lumberjane

Lumberjane and the Not So Easy, “Easy Tree”

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.

Wrong.

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!

Wrong (again).

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.

 

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It’s the bigger of the two on the right. The one with the gangsta lean right behind target practice.

 

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.

From this…

 

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To This…

 

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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.

 

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See, we look like bugs, but safe bugs.

 

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Not completely dead, but totally rotten. A beauty, nonetheless

 

My first tree!

“To the first of many” congratulated The Chief.

 

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Yes, a little crooked, I’d say.

 

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.

 

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I think I swallowed it too, just for good measure.

 

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.

 

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Home is Where the Hard is

My girlfriend in Norway texted me this morning. “Help” was the first text. “Help me choose a kitchen” with a link to a website was the second.

You see, she is remodeling.

And I guess we are too.

Two kitchens. Two continents. Worlds apart.

Since moving into The Chief’s house it has become our house. Our home. It felt like home the first time I arrived and has ever since. But, as I mentioned in this post, it was a bachelor pad, like a perma-bachelor pad. And so we have slowly been making it ours.

The thing is, projects in the woods can get a bit tricky. It’s not like we can hop in the car and take a quick trip to Home Depot and stop for lunch on the way home (oh to eat a meal and simply walk away from the mess, that is luxury). We can’t just pop into town.

Town is Anchorage.

Town is 8-10 hours away, depending on the weather.

It’s a three day minimum commitment. Your house will freeze along with everything in it and if you’re lucky enough to have work, you’ll have to take time off. You’ll have to brave glacier riddled roads and icy highways and you must be able to carry all the supplies on your vehicle because strangely enough, stores don’t deliver out here.

So, the best alternative is to do it yourself. Source your own materials and make it work.

The Project: kitchen shelving

The Plan: build them from scratch

The Materials List: it all started a few years back…

In essence, our kitchen project started years ago. Before we even found one another. Our neighbor cut down the trees that would then be taken to another resident’s property to be milled into the biggest size possible. The now beams were eventually brought back over to our joint property by another neighbor where they sat…and sat…

Fast forward to present day and a stretch of time off from work for The Chief due to…you guessed it…a need for more supplies. So, as the job site was restocking we made use of the time off and started a “simple” kitchen project. We figured it would take a day or two. That was cute of us.

Day one: After suiting up for the cold, The Chief headed  out to the beam site. Shovel and axe in hand he chopped and chopped through ice and feet of snow until he wrestled two free.

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Wolf patrol. So many things to pee on.

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Sniff it out, dig it out.

I suited up myself and helped him to lift the beams onto the sawhorse.

I’m a pretty strong little bundle of a 5′ 3 (and 3/4)” lady but this 12-foot hunk of future shelving was a serious workout. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.

The beams on the other hand, they were cold. Frozen to be exact and at ten degrees outside, they weren’t thawing out any time soon. This seemed like a serious threat to our shelf building escapade. Out came the hammers. We hammered away the large chunks of ice and used the other side (the Claw, I’m told) to scrape. It was slow going. We found angled metal that worked as a scraper too but still, a great deal of ice remained and there was no way we could get those beams inside the house to thaw. The Chief smiled. He had a little trick up his parka: a weed burner. It’s exactly what it sounds like (unless you’re from California, then see the following explanation): basically it’s a torch used to burn down weeds but hey, I’m all about multi-purpose tools.

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So we spent the next hour or so burning off the freeze and the rest of the afternoon logging for the next project.

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Logging means brush…which means bonfire time

The next day was colder and it was harder to motivate to head out into it. But, of course, in true Alaska fashion, once we did motivate and had just finished defrosting the second log friends from across the river announced their arrival via snow machine. Our work was done for the day.

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The next day was full of bright blue skies and recently refrozen rivers. We couldn’t just burn weeds all day, we had to greet the blue and so the project was pushed off again.

Sidenote: this whole “go with the flow” attitude isn’t natural for me. I’m learning it. It feels irresponsible because it sometimes chooses fun over work but isn’t it just as bad to choose work over play simply because you “should”? I’m still figuring that one out. Dang Puritan work ethic. But I do know that it seems criminal to live in a 13 million acre national park and not explore it when you have the perfect day to do so…so we did.

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The Chief testing the thickness of the ice off to the right

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If it can hold this little guy it can hold us, right?

Finally, on the fourth day, things started coming together. The weather had turned (this always seems to happen. Good thing we took advantage of the day before) to grey skies and snow. The Chief and I suited up and got to milling. The wood was actually in pretty good shape considering its snowy grave and we were able to get three boards milled.

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We made shelves until five o’clock when we realized we were going to be late for the dinner plans we had made at a friend’s house up the hill. Time for a pause.

Sidenote: By “We made shelves” I mean The Chief mainly measured, cut and screwed in the boards. I learned (relearned) how to calculate a hypotenuse (and just now how to spell it again), how the miller and saw worked and how to brace shelving. I was in charge of aesthetic and placement and that’s great but it’s one thing to tell someone where to place something and another to place it oneself. I wish I could say we were both out there at the same time doing the same work but the truth is, I just didn’t know enough and when you only have so many materials, it’s pretty essential not to mess up. And while there’s nothing wrong with being the one who runs to get the materials or reminds you both to eat an apple, I can’t wait for the day when I lead the work. Luckily, The Chief is happy to share the position. Outside of my mom, no one has ever had so much faith in me to be able to do anything I set my mind to. From teaching me to run a chainsaw to encouraging me to lead us home at night on snow machines, he’s the best cheerleader (and the hairiest) anyone could ask for.

Before. During. After.

A few hours later, too full from dinner and too excited to sleep, we started finding new homes for things and brainstorming the next steps. I love these moments together. Just the two of us, making plans, trying out ideas and laughing together if they fail, knowing full and well that we will make it work. There’s nothing like living in a little cabin to get your creative organizing skills flowing and there’s nothing better than a partner in crime to dream with.

The next day it was snowing again so we waited until it abated and then started on the corner shelves. It took up until the dinner bell at the neighbor’s house was ringing (two homemade dinners that we didn’t have to home make in one week?! Hallelujah!) to finish. Two shelving projects down and an infinite number left to complete but a serious pat on the back is in order.

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For the last two days, every time we would walk into the kitchen (which means every time you come in the house or walk from the living room. Tiny house, remember?) we would marvel at our completed project.

And then this morning I got the Norwegian text and it made me realize how different my world has become. Never in my life did I think I would help mill the tree a friend cut down and make my own shelving (shoot, I’d never even met someone who’d cut down a tree for lumber before). Never did I think I would work in the snow and the cold in the middle of winter in Alaska. Never did I think I’d meet my person in the middle of the woods. Never did I think it would happen, but I did hope for this life.

I was looking for a “hard” life, even if I didn’t know it. And it is hard, in the best ways. Things take three times longer. Each project becomes a town effort as you run out of screws or borrow tools but the “hard” is what makes it feel so good to hammer in that final nail. The “hard” shows you how hard things could actually be and how lucky we are. The “hard” is what makes it home. Our home.

 

 

Swallow Your Pride (A Lesson from the Sorest Hands I’ve Ever Had)

Swallow your pride. Better yet, be rid of it.

Pride has no place here. There simply isn’t room for it. When things need to get done, you either do or don’t know how to do it and depending on how fast it needs to get done you’ll either learn now or get out of the way.

Easier said than done.

Personally, I hate not knowing how to do things, especially when I’m the only one who doesn’t know and especially when it involves my survival (I’m guessing that’s a universal dislike).

We arrived at night and by the morning I realized that there were more things than I could have imagined that

1. Everyone knew how to do

2. I didn’t

and

3. They all involved my being able to survive out here.

Surprise!

Alaska has a way of taking the things you’re most afraid of (and most likely to avoid) and shoving them back at you. This quick slap in the face was repeated with every new task:

Running a generator at below zero

Pumping water (wear waterproof clothing)

Building and maintaining a good fire (our only source of heat)

Chopping wood (our only fuel for heat)

Lack of light

Driving a snow machine

Running a chainsaw

Cutting down a tree for firewood

Learning the trails (which were all suddenly brand new to me as the winter paths differed from the summer)

Driving in snow (again, I’m from California)

The battery bank (how, seriously, how does that work?)

Dressing for winter (too hot, too cold – it’s a daily Goldilocks routine)

Driving a stick-shift (in snow/ice)

Learning to ski

Not breaking things (things apparently break in the cold. I tried to lift a plastic bucket and it shattered. I know, it seems obvious now to me too)

 

The list went on and on and as it did I felt smaller and smaller. What the hell was I thinking moving out here? I was grounded 60 miles down an ice road and even if I wanted to leave, I couldn’t even do that on my own.

The learning curve was overwhelming and the lack of independence was stifling.

Not only did I not know how to do all the above things but I also had to create new systems for things I’ve always known how to do. You know, the basics…bathing, dressing, laundry, cooking, even making coffee was a whole new experience with a hand grinder. It was like being at step one. I felt totally out of my league without any of the comforts or competence I had known. And then, the sink stopped working.

Everything in my world was turned on its head and all that I had learned to do in summer was suddenly different because now, it was  winter. I couldn’t just walk outside and start the generator to pump water because the generator was frozen. I needed a fire to thaw it.

I needed to get better at building fires. I needed to get better at everything.

It didn’t take long to realize that what I really needed to do was to swallow my pride, slow down, learn, practice and accept help.

Ugh. Not my favorite medicine but I took it.

I started to check off the list of “dont’ know hows” with learning to chop wood.

When we arrived, the woodpile looked like this:

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After my first time chopping wood in 20+ years, it looked like this:

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This stack of Paul Bunyan toothpicks took me hours.

The Chief came out (after hearing me cursing a particularly knotty log) to remind me that chopping logs was a stress reliever, not a stress inducer (a.k.a, maybe you need a break, tiger). I was sweaty and out of breath, a real fine sight, but I was determined. Once it started to get dark, I came inside.

All done, babe?

Nope (grabbing my headlamp – thank you Spenard Builders Supply for the freebie!)

Finally, when I could no longer see and had become a pink-nosed popsicle I bid adieu to the pile for the night.

I was exhausted.

The next day was poker night. My forearms and shoulders were a little sore during the day but it wasn’t until I went to shuffle that…

I couldn’t.

My hands were so sore that I couldn’t even squeeze them together enough to shuffle cards. I grew up playing cards. I can shuffle in my sleep.

Not that day.

A little triumph: my little wood pile, coupled with a little reminder: you still have a long way to go.

Every time I start to get ahead of myself, Alaska throws a banana peel in the road and for that I actually feel lucky. Sometimes you fall and other times you see it and slow down.

The next time I chopped wood I did a little better:

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Yea, I took a close-up.

And the next time after that I started finding that elusive stress-reducing zen The Chief so casually mentioned. Feeling my swing improve. Seeing my target and hitting it and then…sometimes not. Getting cocky, talking back to the log, hitting it with the axe handle and feeling it jostle you from your arms to your feet. The triumphs and the reminders.

Now, a month in, I’m more comfortable with a lot of things. I’ve been in 20 below and I didn’t die (I wasn’t so sure how that would go). I can run a generator, I feel comfortable to hold down the fort when The Chief is away and I can chop up wood for a few days without disabling myself for days. And, the second I feel I have it all under control, a new challenge comes up.

Like harvesting the wood to be chopped…

 

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FYI: He’s not short. The tree is tall.

Next goal: to be the lead instead of the assistant (no offense to the assistant, I hear she’s awesome).

Such is life in the Alaskan wilderness. The work is never done and neither are the lessons. And the chores will leave you sorer than you realize.

Thank you Alaska, you sly fox, you.

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