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The Last Outdoor Task of the Year

(Part Six of the 2014 segment of the Cottage diary)

Friday, October 3, 2014

There is a type of tree that grows in the forest behind our cabin.  It grows tall and straight, with a smooth grey bark.  The wood is extremely hard.  Our family call it a ‘beech’ tree, but I have not done any research, and do not know for certain what it is.

What I do know, however, is that this sort of tree grows quickly and dies early.  Compared to the maple and the fir trees that are also found around here, this fellow is rather like a giant weed.  After about twenty years, a mature tree of this type always seems to develop a rotten core; the topmost branches begin to die, and in time the thing falls.  Reaching as much as two feet in diameter at the base, even with a hollow and rotten core a mature tree weighs a ton.

It was one of these so-called ‘beech’ trees that fell on our cabin ten years ago – an experience not to be forgotten.

All of which is to say that I have no qualms about striking first: cut it down for firewood while it is still sound.  The trunk of a five-year old tree can be cut into logs that are the perfect size for our stove.  As well, that trunk is so long and straight before it arches out into branches, that cutting the segments is a reasonably easy task.

When I came back to the lake this week, I had two projects in mind: finish the outhouse roof, and take down at least one of these forest weeds for next year’s firewood.  Today, with the outhouse done, and the weather promising to be really cold and rainy for the next six days, I knew that – like it or not – I would have to clamber up the hillside, select and fell a tree, and cut it into logs.  If I don’t do it now, it is not the sort of thing that one can safely do in a cold, rain-soaked and slippery forest, so the job would probably not get done at all this year.  Worse, if the next six days are as bad as the weather reports say they will be, I will use plenty of firewood without having replenished any of it.

So this morning, on go my steel-toed boots, eye protection, and gauntlet gloves...

...and out comes the chainsaw.

Top up the oil and gas; take a couple of pulls on the starter rope, and:  ba.... ba.. ba-ba-bada-bada-braaaaaa!...  the thing starts!  Not bad, after sitting idle more than a year.

Okay.  Turn it off.  I’m not clambering up that hill carrying a running chainsaw.

Go up the path.  Where it turns and heads over to Tim’s cottage, leave the path and go further up the hill, deep into the forest.  Phew, pretty steep.  I have to pull myself up by holding on to bushes.  Grab and pull with one hand, and carry the chainsaw with the other.

Up near the hydro lines, I’m in a stand with perhaps thirty young ‘beech’ trees.  One of them, exceptionally tall, has not a single branch on its trunk until an umbrella of them fans out at the very top.  Perfect!  Once it’s down, I can cut it into fifteen or twenty firewood pieces, just as if it were a stalk of celery.  Very hard, giant, celery, mind you.

Okay.  Here goes.  Start the saw.  bada-bada-braaaaaa...

Making the tree fall uphill towards the hydro lines seems best.  Surely it’s not either tall enough or close enough to the wires to fall on them, is it?

Cut a V-shape in the side where I want it to fall.  braaaaaaaaaaa  Now, a straight, slightly downward cut from the other side.  braaaaaaaaaaa...

The cuts almost meet, but, at the stage when a tree normally begins slowly to crack and fall, nothing happens.

I cut it completely through.  But the tree just settles down into my cut, as vertical as it ever was.  Somehow I manage to get my saw out.  Why hasn’t the tree fallen?

Look way up...

Uh-oh.  The topmost branches seem to be intertwined with branches from nearby trees.  The other trees are holding their buddy up!

Now what am I going to do?

If I push at the trunk, surely those branches will give way?  Uuuuuuuggghh...

Unnnnnnnnnnggghh!!!  Nothing.  The tree doesn’t move.

Go around and use all my weight to try and pull it down?  And, if I should succeed, it will fall right on me?  Not a good plan.

Start the saw again, and cut away some of the stump from under the thing.  If I’m careful, it will slip off the stump, drop to the ground and pull the branches away at the top.


Thump!  Thw whole thing drops straight down, without falling.  It is so heavy that it drives a hole into the hillside dirt.

But, because the hill at this point is at a forty-five degree slope, maybe I can pull the bottom of the tree sideways out of the hole it has made, and maybe the thing will slip downhill pulling the branches even further away from the ones with which they are entangled....?

Straining and grunting, I tug at the bottom of the tree.  It moves... then moves some more... and then with a creak and the crackling of branches overhead, the thing slowly begins to fall...

... and as the top passes the level of the hydro wires, I see the wires jump and sway!  Uh oh!  The thing was tall enough and near enough to touch them!  But only brushing them on its way by.  In fact, maybe it was only creating a breeze, strong enough to cause them to sway? 1

But it is down, now.  Time to cut it into firewood lengths.  Using all my strength I manage to lift the bole and perch it on the remainder of the stump.  A goodly length is projecting out, on the downhill side, and it is easy to run the saw and cut three or four lengths.  One of the pieces, falling, bounces down the hill toward the path.  The others I manage to catch before they, too, roll down the hill, and I start a small woodpile against the trunk of another tree (inset).
cut lengths of wood, stacked against a tree trunk
Firewood – stacked and ready

I pull the fallen tree toward me, so that more of the trunk, perched on the stump, projects out where I can cut it.

Soon I’m at the stage where the top branches must be cut off.  I clamber up the hill towards them, and holding the saw at various awkward angles, cut the branches, making the thicker part of them into firewood lengths.

The main trunk becomes easier and easier to move, but I’m feeling my age: my heart is pounding, I’m breathing heavily, and dripping with perspiration.  I need to sit, and so I do, slowly catching my breath.

It took another half hour to finish cutting up the whole thing.  My saw ran out of gas at just about the time that I, too, totally ran out of energy.  However, the last cut had been made.  I stacked up everything that I had done – about twenty-six logs and countless smaller sticks – and made my way carefully back down to the cabin.  When you’re extremely tired, it is wise to be extra careful on steep forest slopes.

I may have been exhausted, but I was quite content.  Both planned projects of this return trip to the lake have now been done, and the good weather has lasted long enough to do them.

Best of all, the sunshine was so strong today, that the water in my goofy solar-heated shower system was nice and warm, so once I had put my saw away, I capped the whole process with a pleasant outdoor shower.  Now I’m clean, and seated in my cabin, and able to tell you about all this.

One week from today I will return home to Winnipeg.  Fortunately, sunshine is promised for Thursday, my last day here, when I will pull the boat out of the water, take the swim ladder off the dock, take down the shower and the shower hose system, put away the shower curtains, and shut off the water pump.  Between now and then, I shall be indoors, listening to the rain on the roof, reading, practicing the clarinet, and working on this blog and some other writing projects.

Right now night has fallen.  The wind is whistling through the trees, waves are lashing against the shore, and clouds are covering the moon.  The bad weather has begun.

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1  I’m sitting in my cabin writing this.  The electricity is on, and the phone works.  No harm done.
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