Readers of these blog posts might be starting to get the idea that all I ever do is collect firewood. Believe me, on some days in winter and spring I feel that way myself. It is not true, of course, but it is a much bigger part of our life at the Hoarfrost than I might have been willing to acknowledge 25 years ago. In fact when I wrote North of Reliance, in 1993 or so, I still clung stubbornly to the notion that “I spend no more time working to heat my home than does anyone who lives in a bungalow in Yellowknife or Duluth. My work is direct, with saw and sled and axe; that other person’s work is at a job, where hour by hour they earn the cash that buys their heat.”
Not true today, and probably not true back then. I don’t claim to know the specifics of the argument now, because I have no clear notion of what it costs to heat a home in Yellowknife, never mind Duluth, and no clear idea of other people’s take-home pay. I imagine those dollar figures are as slippery and varied as our consumption of firewood. We are often asked how many cords of firewood we need to make it through a winter. My flippant reply lately is often “about a thousand, give or take…” In the same way a person in Duluth or Yellowknife, after a winter like the one just past, might say, “Heating bills? Oh, about a million dollars, give or take…”
Winter is holding on here, tenaciously. I gather that this is the same story across much of North America. It is snowing hard as I type, harder than we have seen it snow for quite a few months. We have lost no significant amount of snow from the trails, and the ice on the lakes is closing in on the five-foot benchmark. In fact we might soon need a second 12-inch extension for the ice auger.
This is all good news from a woodcutting standpoint, because on May 10 all of our backwoods trails are still snowy and usable. I am happy to report that our woodsheds are very nearly full to the brim. This has not happened in years, and in fact since we doubled our main woodshed capacity in 2006, I do not think we have ever filled all the bins. We are tickled at the prospect of doing so within the next couple of days.
But the really interesting thing that is happening with our firewood saga is that I am now cutting wood exactly where I was cutting twenty and twenty-five years ago. Another common question from friends and visitors is “how far do you have to go now to find standing dead wood?” The answer, happily, is “not as far as we did ten years ago.” The lesson for me here – a truth I never saw coming – is that even with the fairly intensive level of deadwood-collection that we are obligated to maintain, the natural cycles of the local forest keep supplying us with standing deadwood within about a three-quarter mile radius of the homestead.
This year there are some beetles or bugs browning out one stand of trees on a raised bench across the river, and I will not even come close to getting those down before Spring arrives (we trust that it will.) They will do just fine standing there through the summer, and only if a wildfire takes them out will we lose the use of them. No one else is going to come along and cut them, and if a wildfire starts that close to us this coming summer, losing those trees will be the least of our worries.
My friend Mitch down in southeastern Minnesota is more acutely aware of firewood and forests and woodlots than most people, since he is a consulting forester by occupation. He has been known to rub a little salt in the cuts by nonchalantly mentioning to me that “yesterday I went and finished gathering all my firewood for next winter. One tree. White oak. About 52 inches diameter on the stump.”
This is one of the cruel ironies that dawns on northern wood-heating people as the seasons go by. As you move farther and farther toward the treeline and the Pole, and the winters get colder and the stoves get hungrier, the trees get smaller and the good firewood species all thin out and disappear. Here at 63 degrees North we are left with three flavors of firewood, none of them Grade AA: spruce (black and white), birch (Alaskan and paper) and tamarack (Larix laricina). When I go down to visit friends and family in the northern Midwest, I eye those stacks of oak and maple and ash and my knees start to tremble with envy. Each chunk of oak, split and stacked and dried, is worth about an entire McLeod Bay spruce tree.
Oh well. Firewood forever, spruce and birch and clean hard tamarack. Not sure if it qualifies as sustainable, and it certainly is not independent, because I didn’t and never can manufacture my chainsaw or temper my bowsaw blades, or refine the fuel for my skidoo. The consolation for me, when I envy those southern stacks, is just the freedom we have here, to go and find and cut, bound only by our own conscience and guidelines (clean up the slash, don’t cut along the shorelines, keep moving around…), and over the years finding lichen-flecked stumps that were cut a long time ago, by a younger Dave on a sunny spring day.