Memory-Making Campfires Receiving an Upgrade at KMC
One of the star attractions of the First Ascent program at the James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus (KMC) is the Saturday night campfire—and now the wood-burning fire pit at its center is getting an environment-friendly upgrade that will ensure years of enjoyment to come.
The new Brandon and Wendy B. Johnson Campfire Circle, funded by Board of Trustees member Brandon Johnson (BSBA ’98, MS ’02) and his wife Wendy (JD ‘05), is a life-like, propane-fueled fire pit designed and built by another alum, Keith D’Angelo (MSW ’17), owner of Colorado Custom Firepits in Telluride, Colorado. It will be installed and operational early this winter at KMC.
“Transitioning to a gas fire pit was an obvious choice,” says Matt Jensen, director of outdoor experience and programs at KMC. “Burn bans seem to be in effect for longer periods each year. By embracing a gas fire pit, we can provide a campfire experience even during bans and substantially reduce the risk of fire incidents on campus.”
KMC, which sits adjacent to Roosevelt National Forest, works with the Glacier View Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate wildfire risk.
“Everything is tested, approved, over the top safe,” says D’Angelo. “We make sure we’re providing a product that is zero hassle.”
Building a better campfire
D’Angelo builds his artistic steel log sets—which include intricately detailed whole logs, split logs, pinecones, branches, sticks and twigs—and fire pits using skills he started learning at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
“When I was in high school, I apprenticed with a blacksmith. He taught me how to weld, work with metal, do artwork and taught me to take my ideas to fruition,” D’Angelo says.
He continued working with metal after high school. He had gallery shows, created public sculptures and kept a small studio all while going to graduate school. On a trip to Vail, his stepmother saw a gas fire pit and asked if he could build one. He thought he could, and he thought he could probably create an even better one.
That first effort was seen by someone else who also wanted one, and the word-of-mouth referrals built a demand he couldn’t ignore. He took the plunge and started his company.
“As an artist, re-creating nature out of steel is a real challenge,” D’Angelo says. The secret to making a steel log campfire that looks and feels like firewood is just that: a secret. His process is proprietary—but the end-product is meant to be shared.
“It creates this tranquil space to sit back and enjoy life,” D’Angelo says. “When you go to college, it’s a major life experience, and I think students will remember sitting around the campfire at the Kennedy Mountain Campus.”
Kindling reflection and relationships
For future First Ascenters, the Johnson Campfire Circle is the place where students will “embark on their journey at DU, forge new friendships, kindle relationships and take a moment to reflect on their daily triumphs,” Jensen says.
“The Saturday night campfire holds a special place in the heart of the First Ascent experience, for our students and staff,” he says. “It serves as the perfect natural conclusion to an eventful day of activities. The students bring out the guitars from the cabins, and we set up a s'mores bar. It's a classic campfire scene where students recite poetry, start sing-alongs and engage in all the usual campfire traditions.”
Staff also facilitate a reflective exercise as part of the immersive 4D experience that's woven into the entire weekend.
Using s’mores as a metaphor, 4D peer mentors lead students in reflecting on their experiences at DU, Jensen explains. “The graham cracker symbolizes the challenges of the day or the quarter and how they were conquered. The chocolate, that's the sweetest part of their journey. The marshmallow bridges the gap between these two elements, connecting the joyful and challenging aspects and expanding, like the growth of our students as they learn to apply their newfound skills and experiences in future challenges.”
This kind of reflection as well as connections with others is exactly what the Johnsons say they hope the fire pit will bring. “We believe the fire pit represents a magical gathering place. It is where new friendships are born, old friendships are cherished, and the adventures of the day turn into stories remembered for a lifetime. The warm, welcoming fire pit draws us all in, under the stars, to share the evening together.”