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Northerners still on the lookout for beloved, discontinued airtight stoves

An airtight stove, picture without a stovepipe.  (Robert Holden / CBC - image credit)
An airtight stove, picture without a stovepipe. (Robert Holden / CBC - image credit)

Tucked away in a storage unit behind William Macdonald school is an airtight stove.

Once a mainstay of bush camping, the stoves are a compact, lightweight and efficient way to heat a tent. They've also been increasingly scarce.

In a Facebook post Monday, Yellowknife's William McDonald middle school announced it was selling multiple airtight stoves to clear a backlog of supplies from its outdoor ed program.

According to the school, they're flying like hotcakes.

The popular stove was discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult to access one locally.

Walt Humphries, a long-time N.W.T. resident and former prospector who's still using them at his cabin, fondly remembers their role in the early prospecting days.

"I love my airtights," he said.

"What was good about the airtight is I could go camp in a place for a week, pack up and move to another place — and it wasn't a big heavy thing to move around."

Somewhere along the way, the stoves picked up the nickname "hippie-killer" — though they're a cheap alternative to more well-made stoves, they get notoriously hot and have been known to incinerate the dwellings of inexperienced or inattentive users.

Walt Humphries
Walt Humphries

Walt Humphries, seen here in June 2023, says he loves airtight stoves for their portability. (Robert Holden/CBC)

Humphries recalls an acquaintance who burned down his garage after improperly managing the stove. To make matters worse, the man was repairing a boat covered in fresh varathane, a highly flammable material.

"The boat and the garage were burned to a crisp," he said.

Worth the risk

Despite their potential danger, Ken Weaver, co-owner of Weaver and Devore, says they remained popular over the years.

"They were very popular throughout the North," he said. "They had a big following."

Weaver says the Winnipeg-based supplier, Great West Metal Ltd. faced financial hardship during the pandemic.

"They were in the process of expanding, then COVID hit and they went into receivership," he said.

Long-time bush supply store Weaver and Devore says the Winnipeg-based supplier is facing financial issues.
Long-time bush supply store Weaver and Devore says the Winnipeg-based supplier is facing financial issues.

Long-time bush supply store Weaver and Devore says the Winnipeg-based supplier that sold airtight stoves is facing financial issues. (Robert Holden / CBC)

Weaver says the store received multiple calls a day about the stoves in their heyday. Now, he says, the calls have died down.

"Everyone just knows they're not available, and they've given up, they're not calling anymore," he said.

What's in a name?

Humphries and Weaver both say they've never heard the term "hippie killer" in relation to the airtight stove.

Humphries finds both names puzzling.

"If the stove was completely airtight, it wouldn't work," he said.

The stove has also been referred to as a "bush stove."

Weaver says different versions of the stove can be sourced online, but they're getting harder to find.

Weaver says some customers looking for a compact, lightweight stove have moved to independent suppliers, though many can't be used in industrial settings for insurance reasons.

Humphries says second-hand units might be the only way some Northerners can now own a piece of history.

"Here's hoping for another rummage sale," he said.