No trailside fire is complete without a brew-up
Crouching low, I touched the lit match to the ragged white bark stripped off a birch earlier for just this purpose and watched as the flames licked upward into the kindling and flashed into a mini inferno. Quickly the water-filled soup can was hung on its wooden pole and set into the flames. Breathing a sigh of relief that all had gone well, I could almost hear voices from the past around the crackling happy fire. “Now then, me son…” as the old timers told me long ago, “We waits for ‘er to b’ile!”
A bit of magic swirls in the water as it waits for the moment when the leaves join the bubbling kettle and become the timeless drink of the north woods—tea. Watching the water rise into a boil fit for a witch’s caldron, I muse on the mystical act of trailside tea.
Making tea under the sprucey canopy has its own set of rules, albeit neither hard nor fast. Call it a boil-up, a tea-break or b’iling the kettle, it all boils down (pardon the pun) to putting down your pack and pausing.
Good tea begins with clean fresh water, but many a cuppa has been made from murky, slightly questionable stuff. Regardless of the number of participants or the size of the container, it is filled to just short of the brim to allow for a good roll. The timeless rule of one portion of tea, either loose or bagged, per drinker and one for the kettle should always be followed. Using this method makes a brew rich and dark strong enough to revive even the most weary woodcutter or forest wanderer.
Tea fires are hot and quick like a summer lighting storm, so a great huge signal fire isn’t needed—just enough to boil water. But here, the advice differs. Some hang the kettle over the fire at varying heights while others set it right down in the fire with sticks stacked around it. A precarious duel soon ensues as the wood supply quickly burns and foundations weaken. Careful feeding and attention is required to ensure the kettle doesn’t tumble over into the fire. The chances of this happening are, of course, equal to the distance the water had to be carried, and the time of day.
Unlike many beverages, tea requires the simplest of tools, only needing water; and it can be drunk right from the container it was steeped in. Coffee, despite those who claim they drink it black, always seems to need a boost of some sort or other to improve its taste; and who has not carried tinned cow, sugar or some other addition for noon coffee? Instant has a bad name and all the talk of “just boil it until it’s black” is poor instruction.
But tea, bagged or loose—well, there is a substance that fits right into a pack, pouch or pocket.
Making tea in the woods can be reduced to a few simple motions. Boil, toss, steep and drink. Those are the kind of instructions few can fuss over or fail at. Watching a north woods guide boil the kettle is like watching a master craftsman at work. They can get the water rolling quicker than… well, quicker than I can explain it. Kindling is the key, and shredded white birch bark tinder doesn’t always mean success, but sure helps. Dry spruce or fir twigs twisted into a bundle with a few thicker limbs can get any kettle singing quickly. A tea boil-up isn’t about axe work. Snap off what’s near and make it small. Once rolling to your taste, get the kettle off the fire and toss in the tea. Never boil tea: you’re not cooking spuds here.
Black soot stains are marks of honour to a trailside teakettle. More than just a container to boil tea it also can be a water pail, a soup pot and a halfway decent fry pan. Warped and dented with a long-ago-replaced bail of stiff wire, a boiling kettle often had another life before being called into service. Teakettles come in all styles from elegant long-spouted society models that have fallen on hard times to simple soup tins. Even a camping kit bowl can make a passable teakettle. The truly traditional would use a birch bark bowl with heated stones to make tea by the brook.
Once the tea is steeped, the time for leisure is at hand. Relaxed with face wreathed in a steaming mug, tired muscles uncoil and frozen digits are warmed. No fine and fancy spa can equal the relaxation a good fire and a cup of tea offers. Boiling the kettle allows you to truly appreciate the now and the where, and once viewed through tea’s fragrant steam, you have a better understanding of the north woods. The forest subtly wraps you in silence and a measured contemplation of life is better conducted with tea in hand.
A tea break was always just long enough to let you rest but not get too comfortable—a pause with a purpose. Back when tobacco was considered as necessary as tea itself, pipes were filled while the tea water boiled and once more as the coals cooled. I admit to still enjoying a pipe with tea under the spruces, more for the tradition than anything else.
Old-fashioned wooden matches strike the best for tea fires and the flare of a lucifer is the first cheerful step to tea. Boiling up this way is all about the old ways and honouring the past.
Tea in the north woods is nearly always black and either flowery or regal. At one time Ceylon’s finest was slurped by those who cruised and crossed the country in search of pine, fur or farmland. Orange pekoe is the favourite today, and while the green exotic stuff occasionally appears, it’s black tea for most woods boil-ups.
Tea travels well, weighs little and never seems lose flavour. Packed in a baking powder tin or crammed into a hunting jacket pocket, it stands up to all challenges ready for duty. Any old container works just as long as it’s leak proof, for damp tea is about as useless as damp gunpowder.
If you could look into the soul of the north country, what dark smoke-stained secrets would you see? Winter’s cold grip, summer’s fleeting promise broken yet again, and hardy folk fueled by countless cups of tea. This gift of the Orient is as much a part of the forest, fields and water as anything ever could be. Drunk in lonely silence amid the tall timber, under a snow-threating sky or out on the land, tea is a faithful unflinching friend. Without tea, how could the paddles rise and fall, snowshoes squeak across the snow or feet tirelessly tramp the land? Dark smoke-stained tea, seasoned with spruce needles or spider webs, remains part of the woods experience; and one to be celebrated often.