Camp life on a trail crew is centered around the camp fire. The camp fire becomes sort of like the crew’s living room/dining room combo. Meals are eaten around the fire. The seating arrangements are varied. Some people use folding camp chairs. There are always some log rounds scattered around from trees that had been cut for firewood. Yo2 was lucky in that we had several slickrock slabs sticking up out of the ground that were the perfect height for seats. My favorite meal-time rock faced both the fire and Vogelsang Peak. I spent a lot of hours that summer gazing up at that beautiful mountain during meals. One nice thing about granite is that it heats up in the sun during the day. The heated seat was nice.
After dinner, the camp fire was the place to be. Walkmen, or personal listening devices with headphones, were not allowed in community areas like the campfire. The idea was to get people to socialize with each other, not withdraw into themselves. Erin had a guitar he would bring out. Sometimes he would play songs and sing, but I remember him mostly softly strumming during conversations.
The camp fire was were old time trail crew stories and traditions were passed down to our generation. We got to hear about projects that our NPS sponsors had worked on in the past. We got to hear about old trail workers they had learned the craft from. We heard about the first time Tim Ludington had come into a trail crew camp. He saw the hot water in the jungle can and thought it would be a good place to ring out his sweaty bandana. His trail boss let him know quickly that the cans held drinking water. We heard about Erin’s experiences with Yosemite’s Backcountry Nordic Ski Patrol. The prior winter, Erin had been able to spend eighty days skiing. When Peter Lewis was in camp, we heard a story about the real ironman old timers. Peter had been cutting wood. The axe slipped and gave him a serious cut on his forearm. Peter said, “I’m talking arterial bleeding here!” The boss looked at the cut, said “I thought I taught you how to use an axe better than that,” and walked away. Peter and another crew member were left to deal with the cut by themselves.
We commonly had visitors in camp. Backcountry rangers would stop by on their patrols and spend an evening by the fire. Rangers were especially welcome because they would bring us goodies like fresh newspapers and M&Ms! The packers would spend the night once a week when they brought in our supplies. VIPs would stop by to see what a Backcountry camp was like. Martha D., the director of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, stopped by with some other LACC staff to visit Vic. He had been in the CCC a few years before, but came to Yosemite from the LACC. Some Corpsmembers from the Inyo crew who had been at Placer with Wayne spent a weekend to hike over and visit him. We were only seven miles in from a road, so we were the most easily accessible Backcountry crew for people who weren’t used to hiking much or didn’t have enough time to get to a more remote crew. Our camp fire was always open for guests.
One form of Backcountry entertainment was particular to the camp fire. Cooking grease was saved in a metal coffee can. (Since most coffee cans are plastic now, I thought this was important point out that it was metal!) When the can got full, it was time for the show. Showtime had to be after sundown. You’ll see why.
After the sky was dark, the grease-filled coffee can was set on the ground by the fire and pushed real close…not close enough to catch on fire, but close enough to bring the grease to a boil. While the grease was heating, a second coffee can was being fitted into the end of a rake. It was critical that this can be fixed securely to the rake. When the grease was sufficiently bubbling, the person in charge of this particular entertainment would fill the coffee can in the rake with cold water. Next came the tricky part.
Standing as far from the fire as possible while still being able to reach the grease can with the rake, the stuntman held the cold water over the grease can, and then quickly dumped the water into the grease can.
The fireball could be ten or fifteen feet high!
And that, boys and girls, is why we never throw water on a grease fire in the kitchen!