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Hunker down time

Fall is creeping down the mountains. Larch gold has been poured over the peaks and flows down each ridge. Huckleberry red is mirrored in lower elevation dogwood. Snow at 4,000 feet will be sending a bitterly cold morning down to the valleys; hunker down time.

To truly understand and appreciate hunker down time requires heating with wood. When the woodshed is full, a family won't freeze, get frost bite or even be uncomfortable through winter. How many other things do you have complete control over than this guarantee of being warm enough?

We began heating with wood in the fall of 1971 when we moved to a log cabin on Granite Creek near Libby. We had a pickup to carry wood—it had been our 4-wheel commuter vehicle through two East Glacier Montana winters—but not a clue of how and what to fill the truck with.

Confidently, we bought an Ashley stove. Confidently, we drove into the mountains, found a clear cut with huge slash piles, and began using our cross-cut saw to cut small-diameter logs into 8' lengths. We liked the logs with the stringy bark, because they were easy to saw. Then at home, the 8 footers were cut to stove size. That first truck load of cedar taught us a lot.

A cold week convinced us to buy a chain saw and keep the small amount of cedar left for kindling. Our poor little kids had to come with us on late fall wood gathering days. We tried to call them picnics, but it is hard to eat chips and a sandwich while wearing gloves. Before the snow shut us down completely, we had a couple cords of fir and larch stacked between trees and tarp covered. By early March, wearing snowshoes, we were pulling dead aspen into the yard and sawing it up for firewood.

That first winter's lesson stuck. Wood gathering is taken seriously. Our woodshed has never been empty since. Buried behind the back row are some big larch rounds cut slightly too long for stove length that have been there since 1980.

There has been one major mishap with using wood for heat, but it was a problem with the chimney. Or to be exact, it was a problem with us, who believed a chimney could be cleaned by dragging a gunnysack of chains up and down the length. Don't ever do this; use a chimney brush. The chimney fire started about 8 am; by noon the house was a smoldering pile. The Ashley, refrigerator, sewing machine, guinea pig, and stereo were saved

Over the years, we refined our wood gathering. First, we only took uphill dead down trees, cut rounds and rolled 'em down to the road. Later we added trail building and wheelbarrow technology to mine a flat section of forests, and boldly sawed down mistletoe-killed larch.

Working for the Forest Service, we kept track of their woodcutting projects. We knew where the Douglas fir, cut down for cones, were located. We knew that the fire crew was sent around to cut down all the larch snags on ridges because they were considered lightening rods. The giant buckskin tamaracks provided us with several years of firewood. Counting the rings in one of these grandfather trees proved it over 200 years old. There is still some of that dry old wood, split and stacked, in the back row of the woodshed.

Two hundred years of stored sunshine was released that winter of ‘77/’78 when it was so cold, the squirt of milk from the cow would freeze to the side of the bucket. Two wheelbarrow loads of wood a day are needed in those cold conditions. We have not seen any other winters of prolonged  minus 20 to minus 30 degree weather, but, by golly, we are prepared with well seasoned, tight grained, split tamarack that is in the back row in the woodshed.

About five years ago we decided it would be nice to take a trip or two in the winter, and so got a small propane stove. We use it to take the chill off on these fine fall mornings when a wood fire would overheat the house.

A propane stove doesn't invite hunkering down though. No soup simmers atop and the BTUs are wimpy. The 33-year-old Ashley still has the center of the room. The chimney is clean, the wood box emptied of a summer's accumulation of newspapers, and we are ready for a cold day. Ready to hunker down.

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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firewood, wood heat

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