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In the cut: Trail workers revive saw skills

  • 4 min to read
In the cut: Trail workers revive saw skills
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POWELL RANGER STATION, IDAHO — When you’ve got a 70-inch-diameter-at-breast-height piss-fir with a catface butt-swell requiring a springboard and a back lean looming over your cabin, who you gonna call?

Perhaps the ghost of a traditional logger. Or Adam Washebec, a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger who not only knows what all that jargon means, but has the skills to remove the problem tree without crushing the finished lumber.

Washebec used the story of the spooky tree as a lesson in a recent master class on crosscut sawing and ax-handling. In common speech, a grand fir (that smells like urine when cut) with bulging roots more than 5 feet wide has a basketball-sized cavity resembling a grumpy cat right where you’d like to start cutting it down. Instead, you must chop in a bouncy plank above the catface so you have something to stand on above the butt-swell when you saw, preferably with a crosscut saw so you can precisely gauge where the trunk will land in the opposite direction of the cabin it leans over.

“We use more saws than loggers do — they’re all mechanized now,” Washebec told the dozen fellow rangers, trail crew bosses and firefighters around his table. “We are loggers now, according to our classification by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

Traditional Skills Shavings

Instructor Bob Beckley displays the wood shavings that proper crosscut practice leaves.

But with most timber cutting now done by $400,000 feller-bunchers that do the work of 20 men, the people who remember how to cut trees by hand have grown few. Yet the need keeps growing as people want to hike the trails, enjoy the picnic grounds and camp in the nation’s public lands.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits use of mechanized or motorized equipment in the roughly 4.5 percent of the United States designated as federal wilderness. So any fallen trees blocking a path in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness right across the Lochsa River from the Powell Ranger Station must be cleared with either an ax or hand saw.

And if commercial cutting isn’t the objective, hand tools have some real advantages over chainsaws. Forest Service traditional skills project leader Bob Beckley pointed to a comparison between motorized and hand-powered trail crews. Each chainsaw operator had to freight a 20-pound machine plus fuel, protective chaps and repair tools. A crosscut saw and a can of WD-40 lubricant weighs less than 10 pounds.

“The chainsaw crew ended up cutting a little more,” Beckley said of the study. “But after a week in the woods, they were really slowing down because of the beating they were taking holding a vibrating machine all day, breathing exhaust. Meanwhile the crosscut crews were developing muscles, gaining strength and rhythm. By the end of the week, they were staying even.”

For a piece of steel with sharp points on one side, a huge amount of thought goes into a classic crosscut saw. Felling saws, used for cutting standing trees, have a slight arc to their edge. Regardless how long the saw is, its arc would fit as a segment of a circle the size of A Carousel for Missoula. Generations ago, sawmakers found that 36-foot-diameter circle made an ideal curve for efficient cutting.

The arc means fewer teeth attack the wood. Paradoxically, that makes for faster cutting due to less friction. At least six common tooth designs exist among American crosscut saws, each with its devotees.

Detachable handles come in one- and two-hand lengths. Beckley recalled interviewing an old Oregon woodsman about crosscut history. The man hated the Forest Service and wouldn’t talk unless Beckley answered a question first: Do you saw with one hand or two?

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A two-handed sawyer must pull one arm across the chest, shortening the stroke, lengthening the job and making it harder to breathe. A one-handed sawyer swings a longer pull that cuts faster. Beckley answered correctly.

That position assumes the felling team stands side-by-side, with the tree between them. Standing face-to-face, like opponents in a tug-o-war, would mean the stroke stops where the saw hits the sawyer’s belly. Uncomfortable and inefficient.

Traditional Skills Blurr

Adam Washebeck, left, and Jeremy Watkins work their way through a fir tree while instructor Tom Wilson, back, discusses crosscut saw instruction.

The longer handles usually go on a bucking saw, intended to cut downed trees into manageable lengths. Buckers often worked solo, finding it more efficient to let the weight of the heavier, straighter bucking saw do the work rather than coordinate with a partner. Beckley told of one irascible woodsman who was too cranky to keep a partner for long. He stayed employed on the crew with the help of a rubber inner tube he tied to a nearby tree, which added recoil to his stroke.

But doesn’t crosscut saw skill fall in the same hobby basket as home-brewing beer? A cool link to a grandfather’s legacy that’s been eclipsed by modern methods?

“We need a lot of trail taken care of,” said Robert Wetherell, recreation and safety program leader at the Missoula Technology and Development Center. “That’s now mandated by law, through the Trails Stewardship Act. And if people do this activity, they have to be trained.”

Wetherell and Beckley have been rolling out an extensive update to the Forest Service’s saw and ax training program since the new rules came into play in 2016. In addition to certifying that Forest Service wilderness rangers, firefighters and trail crews have the proper guidance, the program brings in the thousands of volunteers who donate their vacation time maintaining public lands. Last year, more than 2,000 people contributed 91,000 hours of work on the Pacific Crest Trail network alone.

Under the new system, sawyers get graded as an A, B or C. Grade-A sawyers may cut wood by themselves. B-grade sawyers can supervise volunteers. C-sawyers have mastered the skill, and may train and certify others. Independent groups like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation have been scrambling to get their team leaders certified at workshops like the one at Powell Ranger Station.

Traditional Skills Lecture

Bob Beckley, center, gives a lecture to the students of the traditional skills course prior to the start of their first field outing recently in the Nez Perce - Clearwater National Forest in Idaho.

“For the longest time, people assumed I was a park ranger,” said Caleb Stewart, a Powell student who manages the Montana Conservation Corps Kalispell office and leads student work groups all summer long. “I tell them that trees fall in the woods, and you have to go cut them out. It’s hard to articulate that for people who have no connection to wilderness. Keeping these skills alive is far more important than just the sake of keeping them alive.”

Wetherell said many of the people he trains come in “off the couch instead of off the ranch.” They have little experience growing up with hand tools. When cutting trees with a chainsaw, the motor makes it easy to correct mistakes without realizing the initial problem.

“The crosscut teaches patience,” Wetherell said. “You don’t want to do this more than once, so you get it right the first time.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.

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