Moving Logs With the Galley Slaver

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Burnell Lippy discovered a better way to move heavy logs.

Last June, after spending several months of my spare time
cutting and limbing balsam and fir trees with a 42-inch bow saw
and a double-bladed axe, I was able to sit atop my hillside
property and — with no small feeling of
satisfaction — view the 100 logs that I’d need to build
my home. A full third of those timbers rested within a mere
100 feet of my home-site. My satisfaction began to turn to
apprehension, though, as I forced myself to face the fact
that an equal portion of the logs was stacked some
200 feet away, at the bottom of a 20-degree slope, while
the rest of my home-to-be (stacked far enough away to
resemble a pile of jackstraws from where I sat) was a full
100 yards beyond the bottom of that hill.

In the past I had often hand-carried or dragged small logs,
tipi poles and the like from one site to another. But
these timbers were each about 22 feet long and
averaged 10 inches in diameter. So I made arrangements with
a local logger to bring his horse and skid to move the logs
to the site, offering to trade him two hours of my labor
for every hour he and his horse spent getting the felled
trees moved.

Though that gentleman was agreeable to my proposed swap, it
would be — he said — a week or so before he’d have
time to do the job. So I decided to use that delay in an
attempt to move at least some of the logs to the
site myself (and maybe, while doing so, regain a little of
the sense of accomplishment I’d felt after felling and
branching the trees by hand).

In order to tackle that imposing task, I borrowed an idea
from a friend, Jon Denner, who — while building a 25-by-25-foot log cabin in Vermont — had moved all of
the logs without a horse, skidder or tractor. Jon managed
to do it with “a little help from his friends,” and from a crude levering device that he used to
“row” the logs out of the woods.

Following the hints the Vermonter had passed along, I
duplicated his tool from a 5-foot length of 3-inch-diameter
birch and eight feet of 5/8-inch hemp rope. First, using my axe,
I sharpened the thicker end of the stick and then tied
the rope to the birch pole at a point approximately 15
inches above the top of that axe-formed taper.

I must admit that the appearance of this simple
tool wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. Still, I went
ahead and used a clove hitch to tie the free end of the
hemp about 1 foot in from the end of the log closest to
my home-site. I then stabbed the pointed end of the stick
into the ground and pulled back on the top. Much to my
surprise, this technique allowed me to propel that log over
a distance of 50 feet in a relatively short time without
damaging my back, arms, legs or morale. Inspired by that
success, I decided to improve on the technique by setting
up a runway of 4-foot-long log-end skids — held in place
by driven pegs — before getting back to work.

As that day progressed, I found myself thinking of the
stick-and-string contraption as a “galley slaver” because
of the rowing motion I used to inch the logs along the
railroad of skids. However, I didn’t feel I was
slaving. In fact, I found that I rather enjoyed the
experience of hauling my own logs for my own house at my own pace across my own land and
for my own reasons!

And that’s why, after two weeks without hearing anything
more from the logger, I decided to go for it: to try to
bring all of the logs to the site by using the
galley-slaver-and-skid technique. The first group of
timbers — those within 100 feet of the site — were
moved into place without incident. Once I began inching the
second group up the hillside, though, I quickly developed a
feel for the limitations of my low-tech tool. Smaller logs
didn’t present much of a problem; I was able to move them
along in slow, but relatively easy, 20-inch bites. But the
bigger timbers were another story altogether. Often I’d jam
the point of my lever into the ground, lean back with a
grunt of effort and then sit down very suddenly as the
point of the galley slaver tore itself through the earth
without moving the log an inch.

Still, the job wasn’t impossible. After learning to really
ram that stick down into the soil, I began to make
progress with even the most massive timbers. Within a week
of working three or four hours each afternoon, I’d
successfully inched the second group of logs up the
200-foot slope to my house site.

The final 33 trees were, of course, still down the hill and
another 100 yards back in the woods. I didn’t have enough
skid logs to run a railway that full distance, so I found
myself leapfrogging the rollers — moving those I’d
already passed over up ahead of the log being hauled. It
was (appropriately enough) almost Labor Day when I finished
the job, and, with the exception of one three-week
interruption, I’d been at the task for about four hours a
day, five or six days a week.

Altogether, the time I spent leapfrogging, rowing, inching,
pondering, coaxing and cajoling those logs to my homesite
was about 85 hours. Now, if the logger and his horse had
shown up, we could probably have gotten the whole job done
in two eight-hour days. Then, after completing my
two-for-one labor exchange with that gentleman, I’d have
had a total of 48 hours invested in the task: about
half as much time as I’d consumed doing the job by myself.

Based on that fact alone, you could say that my
galley-slaver logging system was a triumph of inefficiency.
And there were times when I certainly would have agreed
with that analysis — for instance, when the gnats were
thunderclouding around my eyes or when my lever tore a
trench in the earth and let a log slip backward a
few precious feet. But, more often than not, I’d find
myself thinking that efficiency must be like happiness,
which someone once said “cannot be achieved in less than a
complete lifetime.” That sage meant, I think, that
contentment isn’t the result of a few isolated events, but
is — instead — the interweaving of the rhythms and
events that make up a person’s entire life.

And that bit of philosophy let me see, during the times
when the job was proceeding in small but
satisfying increments, that my struggle with the galley
slaver might well have been very efficient in
teaching me lessons about perseverance, confidence,
ingenuity and self-reliance — lessons that I’ll be
able to profit from in the future whenever apprehension
threatens to overshadow personal satisfaction.