I did it.
I took down my first tree.
When we arrived in December the idea of logging was very Disney-esque to me. I pictured a bearded Lumberjack in plaid yelling “Timber!” as a gargantuan tree fell, crushing smaller trees on its way down and sending nature all around it off in a hurry. Birds chirping, squirrels chattering, the forest awakened by the sudden change. And then, the Lumberjack would throw the logs over his shoulder and whistle as he walked away to a warm cabin not so far away.
In all honesty, this wasn’t so far from reality, but it definitely brushed over a few major aspects.
First, apparently, we don’t yell “Timber!” anymore. This was a real shocker but I believe I can get the momentum going to bring that one back.
Second, there’s a lot more involved in falling a tree than chopping or sawing through it. First, there’s the picking out of the tree. Here, we try to always avoid green wood (trees that are still alive), at least for firewood. That way it doesn’t have to cure as long before you can use it and you’re not killing a tree without reason. Finding a tree that is dead but “healthy” (meaning not rotten or taken over by beetles, etc.) is a good challenge especially when coupled with the reality that you’ll need to find a tree that won’t get “hung up” on (fall into) other trees. You spend a lot of time evaluating the lean and shape of the tree and its surroundings.
Then, there is cutting it down.
There are three cuts. The first is a level (as perfectly level as possible which is difficult when you are holding a saw that is too heavy for you) cut about a third of the way through the tree. The second completes The Face Cut and angles down into the tree from above the first cut and meets up at its edge. It creates a cut-out like a big slice of watermelon. This cut is awkward and hard. All sides have to line up. All the while, you are watching your tree, watching for movement, checking your lines to make sure the cut is accurate, level and correctly angled. Then, you make your Back Cut. It starts at the back of the tree, a bit above the level of the first cut (if you’re actually looking to cut down a tree please take don’t use this as a manual – there are precise measurements for how much above the Face Cut one goes and information on angles and techniques a plenty, but not here my friend). It too must be level but you need to be able to trust your saw skills enough to not have to watch yourself cutting and instead be able to affix your eyes to your tree. Is it moving? Wobbling? Does it look like it’s going to fall where you want it? If not, it’s time for some quick moves. Oh, and speaking of quick moves you always need to be aware of your “out”. Playing If the Tree Falls This Way, I Go This Way isn’t just a game for fun. You need to look at your surroundings and see or create (cut down nearby branches, etc.) your escape for if something goes wrong.
Third, you don’t always wear plaid and the forest animals (at least in the Winter) are tucked away sleeping, not jabbering about your falling technique. It’s relatively quiet (well, at least until the chainsaw runs).
Fourth, there’s a lot of clean-up involved and a day of tree falling is always accompanied by a lot of brush work which thankfully normally leads to the day ending with a bonfire. Oh, and hauling the logs is not done on the shoulder, double barreled. It takes smart angles and momentum (and sometimes two people) to get the lengths into the sled. After which you drive them with your snow machine to your drop spot (ours is in front of our woodshed) where you tip the sled over to empty it and head back for another load again and again until the logs are all moved and you’ve finished hauling brush and brush and brush.
Fifth, safety is cool. Ear protection and eyewear, though both may make you look like a bug (you’ll see what I mean in a later picture) both are protecting some serious assets. Wear them.
So clearly, Disney had led me slightly astray (insert little girl gasping sound!). I had a lot to learn when it came to cutting down a tree. From picking one out to cutting techniques to safety precautions, the more logging we did the more I realized how little I knew and my goal of cutting down a tree before Winter’s end started to seem like a pipe dream.
Besides, I was really good at running the clean-up effort. I could knock off branches with the swish of an axe and had learned to maneuver logs that were almost as tall as me into the logging sled. I had made progress. So what if I didn’t take one down on my own? I mean, if you’re there to lick the spoon and clean up the mess, it’s basically like you baked the cookies, right?
Not really. But with Winter coming to an end and logging becoming more difficult in the shallowing snow, I had kind of resigned myself to waiting for next year. Kind of.
I think The Chief sensed this resignation but knowing how much I had wanted to do it, he found a way around it. We didn’t have to go to the trees and try and pull sleds in melting snow. The trees were right in front of us.
So, one Sunday we decided it was First Time Falling Day. The Chief picked out a near dead tree on the property that needed to go and off we went. Well, sort of.
We went to get the chainsaw (the smaller of the two, still too big for me) and it was gone. A little sleuthing sent us to the neighbor’s house but on the way there we heard a ruckus.
Two dogs and two people arrived at our house just as we rounded the corner towards the opposite direction.
**Sidenote: one of my favorite things about this place is that everywhere you go, humans and dogs are either in equal numbers or the people are outnumbered. It’s pretty much Heaven on Earth.
“Well, I guess that project is on pause” The Chief said.
I couldn’t believe the relief I felt. I had felt a twinge of it when we couldn’t find the saw but just figured I was being lazy. Now, the relief of knowing we were being derailed by visitors and I wouldn’t have to attempt the fall made me relieved which also made me annoyed at myself. But I tabled the realization as I swallowed my frustration with myself and went to meet the droppers by.
An hour and an invite to dinner and music by an outside fireplace later and I figured that the derailment was final. No trees would be dropped today.
The Chief was ready. We were taking down a tree and by We he meant Me. I was weeble-wobbling back and forth. I was feeling nervous but I did want to try. We headed back towards our neighbor’s house and found the saw. It had been taken apart.
Aww shucks, I guess we can’t cut today!
We headed back home where The Chief showed me how to put a saw back together again. We re-upped all of the oils and gas and we were ready to go…sort of. A ponytail suddenly felt highly important and I excused myself to go inside and attend to this must-have. Inside, I got my battle gear on. I had been wearing running pants and a baggy sweatshirt. I did not feel the part of a Lumberjane. A ponytail, snow pants, tougher boots and a zip-up later and I was feeling a little more put together and a little more up to the task. Next time I think I’ll reach for the charcoal too and give myself a little warpaint. That’ll do the trick.
So, a personal pump-up later and I was ready. Except I hadn’t run the chainsaw in over a month and I needed a little re-teach. The one thing I immediately remembered was how awkward the saw feels to me. I am left-handed (insert ominous soundtrack here). Our saw is not. I consistently grab for it with the wrong hands and consistently see things backwards, flipping it over on the wrong side or angling from the opposite side I’m supposed to. It’s like working in reverse. As I became reacquainted with the saw and got it running (nothing feels more Lumberjane-y than pulling to start a saw and getting the cord choked up. Nothing flips over except your pride) I started looking at the tree The Chief had handpicked for this newbie.
It seemed a little crooked.
The reason it seemed a little crooked was that it was a little crooked. Pretty darn crooked, if you asked me, but hey, I’m the newbie, what do I know?
We started discussing the plan of attack and the moment came when we both realized that maybe the tree was a little crooked for a beginner, but as per usual, true Alaskan style always likes to take you out on a limb so we decided to go for it.
**Sidenote: The moment that made us realize this tree was a toughie was when we realized that I would have to brace myself on one knee in order to make the first cut. Ah, how valiant! A kneeling cut. How very fancy!
Having a saw blade running near you is an intense feeling. It’s waves of excitement mixed with waves of caution. It’s a heightened state where your every move is precise and premeditated.
Or, you’re like me and still trying to get the hang of the basics and your attention is all over the place. But, putting a saw above and in front of your face will help to focus your attention.
The first cut was pretty simple (other than flipping the saw over the wrong way at first – again, lefty problems). The next, the one to create the melon slice, was a little harder. The ground was mossy and icy and it was hard to find balance with a too big saw overhead, much less to create a perfect angle. The Chief had to help guide me but eventually the ends met up. We evaluated the cuts, looked from behind them to see how we thought the tree would fall and decided that we were lined up as perfectly as we could be.
Time for the back cut.
About halfway through The Chief yelled for me to look up. I had been so focused on getting through the cut that I hadn’t even checked on what the tree itself was doing.
She was wobbling.
“Keep going, but watch her as you go” The Chief shouted over the saw and our ear protection.
I did and then I started to hear cracks. The tree was falling. Falling. Falling.
Right into the clearing we were aiming for.
I turned off the saw and just watched for a moment. Everything during the cuts is so loud and so intense that once the tree falls everything suddenly feels very quiet. There’s a finality to the moment that was somewhat lost on me until I cut the tree down myself. A pause. An honoring. A thank you for letting us use your fuel to heat ourselves. And a nod to the cycle you’ve changed and the new cycle that will begin.
Little tiny nature miracles wake you up from the quiet.
And then…there’s a celebration. At least there was in our case. There were hugs and high-fives and smooches to be had.
My first tree!
“To the first of many” congratulated The Chief.
Since we were now somewhat late to dinner we decided to buck up the tree (cut it into lengths that are more easily manueverable. Later they will be cut into lengths that will fit into the fireplace and later will be chopped into wood for fires) when we had time to do it right. Maybe I’d even do it on my own when The Chief was at work (maybe, probably not but at that moment anything seemed possible).
The Chief headed off to check on a charging 4-Wheeler battery and I went inside to get ready. I was starving, all that adrenaline had gotten my heart pumping but I knew we were headed to dinner so I looked for something quick and settled on some salami. Normally, I would cut up smaller slices, maybe with some cheese and apples and sit for a snack but no way, this Lumberjane was tough and in a rush. I cut off a chunk and popped it into my mouth, bit down and…
broke off a piece of my tooth.
What in the heck? I just had a chainsaw inches away from my face, running full throttle. I just cut down a 45ft. tree and I come inside and break my tooth on salami? Something is wrong here. Or actually, perfectly on point. Of course that would happen here. Just when you think you’re safe and solid, a little reminder heads your way.
Don’t get cocky.
Do call a dentist.
Well, eventually. It’s not all that bad, The Chief couldn’t even tell which tooth (it’s the bottom left front tooth) but my tongue sure could. I kept feeling the newly rough crag over and over throughout the night. At first I was annoyed with myself. How careless. But then I decided instead to see it for what it was: a good reminder of how fast a slip-up can happen and to listen to your intuition.
Something had whispered to me that I should cut up the salami and maybe if I had the peppercorn that broke my tooth wouldn’t have hidden so well but I didn’t listen and so I met the consequences. I realized that I was lucky that it was this small reminder of how fast things happen out here (and how far away a doctor is) instead of a reminder in the shape of a chainsaw accident.
Yes, I cut down a tree and yes, it was cause for celebration but no, it does not make me a skilled Sawyer by any means.
Maybe a Lumberjane in Training though, I’m good with that. And as long as I remember that I’ll be in training for a long time, as long as I remember not to get too big for my flannel shirts, well then I’m happy to keep learning and earning the name of a Lumberjane.