In his struggle against the harsh, artic elements in which he has placed himself without the heredity and knowledge to survive as the dog possesses, the man forces the dog ahead of him to test for ice pools that lay beneath the snow. When the dog slips, it quickly licks its feet and tries to pick out the ice between his toes as a "matter of instinct." The man quickly removes his mitten and helps the dog; however, his fingers nearly freeze, so he must beat them against his leg.
After he arrives at the forks of the creek, the man congratulates himself on his speed and draws his lunch from inside his coat. But, "he had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out first" because his beard is full of ice and his hands too cold to hold his biscuits. Quickly, he tries to make a fire; working carefully, he soon has a "roaring fire." Afterwards, he moves on, but steps into a frozen pool where there were no signs. He has learned from the old-timer on Sulfur Creek that he must build a second fire to prevent frostbite to his foot which would prevent him from walking. Again, he carefully builds a successful fire.
But before he could cut the strings [to his boot] it happened. It was his own fault, or rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open.
He now must build another fire if he is to save his life, and
...this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes.
But, his fingers are numb from the cold and no matter what he does, the man fails at building his fire. Without a partner who could build a fire for him, the man is doomed because he has lacked the natural instincts of the dog and the "imagination" that comes from experience.
The man in the story did not take the elements seriously. His first mistake was not listening to the old-timers who warned him about the dangers of his trek. He thought his intelligence would be enough to help him survive the harsh environment. Because of this, he was destined to fail. The conflict in the story is man vs. nature. What the man lacks is basic survival instincts. The dog has those instincts, but the man fails to heed the dog’s cues. He makes one fateful mistake after another. Although the man knows he needs fire to survive, he does not consider that where he builds the fire is equally important as the fire itself. He forgets the weight of the snow which is weighing heavily upon the branches. Foolishly, he builds his fire below a tree so he can easily pull the twigs from the tree and put them directly into the fire. With each pull of the tree, the heavy snow is compromised. Eventually, one of the boughs, heavily-laden with snow, capsizes. As a result, the man’s fire is extinguished forcing him to build it for the second time. Of course, with his condition worsening, this is no easy task.