Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Firewood Compulsion -- Conclusion


My tree fell to the north as planned without hanging against the neighboring tree and slid smoothly through the branches of other trees that reached out to catch it. I immediately shed my jacket and hat then started cutting limbs away with the steam rising from my shoulders as the work heated up.  Next, I notched the log with a handax every fourteen inches, using marks on the handle to measure off rounds.  Following the curve of the log with its tip pointing toward the lake, I pushed back the fallen limbs to clear a work area before starting to the trunk into rounds.  
       It’s commonly said that firewood heats twice, but in my experience it’s more like three or four times.  I heat up first while bucking up a tree until I’m working in shirt sleeves on a cold winter day, and then sweat up good getting it hauled in to the wood yard, sometimes twice if we are toting it out of the woods to a truck or a sled then unloading it again back home. After that it’s back to shirt sleeves again splitting and stacking. That’s a lot heat from a stick of wood that’s never had a match put to it.  
       The lake was only a few yards from the trail and through the woods I could see a pair of goldeneye ducks on last open water.  My back told me a break was in order, so I paused before starting the chainsaw again, bathing for a time in the cool dampness of the woods before hard winter.  The tree gave off the aroma of forest and life and earth.  The golden-eyes called as they flew.  Somewhere nearby, a squirrel chattered.  The air is damp and has been for several days, so the trees and brush glisten with moisture.  I am glad there will no need for this wood until next year when it’s dry.  
        Most years, I stay ahead of my firewood, so that I am only burning dry, aged wood.  There have been years though when that wasn’t true, and I remember a load of green spruce and hemlock delivered to my driveway in a snowstorm, so when I came home that evening, I faced a messy mound of snow soaked leaden wood that was not only green and wet, but also too long for my stove.   That was a tough lesson I learned well.  I now have a nice woodshed with four separate stalls. I sort my wood by age and dryness and even have a place to split kindling out of weather. I like to mix in birch with my spruce so we can bank a warm fire on cold nights.  
       Firewood burns best when well aged, and this is best accomplished by splitting then stacking it bark down under cover with plentiful ventilation.  To accomplish this, I built the shed with doors and a tight roof to keep out the snow and rain, but the eaves are open and the siding gapped to let air move through.  
Most of the wood in this climate comes in wet and takes quit a time to dry. Right now, I have one cord of green wood split and stacked that came from trees blown down in last fall’s storms.  That should be ready to use in the spring.  Another compartment is a mix of hemlock and birch that we will use during the cold windy months of December and January.  One bin held a cord left over from last year.  We used it first.  
      My most recent wood came from a tree in a friend’s yard that has been dead for at least a couple of years but it has been in the weather and needs to dry.  Piled on top of that is the wood from the last tree I took down along highway, a dead spruce that needed a few extra months to age, and be ready in late winter or early spring. By the end of April I will generally be looking at three empty wood bins unless I have gathered some standing dead trees from along the lake shore during the winter and spring. 
        I have learned to appreciate the nasty winds that lash the lake in the stormy fall months because they often topple trees not far from my woodshed. The spruce trees have a frail root system that spreads out in a shallow ring around trunk without pushing down very far into the ground.  When the ground is wet and the wind blows a gale some are apt to topple with the root wad sticking up like a rough table turned on edge.  Many times if one cuts through the base of the trunk so it separates from the roots, the roots will fall back near to their original position with the stump pointed at the sky.  Another scary and dangerous event that can take a wood cutter by surprise.  
      When wind storms topple trees, or break off their tops, they are handy to collect with the ATV or snow machine and get stacked under tarps for the winter. Come spring they’re split and lie out in the air during the dryer weeks of May and early June when they loose a lot of moisture and the fair white wood turns brown like the skin of a sunbather. I try to get the wood under cover by the end of June, which usually has more wet days than dry, and wood left out will collect moisture instead of loosing it. 
      The drying cordwood will get hauled to the woodshed and stacked bark-side-down in neat ricks to continue drying under a roof.  Sometimes I’ll have help from Madelyn or one the kids, but if not I don’t mind.  I’d rather spend an hour hauling and stacking firewood than working out at the gym. 
       My brother Tom always said I didn’t get to haul enough wood as a kid to be sick of it. He did.  Those first Alaska winters, Tom was the oldest all that work cured him of ever wanting a crackling wood fire in his house. He swore off wood heat for life, and so did all my other siblings. I’m the oddball with my woodstove and penchant for wood cutting.
      I know I have it pretty good for wood gathering, what the the Chugach National Forest at my back door and state forest all around the lake. I can even collect firewood along the highway, a sort of firewood roadkill.  I like to go look for a nice tree the way other people are spotting for bears or goats. On my regular trips to Anchorage, I usually have my saw in the truck and I road hunt for down or dead trees to take, if not this trip then the next.  It not uncommon after a meeting in in Anchorage to stop and change clothes find a tree and load up with rounds to bring home. 
       There are a lot of places in the state where wood getting is a lot different.  At my cabin near Trapper Creek, I burn birch with a blase' recklessness since it's more available than spruce and wish I could tote it home. In western Alaska, the Kuskokwin and the Yukon Rivers empty into the Bering Sea through a flat delta empty of trees, so wood cutters there work off the beach collecting driftwood.  Logs that wash up are stacked to dry above the hight tide line until freeze-up then snow machines and sled are used to haul the trove to the house, unless a storm surge drives the sea up the beach and scatters the logs with the indifference sweep of chance.  
       Upriver, forests line the rivers but wood getters still have to travel miles from the village for a wood.  This is a winter chore because the frozen ground and packed snow make a highway for the big plastic toboggans that will haul eight to ten eight birch logs behind a snow machine. A fellow told me that birch logs felled in the cold of winter will burn well that same month because they hold so little moisture. No matter where they gather fuel, wood cutters never seem to talk about it like it’s work. Like me, they seem to be mining those same brain chemicals that work on runners and gym rats. The difference is we come home with fuel as well as a feeling of well-being.  
       Even endorphins can’t overcome age though , and I have made concessions these last few years. After my shoulder surgery, the doctor made me give up the splitting maul and buy a hydraulic log splitter.  And when I have a big or troublesome tree to drop, I call my son-in-law who is still spry enough to wrestle a hundred pound spruce round into the back of a truck. 
       This tree I have just cut and hauled to the house is dry enough for using this year, and it’s not a big tree. The straight-grained rounds without big knots, I will stack beside the woodshed.  Each morning for a week, I’ll ignore the log splitter and stand dry rounds one at time on the chopping block.  A sharp ax with a fiberglass handle, moves comfortably in my hand as I begin the rhythm of the rising and falling blade.  When the ax hits the wood, I can tell by by feel if the wood has begun to split. Straight dry grain splits eagerly as the ax cleaves and snaps a slice off from the round or the round falls open in its halves.  Rise and fall, split and toss, shed the hat and jacket, until I am surrounded by wedges of clean spruce.  
       I work the wood in spurts these days, stopping to look over the lake off and on and even leaving a stack of rounds under a tarp for a couple of days rather than working myself stiff to split them all in one day.  Too much of that sort of work makes my back ache and my hands will be numb when I wake in the morning, but I have to take all of these as signs of life, not age.  I suppose the day will come when I’ll be like my brother and say I’ve had enough of burning wood, but I hope that day is a long way off.  Someday, I probably will have to buy firewood, but that will take some of the sugar off the cookie.  Just because it makes me hurt it doesn’t mean I have to quit. 
  When snow finally comes, I will hook a sled to the snow machine and ride along the lake edge scouting for trees.  Along with the spruce, I often find hemlock, a dense wood that makes good fuel.  I look for a standing, dead tree that's close to the lake and not on a steep bluff that I can’t get to.  
In the flat light of winter, I can sped a while staring up a tree-top trying figure out if I'm seeing green needles or not.  
       A good tree is one that falls to frozen lake without hanging in the limbs of another and proves to be mostly solid, not punky with rot.  Once the tree is down, I strip down to shirt sleeves and buck the trunk into rounds, haul the limbs to the shore and make several trips with the snow machine and sled to the house.  I tell Madelyn I've brought her “fresh” wood, just picked.  
       On a fine cold day with no wind, I’ll end my work on the porch, my gloves laid in by the fire to dry and steam rising off my shoulders as I sip coffee and wait for the early darkness of late winter. 


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