July 1990: I’m in the passenger seat of a 69 Dodge truck, barreling down a road in Northern Idaho as I have missed both the Canadian border crossing and the gas station that was supposed to be there. Between my knees is an empty five gallon gas can, and behind the wheel is a large man with one of the most impressive beards I have ever seen. Making small talk, I ask what he does for a living.
“I’m a lumberjack.” he says. “I don’t know if that’s too good a thing to be, anymore.”
To me, this seemed a really odd thing to say and I asked him why. He slowed the truck and pulled to the side of the steep mountain road. Just as I was thinking I had crossed some kind of line and was about to see my life flash before my eyes, he says, “Look.” With both hands he parts the whiskers of his magnificent beard revealing a scar more than an inch wide crossing his mouth, his face and around his neck to the back of his head. I could scarcely contain my horror and although, in retrospect the answer seems obvious, I had to ask what happened.
“Chainsaw link snapped. Chain wrapped around my head, cut my jugular. My buddy drove me 47 miles to the nearest hospital, off road most of the way, with his fingers clamping off the blood flow on this side of my neck. Saved my life. Before you quit that college you’re in, give this a thought.” Twenty years later, every time I start my chainsaw, I think about that Idaho lumberjack who gave me a lift, and I suit up in my chaps, goggles, and helmet with a wire face screen.
I think just about every outdoorsman or anybody who owns an acre of wooded land owns a chainsaw. It has become a practical necessity in many ways of life. But the chainsaw is inherently dangerous, and although I’m sure somebody, somewhere offers a beginner’s safety course for them, I’ve never seen one.
I don’t want to paint the chainsaw as a menace, it’s not. But just like any other machine it has to be handled with care, and there are some jobs where no other tool will do. I’ve read historical accounts of an ox path being cleared through the great Ohio forest all the way to Medina, in 1804 by one man. I can’t imagine this, because it must have been done almost entirely with axes. I don’t think a man exists today with the callouses, stamina, and cardio strength to perform such a task.
When I first moved to the country I decided I we could heat our new home by burning wood in our circulating fireplace. This worked very well the first winter, and I quickly became a master at sharpening chains, a task which I had left to the hardware store before. I learned a lot about how a tree falls and how to cut a felled tree so it won’t snap back on you. The next winter I found things a little more difficult. I was spending more time getting to the wood I could harvest and it was costing me gas for my truck to haul it back. Wear and tear on my equipment and my body was factored in, and the pioneer method I had fancied a year before didn’t seem so great. It’s hard to put a price tag on a healthy back.
I do a fair amount of conservation work too, probably two weeks a year all together. Some of you may be asking how a chainsaw can possibly aid in conservation; doesn’t conservation mean saving trees? Well, not all seeds fall in the perfect spot for trees to grow and there are plenty of times you need to cut one down to save another, to preserve a waterway, or maintain access to an area where people are working. More than any other tool, the chainsaw preserves access to remote areas.
In May of the next year, my neighbors’ dairy was struck by a tornado. Power lines were down everywhere, and cattle were stuck under the wreckage of the barn’s huge beams and timbers. It wasn’t just a matter of sympathy for the animals; it was my neighbor’s business, his livelihood that was at stake. As I stood in the sawdust and the splinters with dozens of other neighbors and volunteer firemen, a quiet cheer went up as we watched muddy heifers hobble out of the barn’s wreckage where we’d cut, and I thought for a second, “What if it hadn’t been cattle, but kids?” Today I keep two chainsaws in working order at my little ranch.