Keeping warm in winter

Youths learn how to build a fire


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(Above) Michael “Gus” Gustafson discusses frostbite and hypothermia with a group of youths at the Eagle River Nature Center on Saturday, Oct. 22. Gustafson taught about 20 kids how to build a fire. (Below) Gustafson shreds pieces of magnesium and collects them on a piece of birch wood in order to start a fire. A child adds some fuel to a fire at the Eagle River Nature Center. About 20 kids split into several groups and learned how to build a fire in an emergency situation.

STAR PHOTO BY MIKE NESPER

With winter ready to break down autumn’s door and establish its dominance over Alaska, Eagle River Nature Center’s Michael “Gus” Gustafson is doing all he can to prepare The Last Frontier’s youth for disaster.

The most essential piece of knowledge when faced with an emergency in Alaska’s wilderness in winter is how to keep warm. Gustafson passed that key survival technique — how to build a fire — on to about 20 youths on a chilly afternoon Saturday, Oct. 22.

“Alaska is its own animal,” Gustafson said, referring to the state’s climate.

Winter can be especially harsh, he said.

“It’s a pretty extreme season up here,” Gustafson said.

Building a base out of sticks for the fire is key, Gustafson said. This is done to keep the fire off the wet ground, he said.

Gathering wood of small, medium and large sizes is needed, Gustafson said. Leaves — though they create a large smoke stack, which is helpful to search teams — should be avoided if the goal is generating heat, he said.

Bark from a birch tree works as great kindling, he said.

However, Gustafson stressed that bark from a tree should only be removed in emergency situations.

“If it’s growing on a tree, it’s alive,” he said. “It’s performing a function. Only take these things if you really, really need them.”

Once the base was built, Gustafson used magnesium to spark a flame. After a flame caught, kids fed the fire with small branches.

Growing a fire slowly is the best method, Gustafson said.

After each group successfully started a fire, Gustafson instructed everyone how to safely extinguish them. The best method, he said, was to spread the fire’s fuel source out until the flame disappeared. Proper fire cleanup was stressed because it was not an emergency situation, Gustafson said.

Gustafson also gave the group safety tips when hiking.

Carrying cotton balls soaked in gasoline or dryer lint — both concealed in Ziploc bags — is an easy way to start a fire if needed, he said.

Gustafson said he always carries several pairs of extra socks, a Leatherman and a headlamp when he enters Alaska’s wilderness.

Gustafson began his junior naturalists program by reading from Jack London’s “How to Build a Fire,” a short story about a man caught in minus 75 degree weather. He is able to build a fire but ultimately dies from his mistakes.

If injured or lost, a hiker’s immediate reaction should be to do nothing, Gustafson said.

Settling down is key to keeping a sharp mind, Gustafson said, which is essential for survival.

“Just relax for a second,” he said. “If you can take a deep breathe and relax for a second, you might be able to think what you need to do next.”

Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com

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