Member Trip report
A day on Shaw Mountain
Trip Report/Photos from Mountainrabbit
I have never climbed Shaw Mountain. To tell the truth, I am not particularly interested in the view from the top. Idaho's Smoky Mountains are named for their frequent forest fires, so the entire region is a patchwork of burned areas in various states of regrowth. It's not a pretty sight.
In 2013, the Beaver Creek Fire raged through these mountains, scorching the flanks of Shaw Mountain as it swept toward the Wood River. It obliterated a mature stand of Douglas-firs, leaving behind a ghost-forest of charred hulks. It is to this dead forest that I come every October. I have 11 months to climb mountains, but after the first frosts kill all the blackflies and mosquitoes, and before the snows arrive to block the roads, I do a different sort of outdoor activity. My home, a weatherbeaten old farmhouse on the rolling sagebrush steppe of southern Idaho, is wood-heated. Most years, I use four or five cords to keep it warm. In one particularly harsh winter, I used seven.
I gripe about it mightily – woodcutting is backbreaking work, and every year I get closer to buying logs from one of the commercial outfits in the area. But there is something primal about heading into the hills to fell the trees that I need to stay warm. Modern society, with all its conveniences and creature comforts, has taken the rugged basics of survival out of our hands, and we, as men, are sometimes the poorer for it.
So on Sunday, I rolled out of bed at 5:00AM and drove to my usual woodcutting site on Shaw Mountain. Most woodcutters prefer the lodgepole pines that grow in the river bottoms, but I like the big Douglas-firs - I can fill my truck's bed to the roof with one tree, and the wood is dense and long-burning.
I pull into my usual spot along the dirt road to Dollarhide Summit, and get ready for the day – fire extinguisher and shovel – check. Bar chain oil and gasoline – check. Firewood permit and load tags – check. I select a big old corpse of a fir, its deeply furrowed bark filthy with soot. I fire up the chainsaw and get to work.
I hate the racket that the saw makes. But the tree is close to the legal cutting limit for Douglas-firs, and I'm not enough of a purist to use an axe. It's always satisfying to watch them teeter, then topple to the ground with a screeching crash. Once down, I limb it and cut it into six-foot sections to fit my truck bed.
It's nice to finally shut the saw down and hear the sounds of Warm Springs Creek across the road, and the chatter of squirrels from the living trees that are scattered among the dead. The squirrels don't seem very fazed by my noise: I've been up here almost every weekend this fall.
Now comes the bad part – loading these big logs into the truck. I roll them carefully down the hillside, avoiding a pair of seedlings that have sprouted in the middle of my woodcutting area – hope springs from the ashes. Once down the hillside, I have to wrestle the logs across the drainage ditch. It ain't easy, but it's a snap compared to what comes next.
I position each log behind the truck. The real trick is getting them upright. It takes every bit of my strength to deadlift one end of a log onto my bent knee, where I hold it for a moment of rest before making a heroic, groaning push to stand it on end. It's all strawberries and cream after that. I lean it onto the tailgate, and take advantage of its balance point to get it into the bed. It's all just a matter of moment arms and torques: I knew those physics classes in college would come in handy someday.
It's a good seven hours of hard work from start to finish, and I am trembling with exhaustion and filthy with soot and bar chain oil by the time I am ready to head home. This is my last woodcutting trip of the year. I look around my site, and wonder what it will be like in fifty years. It might be a green and healthy forest, and people will have to look somewhere besides Shaw Mountain for firewood to cut.
Yes, It's a dirty, lousy job, and I suppose I'd rather just start buying wood at two hundred bucks a cord. Another year, maybe. Just clear a few more of the dead off Shaw Mountain, make room for a few more of the living, and then maybe I'll turn lazy and have them deliver wood to my door.
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Your writing about this experience is truly beautiful. It lifted my spirit greatly. Thank you. And let me know if ever there come a time you need a helping hand. Gerard