John Cameron

The quintessential campfire is a captivating experience that invites conversations. The flames that draw us in around a campfire are nearly synonymous with summer in the mountains.

It is a pastime that has been shared for thousands of years and presents many life lessons.

Sitting around a fire is a uniquely human experience. It invites conversation, stories, song, dance and ceremony and has been a fascination for me and surely many others.

One night, while sitting around a campfire in the mountains of Central Colorado, I posed a hypothetical question to everyone who was there. What could it have been like to sit around the first campfire? Was it a marvel of technology and human ingenuity or more like a divine party trick?

The question floated around for a bit but only led us to more questions.

There was no simple answer, of course, but when I had found the chance to explore the topic more, it took me down a maze of human evolution.

Widespread mastery of fire by modern humans began around 125,000 years ago. The technology has been around for almost as long as modern humans themselves. The use of fire played such a large role in human history that the relaxing nature of a campfire might even be an evolutionary adaptation.

One particular hypothesis suggests that when humans were given the opportunity to converse and share information around a campfire, they were more likely to thrive. That could mean we have evolved to be around a campfire where the flickering light, crackling sound and the warmth strike a deep internal chord.

When I worked as a backcountry guide for a therapeutic wilderness program, a student’s ability to master fire was a rite of passage. It was common for adolescents in similar programs to “bust a coal” or start a fire by hand as an initial milestone in the program.

Several friction techniques are known to generate enough heat to start a fire, but all of them require planning, patience and a few choice found materials.

For some students as well as guides, a well-assembled bow drill was a prized possession. The simple tool uses a string on a bow to spin a dowel that generates heat on a fire board. It is physical work and requires the technique. The attention to body position and the proper stance over the tools is similar to what a golfer might go through while completing a stroke.

When a student who persisted started a fire for the first time, their excitement lit up and was shared by the group.

It is the same reaction that I imagine has repeated itself for thousands of years. A fire is the comfort of light on a dark night and warmth in the cold. It can bring people together in a way that no other technology can.

As I amble in the deserts and mountains I can still spot an ideal spindle or perfect top rock to start a fire, even if it was for nothing other than a divine party trick.