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Jason Thompson, a sixth grade English teacher at Parkside School in Peru, exhibits how to start a fire using the hand drill method. This method relies on creating enough friction between two wood pieces that sufficient heat to start an ember. There are several methods of starting a fire using Native American techniques and tools that can be found and crafted locally. NewsTribune photos/Genna Ord
Jason Thompson was standing in the woods one time and noticed a stick underfoot. He picked it up, and decided it would make a perfect fire bow.
He still has it today, along with other tools for making fire and surviving in the field without modern conveniences.
Thompson of Oglesby teaches 6th grade literature and language arts at Peru Parkside Middle School. He also leads a club there, teaching kids about the outdoors.
For more than 13 years Thompson has taught native skills in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. He attended University of Northern Illinois and attended Tom Brown’s tracking school in New Jersey. He practiced for a couple of years and started teaching these skills, first in the DeKalb area and then in the Illinois Valley.
Thompson weaves string and rope out of stinging nettle fibers, a plant that also can be eaten. Weaving a cord out of nettle fiber takes about six hours and 90 strands of nettle, he said. He also uses cedar bark fibers but nettles are stronger, he said.
Some skills are effective but illegal. He knows how to set a figure-four deadfall trap to catch small mammals for a meal but state hunting laws do not recognize this as a permitted weapon for taking small game, Thompson said. Peanut butter makes the perfect animal bait for such a trap, he said.
Thompson has made a bowl by burning a log with hot coals and scraping and hollowing it out.
Hot coals must come from fire. For this Thomspon uses three methods: The bow drill, the hand drill and the flint spark. The latter is considered more modern because it requires flint and piece of steel.
The bow drill and hand drill are effective but require practice, he said. “I was the slowest kid in my survival class to get a fire,” Thompson said. “It took a good six months before I got a fire. It’s a huge lesson in patience. You have to let go of your ego.”
The spindle is positioned in a depression on a board. The bow cord is wrapped around the spindle. The hand hold is another piece of wood. When all is set, Thompson begins a sawing motion, rotating the spindle and pressing it down onto the board.
“It’s really just a communication with the wood,” he said. “I’m just asking it for a fire.”
Smoke begins drifting up from the spindle end. Thompson bears down and saws faster. Carefully, he removes the board, gathers the pile of smoking sawdust and places it on tinder, a ball of fine fibers. He cups his hands, blows into it, and fire flares up so hot he has to drop the bundle. It burns brightly on the ground.
“This would be a much different story in the wintertime,” Thompson said.
Next, he tries the most primitive and labor intensive method, the hand drill. The spindle is a goldenrod stalk. The spindle is positioned in a depression on a board, like before. But now, Thompson must spin it by sawing his the palms of his hands back and forth. Slower, then faster, the drill end begins smoking. After much effort, he repeats the process as before. The pile of smoking sawdust ignites a ball of fine fibers.
Except this time, the victory is greater because the method is much more difficult. “You’ll find that people always want to try it,” he said. “To see the look on people’s faces when they do it is just priceless.”
Teaching kids and adults both have challenges and rewards, he said. “I really like teaching adults,” he said. “There’s that moment and then they’re hooked.”
But Thompson, with perhaps the right attitude for making fire with sticks, says: “It’s all good.”
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