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Stoking the Flames of Confidence: How Bow Drill Fires Support Therapeutic Growth

Austin Presas | Family Services Manager

At Open Sky, fire is essential to daily life in the wilderness. We make our fires with a bow drill set, using a primitive technique that works by rubbing sticks together which creates enough friction to produce a burning ember. Guides and students commonly refer to it as “fire busting”. In the following Q&A, Family Services Manager Austin Presas—who has many years of experience as a field guide as well—explains more about the process and therapeutic benefits of bow drill fire making.

Q: Of course, bow drilling is something that must be learned experientially. But could you walk us through the different components of a bow drill set and steps to busting a fire?

A: There are four pieces to a bow drill set:

  1. Bow – this is a stick or branch about the length of your fingertip to your shoulder blade. It is a curved arch shape, with a piece of string that extends from one end to the other.
  2. Spindle – this is a shorter stick, about the length of your fingertip to your wrist. It is a bit thicker than your finger and has a pencil-shaped tip on either end.
  3. Board – this is a piece of wood the length and width of your forearm. You carve an indentation with a trench, which allows oxygen and a place for punk to collect. The trench must be deeper than the hole
  4. Top rock – this can also be a bone or something solid with an indentation to fit the end of the spindle.

In addition to the set, you need nesting (made from twigs, needles, etc.) in order to blow the coal into flames.

The first step is to twist the string of the bow around the spindle. Place one end of the spindle on the fire board and secure it with the top rock on the top end of the spindle. Move the bow back and forth (a saw motion) with down pressure, pushing the spindle into fire board. With enough time, pressure, friction, and speed, some small black fines—called punkwill start to accumulate.

The constant pressure and movement of bow drilling can be quite physically tiring! When you start to see—and smell—smoke forming from the punk, you’re hit with a new wave of energy and excitement. The key is to keep breathing and keep consistent movement! One trick we tell students is to sing through the alphabet once they see smoke; this is typically how much longer you need to bow drill after that.

As heat builds from the friction, the punk will create a tiny coal. Once the coal is well-formed, let it sit for a minute to build, giving it a little air. Put on some fire gloves and gently dump the coal into the nesting and blow into the nest to create a flame. Once you have a flame in the nest, put the nest into a “fire house” you’ve built in the fire pit out of small pieces of wood and other dry grasses. You have a fire!

Q: What metaphors can be drawn from the skill of fire busting? What are some therapeutic benefits?

A: Bow drilling is a great tool for building confidence and self-efficacy. It also brings up a student’s work in unique ways in the moment. Many internal struggles or patterns from home tend to come out when bow drilling. For instance, it can highlight patterns of avoidance, fear of failure, and anger issues. Some students who are naturally good at a lot of things in life may find they struggle with bow drilling. How do they respond? Students have to seek help and guidance from more senior students or guides. Are they able to effectively ask for help and receive guidance?

Many students come to Open Sky with feelings of inadequacy permeating their lives. It’s so fun to see them discover they are strong enough and capable enough. They experience what it is like to provide for the team (fire for dinner and warmth!) and to mentor newer students. Often, they have never had the opportunity to be in a caretaker, leader, or teacher role—opportunities which bow drilling provides.

Learning this skill requires physical, mental, and emotional perseverance. Can students do the emotional work, practice self-compassion, and demonstrate grit through the learning process? The result is something so magical and rewarding.

Q: How does fire busting help to connect us to the natural world?

 A: Both in the mountains and desert there are various types of wood we can use for our bow drill kit. Each type requires the student getting to know the wood, the trees, and the plants. You work differently with each of them. Cottonwood requires more speed and less down pressure. Sage requires more down pressure and consistent speed. Over time, students learn which plants work best for them and their skills evolve. Eventually, they challenge themselves with harder wood, which is denser and more difficult.

Bow drilling creates a unique connection between us and the earth. So often, people don’t connect to the land they walk on. By relying on resources like the land, trees, and bushes—and learning their names and attributes—we start to see these resources in a different way. A personal connection to nature brings more gratitude and awe into someone’s life in the world. This can even be brought back home and into cities, giving us more awareness of our surroundings.

I try to be really intentional when I harvest branches from plants for bow drilling. I even like to sit with the branch with gratitude for a minute before moving on. I know not everyone does this, but it is a way for me to recognize that this living plant is benefitting me. I avoid harvesting from plants that I can tell have been harvested from recently. I also like to create a “bandage” of mud and water to cover over the area that was sawed off to help the plant heal.

Q: What is your personal experience with fire busting? Do you have any poignant memories of it?

A: I avoided bow drilling for a long time, simply because it was hard, and I wasn’t good at it. As a new field guide, I came in with expectations for myself to fit the perfect definition of a guide. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t get the hang of it, so I avoided practicing for way too long.

But I learned that I needed more humility; that it’s okay to be a beginner and important to ask for help.  Other guides and students helped teach me that humility. Once I stopped hiding my struggle and I let go of the idealistic picture I had in my head, I started to practice more consistently.

At our annual holiday guide “bust-off” competition, my confidence was still pretty low, and I did not have a very functional set. I made a commitment to myself that the next year, I would have the most beautiful set ever—something I’d be proud of. I committed to practicing and continually improving. I harvested a labradorite stone and made a beautiful top rock with a leather pouch. I worked really hard to learn about the different types of wood and discover what techniques work best for me. That next drill-off, I got 2nd place!

Q: You’ve facilitated many Family Quest™ intensives both as a guide and now as Family Services Manager. How does fire busting play a role for the family during this experience?

A: I often sense an unspoken and unintended pressure on the student. This is largely due to the pressure they place on themselves. They really want to impress their parents with busting a coal. Parents are also excited and want to see this skill their child has been working on.

I actually think the coolest thing is when students struggle with it during the Quest. They then have to let go of the expectation of perfection and their hope of getting a three-second coal. The experience becomes more about their dedication, grit, and self-compassion through the process. More often than not, that is what parents are most impressed with. They share that in the past, their child would’ve given up or handled their frustration in a much unhealthier way. Of course, they’re blown away at the process of bow drilling and getting a flame, but more so at the ways it demonstrates the child’s inner growth.

In the following series of photos, Austin walks us through the process. Be sure to find and follow us on Instagram (@open_sky_wilderness) to see the process in action!
Austin’s bow drill set. Take note of the labradorite top rock!
Pro tip: once you see smoke, keep drilling as you sing the ABCs!
Punk, smoke, and a coal!
Once you have a well-formed coal, gently dump it into the nest.
You have a fire!

December 16th, 2020

Austin Presas | Family Services Manager