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Fuel for the Fire

Column by Hal Walter

Rural Life – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

People who heat their homes with woodstoves have different perspectives on things. For instance, I take a certain amount of comfort in the tops of juniper fence posts. I’ve also eyed my wife’s oak rocking chair, a gift from her sister, with ill intent. I have often wanted to burn this torture rack, usually after stubbing my toes on its runners. Hardwoods, after all, make coals that glow for a good, long time.

Such fantasies fall through the grate when you’re faced with an early cold snap. This is no time to be banished outdoors for iniquities against furniture. Better you should just go out in the hills and cut some cordwood. Preferably before you have to take an ax to the ice in the toilet.

I loaded my chainsaw and gas can in the back of my pickup one foggy afternoon and headed over to my in-laws’ property in the Wet Mountains. An upslope storm was icing over the road and spitting snow. More than once I considered turning back, since it looked like a real bad day to cut wood.

Although I live less than four miles from a public wood-cutting area, I had chosen to drive 30 miles to run my chainsaw.

It’s not the $30 price of the two-cord permit that repulses, rather the 70-mile round-trip drive to the ranger’s office in CaƱon City. Of course, they’d be glad to mail me a permit if I send them $30. But by that time I may have already burned the rocker.

Wood is a strange commodity. If you figure your time at minimum wage, gasoline, two-cycle and chain oil, the purchase price and maintenance of a chainsaw, and transportation to and from the woodlot, you’d be better off buying the wood and having it split, delivered and stacked for $120 a cord.

But he who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.

As I neared my destination, the fog was getting thicker and it was starting to snow harder. The flakes were big and wet. I opened the gate and drove to the end of the little drive. After surveying the available wood, I decided to start with a giant windfall aspen that looked to be suitably cured, but was actually somewhat green.

Chainsaws are noisy, treacherous machines, and I fear them. When I was about five, my birth father put a pistol in my right hand and I nearly blew off my left hand with it. My stepfather, the infinitely wiser man who raised me, waited until I was 24 before passing on his old Poulan.

When you mix the two-cycle oil with the gasoline, the mixture turns blue, the same color as the smoke you breathe while operating one of those contraptions.

One autumn I worked at a cross-country ski ranch where my job was to widen trails from 12 feet to 16 feet through the timber for the owner’s new snow cat. I felled more trees that fall than most people will in a lifetime. That’s where I learned to detest chainsaws, even the fine Stihl brand machines we were using.

But for all their racket and smoke, the little demons are a damn sight quicker than cutting wood with, say, a two-man cross-cut saw — something that wouldn’t work too well anyway, considering this firewood mission was a solo affair.

The aspen was huge, and though it was not quite as well cured as I thought, I knew it would burn if I could just get it home. The saw screamed, sputtered and smoked, and chunks of creamy wood rolled off into an inch of new snow.

As it started to snow harder, the moisture steaming off the hot bar gave the appearance that perhaps the blade — if it could just get enough oxygen — might burst into flames.

When chainsaws begin to run out of fuel, it is characteristic of them to rev and actually run like you want them to. It’s like the little two-stroke engine suddenly kicks into turbodrive. Then it clanks to a halt, leaving you standing there listening to the ringing in your ears.

If it’s snowing, the ringing may be interrupted by snowflakes hissing as they melt on the little exhaust manifold.

But this time I heard something else through the ringing and hissing — the musical rise and fall of a bull elk’s bugle. Then the guttural grunting that often follows, as if the elk had a sinus passage full of two-cycle exhaust and sawdust.

I decided to put the saw down to work on loading wood on my truck. That way I could listen to the elk.

Besides, I needed to go back for the can of blue liquid anyway.

The elk bugled several more times — not far upslope from me — while I worked. Over and over, the notes pierced the fog like the call of some shrill banshee.

Then it was time to refuel and restart. I finished cutting the aspen and went on to another dead windfall. This one chunked up much easier than the first. I dropped another small dead-standing aspen. Then came the rev, and once again the saw was out of fuel.

The bull elk answered almost immediately, and I listened to his concert once again as I loaded the latest round of firewood.

One more tank of blue fuel and three more small aspens, all standing dead.

This time when the saw ran out of fuel I was ready to call it quits. It was getting late. But it had stopped snowing, and I thought I’d take a look around to recon my next wood mission. Also still ringing in my mind was that bugling elk, which I didn’t want to scare off, but certainly wanted to see.

The next bugle call left no doubt in my mind that the bull was very near. I playfully whistled a pitiful bugle rendition, but there was no answer. Then I heard a loud crash in the woods just upslope. I stooped low and slipped into a little gully, then crept up the hill on the other side.

When I looked up, I was staring at two cow elk. They were just grazing, so I slipped uphill a little farther where I could hide behind a rock and have a better view of things.

The little aspen glade before me began to fill with cow elk and some calves. Even through the fog, I could see them chewing. I could hear their breath and see the steam from their snouts.

There may have been as many as 15.

I had no idea why they couldn’t smell me; I certainly could — since my clothes were permeated by chainsaw exhaust. Occasionally my nose caught the musky smell of elk over the greasy stench of two-cycle combustion that seemed to cloak me.

I saw antlers poking through the fog before I saw the bull’s massive body, as he strutted past the cows and over to my right.

Though I could barely make out his visage through the falling snow and white aspen trunks, I sat motionless for a long time. Finally, I saw one of the cows raise her nose and sniff at the fog. Then two other cows raised their noses and sniffed. And I knew they must have winded me.

But to my astonishment, they merely dropped their heads and resumed eating. Then the bull turned around and retraced his steps back into the heavier timber behind the cows.

From the safety of this cover he let out a little, tired bugle. Not long thereafter he walked right out amidst the cows again.

The bull’s attention span was short. He would graze a little, then move back to the left. Occasionally he would chase one of the cows for a short distance. Even when he was close, the fog made it difficult to count the number of points on his antlers. (But I believe he had five points on each side, although it’s possible that his right antler only had four).

It was getting darker and I needed to get on the road. Needed to get home and burn some of the wood I had just cut. Needed to get out of my cold, smelly clothing. I slowly ducked behind the rock and slipped down the gully.

When I rose up on the other side I couldn’t resist looking back to see if I had spooked the elk. Two of the cows were standing alertly in the aspens, watching me walk away.

Colorado Central columnist Hal Walter hacks out a living as a free-lance writer when he’s not cutting firewood near his home in the Wet Mountains.