January 29, 2021

FTV: More Wood Stories


     At the time the first part of FTV:  Wood Stories (published 3-11-20) was being written, we were in the process of having a large Silver Poplar tree removed from our side yard.  When our house was originally built, the owner had planted three of these trees along with a couple of Spruce trees in the yard.  When I bought the house, the evergreens were small enough to hop over and none of the Silver Poplars were taller than me.  As they grew, we left many branches on the lower trunks because they made terrific natural gym sets when our kids were small (who needs monkey bars when there is a tree with many branches to climb?).  As these trees got closer to fifty years in age, we noticed the (now) large, multi-trunk Poplars beginning to split near the base.  The splitting caused some consternation as the branches on the trees facing the house began to sag ominously toward the roof.  Over the course of a dozen years, two of these trees were removed by tree removal professionals.  I wasn’t about to put my limited tree dropping skills to the test when an ‘oops’ in this case would have been detrimental to our roofline.  By the fall of 2019, the last (and by far the largest) remaining tree of this trio began showing signs that it too needed to be taken down.  When Pileated Woodpeckers take an interest in an older tree, it is a sure sign they are getting on their last legs.  Poplar trees grow fast and are beautiful trees, but like White Birches, when they reach a certain age, they begin to show their age and begin to fall apart bit by bit.

     As a kid helping my dad cut firewood, I learned how to be a chainsaw jockey by watching him.  In addition to cutting a lot of firewood, being the guy on the street who owned a chainsaw meant  neighbors with a problem tree in their yard would call dad.  In most cases, the routine went something like this:  dad looked over the tree to come up with a plan and then dropped it.  As he debranched and blocked it, my brother and I would load the brush and haul it off to where ever it was going to be dumped.  If the homeowner was keeping the wood, we would pile the blocks for them and if not, we loaded it in the pickup for disposal.  If it was hardwood, ‘disposal’ meant it went into our wood pile.  If it was softwood, it went wherever we disposed of the branches.

     The most memorable episode from those days was the very large Red Pine a neighbor wanted removed from the front of their house.  It was only about ten feet from the front corner of the house between the front porch and driveway.  The acidity from the needles dropping on the lawn was killing the grass and clogging the gutters.  It was too tall to drop straight away from the house because there were overhead power lines running down that side of the street.  I must have been around sixteen because we were driving our maroon Chevy S-10 at the time I got my license.  

     Dad’s plan was to tie a long length of rope as high in the tree as he could reach with an extension ladder.  The other end was attached to the bumper of the truck which I would use to pull the tree at a 45 degree angle from the house to make sure the falling tree would not impact the powerlines.  The second order of business was to notch the base of the tree facing the direction he wanted the it to fall.  At his signal, I dropped the truck into low, slipped the clutch enough to put some tension on the rope and watched in the side mirror as he started to saw into the trunk on the opposite side from the notch.  I kept tension on the rope until the tree began to lean and dad waved me to stop pulling.  We had eyeballed the tree’s height and the rope length, but I still thought, “I hope we got the length of rope right so the tree doesn’t land on the back of the truck.”  

     It was a great plan until the tree was halfway to the ground.  Unbeknown to all present, the base of the tree was rotted on the inside, a fact that would not be apparent until the tree was down.  Unfortunately, there was one solid rib of wood inside of the rotted area facing the street.  As the tree fell, it twisted to the left on this baseball bat sized rib of wood, aiming the falling tree directly toward the powerlines.  The top ten feet or so tagged the top wire and to my horror, the impact sent a violent vibration down the line that made the utility pole in front of the house sway back and forth.  I watched in amazement as every pole along the next two blocks began to sway back and forth in perfect sine wave in sympathy with the one closest to the spot where the line was struck by the tree top.  Miraculously, the poles stopped swaying and the wires stayed right where they should be, firmly attached to the poles.  We blocked the tree up for transport while glancing at the overhead lines, just in case they decided to fall after the fact.  When I asked dad what we would have done if the powerline had come down, he stated the obvious: “We would have called the power company.”  For a good number of years, any tree cutting projects on Norway Avenue revived the story of the dancing utility poles.

     Not long after I had installed a wood furnace in our Ontonagon house, I noticed the Golf Club was knocking down some very large Red Maple trees next to the second green.  When asked if anyone had spoken for the wood, the clubhouse manager told me to call the club president who said, “If you want it, take it.  You can dive across the fairways to reach it from Airport Road, but just don’t drive across the greens.”  My dad was still working and panned to stop the next day on his way to do some License and Regulation inspections in the area.  We took a stroll over to the golf course and when he noted how big the trees were, the wood cutting side of his brain kicked in and he said, “I have to take some vacation time off, so I will be back here tomorrow.  We can get them cut and moved out in two afternoons.”  This sounded a bit optimistic to me, but when I got home from work the next day, my mother was at work making dinner and dad said, ‘Get changed and we can get started.”

     One of the reasons I doubted the ‘couple of afternoons’ timeline was the location of the downed trees.  They had been felled over an embankment east of the second green and I could not envision how we would be able to cut them.  The greater part was propped up on the upper branches a good ten or twelve feet above solid ground.  Standing on top of them while running a chainsaw didn’t seem like a good idea.  Dad had already thought this part out as when we had scoped out where the trees lay.  He brought some hefty chains to loop around the base of the trees.  We used the truck to pull them out onto the fairway for easy access.  Being deep into the fall, there were very few golfers still on the course.  The ones who ventured by just played through when we beckoned them to tee off over the new obstacle that was now between them and the green.

     By dinner time, we had the first tree blocked.  While dad sawed, I hauled the limbs back over the embankment into the woods lining the hole (mercifully the club president said that was fine with him).  We loaded the first big blocks by rolling them up a plank into the truck to be deposited in my side yard.  By nightfall the rest of tree number one was blocked and removed to my yard.  We yanked tree number two out and left it at that until morning.  I offered to take the day off but dad said, ‘Nah, save your days off.  I will branch and block this one and we can finish it after you get home from school.”  Wisely, we started with the two largest trees so the heavy lifting was done by dinner time the second day.  We went back after dinner and polished off the smallest tree and to my amazement, we had cut and hauled a massive amount of wood in two days time.  Never second guess a saw jockey who has cut a lot of wood.

     One essential piece of equipment dad had invested in years earlier was a hydraulic wood splitter.  In the early wood cutting days, dad did the splitting with a maul and my brother and I  did the hauling and piling.  Once we got the golf course blocks dropped in my yard, it began to dawn on me that splitting blocks larger than I could lift by myself was going to be a challenge.  Before the folks departed for home the next morning, dad had rigged a couple of planks into a ramp that allowed me to simply roll the big blocks on to the splitter rail.  The half blocks created by the first pass on the splitter were still heavy, but they could be muscled back on the splitter without the ramp. I never doubted the theory that the ancient Egyptians had used extensive ramp systems to move the gigantic blocks used in building the pyramids.  The ‘rolling wood up an inclined plane’ story also made a great illustration when my Physical Science classes were studying the physics of energy and work.

     In the early 1980s, my brother Ron had taken a job at the White Pine Mine.  He ended up building a house next door to ours.  He liked the Monarch wood furnace we use to heat our house so he had an identical unit installed alongside his gas furnace.  He asked around work and got the name of a logger who delivered ten cord loads of logs so we agreed to split a load.  He planned to build a garage next to his house the next summer so the sand pad already in place was the ideal place to drop the wood.  We figured it would be cut and moved long before the garage was built.  Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with the truck driver and when we got home from work that day, all ten cords were neatly piled on the street between our driveways.  The street is a deadend cul du sac so it wasn’t an impediment to traffic, but it certainly was going to be a problem when winter came and snowplowing began.

     My old Homelite chainsaw was on its last legs, so we split the cost of a newer, more powerful Johnsorred.  Ron was on shift work at the mine so he would spend a couple of hours cutting wood and I would split and move it before he got the next set blocked.  When the economic troubles at the mine sent him back to the job he had previously had with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the saw was left in my custody.  Ironically, Ron had done all the sawing on our shared load, but I ended up with the saw.  When it became apparent that he would not have wood heat in his new house in Marquette, I paid him back for his half of the saw.  The wood splitter was stored in the garage at camp and when I needed it, dad would ramp it into the back of his truck and deliver it.  I am glad that I have not had to use the splitter in recent years.  The last time I asked about it, brother Ron said that it would take a little digging to get it out of the garage because of all the other stuff that is currently stored there.  I asked, “How much digging?”  He replied, “Well, I think it might be easier to cut a new door in the back wall of the garage and take it out that way.”  

     I solved my last wood splitting problem by giving the few big blocks I had wanted to split to someone with an outdoor furnace unit.  Splitting wood by hand still works but particularly tough blocks are hard on arthritic wrists.  I am glad that I am able to get ‘pile ready’ split wood delivered these days because the thought of cleaning the camp garage enough to get the splitter out isn’t high on my list of ‘fun things to do at camp’.  If I go there and find a new door cut in the back wall of the garage, then I will know that brother Ron felt the same way.

Top Piece Video:  Jackyl plays, what else?  The Lumberjack Song