December 13, 2017

You Can’t Be Too Careful

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

We heat with wood.

That said, I cut most of our firewood in the winter.  The rest of the year, I’m too busy with other jobs to spend much time in the woods.  Plus, the working temperatures are more comfortable in the winter.  There are fewer bugs.  Provided the snow isn’t too deep, you can get a lot done and, with frozen ground, leave the land unscarred in the bargain.

I use an Oliver Crawler to harvest wood.  It’s a marvelous old machine, small enough to get around and still strong enough to be a very powerful tool.  Last weekend I used it to take down a huge old maple tree.

The tree was already down ― to a point.  It was hanging in another maple, angled down by at least 60 degrees.  The trunk snapped during that wind storm we had last month.  I grabbed my saw, tools, gas and oil and went to work with the Oliver tractor.

It wasn’t such a big deal severing the base.  The problem was the tree didn’t fall to the ground when I did it.  I was sure that it wouldn’t.  It remained firmly hung up in that other tree.  Yeah.  I shut off the saw, stood back from the problem and studied it a moment.  It was clear that I’d have to pull it down.  I knew that, too.  The question was how to do it.

With a tree this big ― the maple was at least a foot and a half in diameter at the butt ― obviously I’d use the tractor.  That wasn’t the issue.  The question was whether to haul the tree down with the drawbar or the winch, use a straight pull or a pulley.

Because of exposed bedrock, a thick growth of fir trees in the way of a straight pull and the desire to be a long-g-g way away from the tree when it fell, I chose to use the winch and a pulley.

I’m still here because I did.

A word about this winch.  It’s a beauty.  But it’s not electric or even hydraulic.  It’s driven directly off the motor via a solid shaft power-take-off.  That means even though my OC-3 crawler is only 22 horsepower, its winch has unbelievable torque.  This is especially true as this tractor is equipped with an underdrive transmission that greatly amplifies power.  Something might break, but the tractor will not stall.

I parked the crawler, set the brakes and shifted the forward transmission to low and the after transmission to neutral.  That slows the winch cable to a creep while leaving the tractor stationary.  (Each transmission is a four-speed.  That gives me 16 ratios, total.  Low-low is exactly what it sounds like, slow-slow ― just don’t try to stop it.)  Then I ran the cable way down into the williwaws, through a pulley and back to the maple.  I hooked onto the tree no more than 18 inches from the butt and walked back to the crawler.

I eyed the set up.  Everything looked innocent.  I engaged the winch and released the clutch.  The cable began its inexorable creep, winding around the winch drum at less than a foot a minute.  It took awhile to take up the slack.

But once the cable was tight, that old maple never stood a chance.  It scraped along the ground slowly for perhaps a foot.  Then the severed end encountered its own stump.  The butt of the  tree stopped but the rest of it kept going.  The winch swung that massive tree upright with only 18 inches for leverage.  More than that, it pulled it through a 150-degree arc, up and out of that other tree, past vertical and crashed it down in the opposite direction on top of the cable, pulley and chains doing all the work.  It did it with unbelievable speed.

I shoved in the clutch and stared.  If I’d taken that tree down on a direct pull, it would have landed right on top of the tractor.  I swallowed with difficulty and admitted the truth, “It would have landed right on top of me.”

I glanced up at the blue-blue winter sky.  Strange.  The day looked so innocent.  I’m a big believer in safety equipment, too.  I was wearing glasses and a plastic helmet.  I had my chaps on.  My boots have steel toes.  Not that any of that would have saved me.

“How did that happen so fast?” I whispered.  “That tree weighs tons.”

Making sure everything was in neutral, I climbed down from the tractor and went to look.  A moment’s study gave the answer.  Sure, the winch cable creeps along but it was attached at the butt.  That tree was 80 feet tall.  At least. That meant on a radial swing the top had to fly to keep up with the base.

It did, too.

I shook my head.  “Wow!  If I’d been parked here …”

I left that sentence unfinished.

I love the heat from a woodstove.  On a cold winter morning, there’s nothing quite as comforting.

It’s great knowing that we can heat the house independently of Central Maine Power and the national trade deficit while avoiding the high price of oil, too.

That said, when you cut wood, you simply cannot be too careful.