Gravity is Not Your Friend

Tales of Vashon

“Gun it,” yelled John from behind the truck.  “Gun it hard,” as the 1,000 pound Madrona log picked up speed down the steep hill.  No time to think, for the log was going to roll right across the road and down the other side, a crisis in the making, as it could roll right into the back of the neighbor’s house.

Gunning the truck forced the Madrona log to stop spinning and line up behind the truck as we prepared to whack her into sizable rounds for splitting and hauling to our respective wood sheds.

Gravity is my friend, because I use it to move logs down hills, put some “sting” in the splitting maul when she hits the top of the block, or by keeping the truck downhill of the pile to be loaded.

“Gravity is not your friend,” John lectured as he commiserated with me after a bad fall from a ladder.  My foot had slipped on a rung and I had crashed 13 feet down the hill and into a four inch stump; creating a huge bruise and a cracked rib.

Thirty years in the woods and the worst accident had been the seven stitches in my shoulder caused by a broken chain-saw handle.  The Monroe hospital nurse had asked why it took so long for me to come in.  The truth was that I had a family to feed and couldn’t afford to stop cutting logs.  She retaliated by telling me that she wouldn’t be able to numb the wound before stitching me up, because I had waited for a day before coming in.  I don’t know if she just made that up or not.  This accident had been my own fault as I had a rotten alder tree twist on the stump the day before and it busted the chain saw handle, so I fashioned a handle from copper tubing, which didn’t last a day.

At the time, I was working on a huge cottonwood that was six feet across on the stump.  When the tree left the stump, a three-foot high artesian stream appeared right in the middle, a tribute to the way the trees take water from the ground.

John had moved to Republic several years before I stopped there on my way to Montana to visit friends.  John had grown up on Bainbridge Island while I attended Vashon Grade School.  He visited Vashon, but had never actually lived there.  Our meeting in Republic had been precipitous in the sense that we were behind the laundromat, on a freezing evening after work when John pulled a bottle of single-malt scotch from behind his seat and we proceeded to weld a friendship that has survived for over thirty years.  While John was the Ferry County assessor, I had chosen to cut firewood for a living and cut over 3,000 cords in 25 years, enough to cover the town of Republic four feet deep in firewood.

The CB radio “crackled,” as I left the main road for the one-lane road up Sweat Creek.  “Comin down loaded, 9 mile” was the message.  I would have to pull off the road and wait at 8 mile, as the logging truck was coming down and had the right of way.  There was good wood up there, but my wood truck could never argue with a logging truck as he came around the corner going lickety-split, the snow billowing up on both sides.  The driver, Old Charlie, was known and hit his air horn as he passed.  We had our own laws up in the woods, every truck had to have a CB radio and the drivers announced their location at certain mile posts, which were pieces of plywood marked with the mileage from the main road.

I was almost to the landing, when Jim Brown came around the corner with his air horn blowing , no time to react except to lay on the brakes and hope that Jim could stop his logging truck before smashing into me.  Jim and his three brothers were all loggers and often worked for each other.  Bill Brown was known as “Hair Bear” and Clint, known as “Big Hook,” was the oldest.  The snow was piled to four feet on either side of the road and there wasn’t a place for us to pass each other for a half mile down the road.  Jim was on a corner and proceeded to back his trailer around a corner to the landing up above.  The rear end of the trailer was too close to the edge and started to slip into the ravine.  Everything came to a standstill.   I told Jim that I could run a cable to the back of the load and, using the truck winch, be able to hold his trailer from slipping over the edge as Jim inched the logging truck forward.  Since my truck was in front, I had run the winch cable thru a snatch block to make “block purchase,” and Jim inched his trailer of logs back up onto the road.  Jim’s CB antenna had broken, so I wasn’t able to hear him.

I had worked for several contractors in the area; driving skidder and choking logs, but found woodcutting a more satisfying life style, despite the lack of money.  Some of these people had lived in these hills for well over 100 years and recognized that I was a supplier of good wood and didn’t sell short cords.  $35 dollars was all I got at first and 20 years later it was $65 per cord.  I never raised my prices in the winter when the wood was hard to get, because that’s when the poor people always ran out of wood.   There wasn’t much money to be had woodcutting, so I drank up my profits at the Hitch’n Post tavern and used the food bank.

When fire season started, I would work for the Forest Service as a radio operator, moving from fire to fire as needed until winter came on.  Fighting fire was dangerous work.  We had a bad one in the Snake River canyon and lost six pilots and one fire fighter in two weeks.
The Forest Service was critical of my woodcutting practices and I received several tickets over the years.  Each load had to be tagged and each tag notched for the date.  If you were cutting for a homeowner, he or she was supposed to be physically present at the wood site.  They did waive that requirement when the customer was too old to make it to the woods.  In other cases, I just ignored the rules.  Logging is full of nefarious practices.

After delivering the wood, I would hang the spent wood tag on the side of the truck, a trophy to my “good work.”  After doing this for a couple of years, the side of the truck was plastered with tags.  It looked like “advertising” to our local ranger and he had me take all the USFS tags off my truck.  It made me mad since the ranger was a good wood customer with a large fireplace; I removed the tags.

If I had finished loading my truck and had surplus wood by the side of the road, I would use my chainsaw to carve SCM in the side of the log; thus identifying the wood to anyone who might drive by.  Most woodcutters would honor that, though you couldn’t depend on them not to take your wood.

I was having a beer or two with Gwen Mason, a gnarly old retired blacksmith; when his son came up from the basement of their house with a piece of wood that had my initials on it.  I had left the log on the road in hopes of seeing it again the next day.  No luck; my friend had cut up the log and was burning it.  Gwen was notorious for his inventions; which included a jeep mounted mortar that fired juice cans filled with black powder; one of which had exploded in the county judge’s back yard at the other end of town.  The sheriff took away Gwen’s mortar.  Gwen had a wood sign in his front yard shaped like a gravestone, which read “May the next dog that craps in my yard RIP.”

Sometimes I would have to make two runs a day and would cut up the second load to have it ready for the return run.  I came back for the second load one day and a hunter from the coast told me to get my wood off the road.  “Coasties” was the name given to these unwanted visitors from the city and when the hunter pointed his shotgun at my dogs and told me to call them off, I did so.  I walked up to the hunter; complimenting him on his good looking gun.  I next asked to see it and when the hunter handed over the shotgun, I grabbed it by the barrel and smashed the stock over a stump.  “Why did you bust my gun,” the hunter asked?  “I didn’t like you threatening my dogs,” I replied.  The hunter drove off excitedly.

I believe that the forest belongs to the people and that the government is only its custodian.  The law and I don’t agree and that is how I ended up in Federal Court in Spokane.  When National Forest abuts Bureau of Land Management land, they leave two or three hundred feet of forest between them, lest the respective agencies argue over their respective borders.  I would sneak into that no-man’s- land between them and help the good people of Ferry County to their government wood.

My day in Federal Court was notable for one thing.  Everything being said was being recorded and halfway through my testimony, they ran out of tape.  The proceedings were held up while the clerk found some more tape.  I was fined for cutting wood 80 feet outside the “oddball compartment,” which was the government’s name for the area where I was supposed to be cutting wood.  I paid the fine and was let go.

At one point, Rural Resources was paying me to deliver wood to the people who didn’t have the means to get it, especially in the winter.  I had an Indian friend; we called him “Hobo.”  Hobo was a San Poil Indian and a damn good woodcutter, always holding up his end of the log.  His family was part of the original in habitants of the valley.  The valley was so narrow where Hobo lived that the only way to get TV was to mount the antenna on a 1,000 foot cliff that took an hour to climb.  There were twelve Stensgar kids, most of them grown up and gone away.

As we drove up 21 Mile road, Hobo read the tribal wood permit out loud.  I asked him what the permit was for.  “Free wood,” he replied.  I thought if the wood was “free,” then we were free to do whatever we wanted to do with it.  Not so the case; it was Indian wood being sold off the reservation to the U.S. government.

Richard K. was legally blind and so was eligible for wood from rural resources.  He had two driveways to get into his place where we had piled 12 cords of firewood from the reservation and were about to add another cord to the pile when Indian cops in two rigs came in both driveways and confiscated the wood.   Hobo didn’t hang around but took off for the swamps behind Richard’s house to hide from the cops and I was left to face the music.   I was headed for the tribal court in Nespelem, where Judge Orr gave me the choice of accepting a civil suit for “injury against the tribe,” or paying the $150 fee for stumpage.  I paid the stumpage.

I didn’t see Hobo again for three months.  We didn’t talk about losing the twelve cords.  It was up on Rattle Snake ridge where we had cut and split a cord and were going to try for a second cord.  I left Hobo in the woods to finish off the second cord.  When I came back, he had a big fire going and was drying his gloves on sticks.  It was snowing and cold.  Hobo was burning up the split wood instead of dragging some limbs out of the bush.  I was mad that Hobo was burning up the wood we were selling and I told him so.  He shrugged his shoulders and we loaded the wood.  I took some of the wood from Hobo’s fire and threw it on the load, because it looked like the fire was out.  About halfway down Scatter creek, I looked in the rear view mirror.  The load of wood was on fire and we had to stop and put it out.  Trying to save the partially burnt wood was a dumb move.

I heard later that Judge Orr had given the 12 cords they had confiscated to the elderly people of the tribe.

According to John Sweetman, I was the “worst ferry in Felon County,” and John was proud to have me as a partner in crime.  The county was made up of people who had come from a different age including the Hatfields and the McCoys who had little tolerance for government interference.