Some of the students had worked with propane backpacking stoves before and others hadn’t, but regardless of experience level, all of them had to concentrate hard on the task because each stove model is different and every stove has its own idiosyncracies. Until you get used to the particular stove you are working with, it can be a real challenge to light one and then adjust the flame to the right level for cooking. The goal is to achieve a flame that is low, blue, intense, and steady as opposed to high, orange, weak, and inconsistent. Backpacking stoves are designed to be light and packable, so ease of use isn’t as high a priority as it might be in the designs of other types of stoves. Naturally, propane stoves have the potential for danger, so, in addition to understanding how the stoves work and how a finicky stove can be coddled along, students have to learn proper safety precautions.
First, students had to depress the fuel pumps on the sides of the stoves repeatedly until the propane fuel was pressurized. They then had to turn the gas on and quickly, before too much leaked out, strike a match and light the stove successfully. Next, they experimented with adjusting the pressure until the flame was burning steadily at the right level. Finally, they had to turn off the stove and wait until it had cooled to pack it back up again and stow it away in its stuff sack. This series of tasks is not easy, and you can see the concentration, and in some cases apprehension, on the faces of the students in the accompanying photos as they worked their way through the lesson. You can also see how delighted they were once they got a steady flame going.
Students will be cooking their meals on these stoves during Exploration Week trips later this spring, so this hands-on lesson was highly relevant. It’s important to master the basic functions of the stove before going off on a trip, because wind, rain, darkness, and fatigue can all make handling the stoves and other cooking equipment that much more challenging.
Anita led the lesson and coached students as they tried each step. Field Instructor Elliott Schofield provided students with additional oversight and support.
Once the lesson wrapped up, a small group of students went on to collect the maple sap for the day and dropped it off by the evaporator before dinner. I continued boiling for a few hours and then closed up shop so that the boiling could start up again in the morning. Staff members tag-team the boiling operation during the maple syrup season. The boiling sap has to be watched at all times so it doesn’t boil over or burn, and the wood stove of the evaporator eats up wood voraciously so it has to be stoked regularly. (You can see the stack of split logs behind the students as they work on lighting their stoves.) The trick is keeping the sap boiling as hard as possible, so that it evaporates quickly, yet not letting it boil over — which wastes the sap and causes a real mess on the sides of the evaporator — or burn, which also wastes the sap, but, even worse, leaves a rock-hard, scorched residue on the metal pan of the evaporator. Wasting the sap is nearly a criminal offense since it takes so many hours of labor to tap the trees, collect the sap, and boil it off.
This weekend is probably the end of the maple syrup season here at Conserve School because night-time temperatures are starting to stay above freezing, which means the sap will stop running. Other signs of spring here in the Northwoods: phoebes and robins are back, the ice is still on the lakes but is no longer safe (students have been sternly warned), turkey season is coming soon (the youth hunt has started), restaurants and resorts have closed up for the spring tourist lull, and the many dirt roads through the woods are turning to muck during the spring melt-off.
Conserve School students benefit from outdoors, hands-on instruction like this lesson all the time during our four integrated afternoon classes: Field Instruction, English, History, and Environmental Science.