In the bush, gathering firewood is both a routine and a danger

A couple weeks ago my dad and I were, as usual, nosing our 16 foot Boston Whaler up to a rocky shore in our quest for firewood logs. I jumped out with a 5/8-inch jerk-line with a quarter-inch chain and choker hook attached and dragged it to a spruce log my dad had had his eye on for some time, just waiting for the right tide to go after it. I hooked the chain around the end of the log that pointed toward the strait and then turned back to get into the skiff.

 

Unfortunately, the skiff had gotten hung up on a rock shelf and a surge was making it difficult to free the outboard. I managed to shove it off from shore, but didn’t manage to get in. My dad turned the bow toward the strait and let the 50 foot long jerk-line pay out a bit until he turned up the throttle to yank the log down the shore as I stood off to one side. His tiller handle, 60-horse power Yamaha outboard engine has a terrific amount of jerking power and I’ve seen some pretty big logs jump, bound, and tumble down rocky beaches to splash into the water.

This time the log bounced and them jammed itself between two rocks. It wasn’t a bad jam, though, so I expected my dad to take another run at it and yank it out. Instead, the jerk-line went slack, coiling itself in the water. I shot a look out at the strait and saw that the skiff was there and the outboard was running, but my seventy-year-old dad was nowhere in sight.

Before I could have a coronary or begin to wonder just how cold the water was and if I’d have to swim out there to help him if he’d gone overboard, to my unbounded relief I saw him get up from the bottom of the skiff. Later he told me that he’d been standing, something he didn’t usually do when jerking a log off the beach, and his foot had hit a patch of hidden ice in the bottom of the skiff. As he put it, ruefully, “My pony threw me.”

Like the cowboys of old, he got back on the horse and set up for another run and jerked the log off the beach and into the water.

Then he came back to where I was, tossed out the hook and chain, and we did it all over again with a chunk of red cedar. This time I got into the skiff with him and the log came off without a whisper of resistance.

After dogging them (making sure we had a good grip on them), we towed the two logs to the next beach, set them free for the time being, and nosed up to the next long, beautiful piece of spruce that we’d been hoping to get for a while. The tide was finally high enough, but it was in a tricky spot, surrounded by tall rocks. Its length might cause some trouble as we tried to maneuver the skiff and it out into open water.

I had to balance over a few logs, some of them in the water, to get to an end that I could wrap the chain and hook around. It wasn’t as hard as some logs I’d had to hook the chain into…sometimes I had to crawl out onto a wave-washed log and plunge my arms into winter icy water up past my elbows to get the chain around it.

I got the chain on this spruce easily enough, but when I clambered back into the skiff, I caught my foot and fell onto the bow. Neither of us had ever fallen before while wood logging, and here we’d both done it the same day. I used the pike pole to push us around and out of the rock hole. My dad let the line pay out and then gunned the throttle. The log bounced, rolled, and then slammed head-on into a deeply embedded, granite up-thrust.

The skiff came to a brutally hard stop and then jerked free so violently that in addition to bruises from my fall I got mild whiplash. The force of the stop had snapped the 5/8-inch, hard lay, three strand poly jerk-line. Its minimum breaking strength is 5,580 pounds.

As he coiled the line, my dad regaled me with the last time he’d snapped a line. It had been when he was wood logging with my nephew Sterling, who’d been taking care of a two-year-old pit bull name Bayou who absolutely refused to be dissuaded from standing at the very front edge of the bow, sniffing the wind. My dad said that the dog, like usual, had been up there in the bow when he poured the power on and the log jammed. When the line snapped, Bayou went sailing a good few yards, his ears flapping in the breeze, before he landed in the water with a huge splash. I counted my blessings that I hadn’t followed his example.

We coiled up the line, went back in for the other part of it, and my dad knotted the two ends together. I got out on the wave-slapped rocks with the pike pole and managed to maneuver the spruce log out from the rock pile to where we could tow it. Raw wood showed where a chunk of the log had been torn out by the impact of it hitting the rock.

Once out in free water I leaned over the side with the sledgehammer and drove a dog (metal rod) with an attached dog-line in. The log bounced and rolled in the surge, trying to get away, but we finally had it hogtied—or dog-tied, as the case happened to be.

Our next log was, thankfully, floating free. I just had to put a dog in it and then we rounded up all the logs, hooked them onto a towline, and headed for home. There we tied them into our log corral, attached to a large breakwater log that protects our floathouses from storm surges and waves.

The logs stay down in the corral until we’re ready to pull them up to the house, where they’ll be sawed and split for firewood. In the meantime, the logs are hit by storm after storm, rolling and bucking against and over each other and occasionally breaking free. We have to go after them and round them up again before they escape onto the strait. We also have to go down, when the tide’s out, and try to unravel the incredible mess they get themselves into, tangling their lines so that they’re impossible to separate when the tide is in.

Hunting for firewood logs is a year-round pastime in the bush, where it’s essential to have a good supply of firewood, particularly for the winter months, since our heat comes almost entirely from wood stoves. To preserve propane, I also use my wood stove to heat water and at times cook. Dealing with firewood logs is more often than not an exasperating ordeal, but it is a fundamental part of bush living.


• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.


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