“Will that be to go?” the girl at the fast food counter asked hopefully. “Naw, I’ll eat it here,” I replied. I was hot and sweaty and ready to sit down in the air conditioning for a few minutes. She just sighed and took my money. Driving “Scotty”, my ’87 Chevy Scottsdale flatbed is often an adventure in itself. Without the usual amenities found in its more contemporary counterparts—such as air conditioning, working radio, or automatic transmission—Scotty is a no-nonsense 4x4, more suited to the trails out in the woods than to highways. He seems to get 15 mpg, no matter how I drive, or what I’m pulling. Still, when it comes time to haul hay or logs down the road or move the sawmill to a customer’s location, he is a reliable, hard pulling truck.
The 16’ gooseneck trailer behind Scotty carried my recent acquisition—a 10’ long, 44” diameter black oak log which had blown down during the Joplin, MO tornado last year. While Joplin has been largely cleaned up, the rebuilding continues, and I still get occasional calls to pick up logs from the disaster. Sometimes, the homeowner wants to keep the lumber to build furniture from the wood—something from life before the storm, when everything else had been lost. The owner of this log, however, just wanted it removed. It is surprising how differently people react to a situation. By my calculations, the log alone weighed about twice as much as the old truck. The extra margin of safety provided by electric trailer brakes was reassuring, but grinding up hills in second gear was no picnic for me or for the growing stream of cars backed up behind me. As I pulled over to let them pass, I mentally apologized for delaying them. By the time I got to the fast food place at a truck stop on the way home, I was more than ready to sit in one place with some ice tea and cool off for a bit.
Back home, Scotty seemed to give a sigh of relief when I rolled the log off the trailer. I felt like I should give him a bucket of water and a cool-down walk after the extraordinary effort. I’m not given to thinking of machines as living, breathing creatures, but sometimes it seems like they know when to push a little harder to get a job done.
Pushing equipment and yourself to the limits can be a good thing, and help you learn where those limits are. Out in the woods and on the sawmill, I am constantly testing my limits and those of the equipment, and learning ways to extend those limits to get the job done. How much side lean can a tree have, for example, and still fall in the desired direction? Last week, I was asked to cut down a tree with a slight lean toward a new house. The only place to fell it was a small opening uncomfortably near the house. My best guess was that there was a 97% chance that I could do the job safely. Not good enough, so I left the task to someone with more experience. If I hadn’t tested the limits out in the woods, I might have been foolish enough to attempt it near the house. Testing the limits where others’ property or personal safety is at risk is something I just don’t do.
I love picking up new skills that extend my limits. Years ago, I took a professional logging class where I learned a technique called “directional felling”. It changed the way I cut trees and not only vastly extended my limits, but gave me the confidence that I was cutting the tree in the safest way possible. It is more than just putting trees on the ground, though that is considered the most hazardous part of the job. Spring poles—saplings that are bent by the tree when it falls straighten with incredible speed and enough force to break a leg if you don’t cut them in the right place. After taking the training (and refresher courses every year), I seldom get a saw blade pinched in a log, and can quickly free it when I do. Safety gear, saw maintenance (including chain sharpening), first aid, and working around other loggers are all covered as well.
The directional felling courses also include precision felling. A tree dropped in precisely the desired location does minimal damage to the trees around it, and is less likely to get hung up, though that still happens from time to time. There are some YouTube videos on directional felling and, while they give a good idea of the method, they are no substitute for having a trained professional explain, demonstrate, then critique your technique. It is intimidating, at first, to take the training in the company of experienced loggers, but everyone is in the same situation, and novices often learn more quickly, because they have fewer bad habits. After I quit trying to impress anyone, and focused on learning, I realized that the loggers respected me for my willingness to learn, and shared their experiences (including mistakes). There are also special courses for landowners.
As a side benefit, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate the loggers and their attitudes toward the woods. Some are respectful, and others just want to whack down every tree. If I hold a timber sale, I will have a better idea of which loggers share my values. If you would like to give it a try check www.gameoflogging.com. The web site lists dates and locations of the courses. Every year, each state holds a competition where loggers can demonstrate their skills in a number of chain saw events. For me, competing has been humbling, if not downright humiliating, though I did win a chain saw a few years ago.
Hopefully, when I make my next blog, I’ll be able to post some photos of the cutting of the big oak log. Until then, please be careful out there.