A Fire Made From Scratch

The The "Candlelight Campfire" at Falling Creek Camp.

A fire can serve as one of your greatest tools on a camp out; or become the source of your greatest aggravation. Building one may sound simple when you brought a book of matches or a Zippo light. But keeping the right things in mind can save you from fighting all night to spark life into a smoldering, pit of ash.

First, and perhaps most obvious, start collecting wood for your fire in the day time. Starting at night leaves you scrambling in the dark. Even with a high-powered flashlight this can be daunting since your scope of vision is limited to a single beam of light. Getting everyone in your group involved, collecting wood for 10 minutes when you’ve established camp, makes this an easy task.

Campfires have remained one of Falling Creek's most memorable and treasured traditions among both campers and staff. This is Campfires have remained one of Falling Creek's most memorable and treasured traditions among both campers and staff. This is "Friendship Campfire" during the Main Camp Session.

Some people believe that the type of wood you use determines the type of fire that burns, saying hardwoods (deciduous trees like maples and oaks) burn brighter and longer than softwoods (pines and evergreens). While this has some bearing on your fire’s longevity since hardwoods by definition are denser, it doesn’t have as much to do with your fire’s success as the dampness of the wood you use (or dryness).

According to the UK’s Forestry Commission, a green log of average moisture content has about half the efficiency of dry wood of the same species. Ideally the wood should make an audible ‘snap’ when you break it. If it’s a log-sized stoke, it should have radial cracks or peelable bark. Wood that has fallen freshly off the tree will take you longer to break and might splinter or bend. If you can’t break it up into your wood pile, it’s not worth the effort. Throw it back into the woods. If you’re collecting after a heavy rain, do your best to find wood in dry patch of the forest.


Another concern using green wood— or wet-wood in general— is the health risks. The fumes released can cause anything from a bad coughing fits to illness. It also has the potential to coat your food in airborne toxic particles.


Well-seasoned, dry logs on the other hand leave minimal smoke and have increased net-heat for anything you place over it with decreased CO2 production (especially compared to electrical devices or propane tanks). It is well worth your time to find dry wood.

If you live in North Carolina, or any of the surrounding states, try finding Hemlock twigs (pictured below). If you can find some dried hemlock, it will provide perfect kindling. It has a subtle waxy coating, that makes it slightly more flammable than other branches. Another tree to look for is the Yellow Poplar. Its bark peels off the wood like a banana, making easy wood shavings.

Dry HemlockDry Hemlock

Never use leaves. They don’t burn bright enough to catch wood. And if they do get enough of a flame, it comes at the price of smoke storm.

If you happen to have scrap-paper or a knife to whittle wood shavings on you, this will work just as well if not better. If you can get a flame going using flint and steel, you will need a birds nest made of soft fabric and more patience than I have. Of course kindling only lasts for a couple minutes at most, which is why you need more of a structure down for the fire to grow.

Hemlock has short soft needles on droopy branchesHemlock has short soft needles on droopy branches

Coming from a Boy Scout background and having gone on more overnights than there are days in a year, I have seen fires built in all manner of sizes and shapes, from perfectly geometric structures that look more like Mayan temples, to a pile of big twigs thrown over a pile of smaller twigs. I can say with surety, they both work great (but I tend to get carried away with the former). It comes down to the basic necessities of fire (i.e. oxygen and fuel).

Having said that, you can’t discount good form. You can waste time throwing together a pile of wood and hoping for it to catch. But having structure, even at the most basic level, will make your life and your campout much easier. I’m not saying you need to build the Taj Mahal of campfires. But knowing the needs of a fire in its early stages allows you to make the right creative choices in the future, when you’re defending your scattered pile of branches that no one thinks will light.

Yellow Poplar leaves have a unique 4-point shapeYellow Poplar leaves have a unique 4-point shape

For starters, fire needs air. It doesn’t need a lot. Just like a candle, blowing too much on a lone flame can extinguish it. But it needs some. So when you build whatever structure you’re making, it’s important to account for oxygen flow.

Also, fire burns upward. So blowing directly above an ember in its early stages leaves nowhere for it to go. The airflow works best coming from the sides up. By this logic, the fire naturally spreads upward to whatever sticks or kindling you’ve stacked above your original flame, kind of like reverse gravity. So don’t perch your kindling on top of a pile of wood expecting a blaze to burn downward.


If you dig out a little hole, perhaps with a stick making an ‘x’ pattern across the ground, or just build up your base tall enough that you can ensure it will have plenty of horizontal airflow, you can solve this problem.

A better way, if you have more time, is to build up a breezy log-cabin. It’s just as simple as it sounds, stacking parallel sticks over each other to look like an early pioneer’s house. This allows for air-flow, but not so much that a gust would squelch out whatever progress you’ve made. Start with sticks the width of your thumb and build your way up to sticks the width of your pinky.

It might help to make a level surface before you begin. If you can’t find a level surface, you can dig loose soil out from around your fire pit and pack it down flat.

starting a log cabin fire

If you want to get fancy with it, you can even lay twigs across every few layers of your cabin to make a platform, providing additional fuel once your fire gets going.

twigs every few layers
You can use these platforms to stuff your kindling (preferably one of the lower levels). You can use these platforms to stuff your kindling (preferably one of the lower levels).

If you want to take it a step further and surround it with a teepee (an arrangement of long-skinny sticks propped along the outside) be sure to snap the tips off your log cabin’s edges, so you don’t have any jangled corners.

These jagged edges are easy to fix as long as you use dry wood.These jagged edges are easy to fix as long as you use dry wood.

The sticks on the teepee should be as long, skinny, and straight as you can find them. Remember that fire burns upward. So it will be one of the first lines of fuel once it catches.


While a teepee may seem like overkill, it allows blockage from unexpected breezes, as well as keeps your fire burning high and bright. It should be noted that in order to light your fire, you need to keep one side of the teepee open. Ideally, your teepee’s skirting should be dense enough to conceal your log-cabin (unlike the picture above).

Results may varyResults may vary

A tactic for keeping your kindling in place after you’ve built a teepee around your cabin is building an inverted teepee, which is exactly what it sound like. You (delicately) place small twigs on the inside of your log cabin’s top floor so as to make an upside-down teepee— or ice cream cone— shape.

Then, gently place your kindling inside the confines of this pocket between your inverted and outward teepee. You can use a match to light your shavings, or a candle if you need a longer lasting flame.

twigs inside

If you can keep your outer teepee intact while your fire picks up, you shouldn’t have any trouble maintaining the brightness or consistency of the heat. Just keep adding long skinny branches vertically to the outside. If your fire falls apart anyway, or dies-out, you can bring it back by tossing on a fresh bundle and blowing on the coals horizontally, in long, steady breaths. At this point, don’t worry about too much air. It’s almost impossible to blow coals out than, rather than your initial flame.

That’s the basics from my experience. If you can think of any other tricks you may have learned or discovered over the years, feel free adding it in the comment section.

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FCC Chaplain Dusty Davis

Back in the summer of ‘83, during a torrential downpour, a small group of paddlers made their way down a flooding river. The campers felt cold and couldn’t see any reason to go any further in their aluminum canoes and fiber-glass closed boats that were filling up with water much more easily than today’s equipment. But their trip leader urged them on, saying “isn’t this great?!” The trip leader was Dusty Davis. And one of the paddlers on the trip, Yates Pharr, has continued to stay connected with Dusty. Years later when he and Marisa became the Directors of Falling Creek and needed someone who could set the standard for his incoming staff. He and the other boys from when he was a camper favored going on trips with Dusty, not because of his skills on the water, but because of how much he encouraged them and made a gully washer rainstorm into ‘better rapids.’

“His positive attitude is something strong and contagious,” says Yates. “He could get more out of you than you thought you actually had to give.”

What he does now is not too dissimilar to his role back in the 80’s. He works off-season from Falling Creek as a counselor and chaplain for UAB’s Athletics Department, where he mentors many students from all backgrounds, and helps them come together as a team. That makes his job at camp a smooth transition, where he takes the same approach to make the 400 plus campers and staff at Falling Creek come together as a community.

morning watch

As a camper you may know him best as the man who speaks from time to time at campfires and Morning Watch, relating personal experiences to his life in faith, or maybe you also know him as a trip leader for a rock climbing, paddling or mountain biking expedition. But the most important role he performs at Falling Creek is the position of mentor— not just to the boys coming to stay as campers— but the counselors who have come in to lead them.

Of course the staff spends up to three weeks in orientation before any boys arrive at camp, spending time going over scenarios and strategies to lead the young men coming to camp. They have guest speakers and wilderness survival training. They spend time with the tribal leaders going over potential problems with boys and understanding cabin dynamics.

But in the months to follow, a lot of the training happens on the job in individual experiences. The staff find themselves spending time with boys with whom they may have a lost the ability to relate to because of the age gap. This is where Dusty comes in and serves as a soundboard for the counselors, sharing their challenges or dissecting their triumphs in a safe environment that has their best interests at heart. Having been there himself, Dusty can relate to and advise young staff members into bettering themselves throughout any situation.


A position like Dusty’s, with a staff in most recent years of over 130, requires a high caliber of understanding in the competitive and emotional nature of young men who are all at different stages in their life. But Davis has no shortcomings here. He has spent over 25 years in sports ministry at two different college campuses, leading mission trips to 17 different countries, and has spent time as the Regional Director of Sports Ministry for the West Coast. During his time as a Chaplain he has competed in mountain bike and road cycling races all over the world. Davis won the state road cycling and mountain biking championship, twice. He has done endurance 24-hour rides. And he’s gone to Europe to partake in the Olympic time trials. He carried the torch through Oregon. His sense of athleticism is only matched by his compassion for the people who are struggling alongside him.

In addition to all of his accomplishments, he’s raised 3 children, all of whom have also worked on camp staff. Two have worked right here at Falling Creek; Cole and Chase. His daughter, Honey, works as a climbing instructor at a nearby Illahee, one of the country’s top girl’s camps, where she was also a camper for many years. His wife Mary Lou, who once worked at Falling Creek along-side him in the 80’s, now offers her photography skills for Illahee.


Dusty has dedicated his life to leading people through a rainstorm with a grin. Feel free to comment memories you have about Dusty, or pick up a copy of his short story here.

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Rapids and Camping: A Journey Down The Magpie

Bikers and backpackers at Falling Creek Camp have been known during the normal camping sessions to go to Colorado, and mountain climbers to New Hampshire to brave the windy cliffs. These excursions are just a few of the trips that campers who have taken the right amount training at camp have been allowed to go on. But these expeditions pale in comparison to the almost 2-week epic adventure to Magpie River the FCC Paddlers returned from down by Quebec’s Northern coast.

epic shot

Check out a video that Jez edited from the HUCK Magpie Expedition

Check out a different video that Rafa Ortiz edited from the HUCK Magpie Expedition

The contingent of campers, ranging in age between 14 to 17, found themselves in waters closer to Newfoundland’s national borders than the US’s. They championed the winding and remote river through Canada’s boreal forests, so remote in fact it took hours of driving, a ferry, and three floatplane shuttles to get them on location at Lake Magpie. They had trouble finding any trace of humanity down the 60 mile river that emptied into the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence.

float plane unload

“I think we were only 1 of like 4 or 5 other trips that kayaked down that river this year,” says Andrew Smith. Smith has paddled as a counselor at Falling Creek for the past 6 years where he learned paddling from none other than the trip’s co-leader Jez, a 3 time Australian World Cup champion kayaker and sponsored athlete. The two lead the campers down the river with Red-Bull and GoPro sponsored paddler Rafael Ortiz, the third FCC instructor.

Jez and Andrew

Deep in the Canadian wilderness, the group lost track of the days, touring down pristine white-water they could scoop out with their hands and drink, eating meals some of them described as the best food they have ever had. Aside from the camping in nearly untouched environments and dodging local wildlife, seeing both wolf tracks and a bear, their chief priority never faltered from learning everything they could about paddling.


“Every morning of paddling began with a skill and technique session from Rafa; who is the premier waterfall kayaker in the world,” says camper Jon K. in personal blog post he wrote during the trip. “On the river we had the guidance of Jez and Andrew to keep us safe, in control, and healthy.”

rafa teach

The river progressed from class 2 rapids during the first day, to class 4 by the final launch. Some parts included class 5 holes that required putting up a line— a system of using a guide rope— to navigate.

raft line
rafa falls

“The bigger rapids in the Magpie are just gigantic,” says Jez “No person would survive running them. Magpie Falls for example has a recirculating river hole big enough to munch two buses, without either of them touching each other.”

big rapid

Every segment required the boys to do a bulk of the planning, finding the right approach to fit the needs of the rapids. Letting the boys take ownership of trip, in the eyes of the Jez and Andrew, prepared them for conducting any similar trip of their own they may have after camp.


“It was my first expedition,” says Baird C., another regular camper of Falling Creek. “And it was really great to experience what it is like being away from civilization and technology. The trip really made me realize that there are not many places like the Magpie River left in the world. And we need to do what we can to conserve it.”

Northern Lights
group at end
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5 Challenging Mountain Bike Trails (Campers Do For Fun)

Mountain biking already sounds difficult. Having to pedal uphill through gravel and dirt, on trails that would be challenging to hike, and perhaps were never meant to be trails in the first place, sounds like a wild-man’s idea of fun. And campers who sign up for these trips usually know what they’re getting into.

But after Sunday breakfast, when the mountain bike staff entered the dining hall playing low rock music moving in silence and placed trucker hats on the heads of a dozen campers, and then walking back out without saying a word, you can’t help but wonder about the mystery. What do they have planned for a group of kids that are already accustomed to challenges?

These boys signed up for “Death March,” a collection of some of the most difficult trails in Western North Carolina.

During a quick interview with co-mountain biking directors Ray-Bot and Jake Lee, counselor Colin Barrett, and campers Chris and John, I learned the full extent of this foreboding trip— at least as much as someone who is not going on the trip himself can understand. These are the trails that break people; trails that will make people cry; trails like…

5. Laurel Mountain (Or Slippery, Hornet Town)

The basic purpose of mountain biking is to make it to the top of a mountain and make your way back down. When you go on a trail that is relatively straight, that can make your climb that much easier, not having to worry about technical switchbacks, or having to turn your bike on a dime.


At Laurel Mountain, a straight-path means nothing going up. The route, with few turns, takes on a steep incline that only gets worse as you go, fraught with exposed rock. And when it rains, it’s difficult. If it’s not raining, the river crossings will do the job in making your bike wet. To add to the seemingly straightforward obstacle course, tree roots and run-off trenches pepper the path in abundance.

4. Pilot Rock (Or The Place That Has Boulder Fields— Legit Boulder Fields)

When you go for a trail ride, you would think that the way down would be the easiest. You finally get to relax into that downhill ride that you have worked so hard to make it to after navigating areas where you no longer ride your bike but walk along beside it.


But at Pilot Rock, the downhill trek is the part to fear. The trail (and I use the term ‘trail’ loosely) starts out along a 200 ft rock cliff. The gravel and loose soil make this descent on par with a dirty ice-rink.

Beyond the cliff, the route goes through tight switchbacks in the same loose gravel that turns from pebbles to boulders, until you are riding in a boulder garden. When the trail straitens back out you think you’re safe before it twists again and you find yourself carrying your bike through a river crossing.

3. Daniel’s Ridge (Or Daniel’s Drop-Off)

Daniel’s Ridge starts out mellow. At first glance, you would expect simple maneuvering, given the beautiful forest view and a scattering of roots that should only give you a moderate amount trouble. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

But you have a false sense of security as you get to the other side where you make your downhill descent. The trail follows along a creek, which makes a series of vicious switchbacks ending in not one but two-6 foot drops (that you must ride over).


From there you find yourself on a roller coaster through nothing but rocks. You ride these hills through a series of switchbacks and strong drops, while the trail plays mind games with your sense of “the worst is over.”

2. Black Mountain (Or Clawhammer [Not A Made Up Name])

Knowing that people have just refurbished the black mountain trail can give you a breath of confidence that this trail will be different from the others and offer a ride tailored to bikers. But nothing about this course is easier. Even the man-made section is littered with log-jumps and narrow bridges. The orange mud found in the area is like a water slide when put under the rainfall in Pisgah.

The way down is fast, gritty, and offers zero traction as you guide through the rooty run-off areas. Breaks count for very little by the time you make it to the man-made part of the course. Perhaps this explains the trail’s alternate name: Clawhammer, though a more demanding name might be appropriate.

It’s nothing but a outrageous runaway train ride down the 2000 ft. drop to the bottom, offering sights that you won’t be able to enjoy, like caves, mountain peaks, and the terrified look on your friend’s face as he tumbles along behind you.

1. Turkey Pen (Or That Doesn’t Sound So Ba— AAAAAAHHHH!)

Finally, a mountain bike trail with a name that sounds more like a ride through a petting zoo than a mad route up a mountain.

But to quote Rocky IV, this trail “will break you.” On your way up, you will walk more than you will ride and even the hike is nearly impossible because of the grade. Campers as old as 16 have admitted to crying on their way up this trail.


The rhododendron tunnels do nothing to shield you from the fact that you are riding (hiking) along a steep ridge-line looking out over Pisgah and Dupont for miles (the mountain sits on the border). You will also find no trace of humanity. The view would be gorgeous if you weren’t struggling up every inch to find the areas that are actually passable.

But when you make it to the top, you have the feeling of accomplishment which only Navy Seals or Superman must feel at the end of the day, a feeling that you have defeated something that has defeated many brave men. It is the feeling of discovery that your limits exceed your expectations. It is the feeling of conquering a mountain (both literally and figuratively).

- John Granatino

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Jim Talks (Part 2)

Jim Kurtts Talks Falling Creek And Personal History

John Granatino

A few weeks ago, we did an interview with Jim Kurtts, camp’s longest returning staff-man. He had a lot to say about early camp and his contributions to the Indian Lore program. But we wanted to hear more about his personal history and memories about camp. So I went in for another interview to learn about his experience with the tribes of the mid-1900’s.

“I grew up in South Alabama, where the local Indian tribes, the Creeks, were taking the Federal Government to court,” he says as he sits in his Indian lodge on the edge of camp, helping campers bead chokers and stitch costume parts. He’s preparing for the upcoming Grand Council, a Native-American Drama that he modeled after the Indians of the Southeast.


Jim joined the Order of the Arrow(OA) as a Boy Scout, a camping group based on Native American traditions organized like a tribe. He found an appreciation for the culture before the political correctness in America would have normally allowed him to do so. The World War II generation of people rebelled against any tie with Indian culture. These sentiments didn’t change until the 1970’s.

“They had not identified themselves as Indians because of racial laws and segregation. If they had said that they were Indian, then they would have had to go to segregated schools… They didn’t have reservations and had supposedly been absorbed into white society and didn’t exist.”


About the time the tribes were able to admit their own existence, Jim followed the remaining people out to Oklahoma, where they still conducted traditional dances and performed pow-wows. There he discovered the modern Indian that would inspire him for years to come. A living culture, the Indians showed off their comfort in using modern conveniences like vibrant color dyes in feathers and sunglasses to block their eyes from the sun.

“I came back to compete in an Order of the Arrow event with an outfit that was turquoise and hot pink and wearing sun glasses… Some of the old-time Order of the Arrow guys [said], ’Where did Indians get all those colored feathers?!”

The OA participants at the time followed the Ben Hunt tradition of costume building. They believed everything had to either be real, or look real. So if they couldn’t find real deer antlers they would make some out of wood or use brown-colored fabric instead of leather. Jim remembers answering them, “Well, feathers can be dyed.”

When they asked, "Well, where did Indians get sun glasses?’ he said, “Just like me, they went to the Otasco.”


Jim claims to always keep a modern frame of mind when coming up with the Falling Creek program. “Indians are still out there dancing. Indians are still out there doing bead work. They are still out there involved in their culture. It’s not a dead culture.”

He had such a close tie with the native people, he reflects on visits he used to make when he organized trips to Unto These Hills.

“In the early years of camp, the whole camp would go to Cherokee… which meant they would bring three big busses up. We would load up the whole camp. All 100 or 150 of us (however many in camp). We would all go to Cherokee and watch the drama— the Unto These Hills drama— and then come back to camp really late… I remember that some of the Cabin 1 boys and Cabin 2 boys would have to carried back to their cabins because you couldn’t wake them up.


He also recalls visiting Cherokee land on the Fourth of July for pow-wows and Oconaluftee to see traditional crafting and activities that has remained true to the times.

While they no longer attend these events off-campus, he has still done his part to maintain the quality of the program. Just last week, he made the 2 and a half hour drive out to Cherokee to make bean bread. A couple days later, he made the same bean bread at camp with his campers.

The part of the program he has used to stay true to the activities origins has been Grand Council at the end of Main Camp. It highlights the camps dancing, singing and costuming all in one night. “When you prepare for Grand Council, you learn the songs, you learn the dances, you learn the outfitting, you learn the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of the Native Indian culture… It’s like if you were doing a play on Elizabethan England, like Shakespeare. You would have to learn the lifestyle of the people. And you would do the costuming so you would look Elizabethan, and everything to get to a Shakespeare play."

With the event coming up this Wednesday, Jim goes back to work on the costumes and beading, hoping to continue the tradition of his own tribe.

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