A few years back, in the dark days before the Internet, I decided to take the canoe out and do some camping on a lake. It was one of those fall days where the air is crisp and cool, the wind was still and the surface of the lake looked like a piece of glass reflecting all the colors of the changing leaves. Beautiful, in other words.
I got to my camp site and quickly set up my tent and made some dinner over an open fire – bacon hotdogs in a frying pan. So bad for you, but oh so tasty! I left everything by the fire and settled in to relax for the evening. As it started to get dark I got up to get my flashlight. I dug through my pack and couldn’t find it. Then a vague memory came to me of me digging it out for a night hike a few weeks before.
So there I was at 1700 hours with the sun going down and no light except the campfire. I walked down to the beach and saw a bunch of freshwater clam shells and this nudged an idea I’d read about making a primitive lamp. I gathered up a few shells and took them back to the fire.
The next thing I needed was a wick, so I took a piece of cotton towel I had and cut a few thin strips off, maybe a half-inch wide a couple of inches long. Next I needed fuel. My eye landed on the bacon grease congealed in the pan next to the fire and I had a mental image of dumping the grease into the fire and getting that big flare up. Bacon grease burns ya’ll!
So I laid the strips of cotton towel I’d cut in the bottom of the clam shells, heated up the bacon grease until it was a liquid again and then poured it on top of the cotton strips. By this point it was nearly dark and if this little idea didn’t work it was going to be a long dark night.
After the wick (cotton strip) was saturated with the bacon grease I took a match and lit one end and by the beard of Odin it worked! It was about the same light you’d get off a candle, which may not seem like much until it’s dark out. I scattered these primitive lanterns around the camp site and it threw enough light that I was able to see just fine.
I even took one into my tent so that I could get set up to go to sleep, but I wouldn’t advise someone else trying it. The shells are a little tippy and it wouldn’t take much to knock one over and spill flaming bacon grease all over your sleeping bag. Not a good situation.
I took this idea back home with me and wondered what natural materials I could use to make a wick. Years later I was looking at all the uses of cattails and in one of the articles someone said you could use it as a wick! Armed with this knowledge I immediately went out and recreated my experiment but used cattail fluff as the wick instead.
Success! Over the years I’ve used these natural lamps simply because I can. There’s something about being in a natural shelter in the middle of the woods using all natural materials to see by. Every time you learn something like this it’s a step towards not only surviving, but thriving in the wilderness!
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