down to me).

Kelly Kettle: Most of the time, especially with electronic goods, reviews items will arrive unsolicited. The opportunity to review the Kelly Kettle arose quite differently. You may read in the story that I was already well disposed to trying something that would let me burn foraged fuel. And I had a good idea that others like me would be interested in learning about the product and the process of using it. Good or bad, you’ll get the honest dope. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

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