Chapter 14

The Art of Felling Trees

There were two brothers in our team from Gouverneur named Eddie and Wesley Barr. Ed became my sawing partner. We made a good team since I used an axe or a saw left-handed, and he was right handed. We frequently challenged other teams to sawing contests which they had little chance of winning, since they were all right handed. If I remember correctly, on our best day we felled 80 good-sized trees. One of them got out of control and almost killed a sawing team lower on the mountain.

At our camp we had a civilian who did nothing but sharpen our saws and axes. He was very good at it and they were always razor sharp. One day my sawing partner lightly tapped me on the back with his axe and opened up a two-inch gash on my backbone. I requested a new partner who was all thumbs, but I felt safer with him when my back was turned. I was finally reunited with my old partner after I got tired of pulling my new one through a saw cut.

The method of felling trees then and now was to saw a slit in the trunk in the direction you wanted it to go. Then it was notched out with double-bitted axes. With a two-man saw, another cut was made in the opposite side to within a couple of inches of a designated spot. As the tree started to fall, we would yank out the saw and holler "Timber." All other teams would momentarily stop their work to be ready to dodge out of the way of the falling tree. There was a touch of excitement, as well as sadness, to see a mighty forest giant leveled in such a manner.

 A 'Barber Chair'

One of the most terrifying things that could happen was when a tree split up the center instead of breaking off at the notch. This was called a barber chair. There was no way of knowing where the split might end. The bole might whip back toward you or it might swing to either side of the stump and then fall on you. In this situation the best you could do was to jump rapidly to one side and to pray fervently that it would fall on the opposite side. The fact that none of our crew was killed was merely a matter of luck.

In those days I was full of energy. One day when our work was done I ran down the mountainside along with the rest of the guys at full speed. As luck would have it, I landed on a small stone which twisted my right ankle severely. I had to be helped the rest of the way. After we reached camp, I was helped over to the medical dispensary where a medical tech gave me a red salve to put on my ankle. At first it felt very good, but after a while I had the impression that my foot was in a bed of hot coals. I have no idea of the ingredients of the salve, perhaps a little fire and brimstone diluted with sulfuric acid.  I spent the night with my foot in a bucket of washer. I was unable to work for a couple of weeks.

A Promotion

When I finally went back to work the camp was in the process of planting trees. To keep the plantings in fairly straight lines the man at the left would maintain a fixed distance from a row of paper markers placed there by the man at the extreme right. When the end of the row was reached the whole crew would swing full circle so at to maintain this order on the next row back. As luck would have it, on my first day back on the job the man who had filled this position was off sick.

For some reason which I can't fathom, this job was handed to me. The job was doubly difficult because a storm the day before had blown all the markers away. Now I had nothing to go on but the seedlings already planted which were hard to see in the ground cover. I managed to find the somewhat staggered line of my predecessor. Since there was no objection from the forester in charge, after several passes I held the lines arrow straight by sighting on landmarks ahead of me. To be fair, I must say that most of the boys were interested only in the job being done.  I, on the other hand, found it more interesting to do a good job, since it had to be done, and took more time. 

 Off to Forestry School

Apparently my performance was noticed, for several weeks later I was told to report to the Assistant Rangerís office.  To my embarrassment he praised me for my work and then asked if I would like to go to Forester School. At first I was not sure if I wanted to leave my friends to go to a place where everyone was a stranger, but my friends talked me into it and I was soon on my way to the Clark Ranger District headquarters.  There were a few boys there from other camps, but most of the attendees at this school were local woodsmen and college students, paying their way through college.

We had to learn chains, links, rods, and other surveying terms I have mostly forgotten.  We had to learn how to fight fires, put up telephone lines, how to use a short wave radio, where to connect the "A" and "B" batteries on it, and figure out the length of antenna to be used.  Something which seemed odd to me at the time, was the use of a corrected compass. While the compass pointed to magnetic north, true north was about five degrees west of it. We were taught to hold the compass in our hands, take a bearing on a landmark, then proceed to a designated point.

One of our tests consisted of locating some stakes which were flagged, and to locate some small fires which were kept burning by some of the personnel. At the risk of seeming to boast, I used the unorthodox method of placing my compass on a stump for a more accurate sighting, which gave me a great advantage. I located the first stake, and naturally everyone followed me from that point on. But by sneaky and devious methods I managed to pick up two more which placed me at the top.  However, I did not do so well in locating the fires. Like everyone else I tried to locate the fires by the smoke instead of the compass reading.  As a breeze had sprung up we found them more by accident than on purpose.

We also had to learn to use a protractor with a map. The mountains in this area were very high and could be seen for miles. If one were lost, he could take a sighting on two or more peaks by climbing a tree, then work out hit position on the very accurate forest service maps. One of the advantages of the high peaks was the fact that one could walk or drive for hours and not be out of sight of a particular mountain.

 Becoming a Lineman

After our basic training, we were paired with an old timer. Our first task in the spring was to repair telephone lines to the lookouts that used them. During the winter a great number of trees fell across the lines, pulling them down. But they were rarely broken due to what were called break-away insulators. The lines themselves consisted of plain galvanized iron wire, while the insulators were attached with a wire hook. When a tree fell, the hooks would give way, taking the whole line down, sometimes for a quarter mile or so. 

No poles were used. All lines were fastened to trees, making this job somewhat scary at first. We used conventional linemanís equipment, except that boot spurs were twice as long as a normal linemanís since the bark on some of these trees was a foot thick and a great deal of penetration was needed for safety. Also, instead of the usual leather belt made for a pole, we were supplied with about twenty feet of half-inch rope. If it were necessary to climb a large tree, which practically all of them were, you passed a loop around the tree, fastened one end to a belt ring, adjusted the other end to you could lean back comfortably, and fastened that end to the other ring. You would proceed up the tree by sinking your spurs in, leaning forward, and attempting to flip the rope higher on the opposite side of the tree. If your spurs slipped, which sometimes happened, there was nothing to grab on to so you fell straight down, losing a great deal of skin off your stomach and chin. Another hazard was that a whole slab of bark might come down, taking you along with it.

 Making a Splice

In cases where a large tree had fallen across the line and we were not able to work it out, we would cut the line and make a splice. Since wires are no longer spliced in this way, it may well be a lost art.  Anyhow, here it how it was done. We had a long pliers-like tool called a connector which had double rows of holes on the working end to take various sizes of wire. There was a square ring on one handle. You would take then broken ends, overlap them about eight inches, place the connectors in the middle, and slip the ring on the other handle, locking the wires in place.

With a large pair of electricians pliers, partly open, you would then force the wire on one side around the long strand, so that it looked like the thread on a bolt, nicking the short wire first about an inch from the end, and twisting the nicked part off, after you had passed it. You would then do the same on the other side of the connectors, twisting in the opposite direction. With some practice, you could achieve a work of art. I doubt that any artificial splices of today would hold as well. 

These telephone lines operated with two "A" cell batteries at the ranger station, and two at each lookout. An "A" battery was about the size of a beer can. It always amazed me that it was possible to be heard over these telephones for fifty miles or more even though this was bare iron wire and part of it might be submerged in several creeks. The insulators were fastened to each tree with large staples, about a quarter inch in diameter and about three and a half inches long. By throwing a staple underhand, and giving it a slight twist while throwing, it is possible to have both points enter a target from any distance. We wasted a lot of government property on the way back to the Ranger station throwing staples at trees from the back of a truck.  Once one acquired the knack, it strikes me that a few of these staples in oneís pocket would be a formidable weapon in a tight situation. They can be thrown from any distance, will never fail to strike point first and, as far at I know, there it no law against carrying staples.

 Trailed By A Bear

The next job we had was clearing the trails to the lookouts for the convenience of the packers. Everything was brought to the lookouts by pack train since very few lookouts had a road going to them. As I said, many many trees would fall during the winter. Smaller trees, such at the Lodgepole Pine, were no problem since we could easily drag them off the trail. But when one of the giants fell, it involved a lot of work. Each two-man team was supplied with a double-bitted axe, plus a two-man saw. The saw, six or seven feet long, was spring tempered and was carried on a back pack on which it was folded in a loop. When a particularly large tree had fallen across the trail, we would saw a section out, the width of the trail, and pry it off to one side.

It was while I was thus engaged that I had my first contact with a bear.  I was paired with a middle aged man who became increasingly tired the farther we went. As we were nearing the timberline and the trees were becoming progressively smaller, I suggested that he sit and rest while I went on to the end of the trail. He was only too glad to do so. I started up the trail with the axe, figuring it was enough to take care of any of the smaller trees. Few trees had fallen at that height, and after an hour or so I had reached the lookout and started back down. Imagine my horror when I saw the tracks of a bear a few hundred feet down, directly on top of my own. A bear track looks somewhat like a very large barefooted man, and he had apparently followed me and turned off when he saw I was returning. It occurred to me that a bear could not be expected to know anything about the laws of assault and battery. Besides, there was no cop within fifty miles. 

A double bitted axe could be a terrible weapon in the hands of a brave woodsman, but being an errant coward as far as bears were concerned, I had no desire to test this theory or any other. I walked rapidly down the trail. I suppose that an observer would say that I ran, but that would be unkind. I merely became rapidly obsessed with the welfare of my partner, and I give you my word that the thought that he was both larger and slower than myself, and that a bear might consider him more tasty, never entered my mind.

The tracks I came across indicated that the bear had followed me for a mile or so. When I finally reached my partner and told him about it, he did not seem unduly concerned. At the time I doubted both his sanity and his claim of being a local woodsman. He told me that as a young man he was running down a trail and vaulted over a large fallen tree directly on top of a bear which was sleeping on the other side. I presume that he vaulted even more rapidly the rest of the way down the trail.