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I normally write short, quick posts here. But this will break from tradition.
A life lesson at a remote outpost camp
Working as a cook in a prospector camp north of Pickle Lake, Ontario in January comes with a few challenges. But I was 19 and ready for an adventure, though I didn’t know how to cook.
I chopped wood, stoked woodstoves and hauled water. I also quickly learned how to feed a camp full of hungry guys. I was so good at all these jobs, the guys stopped mumbling about having some whimpy girl in camp and actually started saying things like, “you’d make a good trapper’s wife there darlin’.”
Which I took to be a compliment of sorts. They even made me my own private outhouse. This consisted of a hole, some logs nailed to the trees and a plastic see-through tarp stapled up to form a privacy screen that worked about as well as when you were in 6th grade and your friend held up her scarf in front of you to change behind in gym. Still, it was mine.
One morning I slept in. I’m not sure how since the average air temperature inside the walled canvas tent was possibly colder than the minus 40 degrees Celsius outside. I threw my legs over the side of my plywood platform bed and jumped into my boots. My squeaking steps to the cook tent sounded loud in the silent darkness. Normally I lit the woodstove quickly using a mixture of gas and oil. I’d sprinkle some on the kindling, light a match and toss it in. There’d be a little “poof” and the kindling would begin to cheerily crackle and spit out its warmth.
But there was a shortage of gas today. Only the guys cutting line with chainsaws could use it. I held up my Coleman lantern and stumbled around until I spotted the can of Naptha gas.
I wonder if that will work, I said to myself. Did I mention I was 19?
I grabbed the can with icy fingers and gingerly poured some on the kindling. I leaned over the woodstove, peering down the opening at the top. That doesn’t look like enough. It probably needs more. I poured more. I straightened, shivered, and poured a little more on just to be sure.
I lit the match directly over top of the stove. And to ensure that the Naptha worked, I leaned over the yawning, dark hole and watched the match drop in.
Life lesson #132.
A large ball of rabid flame shot up towards my face. I was blown backwards by the force of the explosion. The stove pipe was launched through the tent wall like an evil black rocket. A deafening blast cut through the freezing air that was probably heard in the living rooms of the people in the next village.
“What was that Joe?”
“Don’t know Martha, sounded like some lunatic white woman is testing the volatility of Naptha gas.”
The commotion brought 12 men in long johns, running in to find me giggling on the ground. There was a melt hole across the chest of my Polypropylene shirt, some blisters already forming on the backs of my hands, and the distinct smell of burnt pig. I was to discover later that half my eyebrows were gone.
The rest of that month passed slowly for me. Stripped of my “trapper’s wife” honorary title, I was now the camp joke. Guaranteed to bring a smile to any who glanced at me.
But I did learn how to cook, how to get along with a group of surly male prospectors, and some fire safety. The good thing is you only have to learn something like that once.