Running a chainsaw is all cock and balls.
It's ugly and it's sweaty, but it gets the job done.
That’s not to say it’s strictly a man’s endeavor because I’ve known some great female sawyers. But there’s a definite machismo to it; a single cylinder two-stroke engine driving razor-sharp teeth at 45 mph over and under an elongated oval steel bar, 7 units of horsepower vibrating up from fingers to wrists to shoulders, and the cacophonous noise of wood instantaneously giving away chip by chip. Any slip at any second, and limbs and digits can disappear.
However, do the job right, and columns of Mother Nature fall from their postured confidence exactly how you intended.
In 2000, when I was 24 years old, I was in charge of five others and given the task of fuel reduction and hazard tree removal in properties belonging to a state agency in the neighborhoods of Lake Tahoe, California. At this time my body was up to the task and my fragile ego thirsted for the adrenaline rush of proving I could combine nerves and brawn, and get the job done. In this beautiful mountain setting I returned for two more seasons before striking out on the proverbial American road to be a musician in a full-time touring band–a helluva’ way to spend one’s twenties.
Fast forward to July 2010...
Sweat dripped down from my hard hat, under my safety glasses, over my brow, and into my left eyeball; an annoying sting, but I squeezed my eyelid shut and did my best to ignore it. My right middle finger continued to bounce methodically on and off the throttle of my Stihl 660 power head. My left hand gripped tightly to the handlebar as I was making my first cut into a lumbering lodgepole pine.
Above me, a thick canopy of heavy branches splayed out in all directions. I was in the corner of a fifty-foot wide alley of land, tucked between fences and houses. The tree had a backwards lean towards power lines and a 25-foot wide road. On the other side of this road were vehicles and makeshift carports in front of dilapidated apartments.
It was a tight neighborhood that sat on spongy ground at the base of Heavenly Mountain. Lodgepoles in wet areas grew fast and wide, and tended to be weak. Put houses right next to them and they became potential hazards. Put those hazards on property owned by the State and it was best to prevent a future lawsuit by removing them. Thus, we’d already cleared about a dozen trees, which had been marked/designated by professional foresters on this 50 by 200 foot vacant lot stretching to the other side of the block.
It was late in the afternoon and this was the last tree. To my annoyance, an audience had gathered across the road equipped with lawn chairs and beverages to spectate our operation. I let my finger ease off the throttle and gazed back at them, calculating if they would have to scatter if things went wrong. I then looked up to the taut rope that shot from the tree 60-feet up. It sloped downwards for 200-feet before ending upon the trailer hitch of our F-350 work truck, which was positioned at the edge of the far road at a perpendicular angle. One crew member sat in the driver’s seat of the idling vehicle and awaited my relayed instructions, which I would deliver with hand signals to the four other crew members standing to the left and right of the vehicle.
This rope was my insurance that I wouldn’t have to clear out my audience.
I squeezed my left eyelid a couple more times to clear the sweat and then pressed the throttle again, continuing my horizontal cut into the face of the trunk. My earplugs deafened the whir of the engine and an odor of gasoline mixed with 2-cycle engine oil wafted into my nostrils. This was my reality during the summer of 2010. I was heading into my mid-thirties and I was back behind a saw, whether I liked it or not.
It was a rough time. I was dealing with a failed business, the end of touring life, a sick father, and no road map as to how I should proceed into the future. I kept trying to remind myself I had no reason to complain–I’d been able to rock and roll around the country. And the band had a 7 year run, adventures galore, played a thousand plus shows from Hawaii to New York City, and went way further than, as one member put it, “our personal dynamics and talent should’ve ever allowed.” But in the end, it wasn’t realistic to sustain, and with barely a whimper of an announcement to our fan base, it was over–a terrible way to end things.
This all meant I quickly needed a new job and steady paycheck. With the recession in full swing and a need to stay in South Lake Tahoe for my Dad, I went for something I thought was easily attainable. The agency had kindly hired me back, to which I was grateful, and I was put in charge of five others about ten years my junior–or in other words, just like me in the beginning of the millennium. It was difficult at first for them to relate and vice-versa, but, luckily, it was a good group and we eventually settled into a productive dynamic.
However, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I had moved backwards in life.
The saw ate deeper into the core of the tree until I paused to check my gunning sight to see that I was still on target. Satisfied with my first of three cuts, I pulled it out and re-jabbed the steel spikes, aka “The Dogs,” into the bark to position myself for the next cut.
The second cut started about a foot above the first and I angled the saw down at 45-degrees. The main goal of this cut was to meet the edges of the first horizontal cut, and to make it as clean as possible. Even small over or under shots left uncorrected could affect how a tree fell. And working around private property and power lines meant I needed the tree to fall exactly as I planned.
Since the saw was “dogged” into the trunk, it was less about holding up the power head and more about keeping it in its place as the chain and bar continued to eat down into the wood. This was a patient stretch–a Zen kind of moment when the rest of the world was tuned out and I awaited the saw to hit its destination points.
Unexpectedly, about 3/4th of the way into my cut, my attention was yanked away from the operation. Even over the 120-decibel engine and my earplugs, I could perceive yelling. I quickly looked up to see several of the crew frantically waving their arms.
Could they see something going on in the crown of the tree–something I couldn’t because I was at the base? I instinctually leapt a few feet back while simultaneously pulling the saw from the tree, and then sidestepped twenty feet away while frantically looking up. I didn’t see anything, but they were still waving and yelling. I killed the engine, and that’s when I heard it.
The F-350’s reverse lights were shining as the vehicle backed into the lot, releasing the tension from the rope. The tree relaxed towards the power lines. The sirens’ volume increased before two fire trucks appeared to the right on the far road. They shimmied past our truck and then accelerated towards their emergency.
Damn. What were the odds? Our truck had been taking up 3/4ths of a quiet road that probably hadn’t seen a fire truck for quite some time.
The F-350 inched forward again to reestablish the tension in the rope. I swallowed hard. Nothing had changed, but still my confidence had fallen a few notches. The audience behind me seemed to be getting a kick out of the entertainment we were providing. I yanked the starter cord and revved my 660 back to life. I reinserted the saw and finished the second cut to pop out a pie shaped piece of wood. A nice and clean notch remained, which marked the direction the tree would fall.
I was assessing how I was going to make my third and final cut–the back cut–when a large truck passed on the road behind me, then slammed its brakes and hastily pulled off to the side to park.
‘Man, what now?’ I thought.
Out of the driver’s side sprang a thin, lanky guy with a big smile. I quickly recognized him. It was Frank.
Everyone loved Frank, including myself.
We’d worked together during my first stint as a crew leader and he’d since gone on to start his own successful tree company. He’d been in the neighborhood bidding on a job. I killed the saw and walked over to greet him. We shared a few laughs and then he turned his attention to the tree.
“Damn, that’s a lot of weight on the back there.”
He was referring to the branches on the opposite side of my felling direction–the weight pulling the tree back towards the power lines and apartments. Ten years ago, when things were a bit more cowboy, we’d have put gaffs around our shins and then spiked up the tree with flip-lines and a small arbor saw, cutting all the branches two-thirds up the tree before tying the safety rope nice and snug to the trunk. With the majority of the weight gone, it was hard to make a mistake.
I explained to Frank how the climbing program got axed sometime in the mid 2000’s because someone finally realized the insurance implications, or lack of in this case, were bad if something were to happen. No climbing, in my opinion, made our job more challenging, time-consuming, and dangerous. Frank agreed.
“Well, that’s pretty sketchy–what you’ve got going here.”
Fuck. If Frank thought it was sketchy, then it was. My confidence fell a few more notches as I went back to the operation. I thought he would’ve needed to get going, but he showed no signs of leaving; another audience member.
I yanked the saw to life, and took a knee to position myself for the back cut. The goal of this cut was to make a horizontal line starting from the back, about two inches above the first cut. I would saw into the tree so all that remained was a 1” to 1½” slice of “holding wood,” a hinge, which would guide the tree as it descended to the ground. If I left a larger portion on one side versus the other, the tree would pull to that side as it fell. Using different ratios of holding wood was also a way to counter a lean to the left or right.
As the saw sank deeper into the tree and the fibers holding it in place disappeared, the chances of movement one way or another exponentially grew. Combine that with the fact it was the end of a long day, the fire truck disturbance, and the audience behind me–and I was wound a bit tighter than normal. I did a dance with my head–up to the canopy, back to the saw, up to the canopy, back to the saw…
‘Wait a sec … shit! … Did it just lean back further?!’
A split second lightning bolt of alarm shot up my spine. I instantaneously glanced back at the things that would be destroyed if the tree were to fall backwards. Fuck. I looked back to the canopy.
‘Did it? Am I imagining things?’
Silence in my head, no answers … I panicked.
Without looking towards the truck, I raised my right arm and sliced forwards through the air, motioning for them to pull. Three seconds passed, as the truck inched slowly forward, the rope stretched, and nothing happened–but then the tree began to stubbornly give in to the force. Two seconds later and it was erect, standing straight up.
I went to my feet as I felt a wave of relief. I had avoided crushing power lines and carports. But, I then immediately realized this was no time for celebration. I had another abrupt predicament on my hands.
The tree was now falling forwards, but towards the six-foot fence that ran the length of the property line, and it looked like it could even take out the eaves of the house just on the other side with it’s burly branches. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
In my premature call to pull the tree, I had not finished my cut and left way too much holding wood on the far side, which was why the tree was pulling towards the private property. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
In wild abandon, I rifled the tip of my saw to the far side of the ever-revealing hinge. I gunned the throttle and madly cut as much holding wood on that side as I could. A sawyer could get fancy and cut parts of the hinge as a tree was falling–let it first fall through an alleyway in the canopy and then at the last second, cut wood and pull the tree closer to the chipper.
I was not doing this to be fancy. I was doing this to save my job.
Full throttle–the saw revved at a high pitch and then... Boom! The tree pounded the ground.
The foot-long slice of remaining holding wood left on my side was just enough to pull the tree back towards our lot, barely missing the eaves, and brushing against the fence.
And that was good enough.
I killed the engine and the audience behind me clapped. I could feel the veins in my neck pumping. Frank immediately came over, slapped me on the back, and let out a big laugh.
“Wow! That was close!”
I tried to smile, but could only manage a grimace. I looked at the audience, and then the fence, and then to my saw. It was at this moment I’d realized I missed my guitar and an audience clapping from what I did with that, not a chainsaw.
The rest of the crew ran over whooping with a buzz of excitement. I tried to act enthused, however I had enough. I told them we’d leave the tree as it was and come back the next day to finish cutting it up for firewood.
I took off my Kevlar chaps as I said good-bye to Frank. My pants were soaked with sweat underneath. My heart was still pumping in my throat. It was not like human life was in danger, and it was only a shitty house and fence, which in the bigger picture obviously didn’t mean anything, but it still got me worked up.
Over the course of the season there would be a few more close calls, but mostly safe and sound execution. I ran the saw less and less as the months went by. The adrenaline rush of controlling a tree’s fall was something I no longer craved like I had a decade earlier. At the end of the season I saw an opening to move into a non-labor position and I jumped ship, leaving my chainsawing days behind me.
Those few years post-band-small-business-owner were some strange and trying times. My Dad was on a slow, suffering ride out and my future wife and I were doing our best to pick up the pieces. The rock and rolling of my twenties had been replaced by the uncertainties of my thirties. But worse than that was the feeling that forward movement seemed to have ceased.
But in actuality, life never stopped and a slow transition into new endeavors transpired. And during that time I came to realize that my situation was not any different from the billions of lives that had come before. Ups and downs–sometimes just trying to get by and other times getting to do something worth a shit–but perpetually moving one step closer to the finish line.
Now, looking back on that strange time with chaps on my legs, music in my memory, and family weighing heavy on my heart, I can see that–with the help of my wife, family, and friends–I did not fall backwards … and I barely missed the fence.
And that was good enough.
This pic is not from that day, but sometime later in 2010. That’s a Jeffrey Pine – They’re almost always a way more predictable tree than Lodgepoles.
This is a Google Earth street view of the lot taken some time after we cleared the trees. The ugly pink house and fence on the left is new. What used to be there was the shitty house and fence I almost hit. Too bad I didn’t, their demo would have been paid for.