Fire in the Ice–Hand Drill in the Snow

Some thirty plus years ago, I won a company trip for my wife and I to Sweden and Finland with a cruise in between. It was two weeks of first class all the way–including a reenactment of the Nobel Peace Prize dinner in the Grand Ball Room in Stockholm. The theme of the trip was Fire in the Ice. What a blast for an ole country boy. Frankly, I don’t recall the exact details of what the Fire in the Ice thing was all about, but a couple of weeks ago, I was struck with the same theme, but with a decidedly different slant.

Having spent a lot of time in Alaska and other cold places, I have had plenty of frozen stuff in my lifetime. But it doesn’t snow much here in West Tennessee, although a subset of the de Vries Cycle of solar activity is bringing the cold back around as predictably as ever–much to the chagrin of global warming politicists–and much as it was in Southern climes when I was a kid. For the past three winters, we’ve had it way cold and well below freezing. We got a spell of that here a few weeks ago.

I would just have soon stayed home and warm, but I decided to go grab a few things at the store in case the snow turned to ice and we were left without power. As I drove the twelve miles to the store, I kept noticing numerous roadside candidates for hand drill fire making stems sticking up out of the snow. I spontaneously decided to stop. I slipped and slide-ed up a bank into a field and grabbed a few and stuck them in my van. The phone video was hurried and harried and not much good, but it does show somewhat how the stuff looks in the snow.


A fallen Cottonwood was easy pickings for making the hearth (fire-board). I wound up using a much smaller limb broken from the big log.

I saw a fallen cottonwood close enough to the road with a pull-off access for farm machinery to a field and decided to go the full distance and see how easily I could make fire right there on a big oak stump. It was easy enough to spit a small limb from the Cottonwood to make a fire-board. I had my warmest coat on and lo and behold I had some jute twine in a pocket so I knew that would make easy flames if I could get an ember.

Much is often made about having to warm the fire-board to get a coal when using wood-on-wood friction for fire starting. These thoughts are reasonable and must be a factor, but I have never found them much relevant in my fire-making efforts. I was about half expecting to have a hard time getting an ember. After all, the materials were somewhat wet from snow and the preceding weather and it was substantially below freezing. It was hard to find a good surface for set-up, but I brushed aside the snow from the stump and readied the stem and fire-board.

Excuse the Filmora Ad. I am still mad at them for tricking me, so I will ride it out. I don’t like it well enough to get the no-watermark paid version they trick you into having to buy to lose the watermark after you have already expended the effort to learn their free trial version.

I had gathered several stems of Mullein and a thick stem of Solidago*, a large species of what is commonly called Goldenrod. I prefer the latter when it is available, but by mid-winter they are usually hollow and no good for fire making. Mullein is almost as good and it is solid from early fall onward until it decomposes. Both are easily recognizable even in snow. There are many other possibilities, but where these two are abundant, I seldom look farther unless I am just experimenting with what will and will not work.

The phone video, such that it is, taken with cold hands on the fly without much attention paid to, well . . . . much of anything technical . . . . as edited and captioned, still sorta kinda shows the process I went through to get fire. The editing is both to keep the clip as brief as possibilities because my rural AT&T Internet connection has been degraded so much that it takes forever to get anything uploaded (they are touting U-Verse, while letting DSL go to pot out here in the country where the touted stuff is not available)–and to keep the information as salient and on point as possible. Otherwise, what you see is what you get.

Upon inspection, the Solidago* stem was still solid enough to use. The Mullein would have worked well too. The little half-serrated pen knife I had in my pocket was all that was necessary to skin and smooth the Solidago stem and square off the bottom to fit the fire-board. the little knife also did a good job of starting a split and shaping the Cottonwood as a fire-board. Both materials are soft, so it it was no big deal to fit the squared-off stem into a beginning indent in the board and spin it to burn in the hole fro a good friction fit–although this is what used most of the fifteen minutes or so it took from gathering the stuff to making flames. Notching the hole in the board was the last step for that part.

My biggest challenge was that my hands were cold–and old and plagued with arthritic stiffness and false feelings from neuropathy–and it was hard to make them cooperate in the cold. Still, it took surprisingly little time and effort. As I have so often said, this type of fire-making is easy if you know what materials to use and exactly what techniques work. A method that I once considered fairytale-ish and virtually impossible for mere mortals excepting a few Daniel Boones and suspected liars, I now regard as among the most useful and practical, and yes, easiest methods of fire-making ever devised. And that’s no lie.

The video clip shows the steps best I could capture them on the fly with cold hands and and a phone video. As I mentioned, this exercise was unplanned and I had to lay the phone aside anytime two hands were required. But you can get the drift. It took roughly fifteen minutes, maybe less, if you don’t count the time of stopping and getting in and out of the car twice. I was not hurrying. But, as it turned out, the stars aligned, and what I first thought might be an ugly effort begun on a whim without any planning under adverse fire-starting conditions, had a gratifying outcome.

I am not sure exactly why it happened this way, but this may be a record time in getting hand drill fire for me–from start o finish. It may be that a lot of specific knowledge as practiced over time came together just so. It sure didn’t hurt. More likely, it’s just the way it sometimes goes. Who knows? Anyway, if the clip doesn’t show all the details you want about this kind of fire starting, the following link to my broader blog may–as well as do a couple of similar posts on this current blog.

Hand Drill Techniques

* I use the term Solidago instead of Goldenrod to differentiate this variety from others of the over one hundred-fifty other varieties, although they may all be varieties of Solidago. I have no botanical creds, other than folk stuff I learned from my folks by osmosis while growing up. Actually, I think I learned to call this stuff Verge, which is indeed a French name that it goes by. But what I want to convey by differentiating it, is that although other varieties of so-called Goldenrod are edible and useful for many things, their stems tend to be too small for making fire. I have done it, but it takes a supreme effort when the spindle is so small. The smaller varieties are also more prone to early decomposition and becoming hollow which makes them useless.


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