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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Off the grid: Passing down the wisdom of wood stoves

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

The first time my husband chopped firewood was when we started dating. It wasn’t the most romantic setting, but a woman desperately trying to get her winter’s wood in before autumn is remarkably attracted to someone who can split firewood.

Charlie didn’t tell me he had never split firewood. He just grabbed the8-pound maul and leaned on the misleading reputation of a lumberjack’s beard. Apparently, anyone can grow a beard, and you don’t even have to own wedges or a chain file.

Clearly, his plan worked.

Since then, I have been carefully educating him on the ways of Mountain Life, because he grew up in some flatlander small town in Missouri, where all the homes had electricity. He probably even went camping for fun when he was growing up.

You see, when you grow up in the mountains you learn how to fell trees, drag firewood in toboggans with a harness fashioned out of bailing string, chop firewood, stack firewood and burn firewood. It is like a native language where you can speak it fluently but not explain the rules.

Which is why, when there is disagreement about how long to dry wood, what burns better, or how to operate the wood stove, I cross my arms on my chest and remind him of his roots. For a long while, this patronizing form of educating him worked well.

One day though, when I wasn’t paying attention, he read the serial number on the wood stove and printed himself a copy of the owner’s manual. As if anyone ever needed such a thing. Operating a wood stove is in your bones. Or so I told him as I swung the door open and a puff of smoke billowed through the kitchen.

Within a few weeks, he was ordering replacement parts for the stove and going to the stove store and making friends with stove experts. They were telling him things about operating the stove that I’d never heard and it was making me suspicious.

“Well did you even ask them where they grew up?” I demanded.

We can’t be getting wood-burning advice from someone who was educated by books on the matter. Proper fire technique should be handed down by your parents. In this case, my young, warm-blooded Californian parents. They learned how to keep a fire going because their children kept getting frostbite.

Desperation to stay alive is always a good teacher.

Eventually, my husband began experimenting with the stove on his own. It was as if he maybe did not believe the things I told him about how the stove worked.

“You turn the knobby thing in this or that direction,” I would say.

“The damper? How far?” he asked.

“Nobody calls it a damper, Missouri. You have to feel it, so it depends, but when you get it right, you’ll know, because the fire won’t go out.”

We already have one thermostat in the house that he guards with every semblance of his city-life soul that remains. It’s in the bathroom and controls the propane heater. It functions like any old thermostat. There are numbers, and a lever, and why bother even looking when you can just jack that thing all the way over until the bathroom is as warm as the bosom of a new mother?

For some unknown reason, totally unrelated to how much propane I burn through in the winter, we get frequent lessons on thermostat science. If I could find the serial number, I’d go online and get myself an owner’s manual, too, then leave it next to the toilet for reading.

“Did you order a manual for the thermostat?” he’d ask. “I already explained how it works.”

“Well, when Mark Honeywell invented the thermostat in 1906 …” I would answer.

Charlie spent the first two winters of our courtship learning how to use the wood stove so well that no one else is allowed to touch it anymore. He knows all the names of the parts, how many BTUs each piece of wood will yield, and most important, just how far to turn the knobby thing before bed so the fire glows – but does not burn – all night long.

So when I asked my daughter to turn the stove down the other day, my husband let out a little wince and tried to get up from his chair.

I gave him the kind of look a wife gives when her explicit threats are too violent to be heard by children.

“I just thought I’d show her,” he muttered. “There’s a certain feel to it.”

Despite all his reading, he still learned the most important parts of passing on the subtle mysteries of wood stove wisdom – the parts that take a few burns and a few cold nights to figure out.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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