Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Preparing for a Michigan winter.

The title “woodsman” has been applied to me many times. I have been told by more than one scholarly person that I have “bar and chain oil in my blood.” I didn’t want to argue with them but it was my blood that had seeped into the bar and chain oil.

You see, I burn wood for heat in my home. It is an old farmhouse and does not have an alternative heat back up. Wood heat is very common in northern Michigan, so much so that on still, frosty mornings, the smell of wood smoke wafts faintly in the air. One of the benefits of wood heat, as it was explained to me before I bought the home, was the tremendous cost savings. A lot of people spent what they considered a fortune on alternate means of heat. Another benefit, I was told, was the gratification a person gets by harvesting his own fuel. I suppose now that people feel different levels of gratification for many different tasks.

I understand the hunting and gathering instinct that drives males. Being a male, I feel gratified after every late-night stumble into the kitchen lands me a Pop Tart. This hunting and gathering is in a man’s genes. But, my gratification gained by gathering wood that first winter was tempered by a sense of loss and discomfort. As an example, I felt very warm and comfortable and self-sufficient when I warmed myself in front of the vent, however, after I’d burnt the dining room chairs I felt the inconvenience of having to sit on the kitchen floor to eat. I was constantly debating the cost/benefit ratio as the winter embraced my home within its arms of bitter cold.

The ciphering I did after that first year of burning wood revealed to me that I spent about $14 on firewood that and most of that was for matches. So the fuel was cheap. At least it was cheap before replacement costs were calculated because it cost me over $22,000 to replace all my furniture, the furniture where I work, my cupboards and hardwood flooring. I know the church pew may have been taking it a bit too far, but it was the front one in the center section and nobody sits there anyway, and I couldn’t see a church trying to get their money back (Mennonites can be tough negotiators though.). I was wise enough to only burn the siding off the back of my house, thereby leaving the front portion of my home as stately as ever. I was somewhat steamed at the insurance company that refused to reimburse me for the siding that had burned—despite the fact that my policy clearly indicates that I am covered against fire loss. The case is on appeal.

But, that was last year, and with that first winter behind me I was much wiser as I once again laid out plans to harvest wood enough to last the next winter. But, I was not going to make the same mistakes a second time. When the snow melted in April, I went into the basement and grabbed my hatchet and headed outside in search of “real wood.” I walked just a short distance into my yard and noticed an enormous oak. I looked up at this majestic, stately tree that had without complaint offered shade and shelter to those that lived in the old farmhouse for many years. I felt huge admiration for the tree. This may have been a tree that served as venue to historic events. Perhaps a treaty was signed beneath its stalwart branches. Possibly this tree had shaded the horses of soldiers in one of the many wars that were fought on Michigan soil. I pondered this tree as having the branches over which vigilantes may have thrown their noosed ropes while meting out their swift, if not just, punishments. Finally, I thought of this tree and the fact that numerous children, scores, perhaps more, had climbed its branches, swung from it, played around it, and after reaching adulthood, without a doubt thought of it as an important piece of their childhood memories. But, since I grew up elsewhere, I pulled out my hatchet and started whacking away.

I had taken about 400 chops when I noticed that I wasn’t making a lot of headway. I had cut through the thick bark and had reached the wood itself, but with progress being that slow, it was going to take me forever to get that tree down. I wasn’t discouraged—in fact, quite the contrary. I simply had to put on my thinking cap and figure my way through it. Most inventions and innovations are the result of the type of deep thinking I was going to have to do. After much thought I discerned the basic problem with my tack was that the hatchet I was using wasn’t large enough to handle the job. What I needed were the proper tools.

With new found enthusiasm I headed to the grocery store to pick up the rest of the stuff that I needed. After circling the store several times I bought some pop tarts and decided that a hardware store would be more apt to carry the types of supplies I was seeking. In the hardware I purchased a hammer, a hacksaw, a chisel, a file, paint thinner, tin snips, a used bicycle (the store owner apparently giving me a good bargain because it only had one wheel) a roll of electrical tape, kneepads, and a pair of plastic flip/flops in a size eight. Excited about my ideas, and not wanting to waste any time while the creative juices flowed, I purchased items for plan one and plan two in this one fell swoop. It has been said that Thomas Edison would get so involved in his research and inventions that he would work around the clock completely oblivious to the passage of time. It has, similarly, been said about me that I would involve myself so completely in wasting time around the clock that anything I ever stumbled upon would remain unawares to people throughout the passage of all time. Having myself compared to Edison in such glowing terms is truly gratifying. Like Edison, I knew that once I became engrossed in my project it might be hours before I even thought about a need to eat, sleep or scratch and adjust, and I knew that having to go back to the store a second time would be crime to science and humanity.

At home again I was ready to get going. I took the snips and clipped off all of the spokes of the defective bicycle right at the axle. I then took my hatchet and busted the wheel rim all to pieces and cut off the tire so that I could get the pesky things off of the frame. I then stood the bicycle by leaning it against a tree. I took the hacksaw and cut the bike in twain, removing the front part of the frame just behind where the handle bar shaft meets the front struts. With the electrical tape I affixed the flip/flops to the pedals. I then took the file and filed the sprocket down to razor points. I was now ready to go. I took the bicycle and laid it on its side, took my shoes off and placed my feet inside the flip/flops and, lying on my side, I began peddling for all I was worth (about $1.94), and the sharpened sprocket tore into the wood. After about three and a half hours I could see that I was progressing more slowly than I had anticipated. A tree’s age can be measured by counting the rings in the wood from its outer wood to its core. At this point I was able to determine the oak’s age as greater than one.

I moved onto plan two shortly thereafter. I took the paint thinner and splashed it around the trunk of the tree about one foot from the ground. The three gallons I purchased seemed not enough to finish the job so I siphoned about 10 gallons off gas out of my neighbor’s truck and poured it on as well. Then I lit that baby up. It is remarkable how quickly a volunteer fire department can respond to a shrieking neighbor. The silly thing is, that the hullabaloo raised by him was totally unwarranted for, as far as I know, the neighbor had only modest possessions in the shed that burned down as a result of the explosion and fireball that followed the nearly successful plan two. Apparently my neighbor’s anger waned as after a while firefighters had to restrain him from approaching me to check on my condition. I indicated to him that the fire damaged neither my home nor me. I gave him a big grin and a thumb’s up. A tear entered my eye as with renewed vigor he attempted to break free of the firefighters to come see how I was doing.

After all the excitement had come to an end, I gathered up all the stuff I’d purchased from the hardware and took it back, 100% dissatisfied with the performance of the products and seeking a refund. Shortly thereafter I left the hardware wearing what was left of the defective cycle around my neck.

Since I was no longer allowed back in the hardware, I traveled 10 miles to another town to buy a chain saw. I also purchased all the tools and accessories that would typically accompany a chain saw and its master into timber country. Back at home I was ready to get started. I gassed and oiled the machine and pulled it several times before it fired to life. I carefully trudged outside with the running chainsaw in hand. I could tell by the quick work the saw made of the trim that surrounds my front door that this saw was the answer to my wood gathering needs.

I approached the smoking oak and stood before it with my saw, revving it up, readying it emotionally for the felling. I had witnessed my father cutting down trees several times. Never did he drop one on a house or car or person. I had watched him carefully enough that I felt there would be no problem in mirroring his success. The first thing that must be done is to take a pie shaped wafer from the tree. This wafer, when removed properly, will assure that the tree falls in the intended direction. I began working on the wafer. My father made his by cutting into the tree perhaps half way. I was certain that this was a mistake, as the tree would fall more quickly if you extended the cuts well over half way into the tree. I was about 90% through the tree with the bottom cut when I saw the error I had made. The tree’s weight shifted downward and began pinching the chainsaw making it impossible to cut through. The saw stalled and I kicked the tree.

After bandaging my foot, I limped back to the tree to investigate how I could best free the saw. The chain appeared to be pinched the entire length of the bar. I began by pulling on the thing. Then I pushed. I securely grabbed the saw by its handle, laid on my back and walked my feet up to the height of the saw and pulled straight back with my arms, legs, and back. After a visit to the chiropractor I stood and studied the fix I was in. Eureka! What I needed to do was pull the top of the tree toward the opposite side where I began my cut. That would relieve the pressure on the blade and I could slip it out. On second thought I decided that would never work.

I grabbed the hatchet and beat the bar until it was torn loose from the rest of the saw. After trying to return the saw to the store where I bought it, and failing, I had to travel to Alpena where, (hopefully) no one would have called ahead and warned of my approach. When I reached Alpena I tried to communicate with the store manager through a badly swollen and split upper lip, and a lower lip that more closely resembled a squished strawberry. It took the store’s idiot manager more than five minutes to finally understand that I was looking for a chainsaw refund.

After the store’s assistant manager was finally able to remove the store’s manager from atop of me, my nose now flattened, I traveled to Wal-Mart, to buy another chain saw and then headed back home. I did finally manage to get the tree down after another two hours of cutting here and there. Window replacement would only be a few hundred dollars so I was reasonably happy. Some of the smaller branches had actually broken off while crashing through the glass during the tree’s ill-fated descent and ended up inside my home on the bedroom floor. That was wood that literally gathered itself.

Having finally been able to harvest my first tree’s worth of wood, I struck off into the forest to find some more potential fuel providers. A little over the hill behind my house, I stumbled upon a tree that had been felled by a recent windstorm. This tree would be a snap to get cut up. I found it lying there on the ground—just inviting me to fillet it into burning length wood. (Fillet, that’s French, I think.) I got the first eight or ten pieces cut up until I reached a difficult part. I had to step either on a mound of moss or an unsteady piece of wood I’d already cut in order to set myself at the proper angle to cut the next piece of wood. My father would have chosen the moss but then my father would have been too conservative to even try the paint thinner thing too. I stepped on the wood and, the chainsaw howling, lowered the saw into the meat of the tree. Just about the time I’d gotten one quarter of the way through, the piece of wood I was standing on rolled away from me creating a terrible groin pull as well as a severe crotch tear in my $8.99 jeans. I could hear the rip all the way up my leg. Fortunately the jeans tore only half that far. I’d torn worse muscles than groins before so, after wrapping my belt around my leg for a tourniquet, (that may also be French) I proceeded on.

One would think that the difficulty surrounding a crotch tear the size of Connecticut would be its tendency to fill up with sawdust creating a terrible discomfort. Well, it was uncomfortable as most of the sawdust ended up in my shoe. Boy I hated that. I soon learned, however, that the sawdust problem was minor when compared to the abject pain associated with driving a sharply pointed stick right through the hole in my jeans, into my scrotum, and pinning my right testicle to my left butt cheek. I left the woods an inch at a time by dragging myself through the brush and onto the lawn, trying carefully not to jar the stick too much. All in all, my first wood cutting adventure hadn’t gone too badly. That night I ordered a fuel oil burner on line while standing in front of the computer. Of course, I will install that myself.


Anonymous said...

My stomach hurts from laughing. I'm looking forward to reading more of your articles. Please, keep 'em coming! Great Stuff.

Anonymous said...

That's too funny,Kirk. Please put on the kayak one soon!

Debbie said...

"I spent about $14 on firewood...and most of that was for matches."

Hear, hear! Having once been the proud owner of a fireplace, a garage full of very dry wood, and stacks and stacks of newspaper, I no longer believe in accidental forest fires.

Great job, Kirk! I laughed my fanny off. Ready for more now.