Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Firewood Compulsion -- Part Two

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Firewood Compulsion -- part one

I derive a certain pleasure from awareness of our gift of wood.  Besides giving me its chemical and utilitarian benefits, like the fireplace that warms the soul as well as the body,” the tree and its wood are a most necessary part of my life’s esthetic enjoyment.    -- Eric Sloan: Reverence for Wood

     I was moping around the house the other day, grousing about weather too cold for boating and too warm for skiing.  The frost was on the ground but no snow to go with it and just enough moisture around to make roads and trails treacherous.  Madelyn looked up and said, “Don’t you have a tree to cut down somewhere?”  
     “Yup, I was thinking about that.”
     “Well, go ahead, you know you’ll feel better.”   
     In ten minutes, I had the trailer hooked to the four wheeler with the chainsaw, the ax, and ear muffs in the wooden tool tray on the front. Waiting down the trail along the lake was a standing dead spruce with a heavy lean that I had been meaning to cut for some time. It stands closely nestled to another tree, so it had gone unnoticed by other firewood hunters.  As I sighted up the bark of that trunk to measure the lean and then around it to track the projected fall line, I felt the focus of that work push all my tension out of the way, and I was immersed in the wood.  
     The tree leaned to the northwest nearly touching its neighbor, but it was bowed to the north as well.  Any hope of dropping it cleanly across the trail was gone.  I would have to use wedges and careful notch the tree to the north and hope the weight of it would push it through the branches of its neighbor, but it would most likely slide off to the east where it could hang on other trees.  If a falling tree doesn’t get enough momentum, even frail branches of a small tree can catch it and hold hostage a future pile of firewood.  The cut tree will lean precariously overhead taunting the woodcutter.  I can horse a small tree around be hand and convince
it to fall safely to earth, and sometimes, I run a rope out from a four-wheeler, truck or snow-machine to drag the butt off the stump and away to bring the leaner to earth.  But usually, I face one of these widow makers alone in the forest with a only chainsaw, ax, and ingenuity for allies, and then I must choose between a dangerous challenge or a prudent walk-off, hoping the next windstorm will put things right.  
     Madelyn says that my quest for fuel, for bucking up a log and bringing it home to burn is a salve for my soul, that firewood is my yoga.  When I am out of sorts and grim-facing or just fretting, she tries to send me off to the woods to get firewood.  She claims it steadies my ship, and I do love to go out with a chainsaw and work a tree down into firewood rounds, bring them home, and stack them until I’m tired and dirty. Then I am at peace with my world, feeling worthy.
     It's not just about satisfaction of getting fuel for the winter, there is a reward in working in this medium, kind of an organic “going to the source” sort of feeling.  And there is beauty in fresh cut rounds of birch neatly stacked with white bark shining. There is aesthetic geometry in ricks of spruce with their wedged ends facing out to us, so uniform yet each unique, each split with an eye to following grain to work around knots.  The aroma of sap released in a spray of fresh chip is a pheromone trigger for me. These are images and smells as old as my memory.    
     My time with firewood started, I guess, back in 1958 when my family homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. Most everybody was burning wood because it was cheaper than oil, cheaper because the labor used to gather wood wasn’t worth much, and it required a lot of labor. Local coal was also available on the beach, but this meant hauling and most of the beach was only accessible by four wheel drive, not a common accessory on the vehicles of the fifties.  Even those who did burn coal would use wood to get fires started because the coal was hard to start from scratch. Wood, on the other hand, was plentiful right out the back door for we were all clearing land and our backyards were our woodlots. 
     When we moved in to our new cabin, Dad thought he had plenty of scrap and slab left over from milling and building, but we went through that faster than we did moose meat. Folks like us, in their first year on the land, had to make time for collecting enough fuel in the fall to last until spring or expect to peck away at it all winter.       A cord of wood is one hundred twenty-eight cubic feet or a stack four feet by four feet by eight feet. While I get by with three cord a year, a 1950’s homestead cabin with a good stove might go through twice that.  That’s a cord a month, October through April.  There was plenty of wood right out the backdoor but the real stickler was finding dry wood.  Most firewood is cut from green trees then split and left to cure for a year or more. During the first year in a our new cabin, my Dad didn’t have year’s worth of stored dry wood, so we scrounged what dead trees could be found and then made do with slow burning green wood that would foul the chimney and generally disappoint.  
     Before emigrated to Alaska, the Walkers farmed the Ohio Valley, which is rich in hardwoods, clean burning woods with lots of BTUs and nothing like Alaska’s tree varieties.  An armload of oak or maple will go a lot farther toward keeping a cabin warm than an wheelbarrow full of spruce. I’m sure that it took Dad a while to figure out the ins and outs of the boreal forest woodlot where a there wasn’t a stick of maple, elm, or oak to be found.       
      Here on Bear Lake, we are limited to spruce, hemlock, cottonwood, and some alder gets big enough to bother with.   If I want birch I have to drive for it.  We're are in a rain forest, the northern end of the temperate coastal rainforest.  Less than ten miles to the north one enters the boreal forest, or taiga, where spruce and birch are king.    ---Too be continued

Friday, January 16, 2015

Weather Hold in Hooper Bay

I am weathered in Hooper Bay, a long way from my lake. No planes have come through for two days, first stopped first by ice, then fog, then wind, and now a bit of it all, blowing up a white-out so the eye doctor that planned to snow machine to Chevak is still here thanks to the good judgement of his ride.  I’ll cook my dinner of macaroni and sausage in the staff lounge and chat with the janitors, while the wind howls out of the north, scattering the snow that tries for the ground. 
The winter, late in coming, is finally laying ahold of this land, hardening the ground with frost, building drifts with the tussocks of basket grass, and layering ice upon ice.  Out on the Bering Sea, the bergs drift like abandoned boats and the open boats are abandoned on the shore lying askew like slabs of ice left by the tide. Soon this delta will be a great white expanse of frozen desert stretching from the Sea to the frozen Kuskokwim River where the dog mushers are racing  300 miles on a trail of ice scratched out of the frozen river.  Without significant snow, four-wheelers compete with sno-gos for the roadway, and even the few trucks in town are still about, making their way without the usually barriers of snow to have them parked for the winter.  

The NOAA weather site says Freezing rain advisory in effect until midnight, but I’m just seeing snow building up in the school yard.  I’m rooting for snow over rain.  I hear wind harder now, swirling around the school in the night, but life in the village goes, and I see the lights of snowmachines and fourwheeler out and about. Earlier a woman asked if I was waiting to fly out.  “No planes today,” she said, “Tomorrow maybe.” then she added, “Some one is waiting for a medivac.  They need it bad.”  That stopped me from pouting about not sleeping in my own bed tonight. Talk about perspective!  As she walked away she said, “It takes a lot of faith to live in the village.”

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Starting January without Snow


       Now that winter has arrived -- albeit later than usual-- it came without snow, and so we make do on this first week of January with incredible ice.  At our door is now the finest of natural skating rinks, acres and acres of polished frozen Bear Lake.  

We have ice skating, kick-sledding and yesterday an iceboat arrived.   I was so inspired by the ice and it’s polishing wind that I spent an hour in the garage building a skate sail.  I have done this once before and reveled in the speed that can be attained with a scrap of tarp and some wood strips.  Ice-skate sail was a popular sport a hundred years ago in the northeast, so there are many designs for skate sails to be found in old magazines or on the web.
It is still is big in the Scandinavian countries where folks are even more avid winter sports enthusiast than Alaskans. 
This skate sail is handheld and measures about sixty-six inches on a side.  I made it from a six by eight plastic tarp cut to a square and attached to one inch spruce spars with staples and zip-ties.  The wood pieces are tied together with zip-ties also through holes I drilled.  The design is very much like a kite.  In fact, my first skate sail was just that, a giant kite in the traditional diamond shape.  Plans for this sail can be found at: Or search for “skate sail” and find another great design.  I found a great video on Youtube from 1926 of skate sailors.

I tested my sail last night in the moonlight and again this morning.  In winds above ten miles an hour it scoots me along nicely and at fifteen I was flying.  Madelyn and I with went out on the ice after dinner to glory in the moon glow on ice with snow covered peaks in the background.   Without headlamps we could cruise along on our great glass table of a lake as if we owned it.  In the distance we could see the starlike headlamps of the neighbors on their little patch of perfect January without snow.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

On Holidays Furniture and Family

While our two kids were growing up, Madelyn and I made a concerted effort to sit down to family dinner every night, and most nights we made it.  Whether it was midweek leftovers or sunday evening pork chops we sat down together at our kitchen island.  Carlyn was often straight from swimming and shaking with hunger and Luke bruised and silent aft
er wrestling.  The meals were not always cheery and bright and, in fact, they often began with someone out sorts about a broken friendship or challenge at work, but it sees that by the end of most meals we were telling stories or chatting in the warm circle of a tight little family.
Now my kids are gone and usually there is just two of us at the table, but when there are more, whether the kids, relatives or friends I want to be able to gather people around it for a meal.  With that in mind, this year we got a new table because the one we have is too small for that.  A drop leave family heirloom of hard-rock maple passed on to my daughter, and I went in search of a table that would seat four or six and extend with leaves to feed ten.  We have no formal dining room, so the table had to fit in the common area between the living room and kitchen and support everything from sewing projects to Christmas Eve dinner.   
I found a nice birch table on Craigslist that seats six and with the leaf we can squeeze in ten.  We found a bench for seating on one side and then four chairs that complemented the light birch finish; we hung a copper light fixture above for accent.   On Thanksgiving, our family-- now six adults and two children -- gathered around the new table comfortably, and the warmth of food and family stories filled the house.  Through the many dinners of the holidays, I am reminded that when we bring people together around food, elbow to elbow around a table; the conversation is different from when people are squatting around the living room eating off their laps or scattered about at card table from the hall to the back porch.  That’s not about gathering; that’s about eating.  
This week, my sisters visited with a niece and her husband.  Nine of us gathered around the dinner table, three generations.  We reminisced about Mom’s pink Pyrex casserole that I served the escalloped potatoes in and gaped at four year old Sawyer, who wanted to eat everyone’s broccoli.  Somehow, the conversation turned to ice skating and my sisters and I relived our childhood when we hiked out to the frozen pond in the muskeg behind our our house for ice skating and how miserable and cold we were in those torturous leather figure skates.  “With an experience like that, no wonder Dan never wanted to go ice skating,” Madelyn said.  When my grandson was itchy to leave the table, Aunt Amy leaned over said, “Ok, but your going to miss all the good stories.”  Later that evening, the same table was spread with a mountain of skirts Madelyn had made as she and my the sisters pawed through them.   

The new table rests nearly in the center of my house, and in a few short months it has come this heart of our home.  Here, stories are told over coffee and cake, puzzles are completed or abandoned, quarrels resolved, and appetites sated.  Here I can write and watch football at the same time; Madelyn can cut sewing projects while I make lunch.  Here friends gather like hunters around a campfire.  It was all just as I had planned when I bought the table.  A home needs a table that invites people  to gather for meals, and other food for the soul.  I didn’t invent the idea; I grew up with it, but it is a good one.  I know, you want to tell me that the table is just an iconic centerpiece, a place to meet, representation of my love of family, and I can only say, “Of course it is.  That’s the point.”