GlenColumbKille, County Donegal, Ireland

I met a new nemisis tonight. It took me quite by surprise and we struggled for nearly 2 hours in intense hand-to-hand combat. Throughout the battle, in fact until very near to the end, the outcome was most uncertain. So much so that I questioned myslef, my abilities and the 24 years of training I have received.

This new enemy of mine brought into doubt my determination and my resourcefullness – traits that I have had to depend upon thoughout my life in both good and bad times. Ultimately, I dominated but as stated earlier the outcome was close to defeat.

Allow me to introduce to you, friends, my new enemy: COAL.

Perhaps a background in appropriate:

You see, since I was five years old, I have been backpacking with my father. This wasn’t a matter of hiking to the next bed and breakfast, this was carrying all that you needed to survive for a week in the middle of nowhere in an uncomfortable sack harnessed to your back. Backpacking meant sleeping in nylong bags on the dirt, unsurprised by 30 to 40 degree temperatures at night and bathing in frigged mountain streams.

Most importantly, part of backpacking the Owens way meant that if you intended to eat dinner, you had to kill it, clean it and cook it first. This only involved fish, either Rainbow or Brown trout.

Cleaning a fish is a particularly nasty job involving gutting, ripping and scraping blood and organs from within the fish. Its unsightly but has to be done.

So, too, does cooking which happens to be even more important than cleaning.

Since the Owens clan carries a certain sense of Gaelic machismo, we’re not the type to hike in ovens or stoves when backpacking. We’ve thankfully never needed them. No, all we’ve ever needed is a book of matches and we are good to go.

You see, Aaron and I learned a skill from our father that is valuable in survival: how to start a fire. One doesn’t simply take a match to a log and produce a roaring fire. No, it takes planning, resourcefulness and preparation.

First, you need your location. A central spot to the camp is ideal, particularly if you can sleep somewhat near the to it. The next step is one that we have come to experiment widly with, particularly Aaron and I. It involves stacking and standing rocks into a tight three-wall formation that allows us to focus the heat outward and upward and lay a grill evenly on top. Essentially, we’ve mastered the skill of creating our own range-top from whatever nature provides.

Resourcefulness comes into play here when selecting rocks to build our firepit. Large, flat stones that stand well on their side are idea. Recently, Aaron, his best friend Nathan and myself hauled bricks from Jackie Cougin’s cabin (which has been destroyed by nearly 80 years of rain, sun and fire) down to our campsite a half mile away. We assembled these bricks into the finest stovetop I’ve seen in a lot of years backpacking.

Resourcefulness also comes into play with actually starting the fire. One needs three types of flamable material: small kindling, medium timber and heavy, long burning wood. A major key to assembling the fire is _ventilation_. I won’t divuldge the remaining tactics. I will say, however, that in all my years of backpacking never once has a night gone by that our dinner wasn’t hot and hours could not be spent discussing a variety of topics before a raging fire. I’m bragging now but we’ve figured it out, we know what works and it works _every_single_time_.

Except tonight.

This, my friends, is central heating for the cottage. Before me sits a 1.5′ x 3′ fireplace essential to providing heat to the three bedroom house. This is it. Thankfully, an efficient hearth has been provided. I didn’t have to roll a single stone, nor uncover one from the sand or dirt. Not, this is quite simply a fireplace. All I had to do was fire it up. Not nearly as easy a task as I once thought.

Coal, apparently, requires a considerable amount of direct flame and heat in order to set it afire. Small coal stones are just as difficult to light as large ones. Quite the opposite of wood. Whereas paper often works as a great kindly for wood fires, it is completely useless for coal.

Stoking by blowing on the coal embers is pretty useless, too. In fact, it seems to extinguish the coal more efficiently than anything else. That took me far too long to learn. Imagine me on all fours, face into the fireplace blowing on a pile of not-burning coal. Now imagine this going on for far longer than I’m willing to admit here. Not one of my finer moments.

Okay, time to get really resourceful. I needed a source of a strong, persistent flame. No stacks of paper, no wood, no firestarters or anything along the like were available to me here. Hmmm…. except for…

Toilet paper. Enter one brand spanking new roll of two-ply, treat-your-bum-right, soft and fluffy coal kindling.

A thin layer of coal was set down on the grate, then my special friend TP set smack in the center and more coal over the sides, top and back of the roll. Now to torch the entire thing and try to get warm.

Did I mention that I could see my breath at this point?

It was also midnight.

What you see in the link above is an actual picture of the first attempt. After an hour of huffing and puffing, I finally had the start to a solid fire. I cannot believe how much heat is required to actually get this thick black crap to actually burn. Honestly, its more work than its worth. I questioned so many times if I should just give up and throw in the towel. But, I doubted that the towel would burn any better than the toilet paper. Besides, what else did I have to do? I’m also not one to give up that easily. Not to mention I was getting pretty pissed off.

At some point, a log fell onto my socked foot. It hurt like hell and I also wondered where that damned thing was when I was first trying to start the fire. Out of spite and pure hostility, it too went into the flame. I didn’t stop to think that it might have some sentimental value to someone out there. If it did, I’m truly but your stick bit me pretty hard and it had it coming.

Two hours into the ordeal, I finally had a raging coal fire. Time for a reward.

The next day, I learned that coal is not only a pain in the ass to light but it also requires near constant maintenance. It burns out quickly and the ashes remain warm for only a shortwhile thereafter.

Knowing full well that I could not be the first to have this problem, time to chat with the locals. Along comes my friendly neighbor Barry, a middle-aged Scotsman who is so sterotypical that I won’t dare to continue his description. Just imagine the school janitor from the Simpsons with longer red hair. There. That’s my neighbor.

Willy – I mean, Barry, informed me (from what I could interpret through his brogue) that everyone knows you use the firestarters that can be purchased from the local grocery. Of course they do.

So, off to the grocery store I go. What I find is a flat box labeled, “Homestead Quick Start Firelighters – 48 count”. How could something so small start coal? I quickly returned to the cottage to experiment.

Opening the box, I was startled to find two slabs of grey puddy-like stuff. I opened its air-tight plastic wrap and was horrified by the smell. Good lord!

I broke off a couple of 1×2″ rectangles, finding it oily to the touch. Nasty. I dropped them onto the grate amongst a thin layer of coal rocks set a match to them. No sooner did the match touch the firelighters, they were they completely engulfed in flames.

Wait, that smell…I know that smell too well. HA! This is napalm! I used to make this stuff in the backyard with gasoline and soap flakes! Just add flakes until it becomes Playdough-like and smear with reckless abandon! Drop a match and get the hell away! WOOHOO! (Kids, please don’t try this at home).

Napalm works incredibly well on coal. Within a few minutes I had a big pile of burning black stuff! Score!

Now, just out of curiosity, when is it supposed to get warm in here? The thermometer says its 57 degrees.

More napalm anyone?

Burnin’ down the house-



Note: Many have recommended the use of peat, a.k.a. “turf”, as an alternative heating solution. I’ve inquired in every shop within 20 miles. No one sells the stuff anymore. Apparently, the government banned the use of powered turf cutters. This means that turf production consists of a guy and a shovel. A bit expensive for mass consumption.

One theory is that the use of turf for heating was leading to errosion, which was also quite unsightly in remote tourist areas such as GlenColumbKille. See, tourists like to see rolling hills of swampy bog. They don’t happen to visit remote coal mines much.

From my understanding, turf is a renewable resource. It does have an impact, mind you, and takes quite some time to renew. So, too, does wood. Coal, however, is not a renewable resource.

My guess is that the oil industry lobbied its way into demanding that their primary competition, local mom-and-pop turf suppliers were effectively shut out of business by using an EPA-styled report demanding that the insanity stop. The consumption (and profits) of the coal industry must have sky-rocketted around here after that law went into effect.

Its just like being back at home, folks.

One cynic too many-



Recommended Listening:
Roby Williams – I Love You
Sheyl Crow – Soak Up the Sun
Goo Goo Dolls – Iris