By Ben Olson
As the cold nights swallow shorter and shorter days, chimneys begin to emit those comforting puffs of smoke from winter fires within. It’s wood-burning season — the time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our North Idaho firewood gathering efforts.
I was raised in a two-story log cabin near Westmond with a big wood stove to heat the whole house. One of my jobs was to keep the wood split and fed beside the hearth, and occasionally join my dad for forays into the woods to log our neighbors’ trees, which he was permitted to do in exchange for helping them build their sheds and otherwise lending a hand on their properties.
The creaking sound of the cast iron stove door, the crackling hiss of a well-seasoned log — it’s not just nostalgic, it’s the root of my childhood.
Later in life, when I’d returned to Sandpoint from some misadventure or other, I rented a small cabin on Bottle Bay Road with a wood stove. There was nothing more pleasant than chopping a stack of logs out back in my boxer shorts with a bottle of cheap whiskey on hand, then punching meaningless words into a typewriter by a roaring fire for hours on end. Without the fire nearby, I would’ve looked ridiculous.
Before I began my time as publisher of the Reader, I had again moved back to Sandpoint and was doing odd jobs; working with contractor Ted Bowers — one of the saintliest men that ever walked this earth — and making ends meet the best I could.
Another way I earned money was logging for dead and fallen trees in the forests, stockpiling cordwood to season and sell in the fall. I had my old blue Chevy pickup, some winch cables and snatch blocks I borrowed from a buddy; my pawn shop Husqvarna 455 Rancher; and a hard hat I once wore as a Halloween costume.
Off to the woods we rambled, me and that old truck, listening to books on tape by men dead and gone. Men who walked the earth and tapped into the bedrock of what it means to survive, to keep going.
I liked being in the woods every day. I liked the way the stream sounded different when I came back to the same spot a few days later, the hushed pause between gusts of wind in the canopy of trees overhead. I walked with saw on shoulder, scanning for dead tamaracks or red fir — or anything solid I could drag back to Old Blue.
Occasionally there would be a fallen tree still under a load, pinched on another tree nearby. This is when you realize the danger of cutting alone in the forest. I’ve had trees spring the opposite direction, “barber chairs” that split up the trunk as you’re sawing and whip back at you. And the yarding of big logs with a winch hooked up to my 1980 Chevy was hard on me and the rig. Often the best maneuver was to hook into a tangle of downed trees and pull until something popped loose.
Sometimes I’d find a beauty 200 or 300 yards from my truck and out of reach from my cable. I’d buck it up into four-foot lengths to carry on each shoulder. I could later trim it into thirds and make firewood rounds. This was soul-punching work. Hours would pass as I trudged logs over hill and dale, down gullies and splashing through streams to my waiting truck. Over and over again until the logs stacked higher than the cab. Then, I’d finish a jug of still-cool water, sharpen the saw and put away my implements for the day, trucking back into town listening to Charles Bukowski rant about something or other.
We all have our honey holes and preferred firewood gathering rituals. Some buy from small-outfit loggers who endure the same back-breaking work to make a short profit come fire season. When you figure the gas it takes to drive to and from a gathering spot, fuel and oil for the saw, constant wear and tear on your equipment and body — not to mention all the tools you’ll have to beg, borrow or buy to harvest wood more efficiently — it’s a genuine example of a labor of love. Whatever the person is asking for their cord of wood, remember the effort it took to bring it together for you.
I have electric heat now but long for the warmth of my daily fires of yore. Now, I live vicariously through friends who have wood-burning stoves. I see the orange glow from their windows as I huddle closer to the wall heater pushing more effortless, sterile heat at me. Sometimes I get to help chop and stack their wood — wood I will not burn. And that’s OK, because I can still see the smoke coming from their chimneys, dancing in the winter night, mixing with all the other fires keeping our collective families warm. That’s enough for me, I suppose. Anything that puts me next to the wood again.
When I’m in the forest with a saw, a sandwich and nothing else to do, I feel connected to those pioneers of early Sandpoint — rough-and-ready men and women who were the backbone of the boom that drew the railroad to Sandpoint and jump-started this place into what we now call home.
It’s unrecognizable from those stumptown days, but it’s still there, underneath all this progress. It’s still there inside us when the wind blows a reminder of the cold weather ahead. Working in the woods, with the wood, you’re tapping into the root of North Idaho — the marrow of our community’s bones.
To those who perhaps may have used this 28-page bundle of paper to help get your home fire burning, we salute you. We’re glad to be a small part of the warmth of your homes. Burn on.
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