To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire Summary

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A man travels in the Yukon (in Alaska) on an extremely cold morning with a husky wolf-dog. The cold does not faze the man, a newcomer to the Yukon, who plans to meet his friends by six o'clock at an old claim. As it grows colder, he realizes his unprotected cheekbones will freeze, but he does not pay it much attention. He walks along a creek trail, mindful of the dangerous, concealed springs; even getting wet feet on such a cold day is extremely dangerous. He stops for lunch and builds a fire.

The man continues on and, in a seemingly safe spot, falls through the snow and wets himself up to his shins. He curses his luck; starting a fire and drying his foot-gear will delay him at least an hour. His feet and fingers are numb, but he starts the fire. He remembers the old-timer from Sulphur Creek who had warned him that no man should travel in the Klondike alone when the temperature was fifty degrees below zero.

The man unties his icy moccasins, but before he can cut the frozen strings on them, clumps of snow from the spruce tree above fall down and snuff out the fire. Though building a fire in the open would have been wiser, it had been easier for the man to take twigs from the spruce tree and drop them directly below on to the fire. Each time he pulled a twig, he had slightly agitated the tree until, at this point, a bough high up had capsized its load of snow. It capsized lower boughs in turn until a small avalanche had blotted out the fire.

The man is scared, and sets himself to building a new fire, aware that he is already going to lose a few toes from frostbite. He gathers twigs and grasses. His fingers numb and nearly lifeless, he unsuccessfully attempts to light a match. He grabs all his matches--seventy--and lights them simultaneously, then sets fire to a piece of bark. He starts the fire, but in trying to protect it from pieces of moss, it soon goes out.

The man decides to kill the dog and puts his hands inside its warm body to restore his circulation. He calls out to the dog, but something fearful and strange in his voice frightens the dog. The dog finally comes forward and the man grabs it in his arms. But he cannot kill the dog, since he is unable to pull out his knife or even throttle the animal. He lets it go.

The man realizes that frostbite is now a less worrisome prospect than death. He panics and runs along the creek trail, trying to restore circulation, the dog at his heels. But his endurance gives out, and finally he falls and cannot rise. He fights against the thought of his body freezing, but it is too powerful a vision, and he runs again. He falls again, and makes one last panicked run and falls once more. He decides he should meet death in a more dignified manner. He imagines his friends finding his body tomorrow.

The man falls off into a comfortable sleep. The dog does not understand why the man is sitting in the snow like that without making a fire. As the night comes, it comes closer and detects death in the man's scent. It runs away in the direction of the camp, "where were the other food-providers and fire-providers."