A stove with character

The SVEA 123 (Courtesy Spiritburner.com)

My first proper backpacking stove (not counting cans of Sterno here) was called a SVEA 123 (pronounced like a word: “Sveyah”). It was a lovely thing of solid brass that ran on white gas and needed no pumping—once primed, a loop in the fuel system atomized the gas picked up from the tank and produced a pressurized flame, accompanied by a distinctive roar that, while comforting, effectively drowned out any sounds of nature one might otherwise be enjoying. Turning off a SVEA was always as pleasurable as lighting it.

The priming procedure was intimidating at first. You were instructed to pour a bit of gas (I eventually hit on using an eye dropper) into a depression at the base of the burner tube, and apply a match—whereupon a jolly little fire would engulf the entire burner assembly. Just as the fire was dying you were to insert the little key into the stove’s control valve and open it. Timed correctly, a fine hot blue flame sprouted under the burner plate. Timed wrong, a foot-high flare of yellow fire indicated insufficient priming. Once going, the SVEA would boil water in a jiffy. Simmering béchamel—not so much. And woe to the user who neglected to remove the key from its fitting in between adjustments—I’m convinced I can still make out the burn scar on my thumb and index finger from repeated failures to do so.

Nothing wrong here; normal starting procedure . . .

If all this sounds a bit dodgy, the SVEA did have a valve in the filler cap that was designed to pop if the internal pressure exceeded safety margins. Just once I had this occur—fortunately when I was making coffee next to a stream in the open, because the result was a foot-long jet of flame that just happened to be pointed away from me. I stood up and kicked the entire stove into the water, instantly dousing both the burner flame as well as the “safety” one. Incredibly, once dried the stove fired up again as if nothing had happened.

That SVEA cost $12.99 if memory serves. I used it for a decade, augmented by a Sigg Tourist cook kit that substituted a much better wind screen for the nearly useless factory number, and included lightweight but thin aluminum pots that did not help the béchamel. Eventually I moved on to more modern and efficient stoves, but I still have that SVEA, and every decade or so I’ll fire it up just to prove it’s ready to go to work again if needed. Every time I do so I'm flooded with visual, olfactory, and auditory memories of trips taken, coffee brewed, and meals enjoyed in beautiful settings accessible only with effort and commitment, and the more splendid for that. 

I was reminded of the stove recently while browsing an outdoor store in Boulder, Colorado. Because, you see, you can still buy a SVEA 123, although it’s now made by Optimus. The price has gone up by precisely an order of magnitude:

And some time ago I had another delightful reminder of how an inanimate object can have a personality and become a powerful repository of memories. My friend Ken Swanstrom purchased a SVEA on eBay—normally an anonymous and sterile way to buy something, right? Except for the note that accompanied the stove:

The note is poignant, yet one suspects Bonnie smiled as she wrote it. Had she become too old or busy to ever contemplate using her "trusty" stove again? Whatever her reason to sell, it's clear she is placing some responsibility on its new owner to treat it with the respect it deserves. If I ever sell mine, I'll do the same.