Perfect Windfall

Wednesday 2010 10 20

Cloudy, misty, water tank at 10 feet.

More than a year ago a winter wind pushed over a 60′ double trunked Douglas fir, the shorter, dead trunk jamming itself into a big, ill-formed alder, with the longer, living, trunk and crown nearly hitting the roof of well house #2, but distracted by a 20′ dead fir, 4′ to the east. The root ball, now half visible, stuck up about 6′ and was the source for a 24″ diameter trunk. The root ball held the lower trunk about 4 off the ground. The dead fir at the other end held the crown 15′ off the ground. Dead branches, spikes off the lower end also served to prop up the fallen tree.

Green for months, the wind-toppled fir eventually died and turned brown. Because its top was so close to the well house roof, held back by another, smaller dead tree, it appeared to be a danger to the well house. Because the tree floated, held up at one end by a dead tree, in the middle by branches, and at the bottom by the root ball, it looked like it might be a danger to anyone trying to cut it down and into pieces.

Our Water System Director and former sometime-arborist said he would take care of the tree but being busy he didn’t get to it. A danger to the well-house but a danger to anyone who tampered with it? What’s not to like? But without a way to transport the trunk sections home to be split for our wood stove, a half-mile distant, I couldn’t generate much enthusiasm to tackle the project. With our pickup on the island for a while and needing to set in a winter firewood supply, the double danger task was irresistible.

Setting out about 9:00 on a sunny October day in the low 50s, I parked at the intersection of Circle Road and Rocky Road (“road” probably too strong really, since both were single lane gravel tracks that off-season didn’t see any wheeled activity for weeks at a time) and walked to the nearby 8′ cube with a peaked roof and set my chainsaw, two-stroke gas can, and gallon of chain and bar oil on the remains of a gravel pile, one of several around the island that served as sources for filling pot holes, this one severely depleted because Jim J. had taken several John Deere tractor scoops from it in July to refresh a path at the Dave C’s, who would host the Crane Island Golden Anniversary party a few days later.

The question: could I cut the tree down without harming the well house or myself in the process. Yvonne had gone to Orcas for meetings and wouldn’t be back until afternoon. As far as I knew only Tom T., down Rocky Road, and Lou F., all the way on the other side of the island, were around and neither had any particular reason to move off their properties that day. What if something fell on me and I got trapped under the trunk or a branch? What if I was careless with the chain saw and severely injured myself. I didn’t have a cell phone. No one would come until too late. But I did have my Nikon camera on my belt, since I was intending to document the project. I could use the video recording feature to tell my sad story before my demise. Yvonne or someone would eventually find the video on the camera where I tell what happened and that I love everyone. Enough! Time to get to work.

I first cut through the trunk about 20 feet from the root ball, where the trunk was about 5′ above the ground, surmising that the upper part of the tree would drop and the lower hold in place. I could then cut sections in the lower part and see what to do about the upper. Since there was a chance the cut might bind the saw between the two sections before they fell apart, I first cut a few inches from below and then cut a triangular slice from above, leaving plenty of space for the trunk to buckle into as the top portion of the tree fell away from the bottom. That worked just right.

I cut 16″ (or so) sections down toward the root ball, first trimming any branches. About 8′ from the bottom, at an 18″ diameter, I quit cutting and left the horizontal stump. With the diameter exceeding the saw bar length and sections becoming increasingly heavy, it seemed prudent to curtail my greed for more. The summer before, transporting a big fir in sections from Chris T’s house on Orcas – by truck, dock cart, boat, and then dock cart to my splitting area, I’d injured my back on the second to last and that put me out of commission for a few weeks. And I didn’t want to have the problems my son Noah was having with his back, when a random twist brought him to his knees in pain and made it impossible for him to do anything but lie down or stand for weeks – until, discouraged with a pain-killer regimen, he tried an inversion board – and that did the trick.

Going back to the upper portion of the tree, I cut it about 10′ long, where it was now about 5′ off the ground. I trimmed branches and sliced that part of the trunk. I did the same thing two more times – on each occasion the higher part of the trunk dropped lower so I could work on it. After pulling the crown out of the dead tree holding it, I dragged the crown and branches away from the well house to an open area under a mature grove of cedars and firs.

Well house safe, truck sections ready to load
Well house safe, truck sections ready to load

What a contrast! I’d been working in thick salal, sea spray, and small, crowded firs and among big branches that had broken and were hanging down from the busted big alder than now dominated the area. But 20′ away, there was no understory, just a needle-covered clearing and a few rotting trunks amid big trees that captured the sunlight before it could support new life below. The old growth forest looked elegant with its life all above. The new growth forest, along the road and where the soil had been disturbed to dig the well and build the well house, was teaming with life in chaotic profusion. A towhee bounced along the trunk sections I’d cut looking for something good to eat. I’d seen spiders and beetles as I worked. The climax forest wouldn’t support much life – not birds or deer or even many insects. Only the messy border of new growth would.

Getting the sections into the truck bed was a bit of a struggle since carrying them out of the tangle where they lay threatened to trip me, the branches hanging down from the alder wanted to poke me in the eye, and some of the sections weighed 60 or 70 lbs – (lift with your legs I said to myself). Back home I tossed the new, excellent quality Douglas fir sections on top of the pile of questionable slices I’d cut and brought home the day before from a pile a rotting trunks near well house #1. Quite a pile – certainly more than a cord once split (8′ x 4′ x 4′) to add to the two cords already stacked and covered. We’ll be warm enough this winter and I won’t have to go hunting for wood until next summer.

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