Photo by Julie Glassberg for The New York Times
Jens Rasmussen is an actor who is equally adept on the Shakespearean stage and in the great outdoors.
So on the side, instead of waiting tables, he teaches backwoods skills, including lessons on how to start your own campfire from flint and steel. Put away those matches, city slicker, and learn to cook outside on the open flame, right in the middle of the city.
Mr. Rasmussen, who grew up in Wisconsin, does this on the waterfront across the East River from Midtown Manhattan, in a narrow lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at the edge of Newtown Creek, under the Pulaski Bridge.
It is the home of the North Brooklyn Boat Club, of which Mr. Rasmussen is a founding member. Last Sunday, he pointed to an assemblage of tan bricks at the water’s edge and said, “This is our hearth.”
His students — Victor Calvo and Amreen Quadir, both internists at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn — sat on a thick wooden plank between a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and a concrete wall covered with colorful graffiti tags.
The doctors, who are engaged, told Mr. Rasmussen they had booked the lesson partly to learn some skills “in case, in the future, we do Doctors Without Borders-type work and the bus breaks down — that kind of thing.”
Dr. Quadir saw Mr. Rasmussen’s Groupon listing offering a workshop (at $100 per person) for “Fire Crafting on a Wilderness Adventure” teaching “how to build fires in the wilderness before you cook a delicious campsite dinner.”
That is how they wound up spending a frigid Sunday afternoon cutting vegetables with woodsman’s knives, and then whittling curly shavings from wood slats for fire-starting. They were instructed by the theatrical Mr. Rasmussen, who seemed impervious to the cold, as he doffed his tan rancher’s jacket and tended the camp, wearing a smart outfit of heavy woolen Army-surplus garments.
“Now, if the chips were down, and you really needed to start a fire,” he said, and he went about demonstrating how to elicit a spark, briskly swiping a stone against a piece of iron.
Soon, Dr. Calvo was coaxing sparks from his stone, and had his flammable char cloth smoldering. He then pushed this into a ball of shredded newspaper and blew sharply upon it. When it blossomed into flame, Dr. Calvo dropped the fiery handful into the fire pit and heaped those wood shavings atop.
Mr. Rasmussen fed the crackling fire from a big pile of urban-foraged kindling — old packing crates and castoff scraps from local businesses — and he put a blackened coffeepot on the grill over the leaping flames.
He stoked the fire and the conversation, poured the pair a cup of tea, and began readying the meal on a rough-hewed wooden plank that served as his outdoor kitchen counter. He put a pan on the grill and heated some olive oil and spices, then some vegetables and finally some rice and beans. Then he whipped up a batter of sourdough and cornmeal to deep-fry some hush puppies in a Dutch oven full of hot oil.
Self-reliance is the theme here. Mr. Rasmussen wore around his neck a woodsman’s knife from Sweden in a leather sheath with copper rivets he tooled himself. He cooked with wooden utensils he carved himself, and pulled materials from a woodsman’s basket that he made by felling a black ash tree in Maine. And that ax, he made the handle. And that wanigan wooden box he kept opening for supplies? Made that, too.
Mr. Rasmussen, who is married and lives nearby in Greenpoint, said he grew up partly on a farm near Oshkosh, in a “back-to-the-land kind of family.”
“We have a nature deficiency here in New York City, and so there’s a real profound connection when we participate in these elemental experiences,” said Mr. Rasmussen, who has spent weeks at a time sleeping in the woods, survivalist-style. “With this, we’re tapping into something that goes back millennia and connects us with our ancestors.”
The doctors cut some apple slices, which Mr. Rasmussen dipped into flour and batter to make apple fritters in the hissing and spitting pot of boiling oil.
He sat the couple near the fire to “discuss the priorities of survival” should the city one day descend into chaos. Building a fire could help provide drinkable water, a safe sleeping spot, heat and food, he said, pulling out a pocket survival pack that included a sewing kit and dental floss for stitching wounds.
By dusk, the spot had become a chuck wagon scene. The falling snow hissed as it hit the fire.
After eating, the doctors headed back to civilization, and our urban pioneer poured out his cowboy coffeepot into the campfire, dousing the flames till next time.
By Corey Kilgannon