To Build a Bonfire


In the summer of 1987, when I was sixteen years old, I had my final (and ultimate) adventure as a Boy Scout. Under the guidance of our revered scout master, Charles E. Strother, ten of us made the journey from suburban Virginia to the Matagamon Wilderness Camp in northern Maine, there to canoe 100+ miles over a combination of pristine lakes and whitewater rapids.

Matagamon packed more than pup tents and merit badges. One of a handful of “high adventure” scout camps scattered across the country, it provided opportunities to put our skills to the test. At Matagamon, we didn’t just tie knots; we lashed our backpacks, tents, and food into canoes that we paddled through class-three whitewater rapids. If our canoes capsized, as all of them did at some point, our knots had to hold or our gear was gone. 

Simply put: the stakes were real. In addition to losing your gear, you could get hurt spilling out of a canoe in a rapid. And even a team of ten Boy Scouts with maps, compasses, plans, and a highly experienced guide could get lost in the three-million-acre wilderness. I know because, one day, we did.

Our motley crew of boy scouts


We had already been on the water for five days and nights, paddling through rapids, portaging around waterfalls, and occasionally just drifting over clear, cold lakes. Our guide, Christopher, had quickly become an integrated member of our crew. He wore a grungy orange felt fedora, chewed tobacco, and slathered himself in “Old Woodsman,” an insect repellent that looked and felt like Aunt Jemima syrup even though it smelled like industrial disinfectant.

Christopher shared a canoe with Mr. Strother. The rest of us paired off in different boats each day, partnering across the group to build teamwork and camaraderie. 

Each evening we reached a predetermined campsite along a carefully planned route. There weren’t any amenities waiting, but there were clearings in which to pitch tents, pits in which to build fires, and marks on our maps that indicated expected progress. It was all designed to be high adventure but still low danger. 

On the afternoon of the sixth day, however, the plan went a bit awry. While we were taking turns navigating a mid-sized rapid, one of the canoes capsized. The two scouts aboard floated downriver without injury, but the canoe itself wound up stuck between two rocks in the middle of the rapid, blocking the best way through. To make matters worse, the capsized canoe contained one of our two main food bags–half of the group’s meals for the next three days. 

Capsized canoe rescue (yes, that’s me)

With a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease, we staged a successful rescue, retrieving the canoe, our meals, and the other gear intact. There was just one problem: we were now nearly two hours behind schedule, with no more than two hours of daylight left. 

Perhaps feelings buoyed by our successful rescue effort, we decided to press on. And perhaps because we were rushing, or because it was getting dark, we wound up taking a wrong turn–or, more precisely, the wrong fork of the river.

Up a Creek

As the sun began to dip below the treeline, Christopher and Mr. Strother turned their canoe, circled us up, and confessed that they didn’t know where we were. What they did know was that we needed to find a place to camp, and quickly.

“So get to it,” Mr. Strother said. “This is nothing you boys can’t handle.”

Even as we paddled on, we created a plan of attack for making camp. Mr. Strother and half of the boys would pitch the tents. Christopher and two of the others would build a fire and get supper started. The other three of us–my friends, Bobby and Michael, and I–would collect enough firewood to actually cook dinner, not to mention dry our clothes and keep us warm. By midnight, the temperature would dip into the 40s, so generating some heat in the meantime was a real priority.

A quarter mile down the river, we found our spot–an island with an almost sandy front edge that split the river into two unequal channels, a shallow, 30-foot-wide causeway to the left and a nearly hidden, fast-flowing creek to the right. Near the front of the island was enough clear (if clumpy) space to pitch several tents, and the beach itself, which actually consisted mainly of light grey stones, formed a sort of natural fire pit. All we needed now was a sufficient supply of dry wood. 

Wilderness camp

After pulling our canoes up onto dry land, Bobby, Michael, and I set out on our search. We crossed the open space where the others would pitch the tents and plunged into thick underbrush beneath a canopy of tall trees. Under the trees especially, darkness was descending quickly.

The ground beneath our feet rose steadily for the first twenty or so steps, then we crested the island’s one small hill and stepped into what seemed like a minor miracle. Just over the hill, the canopy and underbrush gave way to a clearing, perhaps 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, that was filled with sun-dried, bleached-white driftwood.

Driftwood from Heaven

Judging by the geography, the island we’d found was likely underwater during the spring, when the snow melted off and the river rose. At its center was a sort of basin, where floating wood got caught on its way downstream. When the water level dropped, that wood was left to roast like sunbathers on a beach. 

The net effect, for us, was a dream come true. Not 50 yards from our impromptu campground, we had discovered enough dry wood to build the biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen. 

So, naturally, that’s exactly what we did.

After a day that had left us lost, wet, shrouded in darkness, and hungry, we built a giant bonfire on a rocky beach on an island in the middle of the Matagamon wilderness. And we used it to cook our dinner, dry our clothes, warm our bodies, and arm ourselves against the encroaching darkness. 

We were suddenly powerful again–in some ways, more than we had ever been before. We were now a band of brothers, a tribe that survived together, on its own, out in the wild. We were never in any real danger, I suppose, but the adventure had become even higher that day, and we had pulled through.

I remember watching the flames leap up at the sky and hearing a loon call across the water. I felt a kind of wild satisfaction that’s difficult to describe. I suppose you might call it “freedom.”

Several of my brothers from that band went on to face real dangers, and much more extreme adventures, as they moved from the Boy Scouts into the military services. My own path led a different direction, and to differences in outlook with some of them. But it also still leads back to that fire we built together. To the canoe and the meals we rescued. To a guide in an orange hat and a scout master who took the time off to take us to Maine that summer. To a place where we all took a step or two toward manhood, and left nothing but footprints.

3 thoughts on “To Build a Bonfire

  1. Rob Dwyer

    Hard to believe it’s been 30 years Steve, you have captured in fine prose the adventure we had exploring the Maine woods & waterways that summer. Reading this brought back a flood of great memories.

    Incidentally, it’s also been about 30 years since anyone referred to me as “Bobby” haha

    – Rob Dwyer


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