The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, July 12, 2010

Activity of the Month—July

Using the BIG Bow Drill—Part 1

When I first started out doing experiential programming I didn’t have a challenge course to speak of. We built some temporary elements, but because of the nature of the program—our outcomes, wilderness and nature based focus, etc.—we tried to use other tools. During this time we developed a whole series of basic and advanced initiatives that utilized primitive skills and nature awareness skills of all kinds. Primitive fire making and fire building in general were a big part of many of these activities, mainly because the metaphor was just so perfect. So…when my friend Don Nagy showed me the monster version of the small, portable bow drill at the T.E.A.M. conference in Chicago several years ago I was beyond intrigued. We made a coal and got fire with that thing and smoked up the entire big gym and Northeastern, Illinois University in the process (they moved us to a garage the next year for obvious reasons). That crew of 36 people and the huge crowd of supporters definitely did more then just “blow smoke” though. We truly made fire and did what many thought was the impossible.

Since that time I have worked on and refined what I learned from Don and we now use the BIG bow drill here at Manito-wish as part of many programs. More often then not, we use it as a first activity to set the stage for the rest of the program AND create a fire that is maintained and cared for by participants for duration. Those that have been to T.E.A.M. are also familiar with the coal bundles that are created from the sacred fire. Manito-wish works with two organizations that make the Big Bow Drill, the sacred fire and the coal bundles a major part of the experience.

If this is something that intrigues you, the process of building a kit of your own is not difficult. It helps to be well versed in friction fire making principals, but it isn’t essential that you are a master fire maker with smaller bow drills and hand drills in order to be effective with the bigger version. There are some key construction essentials and things that seem to really help. I will explain some of those this month and then get down to usage and other details in Part 2.

Making the Bow Drill

Here are some key things to consider as you get your materials together:

•Cedar is the best choice for all parts of the kit. I try to find White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) if I can, but western white seems to work as well. It is the lightest wood in North America and has many qualities that make it a good choice for fire making. Unfortunately, it is not a tree that is reproducing well in the Midwest and it is becoming harder to find good, clear native cedar.

•I find a clear (or as clear as possible) cedar 2 by 10 or 2 by 12 for the fire board and a clear (or as clear as possible) 4-5 inch diameter round cedar fence post for the spindle (final length will be between 4 and 5 feet). The kind of wood you use for the top plate is not as critical. I have used pine for this. The bow should be fairly solid with a slight bend (it is a bow after all) and should be 8-10 feet long. I tend towards maple saplings and I do cut them live. Dead wood just isn’t strong and resilient enough.

•Measurement of the hole you burn in, it’s distance from the edge of the board, it’s depth and size, etc. are critical aspects and I will try to cover those in Part 2. I do use a rounded wood chisel to start my hole and get a group of strong people together to burn that initial hole in to approximately the diameter of the drill itself.

•The notch size is the other critical thing. The general rule of thumb for smaller kits is to look at the hole you have burned in (to the diameter of the drill) and imagine that it is a pie or pizza. Cut a notch that is roughly an 1/8th of a pizza, just short of the center and squared off. I make the notches for the big kits just slightly smaller…but not much.

I will cover the use of the kit in Part 2. Feel free to contact me directly if you have other questions.