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Heating with scraps from a trophy house

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN YOU HEAT YOUR HOUSE with a woodstove, you tend to listen when someone asks if you want some free firewood. Usually it’s an offer for you to clean up this person’s yard of rotten cottonwood trunks, or limbs that look more like brush than cordwood.

A couple years ago a friend asked me to cut down some dead thorn-studded Russian olive trees in her backyard in exchange for the firewood. At the price of a day’s toil, a fair amount of my own blood and a perfectly good chainsaw blade, I went home with a truckload of firewood that smelled like a cross between cat urine and diesel exhaust when it burned, on the rare occasion that I could actually get the evil stuff to ignite.

Then again, sometimes you stumble upon some serious BTUs and a story that stacks up to more than just firewood. This year my friend Paul asked if I needed some firewood. Paul builds log cabins and said there was a lot of “waste” to be cleaned up from his current project at the Poncha Springs Industrial Park near Salida. He cleared it with his boss for me to clean up some of this scrap, so I met him at the job site at the end of one of his work days.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the magnitude of the project. Three boom trucks loomed over the colossal partially constructed lodge. The logs were mostly 24-inch or larger Englemann spruce. Paul directed me to one of the piles of scrapwood and helped me load my truck as he explained the mind-boggling details of the project.

The lodge will be 28,000 square feet when completed. That’s not a typo — there really should be three zeros after the first two digits. This megalog lodge will have no fewer than nine bathrooms on the upstairs level.

More than 20 houses with floor plans the size of my own house would fit inside this structure.

The huge trees were cut standing dead in Utah. The timber then traveled to Salida on about 40 semi-truck loads. When completed, the lodge will be dismantled, and the logs will be numbered, then loaded on roughly 25 semi-trucks and shipped to upstate New York.

That’s right. New York. In the end, the biggest trophy home that’s probably ever been constructed in Central Colorado won’t even reside here. The reason it’s being built here is to take advantage of a certain type of craftsmanship and building technique used by High Country Log Homes owned by Jeff Bevan.

With my very rudimentary math skills it’s quite clear that about 15 semi-loads of firewood, give or take a couple acres of sawdust, will be burned in Central Colorado as a byproduct of this project. But given that I drive a little half-ton Chevy pickup, there’s no way for me to make a dent in the scrap pile, despite Jeff’s generosity.

My poor little truck sunk under the load as we piled on a variety of scraps, ranging from huge 6-foot-long tree butts and regular fireplace lengths, to wedges and “turtles,” chunks of wood shaped like shelled amphibians cut from the logs in order to make notches. I lashed the big logs down with about 40 feet of heavy poly rope, and then Paul gave me a tour of the project.

Paul is accustomed to climbing around on the structure. He scales the walls with ease and jumps from the top of one wall to another like some sort of two-legged cat armed with a chainsaw. From the top of a wall, the lodge takes on a different perspective, like a giant labyrinth of Lincoln logs.

Then we climbed down inside one of the rooms and the perspective changed drastically. Now the logs were imposing and I felt like I had just stepped into the home of a giant.

The lodge is being assembled using what is known in log-home-building circles as “full scribe” technique. Basically, the bottom of each log is scribed using a chainsaw and handtools to fit over the contours of the log beneath it. For aesthetics, the end of each log is sharpened in the manner that someone would sharpen a giant pencil with a pocketknife.

GIVEN THE SIZE of these logs and the detail needed to make this technique work, the craftsmanship in this lodge is amazing. Chainsaws are hardly surgical-quality instruments, but these logs fit together so tightly that you can barely slide a credit card between most of them.

I made several trips up the river for firewood this fall, always meeting Paul at quitting time, loading the truck, grabbing some dinner at Il Vicino or La Frontera, and then wrestling my poor overburdened truck back down the canyon, and up the hill to the Wet Mountains, where these dead spruce carcasses would be cremated by my stove.

It takes me a little over an hour to drive to Salida, about 15 minutes for Paul and I to completely overload my truck, and about an hour and a half to drive it home. For comparison’s sake, I can’t drive up to the Forest Service firewood-cutting area just five miles up a four-wheel-drive road from my house, cut down trees, wrestle the logs into my truck and drive home in that time.

Once at my house, unloading the wood is problematical. I first throw out the smaller pieces. The chunks that will already fit into the stove go into one pile. Turtles go into another. Round logs that need only to be split go into yet another. Lastly, I roll off the longer logs that Paul helped me lift into the truck. Some of these weigh between 200 and 300 pounds and really get my attention when they start to roll.

One day, while contemplating a better way to split turtles — a difficult task because they won’t stand on end like a normal log — I sat down and decided to count the rings in one of the bigger logs. I’m better with words than numbers, and some of the rings were so close together that it made them difficult to accurately tally, but some of these trees were between 300 and 400 years old.

As I write this, the first real winter storm, late by more than a month, is bearing down, and my backside is feeling the radiant warmth of a fire fueled by leftovers from the log monstrosity being constructed in Salida. I won’t pretend to know why anyone would ever want to own a lodge of this scale, but I do know he won’t be heating it with a woodstove. As the scrap from this lodge crackles in my own stove, I am thankfully warmed not only by the coals, but also by one of life’s little ironies.

Writer Hal Walter burned wood in his stove at 8,800 feet in Colorado’s Wet Mountains at least one day of every month in 1999.