A Chainsaw is a Girl’s Best Friend

I carefully held the snarling beast in my hands, making precise vertical cuts to relieve side bind in a practice tree.  I nudged the tip of the saw in, avoiding the zone of maximum kickback around the top of the tip. Saw curls flying, I cut a little deeper at each pass, watching the log move as it gave up its compression bind.

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Working it with David Roe (Terry Hill photo)

I already had more than a passing acquaintance with the log.  We follow the U.S. Forest Service guidelines for OHLEC, a relatively new acronym describing how to approach and execute cutting a log (or standing tree, but we generally don’t do that in the PCTA).  The tree, felled by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, was supported on three points, wedged between two other trees.  Working in a burn area, I’d determined hazards, plotted my escape route, and decided on a cut plan.  Trees held in unnatural positions tend to move a lot when cut, and if you don’t relieve tension and compression, you might have a bad day when you unleash all that force.

Working under the guidance of an expert sawyer, I finished my relief cuts, and lifted the saw high on the log on the center cut.  I worked it on the dogs (teeth near the power head on a chainsaw), slicing down through the log at full throttle.  When it finally gave, it still moved two feet away from me, faster than my eyes could register, as the other end dropped near my steel-toed Danner logging boots.

If I’d just cut that log from underneath and above without regard to the side bind and which side I stood on, the log could have moved even faster and farther, straight into my torso with more than enough force to crush me. Thankfully my expert instructor, David, had explained each step along the way and we worked very safely.

I was attending Trail Skills College, an annual event held in Cascade Locks by a consortium of Trail Stewardship organizations (PCTA, WTA, and others) over a three-day period.  Friday, I’d re-upped my First Aid and CPR for another two years in another course.  It was my first time taking first aid with an eye toward the kind of injuries we might see working on Trail Crews.  I finally learned how to use an AED and performed CPR practice on ‘Bob’, until my arms and abs were toast.

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Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! 🙂 

Saturday’s class was Chainsaw 104, the most complete instruction on chainsaw operation, maintenance, and safety that I’ve ever taken.  We first learned all the parts of the saw, and how they worked. We broke the saws down into parts, learning how to change the bar, chain, air filter, and spark plug.  We learned how to fuel and oil the saw, how to clean and lubricate the clutch and bearings.  We covered different types of chains, and how they behave differently in use. After lunch, we practiced sharpening and reassembly.  I had owned my own 20-inch bar Stihl Pro saw years ago, and had never peeled back so many layers into how it actually worked.]

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Sharpening vise for chainsaw (Terry Hill photo)

Our last lesson was in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for chainsaw use, from helmets to ear protection, leg chaps, gloves, and face shields.  I’d brought my own, newly acquired helmet with integrated ear protection and face shield, and chaps.  We spent enough time on all the likely awful things that can go wrong, even if you’re following all guidelines. Chains can break, saws and trees can do unexpected things.

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A Chainsaw Surgical Team 🙂 (Terry Hill photo)

 

At the end of our class, all the saws were fueled, oiled, chains sharp and snug.  We were ready for some practice on Sunday.

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If you need to cut some logs, this group can definitely help out (Terry Hill photo)

Sunday threatened rain as we drove to Wyeth Campground for Chainsaw Practicum 297, our goal to work on logs near the #400 Trail.  After introductions, we split into three smaller groups.  Before we headed up the trail, we each started our saws to make sure they ran.

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Hey, it runs even after I took it apart and put it back together the day before! (Terry Hill Photo) 

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Obstacles on the way to work (Terry Hill Photo)

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That’s what we call a ‘complex’ log problem across the trail.  We did not cut these logs on  Sunday, due to the degree of hazard, including triggering another rock and landslide. Some problems do not have immediate solutions. We cut steps into the logs with chainsaw and axe to make them easier to cross for hikers. (Terry Hill photo)

David, our instructor, selected our work area and started asking questions to gauge our baseline knowledge. I’ve done a lot of crosscut logout work parties, so none of the questions about the logs were new to me.  Throughout the day, David gave me more and more complex problems to solve, ramping up the difficulty to see where I was.

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Our private lesson (Terry Hill photo)

The biggest difference between using a crosscut vs. a chainsaw is everything happens in real time with a chainsaw.  With a crosscut, you can hear feedback from the log, feel subtle shifts through the saw, and see it move (usually slowly).  Cutting with a chainsaw, you’re through so quickly, you need to be more attuned to the feedback and visuals.  Having a motor adds convenience to techniques like offside cuts, where you cut vertically across and down the log to avoid standing on the business side of the tree (the one that moves in a bound log).

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Practicing a ‘V’ cut for a high log, so as you cut from underneath and drop it, it won’t let go all at once due to top bind. You can lower it pretty as you please cutting from underneath. 

My last log of the day was much harder to read, definitely side-bound as evidenced by the long curve of the log, but very hard to tell what else was going on. Sometimes logs are twisted under load just resting, or when you release the end with the root ball, they can suddenly roll at you.  As I made my five side bind relief cuts deeper, the kerf (the slit made by cutting with a saw) opened at the top and closed on the bottom, telling me more about what it was likely to do upon release.

I finished the top cut and the log still moved suddenly several feet away from me, a consequence of being bound up between several trees.  I expected and predicted the behavior, so it wasn’t a surprise.   David complimented me on my feel and technique, telling me that cut was a classic certification problem used on a ‘B’ level sawyer cert.

I’d refueled and added oil twice already, and five hours of cutting was taking its toll on my grip, my forearms, and my focus.  We wrapped up our day, packed up our saws, and headed out.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading out again with a PCTA work party, into Eagle Creek Trail from the Gorge end.  Other volunteers have carried temporary planking three-plus miles in so we can (safely?) cross the Fern Creek Bridge, and remove logs with chainsaws, between there and High Bridge.  I’m so fortunate to have had this training, and the opportunities to use it.

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Eagle Creek Trail before the 2017 fire, near High Bridge

It will be a long day, hiking in with saws and supplies to feed them, and removing so many trees.  I could be out skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing somewhere else, but I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to give back to the places that have given me so much joy.  This is the work that will, along with many other days, get the trail opened again in 2019.

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Newly open trail makes me feel pretty happy at Herman Creek Bridge, June 2018 (Kate Curry photo).  I walked across this bridge carrying a load of tools so many times the prior six months. 

I wouldn’t miss that for the world.  Last year I spent weekend after weekend working with the PCTA on the closed PCT and nearby Herman Creek Trail, which reopened finally on June 15th, 2018.  Kate and I took two ‘Victory Lap’ tours of the PCT/HCT loop, a lovely longish day hike at ~26-27 miles and 5700′ e.g.

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Looking back at the PCT from HCT in the late afternoon

Next September, I hope we can do the same, but loop up Eagle Creek then down the PCT.  Then do it again in the other direction, just for good measure.  It will be glorious.

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Hiking until dark, and then some (Kate Curry photo) 

Helpful Links:

Eagle Creek to Wahtum Lake Hike 

Pacific Crest Trail Association Volunteer Information

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