To Build a Fire


Jack London

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In northern Canada, a solitary hiker and his dog depart from the main Yukon trail. At the end of their day hike, the man will be reunited with his traveling companions, who he refers to as “the boys,” at the Henderson Camp. The man is a newcomer to this area and unfamiliar with the extreme cold temperatures. A weather forecast of fifty degrees below zero does not mean much to the man, who is competent but lacks imagination. Such extreme temperatures promise discomfort, but do not cause him to reflect on the risks, his own death, and his role in the natural world.

The man, therefore, thinks very little as he walks, considering only his destination for the evening, and his lunch, which he carries inside his jacket against his skin to keep it from freezing. He chews tobacco as he walks, and his spit freezes in an icicle from his mouth in the extreme cold. The temperature is, in fact, seventy-five degrees below zero.

The dog’s natural instincts tell it that it is unsafe to travel in these weather conditions. The dog is anxious. It feels it should curl up beneath the snow and wait out the cold. It expects the man to do the same: stop traveling and build a fire.

As the man walks, he is looking carefully for places where the ice and snow might conceal hidden water. The creek he follows is frozen solid, but streams run from the hillsides under the snow and these small pools can be liquid even in the coldest temperature. Falling through the ice and getting wet would be dangerous and would delay his travel because he would need to stop to build a fire to warm himself.

He shies away from a place where he feels the ice move. Once, sensing danger, he sends the dog over a patch of ice first. The dog falls through and the water on its feet and legs freezes instantly. The dog chews the ice from between its toes. It does not know the consequences of frozen feet, but it is directed by its survival instinct to remove the ice.

The man arrives at a divide in the creek where he stops to eat his lunch. In the few minutes that he removes his mittens his hands grow numb. He realizes he cannot feel his toes and feet, and the ice frozen around his mouth in his beard obstructs his eating. He laughs at his own foolishness; he forgot to first build a fire to warm himself.

He remembers meeting an old man at Sulphur Creek who gave him traveling and safety advice. He had scoffed at the man’s stories of the cold temperatures, but now acknowledges that the man was right: it is extremely cold. He builds a fire, melts the ice from his face, and eats his lunch. The dog sits near the fire enjoying the warmth. When the man moves on, the dog does not want to leave the fire, drawn to its safety.

For half an hour, the man does not observe any telltale signs of water under the snow. Then, without warning, the ice breaks and he falls through. He is soaked to the knees. He curses the delay, but knows he must stop to build a fire and dry his clothes, another piece of instruction from the old man at Sulphur Creek.

The man gathers wood and constructs his fire among some pine trees at the top of a bank. He moves carefully, understanding that he needs to be successful at his first attempt to build a fire.

As the fire roars to life, the man congratulates himself on proving the old man at Sulphur Creek wrong. The old man had cautioned that no one should travel alone in temperatures of fifty degrees below zero. And yet, the man had provided for himself even after an accident. Any man should be able to do the same, he believes.

The man starts to remove his frozen moccasins, when, suddenly, snow falls from the pine trees above onto the man and his fire. The man had disturbed the snow piled on the trees as he gathered wood for his fire, and the heat from the fire had done the same. The fire is smothered in an instant.

The man is shocked, but he starts to rebuild his fire out in the open, wishing for a companion who could have helped him in this situation.

The man reaches into his pocket for the tree bark he uses to light a fire, but he cannot grasp it, or tell where it is, because his fingers have grown numb and lost all feeling. He puts on his mittens and beats his hands in an attempt to restore feeling. He looks jealously at the dog, which is protected by its body’s natural resources. Eventually the man retrieves the tree bark, but he cannot handle the matches. He drops the pack and individual matches. He lights one match by holding it in his mouth, but the smoke in his nose causes him to drop the match into the snow.

The man can only hold the full pack of matches between numb hands, so, in desperation, he strikes the whole pack at once. He can smell his flesh burning as he holds the lit bundle of matches to the tree bark. Once the bark is lit, he drops the burning bundle into the snow. He carefully adds grasses and wood to the small flame, which promises life. He realizes that he will lose some fingers and toes, even if he is able to build a second fire. But his numb hands are clumsy and he scatters the coals of the fire, extinguishing it.

The sight of the dog inspires a crazy idea. The man heard of a man who survived a winter storm by killing an animal and crawling inside the corpse for warmth. He thinks that he could kill the dog, warm his hands inside its body, and try again to build a fire. The man catches the dog by wrapping his arms around it, but realizes he physically cannot kill it. His hands cannot grasp his knife.

The man realizes now that the situation has become one of life or death. In a panic, he begins to run down the trail. He imagines that he could run far enough to reach the camp and the boys who could save him. But he lacks the endurance for running, and his frozen feet and legs have lost all feeling. He stumbles and falls, then runs again. Eventually he lies in the snow, resting.

The thought that more and more of his body is freezing soon sends the man running again. After the last time he falls, the man sits quietly, reflecting on meeting his death with dignity. He thinks that he has been running around ridiculously rather than accepting the inevitable. He grows sleepy. He imagines the boys finding his body on the trail the next day. He feels separate from himself, and looks at his body in the snow from the boys’ perspective. He murmurs aloud to the old man at Sulphur Creek that he was right: no man should travel alone in these temperatures.

Finally, the man falls into a peaceful sleep. The dog watches the man, puzzled by his inactivity, until, moving closer, it smells death. The dog howls, while evening arrives and stars appear in the sky. Eventually, the dog turns and runs down the trail toward the camp where it seeks fire and food provided by other humans.