A staple at many outdoor gatherings during the winter months is a burn barrel.
A refinement of the campfire around which our ancestors gathered on hunting trips in days gone by, it’s typically a 50-gallon metal barrel in which leaves, limbs and other flammable debris is ignited to produce heat on cold days or nights.
Because they are more or less stationary, burn barrels usually spend most of their useful life in one place – a hunting camp, a river landing, a field trial venue, etc. Wherever they’re located, their primary purpose is to provide warmth to those who gather close by. Burn barrels have a secondary role, however; it’s to serve as a focal point for socialization. It’s a scene as old as Homo sapiens themselves – hunters and gatherers standing or crouching around a fire, exchanging thoughts about the day’s activity, or swapping tales about what has gone before or might happen in the future if the stars align in just the right position.
Hunters, fishermen, campers, dog handlers - whoever is around tend to be drawn close to the barrel, taking pains to position themselves upwind of its smoke.
There, they exchange pleasantries, meet new friends, renew bonds with old ones and, occasionally, share libations.
The tales that are passed from one to another around the burn barrel are what make it special. Some are the kinds that every outdoorsman can relate to; others stretch the limits of imagination, For example, consider one tale I heard at a barrel that combined a belief in the Almighty with the everyday activities of an outdoorsman.
A hiker was making his way along a trail in the forest when he encountered a large grizzly bear. The man turned and began running along the trail from whence he had come. As he ran, he realized the bear was pursuing him and gaining ground.
In a panic, he started to pray, “God, please don’t let that bear get me,” and struggled to go faster.
After a few moments, the fellow glanced over his shoulder and was terrified to see that the grizzly was closer than before. Again he called on a higher power - “Father, I’ve always been your faithful servant, please help me,” and ran as hard as he could.
Unfortunately, as he hurtled down the trail, the man failed to see a log lying across his path. He toppled over and, when he finally stopped rolling, looked up to see the bear just a few yards away, his mouth open and drooling. “Lord, help me.
Please make that bear a Christian animal and let him have mercy in his heart,” the terrified man gasped.
Suddenly, the grizzly slammed on the breaks, slid to a halt and dropped to his knees. Then he put his paws together and said, “God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food…”
Some other burn barrel stories are not the kind that involve The Almighty but, in fact, tend to challenge His commandment about bearing false witness. I heard some burn barrel visitors, who happened to be fishermen, talking one evening about the largest bass they had ever caught.
One of the anglers said with a straight face that he landed one once that was so big, when he pulled it up, the water level in the pond where he was fishing dropped two inches. Another fellow said he believed the man because that particular water body was known to hold some whoppers. As proof, he described a largemouth he caught there that was “18 inches.” When one of those listening pointed out that a bass18 inches long was a nice fish but nothing phenomenal, the story-teller responded with, “Long? I’m talking about between the eyes.”
Field trial participants are no slouches when it comes to spinning a yarn either.
They can usually hold their own with the fishermen. Just as their bird dogs or beagles try to outdo one another in the field, the men who accompany them often do a little verbal sparring around a burn barrel. They all want their pups to be the fastest, the bravest and, certainly, the smartest.
One guy might have a couple of nominees in the last category. He said he once had a pair of English pointers, a male and a female named Duke and Duchess, that were incredible bird dogs except for one little flaw. Whenever they found quail, which was often, they would slam into rock-solid points. The problem was they were too staunch. This was in the days before beeper collars and GPS units, and if the man couldn’t find his dogs in thick cover, they would stay right there all day and half the night.
On one hunt, the man lost his dogs out in a large field covered in waist-high broom sedge. He and his partner looked and looked but to no avail. Finally the man had an idea. He pulled out his cigarette lighter and set fire to the dry sedge. As the flames slowly crept across the field, the hunters saw what looked like steam rising from out in the center. They made their way in that direction and, when they got there, were amazed to see Duchess pointing a covey of quail. The steam was from where Duke was steadily making his way around her, pausing at intervals to “spray” out the approaching fire.
Humongous fish, talking bears, genius bird dogs – those and others are fair game in the tales that are shared around a burn barrel. Some of the stories can’t be reprinted in a family-oriented publication, but all are interesting and a colorful part of our outdoor heritage.
Ed Wall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-671-3207. His website is www.edwalloutdoors.com