On the eastern Kenai Peninsula, we have four trees to choose from for fuel: spruce, hemlock, birch, and cottonwood. Cottonwood is the least attractive because it carries a lot of water, and it doesn’t have much heat in it when it finally dries. Birch is the best fuel in the our forest, but there is not as much of it, and there are few standing dead trees worth burning. A standing dead birch is apt to be punky and useless under its healthy looking bark. Birch bark is waterproof and holds the moisture in the dead wood so it rots quickly, but the bark remains intact. I’ve walked up to a twelve-inch birch standing dead in the forest that appeared from the outside to be healthy. I leaned on the tree, and it fell over, a tube of bark filled with powder top to bottom. Creosote in the bark preserves it, but the wood inside stays wet and rots. It’s rare to find a standing dead birch that is worth hauling home.
Hemlock and spruce, both evergreens, are user-friendly and plentiful. Hemlock on the high, well-drained slopes and spruce on the hillsides and valleys. Every stand of spruces will have a few dead trees that are dry as the proverbial popcorn fart, and ready to warm a cabin. Even if the base is rotted and punky, the top will usually be finely cured and ready to burn. The evergreens contain lots of creosote, so one gets a hot fast fire that burns down quickly since it is not very dense. One only has to heft dry spruce then dry birch to discover the difference. Birch is a dense, low creosote fuel that will burn long and slow. Even green birch will burn nicely if laid on a bed of hot coals. The two woods work together well to heat cabins with the inefficient woodstove that my homesteader parents were using in 1958.
Dad’s observations from our first year in Alaska:
The spruce trees are just like Christmas trees, one long tapered pole with limbs not very big nor very long. I cut one 12 inch at best about 40 feet tall. Trimmed it and blocked it up in wood in 15 minutes. It was dead not good for lumber but sure burns good, lot like pine. The green don’t burn so good but works pretty good mixed. Mom, you asked if the range would heat the cabin, it does now too good but we brought our little heating stove too. You see several stoves up here made of old oil drums. Put a door in one and the stovepipe in the other. Lay the drum down and put legs out.
The stoves of the 1950s were not efficient, and the barrel stoves were among the worst. Dad said they were made to burn wood not heat houses. That meant cord after cord of wood had to be sawed, hauled, stacked, and split when it is the sole source of heat in a airy cabin with little or no insulation. We were heating a log cabin that was pretty tight, so there wasn’t a lot of air moving through the house to cool it off. However, the attic wasn’t insulated the first winter and there was no vapor barrier like a house built in the last twenty or thirty years would have. Even this cabin with floors mom called, “the warmest floors we have ever had” would be losing heat through the attic, where only an inch of lumber and a few layers of tar paper lay between the hot cabin and the Alaskan winter. Mornings were cold in that cabin, but many other cabins were a lot colder. As Dad said in a letter to grandpa:
Winter has really leveled off at around zero. Eleven below one night. The past six nights have been zero or below. We have been very comfortable though and are more pleased with our house every cold day or night. We seem bothered less by the cold weather than the old timers. It takes lots of wood to keep warm due to the fact that spruce is a lot like pine or willow. When its green it burns slow until it gets started then gets hot as ________ but don’t last and you’d better get more in before it gets too low or it will go out. It’s just wonderful dead and dry but burns awful fast. A little piece of paper will start it real good. It has never froze in the house of a night even when fires went clear out before morning. We’ve kept eggs in the bedroom window and they’re not frozen either.
No matter how warm the house was at bedtime, even coal or a birch log would burn out long before morning, and we woke to a cold cabin. Some cold nights I’m sure Dad was up feeding the fire in the middle of the night. Luckily, even a cold cabin would heat up fast with a dry spruce fire in the box stove. By the time breakfast was cooked and eaten, the place was toasty as an oven. With two stoves going, the temperature would rise from “colder than hell” to “open a door!” in next to no time.
One of the two stoves was a Home Comfort Range that became the center of our cabin at Happy Valley. This giant iron stove had a big oven and a firebox on the left for feeding firewood. Above the cook surface were two warming ovens that seemed to always have bread rising or a pot of beans warming. Attached on one end of the stove was a reservoir for hot water. Dad reported to Grandma:
That old Home Comfort sure makes these women up here set up and take notice. Most of them don’t have any way that good a stove. They sure do drool. It hardly got a scratch on the way and sure does bake good bread. Briar bakes 12 loaves at a time about 3 times a week. The boys have slowed down on it a little but not much.
That Home Comfort range was busy from dawn to bedtime. I can remember listening from under a wool quilt as Dad built the morning fires, trotted out back to take a leak, and then hopped back into bed until the place warmed up. The coffee pot was readied on the stove the night before and soon was perking us all awake, although we kids stayed deep in our beds as long as possible.
By the time we tumbling from beds, the stove was roaring, and much good would come of that. Many a cold winter morning, we rushed from our beds to stand in front of an open oven to change from our pajamas into to our clothes. We had sourdough pancakes off the griddle, moose sausage and eggs, hot coffee and oatmeal from the cooktop. Most memorable was the constant flow of baked goods. Biscuits, cornbread, rolls, pies and cookies were floating of that oven. Mom said, “I have to bake bread every other day. Eight loaves every other day does very well.”
There is nothing quite like fresh roll or the end of a hot loaf of bread smeared with butter eaten in a kitchen toasted by a woodstove and smelling of baked goods. I now realize how much wood that must have needed. That’s probably why the cookstove was gone by 1964, replaced with propane, and Dad put in a oil furnace for heating. I’m sure he missed walking out on a frosty morning to drop one of those “Christmas trees” and savor the aroma of evergreen sap as the branches fell away under his saw. During those first winters, Dad would spend a good part of each week, if not each day, gathering or splitting firewood, and some of it green. Maybe he finally had enough.
I sometimes wish I had a massive wood cookstove with warming oven and all the smells and flavors that went with it, but I’m not sure I want or need another stove feed. Even when a person enjoys wood getting as much as Dad and I, it stops being fun when you’re feeding two or three hungry stoves. My woodstove does have a little oven that works for roasting meet or baking if the timing is right, but it’s not the whole deal. I have a wood-fired sauna and a wood-heated guest cabin on my property besides the woodstove in the house, which explains why I am glad to find any prime tree like the one was I dropping this morning.
This tree I was up against was standing dead, but not dead long, with perhaps a year of standing without any green needles making plant sugars and drawing water up the trunk. Now it was coming down -- if I did everything right or got lucky. I cut a deep notch on the north side, a bird’s mouth made of two cuts about a third of way through the trunk. With this notch in place, a cut opposite it should send the tree toppling north, toward the lake, away from the companion tree that invites it to stay upright, and through a spider web of branches waiting to cradle it and ruin my buzz. I wanted to practice my woods craft and drop the tree across to the south again the lean, but that’s a tricky proposition and there is a good chance I would prop it against it’s partner and have to try and drag it down with the four-wheeler, but this is not a day for hassles; it’s about gathering firewood. --- To be continued