I try to make fire without matches

In January of 2001, I watched a grainy pirate copy of Castaway, starring Tom Hanks.  If you haven't seen it, it is about a guy who gets stranded on a desert island and has to learn how to survive.

My favorite part of the movie is right after his plane goes down, when he is in the water with the airplane.

My second favorite part is where he makes fire without matches.  He tries really hard to make fire after he realizes a signal is essential to his survival. He makes it look hard, and I was forced to wonder, just how hard is it to make fire without matches?

Tom Hanks is pretty damn happy to succeed.  This is the kind of triumph over the elements that I was looking forward to.
I put the project off until late July, when I was reminded of it by Becky's house fire. It was Saturday, so I had the whole weekend to try.  I tried to place myself in Tom's character's situation: On an island with a knife and trees.  Ok, so Tom didn't have a knife, but eventually he made one, so I allowed myself that.

I also decided to refrain from looking up instructions on the internet, assuming it wasn't a desert i-land. 

I went to the nearby park, which is the park with Sutter's Fort in it, and collected a few sticks and some kindling.

I prepared two 5-gallon buckets of water, standing by in case the fire got out of hand.  The day was very hot, and after seeing Becky's blackened house, I decided not to take any chances. 
I prepared a big bundle of tiny, crisp tinder, sharpened one stick a bit and started rubbing.  I kept the bottom one (I'll call it the skid-plate) steady with one foot and sawed at it with the other stick.  I was operating in the full Sacramento sun because I wanted to take advantage of the hot sunlight.  Everything around me felt very dry. 

After about 50 strokes, the friction was great enough to create some smoke, and everything near the action was very hot, but I slowly came to the realization that really hot is not the same thing as on fire. It took a lot of energy to produce that much heat, and the vigorous action of the rubbing kept pushing all of the tinder out of the way, or at least away from the hottest point of the operation.

It is especially hard to make fire when one hand is operating the digital camera.

Sweat ran down my face and arms.  I had to avoid having it drip right onto the bottom stick, extinguishing my effort.


My downstairs neighbor Jennifer came home and caught me at work. I told her what I was up to and she expressed a small amount of admiration and confusion. She also pointed out that the humidity on Tom's island was a lot higher than here, and that gave me an unfair advantage. 

I rubbed some more. It was tiring. 

After about an hour, I realized that there was something wrong with my technique.  Where did the actual flames come from? I was pretty tired, but the blackened  ridge down the skid plate was somewhat redeeming.  I quit for the day and went upstairs to my air-conditioned room.


Mike drew a sketch of a reciprocating drill that spun an upright stick down into a slab of wood. This looked mildly promising and I was certainly ready to try a little less elbow grease and a little more engineering.

I was pretty sure I would succeed tomorrow.

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