By Nikki Mentges
Mom and I line the tailgate with chainsaws while Dad and Cody lug gas jugs and hydraulic oil from the pickup over to the logging equipment. We’ve only got two machines, in addition to our saws—a feller-buncher and a grapple skidder. It marks us as a “Mom and Pop” crew in the logging industry. We don’t have fancy $500,000 boom de-limbers, Ponsse harvesters, or forwarders, but we also don’t have night shifts and machinery worn to pieces by the time it’s paid off. I like our way better.
The Norway pine thinning we’re in feels crowded, with scattered blow down clogging the narrow aisles. Trees press in close, blocking most of the natural light. Not close enough to necessitate felling by hand, though: Dad can squeeze the buncher in, despite the fact that foresters give us less right-of-way for our smaller machinery. Bright yellow forestry paint dots the trees meant to be harvested, and both paint and ribbons delineate the sale boundaries in red, orange, and blue—Starburst wrapper colors.
If it were colder, we’d be out in the tamarack and spruce swamps, pressing down ice to let water swell up and freeze into a clearer, stronger layer. It’s hard to feel comfortable driving nine tons of steel and rubber over unflooded ice to reach an island. Drop any of these machines in a swamp, and you’ll be dumping your entire month’s wages into hiring a crane. We’ve never had to—tow chains and a second machine come in handy if you get into trouble—but it’s still a nauseating prospect. Right now, I’m just glad to be working on flat, dry, uniform terrain. You could argue it’s not as interesting, but it sure is easier on the legs and nerves.
After gassing up our saws, Mom and I stuff our earplugs in, tug headbands on as armor against the cold morning air, and top them with our hard hats. Next we hop and squirm into our chainsaw pants. Both sets are forest green Kevlar, bearing the scarred evidence of their true worth. They’re like heavy, bulky snow pants. Not quite hip-waders-full-of-sand, but still miserable.
The steel-toed boots aren’t exactly a joy, either. They’re as much risk as safety because if that spinning chain hits the steel and slides back instead of glancing off, you lose all your toes instead of a couple tips. (We drove my oldest brother, Mike, to the emergency room for that once. We wrapped his foot in a towel for the half hour drive. His little toenail never grew back, but on the bright side, he didn’t get the floor mats bloody.)
All decked-out for work now, we heft our saws and approach yesterday’s trees, felled and dragged to the landing at dusk. Mom steps up to one, pull-starts the saw, and swipes through a tree limb in one quick, downward motion. It spouts sawdust like blood from a cut jugular. A rich, spicy scent permeates the air. Those little tree-shaped air fresheners have a lot to live up to.
We fall into a rhythm: saw, lift, step; saw, lift, step. Mom and I stay on the landing all morning, methodically de-limbing trees, refueling occasionally to keep engines from sputtering and dying halfway through a cut. Stray pine needles litter the ground, and they crunch underfoot. I can hear the skidder and buncher grumbling in the trees, the jangle of chains and tracks as they maneuver through the aisles. Each stroke of the saw is guided by muscle memory, giving my mind freedom to stray outside the woods. It meanders from leftover chocolate birthday cake, to a looped rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” to that dead headlight on my car.
Cody rolls up with a couple trees clutched in the skidder’s grapple and drops them off for us. He’s careful not to mark up the standing timber as he drives away, since we get smacked with fines for that. He also deftly navigates the splintered limbs (snipes, we call them) that carpet the landing.
I make the mistake of resting my bare hand on the rough bark of my chair-log, and when I raise it, a tacky glob of sap is smeared on my palm.
Thank God—the thought of prying a flat tire off one of the head-high skidder rims does not appeal to me. The skidder we use is a ’74 Treefarmer C6D. When it’s running, I can sometimes smell the heavy diesel stench of its exhaust. Its greenish-yellow paint is sun-faded, and underneath the huge chains used for traction, chunks of rubber have been gouged from all four tires. Stumps, tree limbs, rocks, and decades of steady use are to blame.
By the time we break for lunch, the dirt around us is scarred with tire-and-boot treads. Wood chips pepper the ground like blond glitter. Sweat bleeds from our pores despite the November chill. We’ve put up almost half a load of wood, and it’s looking like we’ll have the remainder of the merchantable timber cut by sundown.
Cody and Dad are waiting by the truck, stripping out of their gloves and hard hats, when Mom and I heave our saws onto the tailgate again. The two men are eerily similar: red and black plaid shirts, suspenders, scruffy beards, grease-stained jeans, and hunter-orange vests they’ve wrestled on over their flannel coats. Dad’s got a head start on the gray in his beard, though—my brother’s only twenty-one. They’re both fishing foam earplugs out from beneath the shaggy tips of their hair when I approach, prompting me to remove my own.
We dig the cooler and thermos out of the back seat and sit on a log pile to eat lunch. I lean back against a tree higher in the stack, treating my perch like a reclining lawn chair. Cody and Mom do the same on my left. Dad nurses a mug of steaming coffee on my right. Sweat has caked dirt, grease, and sawdust in the creases of their necks, leaving long, dark lines that could be streets on a map.
I chug half of my water bottle. It cuts a cold, trickling path through my insides from throat to stomach. My sandwich is tuna on wheat, thick, sweet grainy slices.
“So, I heard something real interesting through the grape vine,” Dad says around a clump of masticated bread. “Tree cops paid Danny Carson a visit up at the Button Box sale. They’re accusing him of cutting trees outside the paint.”
“Bet they’re counting stumps as we speak,” Cody says, rolling his eyes.
Dad downs a swig of coffee. “I’m calling it right now. Forest Service’ll slap him with a fine for sure.”
And so it begins. Gossip is the true timber industry method of connecting with fellow loggers and truckers, of not allowing isolation to swallow us whole. We work in the boonies, socially detached from other humans beyond our tiny crew. Being nosy comes with the territory.
I close my eyes and just breathe for a minute, letting their conversation wash over me. The concentrated ache in my shoulders, forearms, and lower back brings me more a sense of accomplishment than irritation, in that way taxing labor always does. I’ll be sleeping like a Nyquil addict tonight, that’s for sure. I make the mistake of resting my bare hand on the rough bark of my chair-log, and when I raise it, a tacky glob of sap is smeared on my palm. It collects dirt and wood chips for the rest of the day.
Half an hour inches past before we haul ourselves up and return to work. By midafternoon we’ve felled, dragged, de-limbed, and piled the rest of our designated timber. All that’s left is to tidy up. We gather the slash littering the ground, mostly busted tops, severed limbs, and a few root balls jutting up from the earth, and pile it into mouse houses. The piles aren’t just for mice, really—I’m sure rabbits, foxes, and other assorted wildlife use them, too. The forestry introduced these little buffet tables dotted through the woods as a method of bringing more lynx into the area. Maybe it works, but I’ve never seen one.
That accomplished, we spray down the equipment with water to prevent a forest fire, brush wood chips and stray pine needles off our clothes as best we can, and bump our way back to the highway with NPR talk radio filling the truck cab.
The smell of cold and forest and diesel clings to us all, but it’s a familiar, comfortable scent. I find myself leaning against the window and listening as gear thumps around in the truck bed—spare tire, oil jugs, jumper cables, Jonsered and Husqvarna chainsaws, tow chains, overflowing toolbox, water sprayer, and ragged chunks of bark. The whole mess bounces with every rut we hit. Finally, we reach two-lane blacktop and it’s safe to pick up speed, leaving the woods behind as dusk draws long caricature shadows of the surrounding trees.
Tomorrow morning, the wood boss will roll in with the low-boy hitched to his semi-truck. We’ll steer the machines up onto the trailer, secure them with grease-smeared chains, and start the process all over again in a new patch of woods.