“Alone’s” Zachary Fowler Struggles to Light, Maintain Fire at Damp Patagonian Campsite
by Zachary Fowler
One of the skills that allowed me to survive, prevail over 9 other contestants and win $500,000 on the 2016 reality show “Alone” was the ability to build and maintain a fire.
As I mentioned in my earlier columns in The Maine Sportsman, a lot of the knowledge I used to stay warm and fed on my own for 87 days came from studying old books. Never was this more true than in the case of my fire.
When I was a kid and we’d go to deer camp, Dad would give us one match and tell us to start a fire. My brother and I would do our best to follow all that he had shown us, and we would run around gathering wood for our fire. “The higher up, the drier up,” he would say.
We became proficient at starting our fire with one match, but when it came to going to out on “Alone” and being dropped at my site that first day in Patagonia, I didn’t have even one match.
We were allowed 10 survival items, and everyone chose a ferro rod as their fire starter. Not that a lighter was not allowed – it’s just that nobody wanted to look like a wuss on TV. And truthfully, there are far more guaranteed fire starts in a ferro rod than a lighter, which could fail at any point and would not work when wet.
So, when I landed that first day, I looked around for about an hour then set up my base camp, which I called “Fish Camp.” After erecting my tarp as a tent and organizing my gear, I set to the task of making a fire. I collected all the dead lower branches at eye-level from the trees around my site. I broke them into piles of diminishing sizes, so I’d be completely prepared once I got my tinder bundle lit.
But that’s where I hit a bit of a snag. I had never used a ferro rod before in my life. Sure, I’d seen it used and read all about it; somehow in all my preparations I just figured I would know how to use it. After all, the fire kit I used at home was a flint and steel, and if you have ever used that method you know how difficult it can be.
Every time I had seen someone use a ferro rod, they dragged the back of their knife down the length of the 6-inch rod, and the sparks that came off made it look just like a kid’s sparkler on the Fourth of July. I just figured that it was a no-brainer – if I couldn’t start a fire with the likes of that, then I shouldn’t be here.
Moisture Level Too High
I couldn’t light a fire, or at least not that first day. The materials I found to make my bird’s nest were perfect, but the level of moisture in the materials was so much that I just couldn’t get it to take. I went to bed thirsty, and a good bit dejected.
The next morning I woke to the splashing of my first fish caught on the one line I’d placed out after giving up on the fire. This presented me with the drive I needed to get a fire going.
It must have taken me three hours to get my first fire going. I wore a sizable divot in the side of that ferro rod before succeeding.
From Frustration – Success!
In the end, it was my frustration that got the fire going. Instead of striking the rod meticulously and smoothly, I went berserker on it and threw off a continual stream of sparks as I repeatedly drove my striker down the side of it and BAM! … it lit up my bird’s nest and I had it from there.
I put my first and last plain pot of water on to boil so I could have safe drinking water. I say “last” because after that first container of water, the pot always held fish head soup, which I drank daily.
I held the greatly-diminished ferro rod in my hand, enjoying the warmth of my success. The fish was smoking, I would have drinking water before too long, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. My confidence was restored, but I knew I didn’t want to have to go through that again.
I made two new tinder bundles and dried them by the fire to ensure that wet tinder would not be a problem again. But I discovered that even dry, they were difficult to light.
So I moved on to coals, and found that coals from rotten sticks were quite easy to spark up, and once glowing, they could light the tinder bundle fairly easily.
How to Keep the Fire Going?
But some days with the dampness, even this was tedious. I played around with loading the fire up fairly heavily before bed and then tending it in the night for a week or so, but that required a great deal more wood than I was collecting. Also, waking up and getting out of a sleeping bag in the cold night to tend my fire just wasn’t fun. And at this point I was sleeping for 12 hours a night.
I was eating about six big trout, most with eggs, each week at this point. At almost a fish a day and fish head soup 3 times a day, it was only about a third of the calories that a grown man needs.
That limited diet took its toll on me, and my first 12 days were rough, as my body cleansed itself. My body hibernated to make up for the lack of calories, and keeping the fire going while I slept for that long was not easy.
Turned the Corner, Physically
I snapped out of it on Day 13, and actually started gaining strength and mental agility. It was like a switch was flipped, and I was now a new man. The fog that hindered the smoothness of my thoughts lifted, and my mind jumped into high gear.
As this continued, I began to exercise my mind intentionally each day. At night I would lay in bed and think of what went wrong that day and what I might try on the ’morrow to make it right. I thought of traps that I would build. Then I set off the traps in my mind to envision whether there were any issues with their action.
One of those nights led me to thinking about how nice it would be not to have to struggle with my fire so much. As I lay there thinking of all I had tried and what had worked and what I may have read about how to best keep a fire going, I remembered an old book I picked up at a garage sale. I remembered it so vividly that I could practically see in my hands the yellowed paper and paperback cover of a booklet, only about 3/8 of an inch thick, with an illustration of a wood stove on the front cover.
Next month – The conclusion, in which we learn whether and how Fowler solved the challenge of keeping his fire lit through the night.