As fall finally hits Wyoming, most outdoorsy folks are focused on hunting. I know I sure am.
But there’s that other fine fall activity that I, along with many others in the Cowboy State, enjoy.
Thanks to beetle kill, blowdown and other forces of nature, there’s more than enough dead timber just about everywhere in our state’s mountains.
And back in the trees alongside hunters’ camps you can hear the sweet sounds of chainsaws in the woods.
My Old Man was born in 1936, which in many ways from his perspective was probably about a century too late.
He loathed the thought of paying some big company to keep our house warm during the winter, and he wanted us to learn the value of getting outside and doing honest, hard physical work.
So, we heated our homes almost exclusively with wood.
I grew up helping my three big sisters heave the rounds of dead timber that he cut into the back of our pickup. And when I got a little bigger, I learned the ways of the axe and the splitting maul. And in the case of extremely stubborn chunks, the good old sledge-and-wedge method of reducing dry timber down to wood stove size.
And when I got a little older still, I got taught how to use a chainsaw. Dad had one of those classic blue Homelite saws with that distinctive engine crackle, a manual bar oil pump and a whopping 16-inch bar.
Flash forward to me wrapping up a day of cutting with my fully modern, fuel-injected Sthil 500i with damn near 80ccs of engine screaming behind a 28-inch bar, and I stand in awe of just how much timber Dad cut every year with that damned old Homelite.
I honestly don’t know how he did it.
The Little Saw That Wouldn’t Die
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I don’t know what ever became of that old Homelite. And after I left home and got involved in my own adulthood, complete with a family, building a career and devoting most of my autumns to hunting, it was a considerably long while before I got back behind a chainsaw.
Nearly every place I lived in was heated with gas, electric or some other modern marvel. And though it was always in the back of my mind how much I missed the abiding warmth of wood heat, I was always too busy to dwell on it.
Then several years ago my wife Kendy and I moved to Laramie with the two kids we still had left at home. I was beside myself with joy when we found a house that had a wood stove.
In no time flat, I was down at Walmart spending all of about $120 on a Poulan power saw with a 30-something cc engine and 16-inch bar. But hey, at least it had cool newer-saw features, like a chain brake and automatic oiler.
And soon after that, I was up in the Snowy Range Mountains knocking the rust off my sawing skills, trying to remember what I’d been taught by my Old Man, who had passed away a few years prior.
And over the next several years, I, along with my nephew and brother-in-law, did everything possible to kill that cheap little Poulan — mostly by grossly overworking it in timber that was way too big for it. By rights, it should have died a thousand times over.
But it refused to succumb to our abuse. My nephew still has it, and it still runs. I’ve upgraded to bigger, fancier saws from Stihl and Echo.
It’s Fun, But Never Easy
I’m sometimes stupid enough to try cutting during the height of summer. Anytime later than about 10 a.m., it’s just a bad idea. I try to err on the side of safety. And a timber helmet, saw chaps, heavy work pants and shirt, and heavy logging boots just don’t lend themselves to working in hot weather.
But with late summer and fall come cooler temperatures, and it’s time to hit it hard.
Along with my saws, I’ve upgraded my other equipment and methods over the years. Trailers fashioned from old pickup beds are superb for hauling firewood. That leaves the bed of my pickup free for hauling my gear, fuel cans and tools. And using a wheelbarrow to get cut timber back to the rig sure beats lugging it out by hand.
Like just about anybody else who ventures out after firewood, I like dropping trees. It’s fun and exciting. But you’ve got to know what you’re doing and pay attention, because it can also be as dangerous as hell.
A poorly executed cut can cause a trunk to split up the middle and threaten to slam into you before the tree even starts to fall. The vibrations of the saw though a dead tree can cause limbs or even the entire top of the tree to snap off, so you’d better keep looking up.
And despite your best-laid plans, a tree can still end up falling in a direction you didn’t anticipate – so you’d best have good escape routes planned and cleared of any potential trip hazards ahead of time.
All that said, there’s nothing like watching, and hearing, a big old tree come crashing down.
I Hate Slash
Of course, regardless of whether you drop a tree or you’re cutting one that’s already down, you’ve got to cut the limbs off.
And that creates what woodcutters call slash.
And I hate slash. Utterly and completely hate it.
When I was going through the arduous process of clearing it away from a tree trunk this summer a thought stuck me, and I actually yelled it out loud to myself. Well, to myself and also to a couple of marmots that had come nearby to watch. They were likely amused by my stupid human tricks.
“I swear, this shit is just about equal parts super glue and cat claws!”
Slash seems to stick to and snag on absolutely everything, including itself. You go to throw one piece, and five more want to come along, slapping you in various unseemly places.
And tiny branches coming off branches can snag your fingers in mid-throw and completely change the trajectory.
That’s what happed a couple of seasons ago when I ended up damn near drilling our youngest, Ebony, right in her face with a branch that I had intended to go in basically the opposite direction.
“Hey!” she yelled at me with a withering teenage glare.
“I’m sorry, Princess, I didn’t mean to do that. I really didn’t!”
“Pay attention!” she huffed as she stomped off.
Sagging Springs And Good Memories
Despite amused marmots, angry daughters, dulled saw chains or any other mishaps, it’s always good to stack those last few rounds in a trailer and look back on a few quality hours spent in Wyoming’s high country.
I contemplate the sagging springs on my trailer, and once again feel grateful that I spent the extra money outfitting it with heavy-duty tires.
Then it’s back down the mountain, keeping it to a reasonable speed so I don’t have to use the brakes on my old Ram pickup more than I absolutely need to. Once we hit the flat country, it’s pretty much a straight shot home.
Along the way across the flat country, I might spot a few pronghorn hunters coming back out of the fields.
And I’m reminded that I’ve still got some hunting of my own to get done.
Cutting firewood or chasing big game. Which is the better fall activity? Don’t ask me to choose. That’s impossible to determine, as far as I’m concerned.
And in the depths of winter, with fresh game steaks on the table and a fire crackling in the stove …
Does it get any better, any more Wyoming, than that?
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.