St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Cutting Firewood

Cutting Firewood
Every fall when the weather cools down we cut firewood. The cabin has a wood heating stove and a wood cookstove as its only heat. It takes many cords of wood to keep it heated. We have to cut wood for the spring maple syrup cooking too. We have many woodlots on the farm with pines and oaks to maples and basswood. Each tree has its own characteristics as firewood that we have learned from history and experience.
Some years we saw lumber at our old sawmill so have slabs for kindling. We save most of them for the maple syrup cooker firebox where the eight-foot pine slabs are great for keeping the sap boiling. Since we haven't cut our wood in advance this year so it will have had time to dry, we have to find some dead wood that will be useable yet this fall. Many elms died in the last few years in the woods, especially along the old fencelines. While picking morels around them this spring I have marked in my mind where some tall branchy ones stand with the bark fallen off, a sign they are dry enough to burn immediately. God looks after those of us too improvident to cut our wood in advance by sending Dutch Elm disease, and windstorms.
The elms are small enough so I don't have to try to split them. American elm is almost unsplittable by hand. The elm trees range from 10-25 years old and the biggest are already 12 inches in diameter with wide growth rings. One has a base log that I save for the sawmill. Elms seed when they are still seedlings themselves and don't seem to be susceptible to Dutch Elm disease until their bark roughens after they are 10 years old or more. There seems to be no end of nearby elm seedlings. A few red elms, with their pretty dark wood, mix with the white American elms. It appears that although the huge spreading elm trees of our youth are gone, killed off twenty years ago with the first scourge of the disease, elms will be around forever in their smaller form. A very adaptable tree! I am the only one of my Dad and brothers who bought a German Stihl chainsaw. The rest chose Jonsereds, made in Sweden only 70 miles from where Great Grandpa Hanson lived. We each like our brand well enough so we wouldn't trade with each other.
I start the season with a chain sharpened professionally and file the rakers down a little to get a more aggressive cut. It cuts fast and straight. Later as I touch it up with the file, it gradually starts making the more artistic curving cuts that I am used to. I take the orange WD Allis to the woods with the trailer made from grandpa's old Widowmaker wheels. That was the nickname for a commercial brush cutter made with a large whirling large blade mounted parallel to the ground out in front of a motor on two wheels that had the habit of getting pinched while cutting trees and would whirl around and cut the operator's legs off. Grandpa decided he was already short enough and dismantled it with the motor going to Uncle Lloyd for a garden tractor, the blade to brother Byron for a painting and the axel widened for a boat trailer then a low sap and wood trailer. We carry the saw, gas oil mixture, bar oil, chainsaw wrench, axe, chain, maul and wedges with a jug of spring water.
The American elms are in a thicket of prickly ash that we cut out of the way first. The bright red berries have a sharp pleasant citrus smell that brings back memories of the more than 50 years I have been cutting wood. Dad took us four boys along to load the wood he cut into the trailer. Farmers had to do most of their woodcutting after the fall crops were harvested usually after deer hunting season and through the winter, before the deep snow. We tied our sleds or ski tow ropes to the back of the tractor and trailer and got a thrilling ride into woods. The elms are easy to cut; nice and dry. A few American elms are already rotten only 3 years dead in contrast to red elms still sound after being dead for 25 years. We always piled the brush to give as much pasture to the cows as possible. No cows run the pasture now, but I still pile it remembering Uncle Chan who told us kids "If you pile the brush in a tight big pile, then next year you will have rabbits hatch out of it". Uncle Chan was never married, so he might have been mixed up about how the rabbits got there, but even now, I find rabbits in my piles the next spring. I think the biologist call this process Harogenesis—sort of like spontaneous combustion. My brother always wears protective shoes, glasses and chaps, having had to do this while working for the DNR. He says that with chainsaws, safety is of primary importance. I tried these, but found that the steel toes dulled the chain and the chaps wad up in the saw and take a long time to pick out. I settle for an orange helmet to match my saw and leather gloves, some yellow sponge ear plugs and a big red faded handkerchief to wipe my brow.
When I was a kid and chainsaws were rare, expensive and heavy two man machines, most people cut their wood in pole length with a crosscut saw, trimmed them with an axe and then had the buzz saw crew come in and saw it into stovewood length. The huge whirling buzz saw blade was too dangerous to be close to until we were twelve years or older. We could help lift the poles, but Uncle Maurice would run the saw and make sure everyone kept all of their fingers. Grandpa or great Uncle George would "throw away." They reached for the blocks of wood that came off the saw and guided their fall, arms swinging them away from the blade. No walking and not too much lifting made it the job for an older man. We kids challenged each other to split the big blocks and spent hours throwing wood through the chute through the basement window and ranking it below and feeding the huge furnace there that provided our heat and hot water. If we were short on wood and the snow was deep, we might get a load of coal to mix with the wood. A load of maple yo-yo scrap from Luck was our kindling and the source of great fun as we rescued nearly perfect yo-yos to play with.
Grandpa had a steam buzz rig in 1900 when he was a young man. It took a lot of wood to keep the steam engine heated up, so when he bought the first gas engine in the area he quickly became the most popular buzz sawyer as he didn't burn a third of the wood he cut! He had the local hardware keep a barrel of gas for him as no one else used it. When he shut down his engine and refueled it, everyone went far away, worried about an explosion. Grandpa had tried filling it once while it was running and had gotten badly burned in an explosive fire. In the 1960s, Grandpa and Dad bought a Lombard gear drive chainsaw on halves. They found that with this one-man chainsaw they could cut the trees down and into stovewood lengths right in the woods and do it faster than cutting poles to buzz later. The era of buzz rigs and the crews of men going from house to house came to an end quickly.
Margo comes to the woods with me and helps to pickup the wood, load the trailer, haul and rank it in the woodpile. She looks at each stick of wood as money in the bank. At our Pine Island home we burn propane and keep the temperature down to save on fuel. At the cabin we let the stoves roar and often find ourselves with the windows open when it is 20 below outside! It doesn't get any more luxurious than that!
Twenty years ago, January 15, 1987, Uncle Maurice Hanson was out cutting wood in his back lot. It had been an abnormally warm January—highs in the 30s and 40s for the first two weeks, a nice break to do some mid-winter woodcutting. On the 15th it cooled down into the 20's with zero expected overnight. Uncle Maurice went out that day into the woods, but didn't come back in when he was expected. Myrtle found him lying on the ground as if he were sleeping. His 82 year old heart had given out while cutting wood. We woodcutters think this to be the perfect way to leave this world for the next.
I don't suppose we will get to cut wood in the next world. I imagine hell is administered by oil executives and heaven surely has the climate of Hawaii.