Oct 15, 2009

Adventures in Woodcutting

Back in the early days of our life together, the Manly Man and I cut our own firewood in the national forest west of town. It was part of every summer's round of activities -- a few extra days in the forest among many others: firefighting, backpacking, even a spot of fishing now and then. Our sole motor vehicle was a 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser that we bought partly with wedding present money in 1971, and it was handy for getting us into the innermost parts of the forest on dirt logging roads. At first we packed the firewood (not much, obviously) into the back of the car. We later went through a series of small utility trailers, starting with the one made from the bed of an old pickup truck -- yikes, talk about unsafe. We paid maybe $35 for this piece of junk, and it was far too expensive at that price.

We had many fine adventures cutting and hauling wood on Our Public Lands. There was the time a good-sized lodgepole pine tree fell within mere inches of the car. Oops. There was the time we got busted for cutting in the wrong place -- an honest mistake, but still embarrassing, considering the MM was working for the Forest Service at the time. There was the time we loaned the aforementioned trailer to a friend who, after a long day of woodcutting, showed up at our door pale and shaking, and sans trailer, having abandoned it and his load of wood beside the road when the tires started smoking on the downhill run back into town.

Apparently the guy who had had the bright idea of creating a trailer from the bed of an old pickup truck had used the FRONT axle of the truck for this project, which was just slightly shorter than the rear axle. This seemed like an unimportant detail to him at the time, and we weren't aware of it at all until the weight of our friend's giant load caused the tires to begin rubbing against the inside of the wheel wells, creating a cloud of smoke, and scaring the hell out of him. He found someone else to help him unload his wood from the trailer, and when we went back up to retrieve it, it was sitting empty and innocent, with only a faint scent of burned rubber marring the pristine mountain air.

Back at home, the manly man 'fixed' it, by putting in some washers as spacers. Well, it seemed to work for a while. But then one day we used it to take a load of household trash to the landfill (this was in the early days of city living, before it occurred to us to pay for weekly curbside garbage pickup), where, in a moment of cosmic synchronicity unequaled before or since, the axle broke, for good and all, just as we pulled up at the dumpsite. It was too good to pass up. We quietly unhitched the trailer, got back into the car, and drove off without it, grinning as we saw the amazed (outraged?) dump employee waving his arms at us in the rear view mirror as we made our escape. bwaaha haaaaa...... This is the closest I ever want to come to having to make an actual getaway from a crime scene.

The ritual of woodcutting began out of desperate necessity, the first year we were married. We were your classic impoverished college students, attending Humboldt State University on the north coast of California. Land of fog, redwood trees and banana slugs. This was the year of family legend, when we spent our first 8 months of proud home ownership shivering through the coldest winter on record with no electricity and no heat other than a tiny wood-burning stove in the living room. After purchasing 17 acres of cut-over redwood forest late in the summer, we could afford only the cheapest temporary dwelling, with plans to build a house the following year. Our new home was a ten-year-old, 50' by 10' pink (yes, pink), all-electric 'mobile home' (1970's euphemism for 'house trailer'), a great bargain -- we thought. The 'all-electric' part, which was at the time advertised as quite a spiffy feature, was as it turned out, not the best choice for that particular year.

By the time we got a dirt road carved out of the logging slash and temperate rainforest regrowth that covered our land, halfway up the hill to the only flat spot on the place, rainy season was approaching. Under cloudy skies, and in haste, we hauled the trailer up the hill with the same small rented bulldozer we had used to blade out the road, and set it up on cinder blocks. And then, before we could get the road graveled, the rains began. Rain in that part of the world means business, and simply put, that was the end of driving up that road for the next 8 months. Our newly graded 'road' became a soupy, slippery gumbo of Humboldt County clay that was impossible to ascend in anything heavier than a pair of agile human feet shoved into knee-high rubber boots.

And without a graveled road, not only could we not drive up to our house, even in our 4WD vehicle, but neither could the power company, the water department, or any other public utility vehicle. So there we were, perched a quarter of a mile above the nearest paved road, in an all-electric home -- with not a ghost of a chance of getting actual electricity until spring. No lights, no cookstove, no oven, no hot water (or cold either) ..... and the only way to and from our front door from the road a quarter mile below was on foot.

Being young, poor and without alternative housing options, we fairly cheerfully just settled in for a winter of indoor camping. We outfitted our first home with a 2-burner propane Coleman camping stove, which sat on top of our otherwise useless electric built-in stove. We bought a couple of a propane cylinder-fueled camping lanterns, and read and studied by their light during the dark winter nights. We also tracked down a small 'kitchen trashburner'-type wood cookstove and installed it in the living room for much-needed heat.

Good thing we did, too, since that winter turned out to be the coldest winter on record for the north coast. Normally winters there are wet but mild, ie nearly frostless. But that year we had actual snow (on the beach!), and the ground froze solid for a week. This was good in that, during that week we could drive up our miraculously solid mud road, transporting our groceries, water, laundry, etc. up the hill in the car instead of on our backs. This was bad in that, during that week we froze our butts off in our house. With no fan, the heat from the little woodburner rose up to the low ceiling of the living room and stayed there. A couple of times we measured temperatures well over 90 degrees F -- but it stayed there. Down at floor level the air was so frigid our breath made clouds. Our wood, cut hurriedly when it became clear we needed a heat source, consisted of green alder from our land. It burned badly but it was all we had.

In retrospect, we were probably lucky we didn't burn the place down. And the weather soon warmed up to its more normal lows of 40's and 50's. By May we had --- ta da: electricity! telephone! running water! And a year later we had moved north to Bend, and began the annual summer woodcutting expeditions in the dry, piney woods. These lasted until we sold our big car and removed the woodburning stove from the living room.

About 10 years ago, we decided we wanted some back-up heat for winter. It's a good feeling in a place with reliably cold winters, to have a source of heat independent of the municipal power grid. But with only our single small city car, the woodcutting expeditions of the past are no more. Our friend Andy, a local arborist, now brings us wood each summer, and it looks something like this........


  1. Kathy - What an adventure! You wouldn't trade that first year's hardship for anything now. Not too dissimilar to MSW's first year at Perelandra?!
    Here's to the conveniences of modern living.

  2. I am sure I would treat the need to live like that now with extreme crankiness, but at the time it was no big deal. I think a sense of humor definitely helped. One night in the middle of winter, someone knocked on our door. This was amazing in itself, since the guy -- a total stranger -- had had to walk up the muddy hill in the dark, with no idea how far he had to go, or what he would find when he got there.

    What I didn't say in the original post was that we co-owned the 17 acres with a friend, whose even crummier trailer was situated a few hundred yards away from ours. This friend was a doctor who worked at a free medical clinic in town, and since she was not all that happy about our joint 'forced camping' lifestyle, she stayed in town with friends most of the time.

    The poor guy at our door was looking for her, as his wife was in labor and he needed the doc to come ASAP. Alas, we had to disappoint him (we did NOT volunteer to deliver his wife's baby instead) and he slithered back down the hill in a hurry.

    The only other people who showed up at our door that winter were a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses. Although we declined to talk to them, as usual, we had to admire their dedication, to make it up the hill, based on a pair of battered mailboxes down on the road.

  3. Oh, I am laughing like a fool right now....
    The most company I have EVER had at Spirit Creek Farm at one time were three different sets of JW's who ALL made it to my house one Saturday morning at the same time! Duke, my OWN DOG, actually got in one of their vans. I guess he was ready to serve the lord. Ya gotta hand it to them - what they believe they try hard to live.

    Thanks for sharing that wonderful first year.