30: Notching logs with an adze

If pictures are worth so many words, these will suffice. I added some short captions.

Baby Angus says, "I can lift this bigol' hammer or my name ain't Bocephus!"

Big Abel inspects daddy's notch.

Abel: "I think it needs a little bit of spatula."

Angus is still trying.

"UUUNNNGH! If I had pants, I could do it for sure."

Here I am on Friday, July 18, using an adze to make a notch:

29: Friends and hard labor

This evening, friends and colleagues John and Jeremy came up the holler to help. Actually, Jeremy is a neighbor and walked over, using my system of mountain bike trails, one on which the cabin sits. I'll have to re-route that one.

I needed help bringing all the logs we cut and debarked to the actual cabin site. Most of it was easy, but the log I'm notching in this short video is the one that slid down the hill, the first one that Tom cut, the one that was too large for big Tom and I to lift, the one that started fifteen feet from the cabin and landed 100 feet away and maybe that far vertically below. We later agreed that it weighed over 300 pounds. We used rope slings as handles and inched the thing, step-by-step, up the steep slope through wet leaves, briars, and poison ivy on a humid evening in late June, smoky clouds and weak sun rays hitting us from over the Westerly ridge, backs bent, boots slipping, gnats in our eyes, an elusive destination high at the top of our steep ascent punctuated by my "1, 2, 3, lift!" that began to feel like a countdown on a 100-pitch, big-wall climb. Each pitch gained us less than a foot and cost massive effort. Thanks for the help, guys!

Jeremy with the bark spud and John with the hatchet.

Above: John notching a log; John and Jeremy with Logzilla.
Below: Short film of the author notching a log with the hatchet.

28: "Walking the baby"

Last Thursday, my dad came up to spend the evening with us. On Tuesday, Tobias had dropped and bucked five trees, and I was anxious to strip the bark before they dried -- when fresh and wet, it comes off in long, curved swaths, lubricated by slick moisture trapped between the cambrium and the woody trunk.

So dad, feeling better but still recovering from back surgery, and Abel, full of energy but only five-years-old, accompanied me to where the logs lay. Dad sat on a stump and watched; to Abel, I gave a "tool" to work on his own log while I got into action with the sharp bark spud. I think it was a large c-clamp. I should have been ashamed; I grabbed it because it was handy, safe, and enigmatic enough that he'd be tricked.

Soon, I had massive pieces of bark on the ground and lots of pretty, newly exposed wood -- straight poplar, once stripped, looks clean and slightly dimpled, almost as if it's been whittled smooth by a giant with jackknife. I felt industrious, manly, competent. Impressed with myself, and my cool tool. Then, I looked up.

Abel stood over my work. Useless c-clamp clenched. Fighting tears. Behind us, nicked but intact logs lay, picked at by an inadequate tool held by an eager but naive small boy. "Daddy, I... I. I want to hayulp." Ending on a down note. More tears, and he managed somehow to look smaller than he is.

"Abel, use your tool."

"No dad, it doesn't work. I want to use that tool," he said, pointing at the bark spud I held in my hand. You gotta hand it to a small child, certain that it was the tool that made all the difference, willing to believe that with the right tool, he can do anything, despite the limits of his own skills, experience, or strength. We're like that as adults, too, and as a society. The right tools or technology can arrest oil spills, put men on the moon, put any kind of information at our fingertips. Tools can do anything. Jiminy Cricket! Eureka! I'm not so sure, but I wouldn't want to squelch his enthusiasm or his sweet belief that anything is possible. In this case, he was right.

I feel pressure to debark all these logs, to stay on my time line, to send him away, to distract him somehow. But this interruption needs to be accepted, unlike some of the times my wife calls or rings the bell (yes, we have a bell, and that's another story). The logs don't matter. Also, my Dad watches. Somehow his silence seems like some kind of confidence, in me, that I should pass along to my own son. "Abel, do you think you can hold this tool, like this?" He nods. "Can I hold it too, maybe right here?"

"OK Dad, but let me do it." Move the tool. With less guidance than I expected, he slides it under the bark, only letting me get it started. This bark spud really is magical; combined with the properties of fresh poplar that I described, it removes bark with little effort. We work. He laughs. Bark gets pried loose, then we drop the tool, I hand the end of a piece of bark to him, I help, and we pull it off in a really long strip. Soon, we're smoking. On a roll. Before I know it, we've debarked a whole log, fourteen feet, more than I would have ever expected given a child's propensity for distraction and Abel's age-specific attention span. "Dad, let's do another!"

Beginning our second log, Abel is really getting the hang of the tool -- I'm holding on more just to prevent an accident than to assist him. The bark spud has a long, spoon-like curved blade, except unlike a spoon it's flat across the width, not concave. This curvature slides under the bark and along the roundness of the tree trunk, from side-to-side. It also has rounded, sharp corners transitioning from the flat head of the blade to the sides, which are also sharp. Getting under the bark requires digging these corners in between it and the wood and gently rocking the tool until it slips into that space. Apparently, Abel had watched me do this, and without direction, he applied the technique, along with an original (not from my lips), metaphoric declaration: "Dad, you've gotta walk the baby. Look Dad, walkin' the baby!" and he "walked" the tool back and forth, back and forth, until it did its job. To the rhythm of the Saturday Night Live skit that he'd never even heard, "Makin' copies," we were "Walkin' the baby..."

After two logs, Abel asked if he could go back to the house and get a popsicle. "Sure son -- I'm proud of you. You did a great job."

"You did a great job too, Dad. Bye!" I hope so, because he sure did.

27: Logging, part 2

Last week, my friend Tobias and his family came up the holler to drop some more trees. Tobias works for the nearby Great Smoky Mountain National Park. He carves trails and oversees the conscientious maintenance of sensitive woodland areas spanning the East side of the park, from Fontana to Cataloochee. You'd think he wouldn't be into "killing" trees, but I doubt I'll ever see him chained in protest to some juvenile tulip poplar in the middle of a second-growth forest sprouting in the Appalachian rain forest near the Highland Plateau.

Fact is, poplars grow fast, like weeds. Also, my land is rich in tree diversity, and thinning the canopy just a small bit will improve the health of my oaks, birches, beeches, and other more desirable trees.

Tobias is a Sawyer in his own right, although not a professional logger like Tom. Not from the commercial sector, he commands great skill and knowledge in the safe, effective, and precise use of a chainsaw. Tobias is the kind of example that would inspire the most hardened anarchist to sing songs supporting the efficacy of government. Trying to explain sophisticated hinging techniques to me, at the end of the day I rely on his judgment and directly applied personal skill when it comes to cutting down a tree. Timberrrrr! I just pick the tree and get out of his way.

Something Tom explained to me, and Tobias confirmed: despite the catastrophic obvious effect that getting nailed by the main trunk of a tree may have, that's not the most common type of accident. When a tree moves, its branches and those of its neighbor collide and sometimes break off. Tom said, "if a stick as big as my thumb falls in the right way and hits you in the right spot, you're done for."

After storms and windy days, I've found 10' long, wrist-thick branches impaled in hard earth like a javelin. Right where we play. When we're working on still-vertical wood, I wear a helmet.

I may be (for better or for worse) teaching myself rough (very) woodworking techniques, construction methods, and cabin design. But I'm grateful that I have friends like Tom and Tobias -- there's no room for trial and error when it comes to the dynamics of cutting down a big tree, and I'm better off learning from them.

26: logging!

I'll update this post with some pictures soon, but on Tuesday, I received a project lifeline from a friend, a burly big guy in his 50's, born and raised here, who has logged for a living and keeps his fingers (all ten, still!) in it, and is conversant in the mountain culture of yore but at the same time is an adventure racer, works at the University, is married to an English professor, and is as at home with shaved-leg cyclists as he is with Appalachian work crews. Tom, the Renaissance Mountain Man.

Tom showed up at my house mid morning with his 24" bar Stihl. For the ignorant, that's a big man's saw, but he's easily two of me. We dropped two large Poplars, just barely small enough in diameter to be moved (in sections) without heavy equipment or leverage devices. After felling the trees, Tom bucked them into 14 and 12 foot logs, perfect for our project. We moved several to the cabin subfloor for notching and construction. The rest we left nearby, on the ground.

Later that day, I tended to the logs with a bark spud, the 2' tool that I purchased for the task of skinning them. It's a wooden-handled instrument with a sharp, curved, two-inch-wide blade that slips under the bark. Surpisingly, with all the water the trees have been soaking up, bark slipped off in massive sheets and long strips. It was easy! In Chapter 8, I considered returning this tool, and that would have been a huge mistake.

Excitement did occur when the biggest log decided to exhibit a playful nature and pretend to be a tobogan sled -- I lost it, and now it's going to take at least 4 strong folks a few minutes to retrieve it 60 feet from the bottom of the hill it descended. I had to jump it like I was skipping rope!

Once again, I'm grateful for and humbled by the generosity of my energetic and skilled friends -- without help, I couldn't physically or safely have accomplished this part of the log cabin project.

About Me

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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.