Thursday, March 12, 2015

Camping rituals

We noticed during our first visit to Montauk last October that the campers who come here have an almost obsessive love of campfires. Although calling them campfires doesn't actually do them justice. I've seen smaller conflagrations lit in honor of Guy Fawkes Day or Midsummer. It is a bit unreal.

You know, at a typical campground that allows campfires, people who are camping using RVs will buy a bundle or two of wood and light enough of a fire to allow the kids to toast a few marshmallows or char an occasional hot dog. Not here at Montauk. Oh, there are some campers who are content to do that. There is a firewood concession in the park that sells a pretty decent bundle (bigger than the average campfire wood bundle) for, if I recall correctly, $4. For most campers, it's more than adequate. For a substantial subgroup, however, it definitely is not. I've noticed quite a few campers arrive for two nights at the park with a tier or so of firewood packed into the back of a pickup. A tier, for the uninitiated, is a pile of firewood that's 4 feet high and 8 feet long and one piece of firewood deep.

Once or twice last October we witnessed a tier or so of wood being unloaded at campsites. On one occasion we were working in the fee booth and saw a truck come in piled so high with wood park staff suspected the driver was selling wood in the park, which isn't allowed. The park has a contract with a concession to operate a woodshed; no one else is allowed to come in to peddle wood directly to campers. In the case of the truck last October, it was one campsite and the truck belonged to one of the campers. I looked at that mammoth pile of wood and thought, wow, that's a bit excessive. How on earth are they going to use that much wood in the short time they're going to be here?

Well, they managed it. A tier or more of firewood, enough to heat our house for a couple of weeks, gone in a remarkably short period of time. Wood, even oak, burns remarkably quickly when you're piling enough of it into the fire ring to incinerate a heretic or two.

And now it's March, the weather has improved to the point where people want to sit around outside staring into flames while drinking their bad beer -- Busch Lite remains the beverage of choice, if the semi-melted cans left in the fire rings are any indication -- and once again the bonfires of the trout fishermen are being built. There was a minor kerfuffle in the park yesterday because someone had arranged for a tree service to deliver a trailer-load of wood to his campsite. Park staff spotted it, and there was again the suspicion someone was selling firewood in the park. There had to be close to a full cord in that trailer (a cord is 4 x 4 x 8; it's a lot of firewood). As usual I found myself wondering if they were planning a hog roast.

Anyway, the way the rules are written, individual campers can buy all the wood they want outside the park but they have to haul it in themselves. Buying it and paying for delivery comes too close to treading on the firewood concession's toes. In talking with the campers, I learned that the firewood was actually being shared by a group -- several friends had reserved sites adjacent to each other and gone in together on buying the wood -- but it still violated the spirit of the park rules. The first reaction by park staff to the delivery trailer was to tell the guy he couldn't unload. But of course the camper was going to bring the wood in anyway -- if the guy who had sold the wood couldn't unload it, all that was going to happen was he was going to tow the trailer to a location outside the park where the camper would hook up the trailer to his own vehicle and drag it right back in. So the park superintendent reluctantly gave permission to unload accompanied by an admonition not to do it again.  

Later in the day, there was a similar delivery by a different guy. This time it was a huge amount of wood loaded on the back of a small flatbed truck. And once again it was a delivery to a site where there were actually 4 or 5 sites adjacent to each other where it's a group of guys who are planning to have a fun fishing weekend. I don't know. What do you tell campers who have been making similar arrangements for massive amounts of firewood for quite a few years? No doubt the people who have the firewood concession are annoyed as hell by these arrangements, but how different is it it from someone buying a load of firewood outside the park, whether it's one small bundle or a whole pick-up load, and bringing it in? Either way, they're not buying from the concession. All I could do in talking with the campers is remind them that if they haul it in themselves, it's fine, but they can't have it delivered. In turn, the campers promise faithfully that "next time" that's what they'll do. And of course what will actually happen is that next time whoever the campground host is will get to hear "but we've been doing this for years and there's never been a problem. . ."

In any case, I don't get the obsession with the bonfires. I can understand people who want to cook over a campfire -- the park does get a fair number of campers who have all the equipment for doing so and who really get into preparing every meal using the fire ring. The burning a tier of wood just for the sake of burning a tier of wood, though? That I don't get. Maybe it's because we heat with wood and I associate firewood with work: having spent time and energy creating a stash of firewood at home, it just feels wrong to waste wood, even at a park.

The guys with the massive woodpiles will use it all while they're here, too. It is astounding. They might only be here for two or three nights, but they will manage to burn every stick of firewood. Which might also be a "don't waste it" response. Having spent quite a bit of money to have that wood delivered, they're not going to waste any of it by leaving even one stick behind for other campers. People are strange. . .


  1. I love campfires but I just have small fires.

  2. I'm all in favour of burning heretics.


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