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The Magic of Fire-Making In Wilderness

When was the last time you felt awestruck?

It is significant that we don’t experience mystery and magic in our “normal” lives nowadays. Skype, jetliners, hybrid cars and smartphones are now generic. Our culture has become immune and cynical to real Wonder: “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel”.

One of the iconic requirements of wilderness therapy entails making fire with primitive tools, usually “busting” with the bow-drill. And so I hope to relate the sublime magnificence of fire-making that students achieve while in wilderness .

“Busting” is absolutely captivating – in the most visceral of ways! Imagine watching your Instructor show you primeval magic and promise that you can do this. Rub sticks together, correctly, and one may stay warm, eat hot, gather around a hearth and develop Community. In wilderness programs, we practice what historians termed “the domestication of fire”; from the most basic of natural tools, we make fire in the field. It is the offered bargain for wilderness power and prestige.


One of the hardest lessons for your teen, I tell them, is that I am a good teacher and at times, their low tolerance for frustration makes them faulty students; they want to be imbued with the skills effortlessly. They don’t acknowledge the cost – to experientially learn it: to fail at first, to genuinely struggle. They are impatient and consistently experience incompetence – the nightly attempts and daily instruction and support result in conflict: desire vs. intimidation. This progression humbles them, and naturally, slowly calls forth resilience.

On their own, your children finally create wisps of smoke and brown ripped wood fibers.

Then thick, steady smoke and black-as-carbon “punk”.  

Wilderness students’ – your children’s – approach is transformed.   He is stronger, more consistent. She is more patient, understands the process. And with practice and determination and good equipment and great conditions…

Spontaneous combustion occurs.




Patrick Logan, MS is a former wilderness therapy program manager and IT consults with programs and websites.