Skidding whales (trees, actually) is like blowing bubbles with a bubble wand. You never know what you’re gonna get.
Tree work is a lot of fun. The process of harvesting Land’s Sake firewood starts with a careful inventory of the trees in the Town Forest. Brian, our expert (and a Land’s Sake patriarch), marks the trees to be cut before we start felling them. It’s all about sustainability.
Cutting down a tree is a feat in itself — there’s an art and a science to it. The first thing we do is determine where we want the tree to fall. This requires careful observations of the surrounding trees, the base of the tree to be cut, its branch system high above and, most importantly, our escape route. As we cut away at the base of the tree, we are careful to make sure the “hinge” is right and not pinched otherwise our chainsaw blade will be crushed under tons of tree pressure. We also have to watch out for dead branches that might fall off the tree and conk us on the head. These are affectionately known as “widowmakers.” (not!)
Watching and listening to a tree crash to the ground is an awe inspiring and somber moment in itself. The forest goes quiet, even the birds, and then they resume their chirping again as if nothing ever happened. (Does a tree make a noise when it falls in the forest and there’s nobody around?)
Around the fallen tree we then wrap a steel cable connected to our tractor. Sometimes, if the tree is too big and heavy, we cut it in half — sap still coursing through its cambria and oozing out its ends. It’s almost sad, but necessary. Walking back to the tractor we give a yank on the cord that starts the tractor’s winch. The tractor growls, the cable stretches taught, and off the tree goes, dragging through the woods, spraying a plume of snow roller coaster ride-style through the snow.
We hope the tree will follow our man-made luge though the woods, a channel made from skidding previous trees up through the snow. Where is it gonna go? Right up to the base of the tractor where we want it? Or towards me, twisting and turning convulsively in the snow, its branches stretching out to grab me as it sails by, revenge for having cut it down. Watch out! Watch out! Run away! Run away! It’s coming to get me!
Sometimes a recalcitrant tree hell bent on self-preservation will immediately butt itself against the base of a large rock or another living tree with a thud. The tractor groans. The cable winces, stretched taut. When that happens, it’s time to bring out the peavey (pictured) — a diabolical device used by lumbermen to dislodge and set a tree back on its course. One more pull of the tractor cord and off it goes — woosh. With luck these wooden whales will sail all the way to the base of the tractor the first time, where they crash against the metal “backboard” of the tractor and sit akimbo waiting to be bucked up (sawed) into “rounds.”
Next, we split the rounds into woodstove-sized firewood — sometimes by hand (because I have wood in my DNA), and sometimes with the help of our tempermental gas-powered woodsplitter (if I want to acknowledge the Industrial Revolution).
All in all, skidding trees is great fun, exhilarating, and a little dangerous. The best skidders know how to ride the logs up to the tractor, tobaggan style, as they are dragged through the snow, but that’s another story for another time.
Logger first, farmer second