Bob Beckley has figuratively handed over his crosscut saw mantle to Susan Jenkins, but he’s still going to keep some teeth in the game.
Both Beckley and Jenkins are devotees of traditional forestry skills, from crosscut saws and axes to tree rigging and explosives. For years, Beckley led the U.S. Forest Service’s effort to literally write the books on some of these backcountry and wilderness tools and their use, occasionally aided by Jenkins and other experts.
“I just completed — literally just now — the Forest Service ax manual called ‘One Moving Part,’” Beckley said, flashing a smile. “It’s the definitive book on axes and ax uses, an instructional guide for people who want to learn to use one; how to sharpen it, chop with it and store an ax properly. I’ve done one on crosscut saws, packing (mules and horses) and leave no trace.”
But after almost 45 years with the Forest Service, Beckley — a self-described lover of the low-tech lifestyle — is leaving, and Jenkins will try to fill his leather logging boots. And the larger-than-life Beckley is certain the petite Jenkins is the perfect person for the job.
“She has the passion for traditional skills, and she has the knowledge and the demeanor and the will to teach those skills,” Beckley said recently as the two sat on a log outside the Forest Service’s National Museum in Missoula, where the scent of cedar shakes filled the air.
“I’ve already slid the volunteer agreement across the table for him to sign,” Jenkins countered. “No one in our realm will let him go that easy.”
They’ve known each other for so long that Beckley and Jenkins finish each other’s sentences without even knowing it. They met back in 2001 when she was a wilderness ranger in the Gospel Hump Wilderness in Idaho, and needed technical tips for non-mechanized work. As she moved into a full-time job, he helped her show backcountry crews rigging skills, mule packing and stonemasonry.
Beckley said that a critical skill not often noticed is the physics involved in traditional skills. He’s not joking when he says “the laws of physics are non-negotiable.”
“With almost everything we do, something is going to move,” Beckley noted. “Everything has forces involved with it. Just using trees as an example, trees (and) logs have areas of tension and compression. If you don't understand the forces involved and where you need to be, when that object moves it might take you along with it and that’s never a good idea.
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“The nuances, techniques, grace, body movement and position are all important to being efficient and having an enjoyable experience. … Basic physics tells us that for every action there is a separate and equal reaction. If we understand what’s about to happen we have freedom to move and position ourselves in a safe location. If we don't understand what’s about to happen, we can get knocked ass over teakettle.”
Jenkins, who is a native of Missouri, started with the Forest Service as a seasonal backcountry firefighter in Idaho in 1994, and eventually turned it into a full-time job. She left for a stint as a kayaking wilderness ranger in the Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska, then returned to the McCall Ranger District on Idaho’s Payette Forest.
Meanwhile, Beckley’s job became more computerized, in writing the technical manuals for traditional skills. Each year, representatives from the Forest Service's nine regions would get together to discuss requests for publications on technical skills and techniques, which Beckley would produce — including electronic versions. All are free to the public, he added.
“People in the field would write up a project proposal, needing something to do their job better, safer, or more cost-efficient,” Beckley said. “If a project is selected, we take it on and develop a solution.”
Jenkins wrote up quite a few proposals, and became one of Beckley’s go-to people across the country on whose expertise he relies. So when he decided to “retire” earlier this year, he immediately thought of Jenkins as his replacement.
“It’s time for me to get out on the trail. I didn’t take this job to get behind a computer,” said Beckley, who started out as a firefighter and smokejumper before a back injury (his parachute got caught in a tree before the branches snapped and he plummeted 80 feet to the ground) grounded him. “I have hundreds, if not thousands, of stories and not one of them came from my time in the office. It’s time to go out and make new stories.”
But Jenkins is quick to rope him back in, noting he will be one of her best assets as they continue to preserve the traditional skills and pass them onto the next generation.
“For me, it feels like we’re facilitating getting these things into the right hands, as teachers, so we can preserve these skills,” she said.
“We are teaching problem-solving skills, so we are freeing people up to think. And that’s pretty damn rare in this digital age,” Beckley added.