Best part of summer? Campfire memories


Summer is just three weeks old, but I can already feel it slipping away. The morning chorus is quieter, and days are getting shorter.

So if you have kids in your life — your own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or neighbors — plan to make a difference in their lives: Treat them to a campfire before school resumes.


If you’re lucky enough to have a few acres, finding a place to build a campfire should not be a problem. Even suburban backyards should provide suitable space if there are no trees directly overhead. For safety’s sake, invest in a heavy-duty fire ring.

And if you enjoy apartment living, watch your local newspaper for announcements of public campfires at local parks and nature centers.

Some of my fondest campfire memories date back to Boy Scout summer camp. We sang songs, told ghost stories, and got to know other boys with outdoor interests. We learned how to strike matches safely and how to build a campfire.

Fast forward three decades or so — my wife and I would take our daughters up the hill to our “hayfield” where I kept trails and a large camping area mowed. A load of firewood and kindling stayed dry under a tarp.


The first lesson was how to build a campfire. No fire starter was permitted.

First, I’d frame a square of small logs about 15 inches long. Inside the square, I’d ball up some old newspapers and cover it with a teepee of finely split kindling.

Next, strike a match and hold it to the newspaper. In just a few minutes, larger pieces of firewood could be added, and the blaze was complete.

When the girls were about 12, they learned to build a fire. When they could do it with a single match, I was satisfied that they had mastered an essential survival skill.

If timed correctly, coals began to form just before sunset. Then we’d break out the hot dogs and marshmallows for a dinner picnic.

At this point, if the evening was cool, we’d throw another log on the fire and settle in. For two or three hours, we became creatures of the night.


On clear nights, we could always count on a few shooting stars as they streaked across the Milky Way. We’d also see who could identify the most constellations.

Then we listened for night sounds. It was a rare night that we did not hear all three local owls — great horned, barred, and screech.

Some nights, coyotes would yip in the distance. Occasionally we’d hear the squeal of a cottontail or the bleat of a young fawn as a predator took it down.

The only night sound I dreaded was rustling in the grass. The quickest way to disrupt a campfire is for a skunk to stop by.

Finally, as heads began to nod, we’d extinguish the fire and head back to the comfort of real beds. Flashlights were now our most important piece of equipment. Rugged, rocky terrain and exposed roots made for a treacherous descent, so flashlights were essential to light the way.


Campfire nights remain among my most vivid memories of my daughters’ younger years. They learned that darkness and night were nothing to fear. And it gave us time to share our hopes and dreams for the future.

It’s always hard to get kids’ undivided attention, but campfires provide a means for doing exactly that. I cannot urge you strongly enough to share a few campfires with your kids this summer. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives.

And if you cannot confiscate all smartphones before the event, know that there are some excellent apps that illustrate the night sky throughout the year.

I’m pleased that Nora and Emma recall our campfire nights as fondly as I do.

Later this summer, our older grandson will visit for a week, and weather permitting, campfires are definitely on the schedule. I’m betting he will love meeting the Milky Way, learning a few bright stars, and hearing a few owls.

It’s time to make memories for the next generation.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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