Winter Day Camp

This last Saturday we had our first ever Winter Day Camp.  Sadly, half the participants cancelled due to illness, but the remaining campers and I sallied forth and had a good time.

The plan was to first learn how to build a fire, and once we got the main fire going, burning down to coals to cook our lunch, each camper would get to make his/her own fire using the principles previously learned (the seven sizes of wood one must collect, and how much of each, how to make a tinder bundle, how to build the starter pile, how to light matches and then how to add additional fuel).  While the coals were forming, we’d assemble our lunches (foil dinners and gingerbread cooked in orange rinds, plus dough-on-a-stick).  After lunch, we were going to make ice sun-catchers, possibly build a shelter, and go on a mink hunt.

Things never quite work out as planned.

First, we gathered wood and finally got our demo fire built.  The wood was good and wet, thanks to the rain and snow from the previous two days.  It was going to take a long time to get any coals.

DSC_0560Next, each camper attempted to build his/her own fire.  Fire-building is not difficult, but one needs to know what one is doing. 


Fuel must be gathered first.  You need LOTS of stuff that is toothpick thickness.  Then you need slightly less stuff that is chopstick thickness.  Thumb thickness is next, followed by two-finger thickness, wrist thickness and bicep thickness.  Lastly you need wood that is as thick as your head.  For these starter fires, we only needed to go up to chopstick or thumb thickness.

Once you have enough fuel gathered (and sorted into neat piles for easy access), you need to make your tinder bundle.  To save time, I had them use materials I had previously gathered:  inner bark of cedar trees that was already shredded and fuzzed up, and pieces of jute string – these they had to tease apart themselves and make into a nest.

The tinder bundles are ideally ignited at this point and placed where the fire will be built. The toothpick-size sticks are quickly piled around the burning tinder in the classic “teepee” form, followed by the chopstick-size sticks.  To save time and prevent fingers from getting licked by flames, we set the bundles down and built the teepees around them before striking the matches.

The goal was to build a fire that burned long enough to burn through a piece of string held taught above the teepee.  Without the right fuels, though, the flaming tinder bundle will burn out before this goal is reached.  Lessons are learned.

DSC_0561We moved on to our next activity:  making lunch.  Foil dinners are a classic campfire favorite, and while potatoes, onions, carrots and burger are the traditional fare in a foil dinner, there are lots of great gourmet recipes you can find online to make them a real treat.  We went for classic as being most kid-friendly.

After a quick lesson on knife safety, each camper had to chop his/her own carrots and potatoes.  I chopped up the onion and passed out the burger patties.


Playing with your food is always an option.


Once assembled, the foil was wrapped into packets around the food and buried in the coals.  We had a very small bed of weak coals, so I decided the meals would have to cook longer than usual 20 minutes to be sure everything was thoroughly cooked.  I was aiming for 30-40 minutes, just to be sure.

So, while our dinners cooked, we went and cut some green sticks and whittled the bark off one end.  To this we stuck one end of a rope of dough.  The rest of the rope was wound around the stick and the other end pinched down onto the wood.


Locating a hot spot in the fire, the sticks were slowly rotated for about 10 minutes, ideally cooking all sides to a golden brown.  Et voila!  Dough on a stick!  Yum.  This turned out to be the hit of the day.


By the time we had mastered dough on a stick, I looked at my watch – our foil dinners had been cooking for an hour!  Oops.


As you can see, Bailey’s didn’t come out too badly, but Ethan’s, well, it had some crispy parts.

DSC_0578Still, most of the meal was edible.

We didn’t get enough oranges eaten to make the bowls for the gingerbread, so that particular campfire culinary delight will have to wait for another time.

By the time we had eaten our meals, and cooked the last of the dough, it was time to clean up our camp site and return to the building.  Four and a half hours went by fast – and we never left the campfire!  Still, everyone seemed to have a good time.

Fun like this isn’t limited to just kids, you know.  I had an Adult Winter Day Camp planned for the following day, but due to lack of registration, we had to cancel.  Come on, folks – it’s never too late to be a kid!  If you want to just have fun, that’s okay, even if you are 30…40…70 years old!  If you want to learn how to do these things with your own kids and grandkids, come on out!  This is why we are here:  to help everyone, regardless of age, reclaim their connection with the outdoors.  It’s not all about learning the scientific names of things – sometimes it’s just about having fun.


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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