Maybe one of these years I will make it through the month of January and never find myself out cutting firewood. It should be pretty simple, after all. Theoretically. conceivably, ideally, yes yes I know. We use wood at the average rate of n armloads, or cubic feet, or sled loads, or cords per day, over x many days; therefore, going into late autumn we will require n times x of whatever the units are, and what could be so complicated about that? Huh? You there, squirming uncomfortably and looking up at the ceiling — I’m waiting, and I’ve been waiting for years. Okay then, try to make peace with this reality, and at the same time try not to take this need for some mid-winter top-ups to our various woodpiles as a reflection of larger personal shortcomings as a human being, a woodsman, or a husband.
Midwinter in the sub-arctic is not the best season for gathering wood. It is not the ideal season for the gathering of anything, in deep snow on short cold days. Better a time to gather one’s thoughts, on brief outings in the bracing air, then to scurry back inside, to resume a project in the workshop or at the desk. Or to perch in a comfortable chair by the fire and watch the flicker of flames, just gathering stored-up sunshine from past decades, burning logs that were sensibly felled, bucked, hauled, and stacked way back in May or October, by someone capable of sixth-grade algebra. Midwinter is the perfect season to relish the lines from My Fair Lady, and the sweet voice of Julie Andrews: “Lots of chocolate for me to eat, lots of coal makin’ lots of heat, warm face warm hands warm feet, oh wouldn’t it be loverly.”
Yes, it would be loverly. It is. We do that sometimes. Leaping a little too quickly to my own defense, let me clarify the situation here. The wood sheds are not empty. They are, uh, depleted, and that is not good because it is only late January. Three and a half months of firewood consumption, in five separate wood-burners, lie ahead.
The weather gurus at Environment Canada produce a map of northern North America every Thursday morning, depicting the temperature forecast for the coming four weeks. Being a weather nerd, I rarely miss a week of checking it. On this map the color blue denotes a greater than fifty-fifty chance of temperatures being “colder than normal.” On the latest one, for the month of February starting Monday, a giant blue blob covers all of Canada, like a glacier of the Ice Age, and spills far down over the northern half of the U.S. So I assure myself that by getting my butt out there and gathering more firewood at this season, I am not just paying the price for improvidence and poor planning. No, I am being proactive. Time to send Julie Andrews back inside and segue to Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger. . . Henry V – Act 3..
There are some comforts to this necessity, one being that after decades of doing it, I daresay I am the unrivalled local expert on mid-winter wood gathering. I have experience, after all, built up over 33 years of being such an improvident, short-sighted… no no no. Oh and the marital harmony aspect, never to be ignored, because just as in the old adage “No man has ever been shot while doing dishes,” likewise “No man has ever been shot while felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, or stacking firewood at thirty below zero.” Righto. Let’s leave the dishes for this evening and go find some firewood.
Choices, immediately. First off, transport. Will it be skidoo, or dogteam, or just wandering around out back on snowshoes to drop some standing dead trees alongside the trail for pickup later on? Second – and this might surprise most people – choice of cutting tool. Chainsaw, Swede saw, or the trusty old axe. Each has merits and disadvantages. Third, choice of sled – the favorite by far being the bobsled with twin bunks and cross-chains, built years ago by a Yukon high-school shop class on the pattern of a New Brunswick one-horse logging sled. But the bobsled needs a packed trail to haul a good load. Sometimes in a fresh cutting area the big plastic skimmer is better to start with, heaped up with stove rounds bucked right where the trees fall. And finally, should I wear snowshoes large or small, or just go wade through the snow in mukluks? Tradeoffs there, too.
Where to cut, where to deliver the wood (shop, house, barn, sauna, guest cabin); which then dictates the best sizes and lengths for bucking. And finally, what to cut? There are three options: spruce, birch, and tamarack. Standing-dead spruce, white and black, are all around us in every size from dainty to jumbo, and this is the wood we depend upon for everything from building to burning. Birch, killed by wildfire and standing bark-free now for over six years, is beautiful stuff, and burns more efficiently than spruce, by about a quarter or so. One problem with birch is that I wind up not wanting to cut some of the bigger pieces into stove-wood because they are too enticing a raw material for woodworking and furniture. Tamarack never grows very large here, but it is a dense wood that burns almost twice as hot as spruce, and it holds fires overnight in the stoves.
It all becomes one of those motion studies of time and efficiency, calories burned, gas consumed, engines and blades worn, versus BTU’s gained, and as with all studies (yawned over any of those lately?) “the results are somewhat surprising.” Surprising, because the knee-jerk choice in our motor-driven, gas-powered, speed-and-noise-and-fume-worshiping day and age would seem to be skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw. “Go big or go home.” “Git ‘er done.” “Time is money.”
But hold on. Say it’s 30 below. If you value your eyeballs, and your hearing, using the chainsaw at that temperature means either fogged-up safety glasses, which are not safe at all, with ear muffs or foam ear plugs, or the combo hard-hat earmuff face-screen that precludes wearing a warm hat and will, within minutes, result in a wire-mesh face-screen clogged with rime ice and frozen snot. The chainsaw is a heavy thing to tote around while snowshoeing, and its carburetion gets a little finicky below about 25 below. The chain has been known to discover boulders and bedrock lying hidden beneath the snow, instantly dulling the teeth and sending me back to the shop for a half hour of sharpening and filing. (Not unpleasant, but certainly not efficient.) The Swede saw or bow saw is light, almost weightless, and on trees up to about six inches thick at the stump it cuts very efficiently. A sharp axe is great in really deep cold, and is always the last resort anytime something else breaks down or fails. Just whacking away is so pleasant sometimes.
You get the idea. A lot depends on what mood I am in. Given a moment, I can make a case for almost any combo.
This afternoon feels like a snowshoe, bowsaw-and-axe, skidoo-and-bobsled, tamarack day. I will go cut in a thick stand of fire-killed tamarack up on the dogsled trail east of the river. Using the Swede saw will make for easier maneuvering in the thickets. I won’t need safety glasses (but please don’t tell the truly whacked-out safety gurus out there that I operate a handsaw with only my eyelids as safety gear.) I will get a good workout on snowshoes, and my hands will stay warm. There will be no noisy saw to fuel up and adjust, to tote and thaw and set down carefully out of the snow.
Best of all, it will be quiet. Just the huffing of my breath and the sound of saw teeth and axe swipes. Peaceful, until I start up the skidoo to tow the load home. I will wind up with a big load of a few dozen heavy three-to-six inch tamarack poles piled on the bunks of the bobsled. Some day soon I can buck the poles to stove lengths with the chainsaw, and stack the rounds in a “tamarack-only” pile on one side of the shed.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends. A good round of huffing and puffing, some sweat-soaked wool with a delicate patina of frost, and a load of golden-hearted tamarack. On the trail home I’ll be singing at the top of my lungs over the snarl of the Bravo’s valiant little 25-horse motor: “Oh so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still. I would never budge ’til Spring crept over the windowsill.”
(Ah, Julie, where’s the adventure in that?)