There are so many magnificent things about summer camp, and for me one of the greatest of them is the opportunity to sit around a campfire. Not a gas flame flickering, not a warming lamp on a restaurant patio… but a campfire.
The first campfire I experienced was at Sanborn, and it was love at first sight. I was a camper on my first unit overnight, far from home. I was tired from a long hike in wet weather, my feet and shoulders were aching, and a cold front was rolling in behind the rain. But then the counselors built a campfire. And all of those tiresome things melted away. I couldn’t believe how incredible it was to just stare at the rolling flames.
The mood lifted as campers and staff gathered around. We gazed at the fire, transfixed by the vines of light tangling in the air. The brilliance, the warmth, the crackle of the logs…it brought new life to our cold campsite. There was something mystic about those flames. It felt like a message from the earth, from nature itself, an encouraging note of warmth and energy.
Throughout that evening, campers and counselors stayed near the fire, working together to prepare dinner. We chopped and grilled, cooking right over the blaze. There wasn’t a stove in sight, we literally cooked over the fire. It felt timeless, as if we were engaged in an ancient task. I still remember that meal, it’s one of the best dinners of my life. And not because it was well made, which it was, but because the entire meal was cooked on an open fire. It lit up my mood and filled up my belly.
That campfire was a first for me, and summer camp is all about firsts. Spending a night or two out in the wilderness can be scary, but a campfire can chase away those fears. It’s a process that humans have been doing for eons.
The human race has a special relationship with campfires. It’s a ritual of light, a safe zone of warmth and community. Gazing into a the flames, we connect to our past. For thousands of years our ancestors sat around fires, not for fun, but for necessity. Human history began by the firelight. When we build campfires, it brings a taste of the timeless into our cluttered modern world.
It’s essential to be safe when building a fire. At Sanborn, we don’t have fires all the time, we only build when conditions permit. Sometimes there are fire bans, other times we’re in National Forest or high country and we simply don’t want to impact the surroundings. But when we do build campfires, it’s truly wonderful. A campfire can warm a day and bond a group. Gazing into the flames inspires you in ways that are hard to describe. The flames roll and your thoughts roll with them.
Years ago, that night around the fire, the meal finished but we kept the flames going. We roasted marshmallows and sang along with an untuned guitar. The flames twisted up into the night with our laughter in tow. I looked across the fire, into the eyes of my new friends. The campfire underscored the mood, it was a shared love of the moment. With each pop from the fire, sparks floated up into the sky, mixing with the stars. I felt so… connected.
As the night ended, the flames fell into coals and the embers pulsed like a heartbeat. One by one, everyone headed off to bed, zipping into their tents and bags. I sat alone with a few others, poking at the embers. Finally, the counselors put the fire out with a crash of cold water. Steam hissed up into the night, the light fading away. It was time for bed.
I always sleep like a rock after sitting around a campfire. It’s almost like the flames were a lullaby for my busy mind. And then there’s the fun of the next day… because one of the great things about a campfire is that it stays with you. The next morning you can smell the campfire in your clothes, an aroma of smoke, an echo of nighttime fun. More than once, I’ve been caught standing stock-still, sniffing my clothes and smiling, remembering the flawless joy of a campfire.