Pavel barks at me over the growling chain saw gripped in his right hand. I stand well away from the intended fall line. The Douglas fir is tall and emaciated from competing for light with a crowd of others. Pavel finishes the cut, and the tree tilts. There's a staccato of snapping, then the crown crashes to the forest floor.
I limb the tree and clean up the debris. Pavel has moved on to the next one, which gets caught in surrounding branches. He curses, his breath misting in the November morning. He brings the saw over his head and cuts straight down on the trunk, which leans diagonally on untrustworthy limbs. It's risky, since we don't know how it will fall. The saw chews through, and the butt thuds to the ground. Branches snap in the crown, but the trunk stays caught. I help Pavel push, but it remains ensnared. I step back to give him room for an additional cut, and this time, the bulk of the tree crashes to the steep hillside and toboggans 30 yards before grinding to a halt.
"At least it only gets thinner," Pavel says, killing the saw.
We are thinning a ridgeline in a side canyon of the Chumstick Valley, north of Leavenworth, Washington, on the eastern front of the Central Cascades. The ridge is steep and snowy, and I am no commercial logger. Far from it.
My compatriots are Willy, a dreadlocked punk-rock farmer raising a family on soil, sun, water, sweat and frequent trips to the hardware store; Pavel, a mustachioed young woodsman and diesel genius; and Taylor, sturdy as a stump, who grew up here, tromping the woods, running rivers and raising cattle. He spent the last few summers as a wildland firefighter in Alaska. Together we form a ragtag band of woodsmen, with me as the aspiring novice.
A century ago, the region was clear-cut, and the once-open stands of ponderosa pine were replaced by more valuable firs. Wildfire was suppressed, and the trees grew into scraggly, flammable thickets. Weakened firs are vulnerable to spruce budworm, further increasing the risk of uncontrollable wildfires. Our mission, funded by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and local landowners, is to thin the thickets and reduce fire risk.
The hillside's steep pitch and my unsure footing make running a chainsaw unnerving. I watch the whirring teeth as I saw branches from fallen trunks, and wonder if the quarter-inch-thick chaps hugging my legs would really protect me from the saw's bite.
Hauling logs and branches up the hill leaves me sweaty and breathless. An aroma of exhaust and sap clings to my clothing. As gas tanks run dry, we wander back to camp to re-fuel, sharpen chains, apply bar oil, and drink coffee.
Felling trees is an art of angles, starting with how one hones the chain's teeth and rakers to produce the straightest cut possible. To predict a fall's direction, one must consider slope angle, natural lean, branch weight, and so on. A precise wedge cut creates a mouth in the trunk, smiling at the landing zone. The final posterior cut brings the entire tree crashing over. A mis-cut can be fatal.
Dragging a cluster of branches up the snowy hill to a burn pile, I hear my name shouted through the din. A looming Doug-fir topples toward me. I drop the branches and scramble, but the snow and dirt crumble beneath my boots. The trunk falls with indifferent force. I dive downhill in a cartwheeling somersault as the fir crashes to a halt, the outer branches whipping my body.
Everything settles to silence. I'd assumed the tree would topple with the hill's natural fall line, but Willy had perfectly split a gap in the thick woods across the hillside. I'd unknowingly moved away from a safe zone, into the crash zone.
Complacency can get you killed. Each night I go home stinking and exhausted. Each morning I wake sore and aching.
We expend gallons of fuel and sweat, but I'm struck by the trees still standing. A casual hiker might never realize that our cowboy thinning operation was here. But we're not trying to leave a mark, just to leave the forest healthier than it was.
Months later, our firebreak is put to the test.
A summer lightning storm ignites a hundred local conflagrations. A pillar of black smoke is visible from my back door, a mere mile from the forest we thinned. I watch, wondering what to take if forced to evacuate. But it doesn't come to that. The forest smolders for a time, but the fire stays on the ground and out of the forest crown.
We successfully thinned the ridge of fuel that led, like a fuse, to my home. But a whole forest of work is still cut out for us.
Alex Roberts is a Washington native who occasionally finds time to write between working in the woods, helping on the farm, guiding on the river, and ski patrolling at Stevens Pass.