The Future of the Campfire

by Nathaniel Rose

Nathaniel Rose is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

 

“I went camping with my family when I was growing up. And I still love campfire marshmallows. For me, it’s very important. They have to be burnt. Like, I want the flaming ball that I get to blow out. And then I eat it. A lot of people like it just to be lightly toasted and brown on the outside. And soft. Nope, it’s got to be charred. And so that’s how I eat a marshmallow.”

  – Dani Money

 

If you have a conversation about campfires, roasting marshmallows is bound to come up. As was the case with Dani Money, the Planning Section Head at BC Parks, when I sat down with her to discuss the future of the campfire. I’m sure after that introduction, you’re dying to know how I, Nathaniel Rose, Knowledge Gatherer for Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation eat a marshmallow, but I’m not going to tell you.

Okay I will. I actually prefer to roast them slowly, down near the embers, so that they cook evenly through. So you can imagine my disappointment with Dani, when I heard she likes to burn hers to a crisp. Okay, kidding again. But I think this brings to light one of the beautiful things about a campfire – it allows for people to have experiences that they wouldn’t have anywhere else. And a lot of these experiences are social and provide a feeling of happiness or contentment.

That’s why the future of the campfire is such an important issue. So I was thrilled to get to talk about this Dani Money about it. After conducting some research, here’s a bit of what we came up with:

Fires have been used by the human population for millennia. Not only did the discovery of fire allow us to cook our food increasing brain function, but fires gave us a space to socialize and build community. When fires first became popular with our (human) species, they added four hours to our working day (1). Cooking and eating didn’t take up the whole extra four hours so it opened up a time slot that could only be used for conversation and storytelling (1). There wasn’t enough light to forage for food and make tools but there was enough light to interact socially (1). Having fires therefore was essential to community building.

Today, campfires are still prevalent, especially in the park setting. Campfires in parks have been used to keep warm, cook and socialize for generations. I bet a park leader today would not be able to argue with the fact that campfires are a key component of the camping experience.

However, as park leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure the health of visitors. Do the benefits of campfires outweigh the negative aspects? Let’s take a look:

 

Negative Impacts

Campfires have many health impacts and are also a cause of air pollution. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency in the United States), fine particles from woodsmoke can trigger asthma attacks, make asthma symptoms worse, make you more susceptible to lung infections including that from Co-vid 19, and trigger heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart conditions, especially in those already prone to these conditions (6).

Campfires can also cause noise disturbances as people stay up late into the night socializing around the fire.

It is also possible that campfire wood that visitors bring in could hold invasive species within the wood. This could introduce the species into the park area, that could have a potentially damaging effect on the local tree population or ecosystem. One example of invasive species that was brought into parts of BC, and widespread in Eastern Canada is the Gypsy moth (3). This insect eats the leaves of trees to an alarming effect, making it hard for the trees to survive.

Female Gypsy Moth

Another invasive species that has been recently affecting large parts of Southern Ontario is the Emerald Ash Borer. It is a wood-boring beetle, that “bores” through Ash tree trunks, eating through and inhabiting the wood. It is native to China and the Russian Far East and arrived in Canada in the 1990s, most likely on wood packaging material (4). According to the Government of Canada, millions of trees have been killed due to this Beetle’s infestation. (4)

Author’s Note: 

“The Emerald Ash Borer affected the area around my cottage on Southern Georgian Bay. We had to take more than eleven ash trees down on my property as the insect had chewed its way through their trunks. You can actually see the little pathways in the wood where the Ash Borer drilled its way through, eating the wood. A good tip would be to check your firewood for signs of insect infestation before use”

After a quick summary of these negative impacts, one might want to go running as far away from a campfire as possible. But there are also many positive impacts to campfires.

 

Positive Uses

Campfires have many social and cultural uses that the average person may not have thought of. Shawn Davis, a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennslvania notes that because campfires are built in a circular fashion, people face one another, which provides more opportunity for connection than say watching the television would, where people sit in a linear fashion (2). Jennifer Willford, associate professor of psychology notes that being around a fire creates “comfortable emotions” of happiness, tranquility, and connection. It can elicit positive emotions that allow us to be more open and also allow us to be more present without the daily distractions of cellphones (2). Campfires also have a therapeutic effect: the sound of fire crackling can have a calming affect on humans and act as a de-stressor (2), just as the trickling of water in streams or the sound of the breeze through leaves of a tree would do the same.

Campfires are also used in Indigenous communities for healing ceremonies and learning opportunities. The Anishnabeg, native to Turtle Island, concentrated around the Great Lakes, use fires for healing ceremonies and as a gathering place for workshops. Fires hold a space to meet as a community and learn traditional knowledge (5). For example, one workshop offered by Anishnabeg Outreach, a not-for-profit organization with locations in different parts of Ontario, is a “spirit building workshop” that focuses on creating resilience for you and your family as well as “growing the ability to deal with change, stresses and uncertainties in life” (5). The workshop begins with circle questions and is intended to “light the fire within you” (5). The traditional knowledge learned around the fire includes learning a “deep sense of self and belonging and ways to integrate Indigenous culture into your daily life” (5).

If one were to ban or take away campfire use, it could be a potential barrier to the Anishanabeg as they wouldn’t be able to have healing and spiritual experiences around the fire. Fires are also used as a gathering place for Anishnaabe families and a ban on fires would take that opportunity away.

 

Author’s Note: 

“One memory I have around the campfire, was from a Grade 9 trip to Camp Walden (a camp in Southern Ontario) that I took with my arts high school. While I was there, I connected with several dance majors, and I remember one night we sang songs by the fire. I remember it as such a beautiful experience of bonding, and I was friends with these people for the rest of my high school career. If it wasn’t for that campfire, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sing with each other”

Solutions

Given that there are so many benefits to campfires maybe it is worthwhile to look at potential solutions to the negative impacts of fires. 

When I went camping as a child there were regulations in place to deal with campfire use in parks – regulating the time they could be used and placing a ban on campfires after a certain time at night. This dealt with noise pollution and air quality at night. These regulations still exist and offer a partial solution to visitor complaints.

In response to the invasive species problem, one solution could be to only allow firewood to be bought from the local area or park itself, while ensuring that the wood is sourced locally from healthy trees. However, this may create an economic barrier to some, who planned on taking wood from crown land, rather than purchasing it.

Park Operators can also offer an alternative to burning wood. Propane Rings available at a rental price from the park could be a viable alternative. They consist of a metal bowl, lava rocks, and a connection for a propane tank that acts as the fuel for the fire. They provide both a gathering place and a place to cook food. Group campfires could be an option if they are housed in a specific part of the park so that noise pollution and campfire smoke would be isolated to that area. This could help meet the needs of neighbours and campers that worry about noise and pollution. However, it would be important to take into account the level of comfort zone that certain people would have with sharing the fire and cooking with others.

Park Leaders could also provide education on campfires – looking at ensuring people are respectful to other campers, looking at the pros and cons of campfires and keeping them mindful of the air pollution caused by fires that can lead to climate and health impacts.

After a quick look, it looks like campfires have many positive impacts and uses, from building communities, providing a space for connection, de-stressing and relaxing, and providing a space for Indigenous workshops and healing ceremonies. Whether or not these benefits outweigh the negative impacts to human health and the environment seems more like something to be decided by each individual that visits an overnight camping site. Maybe, as park leaders, we can only try to mitigate the negative impacts by providing solutions that ensure that visitors can enjoy campfires in parks with a clearer conscience and a healthier body.

Call to Action

What do you think? Do the positive outcomes of campfires outweigh the negative outcomes? How have campfires been treated in your park? Do you have an experience with campfires in parks? Please leave a comment below.

Sources

1) Dunbar, Robin I. M. “How Conversations around Campfires Came to Be.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 30 Sept. 2014, https://www.pnas.org/content/111/39/14013.full. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

2) Zackal, Justin. “SRU Professors Spark Conversation about Campfire Day.” Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock University, 2 Aug. 2019, http://www.sru.edu/news/080219b. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

3) “Buy local, Burn Local: Play your Part.” Invasive Species Council of BC, Invasive Species Council of BC, https://bcinvasives.ca/play-your-part/buy-local-burn-local/#:~:text=Two%20examples%20of%20introduced%20insects,established%20and%20damage%20local%20trees Accessed 3 Feb. 2022

4) “Emerald Ash Borer.” Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, 13 July 2021, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests/wildland-fires-insects-disturbances/top-forest-insects-and-diseases-canada/emerald-ash-borer/13377. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022

5) “Wellness and Healing.” Anishnabeg Outreach, 2021, https://aocan.org/wellness-and-healing/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

6) “Wood Smoke and Your Health.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/burnwise/wood-smoke-and-your-health#health Accessed 2 Mar. 2022

Photos

Gypsy Moth Photo sourced from “Creative Commons

How the History of Segregation Impacts Recreation

Colorized photo of the pool at Cave and Basin in the 1920s. Parks Canada. Photo courtesy of Niche Canada.

Ebany Carratt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, and connection to nature to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. 

Today I want to talk about stereotypes. I am sure we have all heard of them, or maybe have even believed one at some point in our lives. Stereotypes are a constant thing in society, but perhaps there is something more insidious hiding beneath the surface. Growing up, I had very few chances to visit a national park unless it was during my family summer tradition to experience the Rockies once a year. Of course, we would go to the small municipal parks around my neighbourhood, whether for birthday celebrations or to feed ducks, but overall partaking in the typical forms of recreation that I think of when talking about the “great outdoors” were few and far between. So in those rare opportunities to go camping or take a hike, I noticed something I found strange at a young age: my brothers and I were usually the only non-white, or even, the only Black people on the trails. When I would ask why this was to my white family members, I never got any significant answers. Maybe there were more people of colour visiting on the days that I was not there? Maybe hiking in the mountains just was not their thing? After receiving answers like this, I just stopped asking these questions and moved on. However, the stereotypes did not end at hiking or going to national parks. By the time I was in university, I had heard it all. Stereotypes like “Black people can’t swim”, “people of colour do not play hockey”, “people of colour don’t like the wilderness” and so on, are just some to name a few. 

Thinking of these stereotypes at first, they might seem relatively harmless or even played off as a joke at times, but this hides the fact that they might have real implications. The first time I went camping in a remote area with a few of my friends who are also POCs, I noticed that we were treated differently than how I am treated when I go camping with my white family members. One morning, we talked with an older couple while collecting firewood, and they told us that they had never seen people like us camping before in the area. So they were pleasantly surprised to meet us there and thought others in the area would be just as equally shocked as they were. I don’t blame the couple for their reaction in any way. Like myself, many of my POC friends have also joked about how the great outdoors is not really “our thing” and have struggled to convince others in our communities to do more than just shop in national parks. Yet, letting this stereotype go and not thinking about it on a deeper level does not feel right. The fact remains that I still rarely see people who look like me participating in or being represented in nature recreation, let alone working in parks. So, where do these stereotypes come from

The Roots in Oppression

Nature and recreation are wonderful things. It often shapes who we are as human beings and should be for everyone, so why would a stereotype or a narrative like this exist? Well, as I have learnt through time, there is always a historical explanation. Anti-Black racism and other forms of racial discrimination towards ethnic minorities in recreation have been growing in discussion over the last few years in the United States. For example, the common stereotype that “Black people can’t swim” is linked to segregation and the sometimes violent exclusion of Black people from pools and beaches.[1] However, just like the U.S., Canada also supported segregation against Black, Asian, and Indigenous peoples at places like beaches, hockey rinks, swimming pools, and theatres.[2] Yet, the issue of racism and segregation plays a central role in the history of parks too. According to historians, there have been plenty of instances where Canadian parks would bar people of colour from enjoying recreational facilities,[3] refer to Jewish people and other POCs as “restricted clientele”,[4] or even remove a Black church wanting to enjoy a picnic in nature from park premises entirely.[5] Even worse, one of the most important and internationally revered figures for championing civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., was also turned away from spending a holiday with his wife and their friends at Fundy National Park in 1960.[6] When MLK looked to Canada as a more welcoming country to take a short respite in, our parks turned him away and lost the chance to host one of the greatest icons of the 20th century

Letter to L. Harold DeWolf, Friend Martin Luther King Jr., declining MLK’s entry into Fundy National Park
Letter to L. Harold DeWolf, Friend Martin Luther King Jr., declining MLK’s entry into Fundy National Park. Photo Courtesy of Canadiana Heritage.

Today, despite all these horrific occurrences in our history, some might wonder why Black people and other POCs do not just go out and take advantage of these recreational activities or enjoy parks now that segregation has long been over. Although I understand where questions like this are coming from to an extent, the issue of this lack of representation or participation is far more difficult than it seems. According to research, there is a generational effect from segregation, even when it comes to recreation or enjoying parks.[7] So, think of it this way — if you grew up during segregation and were not allowed to enjoy nature recreation and access to parks was non-existent in your community, you would not participate in those activities and would find other things to do that were available to you. From there on, you would likely pass on the activities you did enjoy to your children and that cycle of exclusion would continue throughout the next couple of generations. Importantly, even after laws were put in place to make segregation illegal, it technically has continued for years after, as many racialized communities still have less access to parks, are often subject to overt and casual racism within outdoor spaces, and have had to adjust to the generational trauma left behind or the general distrust towards recreational activities that have been traditionally barred to them for so long. 

Another systemic barrier of what makes outdoor spaces inaccessible to BIPOC communities is within the very nature of white-washing the history of parks. The National Health Foundation notes that “in history books and even in the naming of outdoor spaces, there has been a deliberate and intentional erasure of Indigenous history and ownership of outdoor lands”.[8] This rhetoric has often led to the conceptualization that park spaces are reserved for and owned by European/Christian communities to preserve what we consider as “wilderness” in western society. At this time, we have yet to acknowledge that this thinking, which is still embedded in many environmental movements, was executed at the expense of Indigenous and other POC communities. All of this, combined with a general lack of BIPOC representation in media or at decision making tables, continues to feed these harmful stereotypes and perpetuates the exclusion of many BIPOC communities to this day. 

What Can Parks Do to Address Racism in Outdoor Spaces?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Given this idea that BIPOC individuals do not enjoy outdoor recreation, it is especially important to note that many communities of colour do engage in plenty of outdoor activities. For example, activities like barbecues or picnics in city parks are something that many communities of colour participate in and are represented in. However, while outdoor recreation in municipal parks is used where it is accessible, the experience from visiting a national park and being surrounded by nature holds immeasurable value for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health and should be accessible for anyone, regardless of race or economic background. So, while many may say that “the outdoors do not discriminate” or that “parks are for everyone”, it is apparent that this sentiment does not apply to everyone at this time, no matter how well-intentioned this belief is. Currently, our parks and outdoor recreational systems are built upon the same underlying structures of oppression that have historically governed our society. Knowing this fact means that parks agencies also have a moral responsibility to help dismantle these systems and to encourage true diversity throughout every aspect of parks. Now is the time to push for policies and practices that prioritize racial justice or inclusion and spreads awareness of the many subtle barriers, like stereotypes, that have historical ties to systems of discrimination.

So if you are reading this, I hope next time you hear some strange stereotypes that you will also want to dig a little deeper to figure out where they come from. I know for me as a park leader and as a Biracial Black Woman, I want to make sure that others who look like me or who can relate to my story know that being in nature has always been “our thing”.

Citations

  1. Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 38, no. 4 (August 2014): 366–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723513520553.
  2. Cheryl Thompson. “Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.” Canadian Journal of History 52, no. 1 (April 1, 2017).
  3.  Loo, Meg Stanley and Tina. “Getting into Hot WATER: Racism and Exclusion at Banff National Park,”.https://niche-canada.org/2020/08/26/getting-into-hot-water-racism-and-exclusion-at-banff-national-park/
  4. MacEachern, Alan. “Restricted Clientele! Everyday Racism in Canadian National Parks.” https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/ 
  5. “Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racial-segregation-of-black-people-in-canada#:~:text=In%20the%20early%201840s%2C%20when,particularly%20where%20there%20were%20high
  6. MacEachern, Alan https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/  
  7. Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.”
  8. “Breaking Down the Lack of Diversity in Outdoor Spaces.” National Health Foundation, July 20, 2020. https://nationalhealthfoundation.org/breaking-down-lack-diversity-outdoor-spaces/.