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Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments

ANKN is a resource for compiling and exchanging information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing. We are pleased to create and distribute a variety of publications that assist Native people, government agencies, educators and the general public in gaining access to the knowledge base that Alaska Natives have acquired through cumulative experience over millennia.


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Everyone who has spent time out in the woods in Alaska has relied heavily on the ability to make a campfire. This isn't much of challenge when the weather is good and conditions favorable. However, the times we need a fire the most, when we are wet and cold, sometimes freezing, are the times when it is much more difficult to start a fire. There are times when firestarting skills are a matter of life and death. You look at your fingers holding the match, tell them to move, and nothing happens.

The best time to learn hard things is during easy times. If we are in a desperate situation we don't have the resources and time to experiment and learn. Now is the time to do a little science that might save us later.

Three steps to firestarting

  • Matches, lighter, or other methods
  • Kindling
  • Firewood

FirestartingTo get the large pieces of wood burning, we must first get the smaller kindling burning. To get the kindling burning we need a match or lighter.


Matches have two parts, the head and the body. The match head is made of chemicals that ignite at low temperatures. By rubbing the match against a high friction striker, enough heat is produced to ignite the chemicals.

The bodies of most matches are either wood or paper.





There are two kinds of lighters, those with liquid fuel and those with gaseous fuel, like butane.

Most lighters ignite the fuel by a spark from a steel wheel spinning against a piece of flint.

Some people use magnesium strikers in place of a match. Simply scrape some magnesium into the tinder, then strike the magnesium with a knife blade, forcing sparks onto the magnesium chips. A hot flame is immediately present.


Traditional methods

Traditionally fire was made with a bow and drill or flint and steel offered in trade. The secret of such a firestarting effort is in the tinder. The bow and drill create enough heat by friction to get the tinder glowing. It is easy to make smoke, but another whole story to turn the embers into a flame. The type of tinder used varied from region to region. Tinder must be kept very dry. See the next chapter for details.


There are different kinds of kindling. Kindling burns hot and fast. It doesn't last long, but its heat is enough to get the bigger pieces of wood burning.


The loose bark on the outside of a birch tree is one of the best materials to get a fire going.


Dry paper and cardboard are also adequate to ignite small branches.

FirestartingSpruce pitch

In Southeast Alaska, where there is lots of rain, pitch from the spruce trees is the only effective firestarter. It burns hot and long, giving damp kindling a chance to dry out and ignite.


Spruce Branches

The dry underbranches of a spruce tree are excellent kindling. The fine tips of the branches are easily lit by birchbark, and burn with enough heat to get much larger branches burning. We take small spruce branches and bark into the tent at night when it is raining. They are dry for the morning fire.

FirestartingSplit spruce and shavings

When weather has soaked the birchbark and underbranches of a spruce tree, a good way to make a fire is to chop sections of drywood and make shavings and small splinters of wood from the dry inner part of the tree. Knowing how to do this has saved lives during winter storms when ice and snow cling to every branch.

Dry branches from willow and alder

Willow and alder branches don't have the potential heat that dry spruce branches do, but they are adequate when there is nothing else available.


Some people start fires with gasoline. This is very dangerous and should never be done! It is particularly dangerous when the first effort hasn't succeeded, and fresh gasoline is poured on smouldering embers. Some people dip a stick in a gas tank, and light that. That is safer, but still far too dangerous.


Firewood provides the heat to boil the coffee, cook meals, dry the clothes and warm our cold bodies. Larger pieces of wood burn longer and slower. Smaller pieces burn faster.


Foraging for firewood with an axe is much harder. If the wood is long and thin, we often break it between two healthy trees rather than chopping it.

Having a chainsaw available really makes a difference. Whole dry trees can be cut up and used. Cutting blocks of wood with the chainsaw then splitting the inside portions insures dry pieces of wood when it is raining. Before chainsaws, we used swede saws. They are light and easy to carry, cutting fast if they are sharp. 

Choosing a site for a fire

We usually make a driftwood fire on a sandbar during the summer because the wind on the river helps to keep the mosquitoes away. During the rest of the year, we try to find a patch of timber that will have adequate kindling and firewood to last the night.



Matches and Lighters 

Test different kinds of matches, wooden and paper. Which kind ignites kindling more consistently? Which kinds are better in damp conditions? When they are damp, do some of the strikers tear apart before all the matches are used?

FirestartingLook at a paper match under a magnifying glass. Is there a chemical on the body of the match, close to the head that helps the paper burn?

Hold a lit match with the tip up. Hold it with the tip down. Which way does it burn faster?

Store matches in different containers, Zip-Lock bags, metal boxes, your pocket, etc. Dip wooden matches in wax. During a camping trip, experiment to find the container that keeps matches the dryest.

Test different striker materials for wooden matches. Which work best?

Try a liquid fuel lighter and a butane lighter when it is very cold or put them in the freezer. Which one burns the strongest when cold? Would you carry a butane lighter in the winter? If so, where would you store it?

Compare the heat of the flame of a wooden match to the flame of a lighter. Test by trying to light slightly damp paper. Which is hotter? Which is preferable in camp away from home?


Experiment with the different kinds of kindling: birch bark, paper, shavings, etc. Which ignites the quickest and gets the bigger wood burning? Why? Which is the easiest? Do not try gasoline. Many young people have been seriously burned doing this. My son's friend spent a long painful time in the hospital after they mishandled gasoline.


Test the different kinds of wood in your area. Which is most plentiful? Which ignites more easily? Which gives the most heat once it is burning? Which burns the longest?

Split pieces of wood, and leave others unsplit. Make two nearly identical campfires, and then put the split wood on one fire, and the unsplit wood on the other. Which burns hotter and faster. You might test this by putting a coffee pot of water over each fire and see which one boils water faster. Use measured amounts of water, and time the experiment carefully.

FirestartingWhich wood is better for campfire, dry spruce, driftwood, birch, willow, cottonwood, cedar, or alder?

Experiment with the way wood is placed in the fire. Parallel, teepee, crosshatched, etc. Which way burns faster? Which way burns slower? Which would you use to boil water?

What effect does the flow of air have on the different methods of placing the wood on the fire? How does this effect the burning rate? If your are roasting meat or warming yourself, you will build a different fire. How do fires differ with the needs?

In the chart below, rate the types of kindling from best to worst. Rate the types of matches/lighters, etc.


What conclusions do you come to regarding firestarting and the building of a campfire? What are the applications to your life?

Are you ready to pass the test the next time you are shivering cold on a boat trip or in the winter when your hands are too cold to hold a match? Firemaking under adverse conditions is a timeless Alaskan skill.

Make one fire in a new location. Make another fire with the charred sticks and logs from a previous fire. Which is easier to ignite? Why?

Be careful where you make a campfire, often the fire will burn deep in the moss for days and erupt as a forest fire. One year near the Canadian border, a fire burned under the snow all winter, and surfaced in the spring to continue burning the moss.

Finding and Developing a Science Fair Project

Examples of "Observe and Think" Projects

200+ Ideas for Science Fairs!

Traditional Lighting


Traditional Firemaking


Fishing with Lures

Rabbit Snares

Spearing Fish and the Refraction of Light

Chill of the Campfire

Solution vs Suspension

Seals & Beaver, Floating & Sinking


Selecting a Birch Tree

Spruce & Other Roots

Spruce Gum

Spear Throwing

Berry Pickers

Drum Frames


Book Cover

© 2004 Alaska Native Knowledge Network. All rights reserved.

A partner with the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Camps as an Environment for Science & Culture

Culturally Relevant Science Fairs



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Last modified April 12, 2011