Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday Story: The Woodlot by Bruce Mero

Hey guys! Just thought I'd pop in today and give you a story from my Dad. Linking this up with Story Telling Sunday over at Sian's. 

 The Woodlot by Bruce Mero

          The project had started with the best of intentions and a great deal of optimism, but things had slowly and insidiously, deteriorated.  We were defeated and would abandon our effort.  Fatigue, difficulty and the weather had taken their toll.  Our crew had mutinied, our equipment was broken and time had run out.  What else could we do, but toss in our towels?  But, I am getting ahead of myself, so let me start this at the beginning.


          The New York State Conservation Department annually offered blocks of standing firewood for public sale.  The program was a management tool used by State foresters to improve State owned timber stands and to provide firewood as an alternative heating source to those willing to work for it.  Interested individuals could fill out a permit application and submit it to the Regional Forestry Office.  Since there was always more applications than available wood, a lottery system selected those who would be offered permits to cut firewood on nearby State land. The permits were good for a specified period of time. The cost per cord was $2.00.


          It was to be our first full winter in our 1840s farmhouse.  We had spent the entire spring and much of the summer removing and rebuilding the main chimney in the house, installing three flues in the new chimney, two for wood-burning stoves and a third for a fuel-oil burner.  There was a small pile of seasoned firewood left in the barn by the previous owner to start the next heating season with, but it would not take us through the entire winter.  The State’s firewood program sounded like a great way to lay in some wood, so we completed the application form and mailed it.  I’d heard that chances were slim in getting selected, given the volume of applications, but we talked our neighbor, Charlie, into going halves if we got lucky.  And we got lucky.


          The State offered to sell us 80 standing cords of firewood for a hundred and sixty bucks.  The woodlot we could cut in was less than six miles away, but we would need a “four wheel-drive vehicle” to access the trees in the allotted parcel which were ours.  We’d have six months to take the wood off of State land, until March 30, next year.  Since we did not have the requisite four wheel drive vehicle, we were dependent on our neighbor as a partner in this endeavor, since he had a tractor.  Of course, Charlie agreed, so I returned the paperwork to the State with our check.


          We went to see our firewood at the Harris Road State Forest the same day.  We found the site.  Our trees were marked with blue paint and there were a lot of them, hundreds of trees, in fact, of all sizes and species.  There was Hard and Soft Maple, Black Cherry, Basswood, Elm, Beech, Yellow and White Birch, White Ash, Aspen and even a Hickory or two.  Marked trees were visible along the road for about a hundred and fifty feet, and into the woods as far as see.  A remnant of an old logging road split the middle of the lot, and was a series of linear puddles.  We hopped from dry spot to dry spot on this road for a hundred or so yards and there were blue-marked trees everywhere.  Wondering why there were so many, Charlie took the Firewood Permit out of his pocket and re-read it.  No wonder there were trees everywhere with blue marks, we’d bought 80 full cords, not the 80 face cords we’d first thought.  There was three times as much firewood here to cut.  This was good news and bad news.  Good news that we had enough wood here to take us through many winters and that we might be able to make a little money selling firewood; bad news that there was a hell of a lot of work to do if we were going to get it all out of the woods in six months.  We vowed to try, and set to work the very next Saturday.


          Charlie and I were at the woodlot early and went directly to work.  Our first priority was to take down anything dead that seemed dry enough to be able to burn this upcoming winter.  Luckily, there were many dead trees near the road and by the end of our first day, we’d filled both of our pickups twice, making a trip home at noon for lunch.  We were able to carry the sawed blocks to the trucks, which we left parked on the road.  Before we left for the night, the next day’s dead wood was scouted.  We’d need to back the trucks onto the logging road to get the next loads, however.  The logging road was wet and a bit spongy, but it seemed passable and we agreed to get another early start the next day.  And we did; start early, that is.  We were finished early also.  I hadn’t backed my old truck off of the pavement more than thirty feet before I was axle deep in mud, all four wheels.  The pick-up couldn’t be pushed out, nor pulled out with Charlie’s truck.  We made a trip to Charlie’s house and returned with his Ford Tractor and a length of chain.  We tugged on the truck with the tractor, to no avail. My pick-up seemed deeper in the mud after this attempt.  Another trip back to Charlie’s and we rousted his four teenagers from their activities, and returned to the woodlot.  Then with son Curtis on the tractor and Charlie in his truck, both pulling on chains hooked to the truck and me gunning my engine and spinning the rear wheels, and three kids pushing, were we able to get the truck back onto the pavement.  Not without cost, however.  Two of Charlie’s kids, Charles and Danny had stepped off the dry parts of the logging road and into chest-deep mud holes, and were coated.  Leroy had dodged the mud holes, but had been peppered, head to boot with mud thrown up by my spinning tires. 


          After scraping the mud off the three boys and off the pick-up, we surveyed our logging road a little closer.  It appeared to us that the last logging operation at the woodlot must have been done with a log skidder, a huge, tractor-like piece of equipment used to pull logs or groups of logs out of forests so they can be loaded on trucks. Skidder tires are six feet high.  The mud holes that Charles and Danny had fallen into were several feet deep, indicating that even the skidder had of trouble with the logging road.  Charlie took the Firewood Permit out of his pocket and looked it over again. “Four wheel-drive vehicle” it read.  This now seemed an understatement.  We decided we needed to put more thought into the project and quit for the day.  I went home and put away yesterday’s firewood, approximately 3 cords.


          It turned out that we’d have plenty of time to think about our project.  It rained for the next three weekends and most of the time in between.  The fall monsoon season was upon us and there was little to do at the woodlot, but to sit in the truck and look out the window at the trees and the growing lake.  By the third weekend of rain, stumps from the trees we’d cut our first Saturday were submerged.  The logging road was gone, replaced by a new tributary to the Mohawk River.  The rain had driven many of the fall leaves to the ground and we could see much deeper into the woods now, and it was a sea of blue paint marks.  Looking over at the trees and watching the raindrops in the black water at the base of the trees gave me the sinking feeling that we might be in a little over our heads with this project.


          Pessimism turned to optimism that next week as cooler days and bright mid-October sun made perfect woodcutting weather.  Our lake had disappeared, mostly.  The ground was saturated, still, and we had agreed that we would not attempt to use the logging road until it either dried up or froze over.  We concentrated on cutting, blocking and stacking our wood in the woods along the road.  We would haul it back later.  Near the end of each day in the woods, we’d cut trees near the paved road, load blocks into the trucks, and each haul a load back.  For three weekends this exercise was repeated and by the first week in November we had accumulated twenty cords in the woods, hauled another twenty cords home and divided these between the two households.  By my calculations, we had 194 cords left standing.  The next week we had our first snowfall and the weather turned cold.


          Our work crew generally consisted of Charlie, my wife Gretchen, our daughter Mitra and myself.  Since our first encounter with the mud holes on the logging road, it had been nearly impossible to get any of Charlie’s boys interested in giving us a hand.  Once-in-a-while we had them to help, but only if they were shanghaied from bed early and plied with enough sweet rolls and coffee and the promise of monetary reward to make their hours in the woods less onerous.  With the onset of snow, however, even those tactics failed.  After that, only the threat of physical harm got any of the kids to help in the woodlot.  And then they complained so much that the assistance we got was minimally effective.   Feet, hands and trousers got wet and cold, gloves and hats got lost, boots leaked, jackets ripped and so on.  Several times I was able to cajole friends to help us out, but the hard work and nasty conditions made repeat visits to the site by volunteers a hard sell.


          Admittedly, the work was not fun any more.  Most of the wood close to the main road had been cut and hauled back home.  That wood stacked along the logging road earlier in anticipation of our use of the road now had to be carried or wheel-borrowed several hundred feet to the trucks.  The wood was wet and heavy and the ground was wet and soft.  Quickly, footpaths turned to quicksand.  Everything we did caused us to get wet and muddy and cold.  Our enthusiasm for woodcutting became hard to maintain.  In fact, the colder it got and the more the snow accumulated, it became impossible to get excited about spending weekends out-of-doors.  And once the snow started, it did not stop.  By the time that Thanksgiving arrived, we could no longer even retrieve the wood stacked along the logging road without shoveling our way into the stacks from the paved road.  Cutting trees was not possible, as the felled trees disappeared into the over-the-knees-deep accumulation of snow.  Saws, axes, ropes and other tools were lost. We had been very lucky, thus far, with no injuries, but prudence dictated that we suspend operations until working conditions improved.


          December was the coldest month ever recorded in this part of New York.  Mean daily temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit.  Snowfall accumulated in record amounts.  Gretchen and I measured over 80 inches of snow in the woodlot at Christmas.  The cross-country skiing and snow shooing was terrific, but woodcutting not possible. 


          January was also frigid and the snow continued to accumulate.  The usual mid-January thaw was only a couple of days long and did not melt enough of the snow to allow us to get back to woodcutting. 


          February was extremely cold and very windy, but it stopped snowing early in the month.  The wind had moved the accumulated snow into ten-foot high drifts in some places.  In other places in the woods, the snow had been scoured away and the ground was visible.  The logging road was bare of snow and the ground was frozen hard enough to drive on, we thought, and decided to bring Charlie’s tractor and wagon over and retrieve the wood we’d stacked along the logging road.  This was not a good idea, however.  We managed to back the wagon into the woods and load it with blocks, but on the trip out, the loaded wagon broke through the ice on the very first skidder-hole it crossed and sunk to its axle.  We were forced to empty the wagon in order to drag it from the skidder-hole and out of the woods.  We parked the wagon along the paved road and pondered our next move.  Time was getting short; we only had access to the woodlot until the end of March.  We decided to take whatever trees were easiest to take and filled the wagon and my pick-up with much difficulty, carrying blocks of wood from deep in the woods.  This work had taken most of the day and we were exhausted.  Still, we made plans to return the next morning.  I told Charlie that I’d follow him home, and he jumped on the tractor and started down the road.  We hadn’t counted on the fact that the mud and water from the logging road had frozen solidly to the wagon wheels.  The frozen wheels refused to roll. They just skidded on the pavement when Charlie attempted to move the tractor.  Consequently, the trailer had to be abandoned along side of the road until we could figure a way to thaw the ice.  We did return later that day, after dark, and transferred the wood in the wagon to my pick-up and took the load home. 


          It was a tough way to get the firewood home, but cut and carry was the only means we had to fill the trucks.  Consequently, production was minimal.  We were only able to put a few face cords into the woodshed every weekend until late March, when the weather warmed.   Once the snow started melting and the ground thawed, nothing else got accomplished.


Melt water rushed through the woods for the last weeks in March.  It was impossible to cut firewood while standing in ankle-deep water.  We were able to pull the wagon back home once the wheels had thawed, but no firewood moved from the woodlot to our woodshed. 


          Soon the end of the month was upon us and with it, the end of the time our permit allowed us to be in the woodlot.  Briefly the notion of asking the State for a time extension entered our conversations, but we had had enough and did not request more time. We drove to the site on the last day of the permit on the chance that conditions might have changed enough to allow us to gather one last truckload or two of firewood.  The woods were still under water, so we abandoned this idea.  However, Charlie did notice a single Maple tree with a blue marker that we’d missed, right on the roadside.  We decided to cut this tree down as our last act.


          Since it was so near the road, we’d need to work fast to get it off the road once it was felled.  Charlie had a chain in his truck that we affixed to the tree just above the spot I planned to cut.  Once the tree was on the ground, Charlie would tow it with his truck so it was parallel to the road and then we could cut it into blocks.  We wouldn’t block traffic if we worked fast.


          I misjudged the way the tree was leaning and once I had cut it through with my chainsaw, the tree leaned back toward the woods and hung itself in the tops of two adjacent trees.  No problem, I thought.  This was better; the tree wasn’t across the road, like we’d thought it would be.  We could drag it, instead, down along side the road, as it fell.  I hooked the free end of the chain to the front bumper of the truck and Charlie backed the truck up. The first tug on the chain separated the severed tree from its stump and it buried itself a couple of feet into the soft soil on the shoulder of the road.  We dug the chain out of the mud and wound it around the tree trunk a couple of feet higher than before.  Charlie got back into his truck and tugged the chain.  Nothing happened. He tugged again, but still nothing.  He revved the engine and dumped the clutch.  The rear wheels skidded on the blacktop with a squeal and the tree moved.  The wrong way!  The top came loose; the tree shuttered, tipped, pivoted on the buried stump and fell directly toward the truck.  Charlie instantly recognized what was happening and gassed the engine. He thought he’d back out of the path of the falling tree, however the truck and the tree were still tethered by 20 feet of logging chain and he went nowhere. Tires screamed and stones flew but the truck stayed where it was.


          Seconds seemed days while the tree toppled.  It hit Charlie’s pick-up perfectly dead center.  It crushed the roof and blew-out the windshield and the rear window.  It came to rest with the cut end in the air at hood-level with the crown protruding out of the back of the truck forty feet.  The chain dangled loosely from the tree trunk.  Charlie!  In a panic I ran around the tree to the driver’s side of the truck.  I pulled open the door and an avalanche of glass shards rained onto the ground.  There he was.  He was on the floor of the cab, wedged on his side between the seat, the shifter and the foot pedals.  He was laughing!  I was shaking and nearly pissed in my pants and Charlie was laughing.  I turned off the truck’s engine.  He looked up at me and laughed again.  


          We were able, together and with some effort, to extract him from cab of the truck.  Remarkably, he was unhurt.  He pulled a bent cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and we walked a few steps away to survey the scene.  He started laughing again and then, so did I.  It was a funny sight, the maple tree sticking out both sides of the flattened pick up truck.  We needed to laugh.  This last episode had been nearly tragic. 


          Charlie finished the cigar and we started to work cutting the tree off the truck.  We loaded my pick up with blocks, cleaned the broken glass from the road and returned to Charlie’s place to get the tractor.  With our return trip we brought home the last of our firewood from the woodlot, the last firewood and the flattened remains of Charlie’s truck.


          In six months, we’d managed to cut and drag home enough wood to last both families for about three winters, but we figure that we left as much in our woodlot as we took.  The experience came at a cost much greater than the 2 dollars a cord we paid the State for the trees, though we never have tried to figure out the real cost of the wood we cut.  


          The next fall a form letter arrived from the State asking if we were interested in another lot of trees to cut.  The letter went into the trash.  Charlie converted his furnace to fuel oil after his stash of wood was used up.  His squashed pick up sat behind his barn for several years before he dragged it off to the junkyard.  He uses the former wood-storage space in his cellar as a wine cellar.  Still, to this day, Gretchen and I burn wood for heat in our home, but our time in the woodlot taught us to be much more cerebral in our approach to gathering firewood; our naivete matured considerably by our time on Harris Road. We sold our inefficient antique parlor stove on the Internet and bought an efficient, state-of-the-art airtight wood stove.  This, along with house renovations and new insulation, has reduced our need for firewood by half.  We now manage a part of our Christmas tree farm as a woodlot and gather our firewood there, but in much friendlier, less physical blocks of time and effort.


          And every few years we drive by the Harris Road State Forest, just to remind ourselves what our first winter was like in the Adirondack foothills.    



  1. Personally, I think I'll just buy a little plug in heater and call it done! :) My word, what an amazing experience and story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I can't believe the process this took to obtain a heat source. I do rather like the idea of a wine cellar, seems like a perfect renovation. :) Glad to hear that the buddy was fine and cackling in the vehicle. Love that he stored the memorabillia behind the barn. What a hoot and great conversatinal piece.
    My husband's grandfather was born in Milford, NY in 1906 and graduated from Syracuse in 1928 from the University School of Forestry. I do believe he would have giggled his entire way through this!

    Thank you for sharing another fabulous Sunday Story Time with us.

  2. Wonderfully narrated tale, so glad that no-one was injured and that friendships remained intact. We need to gather wood ourselves but thankfully not on the same scale.

  3. What an atmospheric story this is! As I jump around the internet enjoying stories from around the world, I relish the things I learn about traditions in different places. We have no wood collecting here, so I enjoyed reading this very much.

  4. Oh Mitra, what a lot of hard work just to get fire wood, and I was wondering how long the permit lasted at the rate your family was going with all that bad luck. I'm hope now reading back you do get a bit of a laugh either or cry. Thank you for sharing that story.

  5. What a great story. My mothers family were lumber men by trade up in Washington. Was very interesting to read this account.

  6. Wow! and you HELPED him???? What a saga...your story whilst DH was away can not possibly top this one. Geez! Truck's crushed....that's taking wood cutting to a whole new ball game:):):)

  7. another great account by your dad...I reckon we would have gone cold!
    Alison xx

  8. Oh my goodness! I'm so glad no one was hurt in the wild rush to gather the wood in time. Jeez!

  9. gosh what an epic adventure! So different from my life in the UK

  10. I've bought a wood collection cord from the Royal Forests here in the UK for a couple of friends who have wood burning stoves/fireplaces. Hoping the next house has one of those 'cause the smell of a wood burning fire is lovely.

  11. This was an enormous feat of endurance. Little did your family know what you were taking on, but oh,how you all pulled together. Keeping warm has been taken to new lengths while reading your story. Thank you for sharing it.


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