The Midnight Stoker

Consider the givens in life, those moments of predictability that stand out in a constantly changing world. The sun rises in the east, for instance. The sky is blue. Or how about this one: while in deer camp this weekend, just before bedtime, some knucklehead's gonna put enough wood on the fire to turn the sleeping loft into a dry-sauna, which would be great if you were in a chalet sharing an après-ski moment with Mary-Louise Parker, but is not so great when you’re in camp, and you have to get up at 4 a.m., and you can't sleep because it's too hot to breathe, and the person you’re sharing the space with is just plain Louis Parker, your hunting buddy, who is snoring loudly and smelling like bean farts and tarsal glands.

Now every camp has an aggressive woodstove-stoker, a misplaced soul who should have been born in Equatorial Guinea instead of the Northeast. The guy who suggests that a woodstove glowing cherry red is less a fire hazard and more a thing of beauty. The guy who regales the camp with Robert W. Service poems, and gets a wistful, glazed look in his eyes when Sam McGee gleefully burns in the Alice May.

Every night, regardless of the fact that it's already 90 degrees in camp, and not expected to get below 30 outside, the stoker will mumble something about an all-nighter and cram the woodstove full of bully hardwood logs. Throughout the night he'll rise at least three times to re-cram. And the next morning, while you're alternately guzzling water to rehydrate yourself and coffee to keep your eyes propped open, the stoker's perfectly rested and whistling cheerfully as he heads out towards his hunting stand.

Now I'd love to devote this blog to tried and true ways of breaking the stoker of his fire fetish, but in all my years of deer camp I've had mixed results, at best. The logic that if you're cold you can put on an extra blanket but if you're hot you can't very well remove your skin is regarded with a blank stare; there's just no reasoning with him. And due to overuse, expletives lose their power in camp, so strong language is out.

For those in similar circumstances, the best I can offer is ways to cope. If you're lucky enough to have a bunk by an outside wall or a window, then you're no doubt familiar with "the wall hug," where you plaster your body against the wall in hopes of leeching cold through the boards, and "the wick,” where you hang a foot or a hand out the open window in hopes that the night air will absorb into the exposed extremity and run through the rest of your body.

If you're unlucky enough to be stuck on an inside bunk, you'll have to employ mental coping strategies. One that I've found effective is to bring condiments into bed with me, since the smell of mustard and ketchup seems to encourage hot dog dreams. Now, granted, dreaming you're a sausage spinning on rollers in a gas station quick-mart is not exactly scintillating, but it can be sort of peaceful and lulling, and is, in any case, much better than stranded-in-a-desert dreams, swimming-on-the-surface-of-the-sun dreams, or toiling-in-Old-Testament-hell dreams.

If you’re having trouble influencing your own dreams, you can try to seed the stoker's dreams instead. You can download a campfire app on your smartphone, then after the stoker has gone to sleep, play the fire-crackling white noise by his bedside. It may cause him to skip one of his fire loadings. If you don't have this technology at your disposal, stage your own exaggerated series of fire loadings. Get up periodically and fiddle around with the woodstove door and woodpile, making just enough noise that the stoker hears you pretending to put wood on, but not enough noise to truly wake him. That way if you have to remove logs rather than add them, he'll be none the wiser.

  1. Kathleen Disler → in Deposit New York
    Nov 13, 2015

    This is so funny. My former husband used to get our wood stove so hot it glowed. I was usually a nervous wreck certain he would burn our home down. I had such a sinus infection all winter because of the dry air.

  2. Dick Pearson
    Nov 13, 2015

    Clever, well-written.  As the old joke line goes, “It only hurts when I laugh.”

  3. Dave → in South Sutton NH
    Nov 13, 2015

    Nice wordplay on Steve Miller Band’s classic rock song “The Joker” chorus reference to “Midnight Toker”... whatever that meant back in the 1970’s?  Fun how dated cultural references target those who “get it”- To my 20-something kids, Steve Miller Band might just as well be the Glen Miller Orchestra.

  4. Nils Shenholm → in Duxbury Vt
    Nov 15, 2015

    Great story - and one that many of us can appreciate…but as a Sauna guy, (I’ve been designing and building them here in the US since 1989), I have to say that comparing an over-heated camp loft to a ‘dry sauna’ is an unfortunate if completely innocent slight to the culture of true Sauna - and yet another ‘media’ example of well intended journalists misrepresenting a revered and well preserved tradition…

    PS: You are invited to join us for Sauna here in Duxbury-phone ahead and we’ll make a plan!

  5. Dana → in Maine
    Nov 15, 2015

    Perfect. I have one in the camp and your description fits perfectly right down to the poetry.

    Our stove will get so hot that small pieces of kindling debris that fall on top of the stove will spontaneously ignite.

  6. Gary → in West by God New York
    Nov 18, 2015

    Dave, you hit the nail right on the head, from the hundred degree loft, to the reading of Sam Magee, and yes, the cherry red stovepipe. Great story as always.

  7. Gallager → in WNYS
    Dec 05, 2015


    Having personal experience both as a midnight-stoker and recently a medium-rare wiener, I woke my dog up and nearly fell out of my rocking chair laughing! All great character building exercises that you represent perfectly.

    All the best Sir.

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