Trail Axe-tion!

I haven’t done much axe work in awhile. Most of the trail maintenance I’ve done lately has been on part of a sawyer team (chainsaw work in the Geological Area) as well as bucking with my trusty Silky Bigboy. So when I heard about this month’s volunteer trail outing on the 11th, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It had also been a long time (since June) that I had last handled a crosscut saw.

All of our trail work/maintenance projects are handled through a coalition of volunteers from the Red River Gorge Trail Crew, as well as FS employees and interns, along with seasonal assistance from AmeriCorps crews. Back on the 24th of October, whilst patrolling Osborne Bend trail in the Clifty Wilderness, I noticed that a Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) had come down, likely during one of the strong cold fronts earlier in the month. The diameter was approximately 16 inches, and the obstacle was a bit too high to be left alone as a “step-over”. It was located approximately 1 1/2 miles southwest of the junction with Lost Branch trail. I reported this to our trails technician (who is also the coordinator of the RRGTC) as a project for the upcoming outing.

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Myself and a co-worker went with the crosscut team on the 11th, and when we reached the site, we found that two more Scarlet Oaks had fallen, including a rather large one of close to 24 inches diameter.

We tackled the first two trees in short order, but the larger one required more initial planning because of the attached root-wad. From what myself and the lead sawyer could determine, the root-wad was likely causing enough pressure to relieve the stresses of what would otherwise be ‘top bind’ (which is having compressed wood fibres on the top, and tension on the underside). The mistake we made was making the first cut too close to the root wad.

During my chainsaw class last year, our instructor related a true story to us about how a sawyer on the Mark Twain National Forest did not factor in the potential forces of a root wad when bucking a log; he was killed when the log sprang back up into him. Personally, I don’t particularly like chainsaws. They’re loud, potentially dangerous, and although they cut a lot faster than a crosscut saw, you cannot hear what the log has to say…the snaps and creaks which we as sawyers deduce to determine how the log will move. When bucking with a crosscut saw, you can hear A LOT more because it is much quieter. Additionally, we cannot use chainsaws to maintain wilderness trails because wilderness areas are closed to motorized and mechanized equipment. I also find crosscut saws more enjoyable to use. Yes, it is a slower and more deliberate process…and I daresay that it is also an art. Situational awareness is your number one asset as a sawyer. 

In our case, by making the first cut closer to the root-wad, it put top bind on the rest of the log, and there wasn’t any room to under-buck with our crosscut saw. If we had made the first cut farther away from the root-wad, the second cut would be easy because of the lifting pressure of the root-wad. This would have created ‘end bind’, which is when the end of a log or tree has tension along the wood fibres on the top, and compression on the underside. Our mistake was soon realized after completing the first cut, as the section closest to the root-wad lifted about 3 inches off the ground.

We tried making the second cut, but there was too much compression caused by the binding pressure from the top. We couldn’t even get the saw blade deep enough to insert a wedge (or two…or three) to help hold the kerf open. We were left with little choice but to chop it out. I had brought “Big Bertha”, my lovely double-bit, just for this reason. Normally, a single-bit axe is preferable (especially on a saw team) so that the poll may be used to pound wedges into the kerf to counteract binding forces. The crew did bring their own single-bit axe, but it was Big Bertha that made the chips fly.

Unfortunately for us, we had to call it a day after I got halfway through the log…Big Bertha’s handle broke. After examining the handle, my best guess is that the twisting motion during some swings caused it to fracture…this was more than likely my own fault due to tiredness. Not to be discouraged, I vowed to finish the job in the following days.

I spent a few hours the next day rehanging Big Bertha and prepping another axe – a 4.5 lb Hults Bruk, which I have named “the Hulk”. On Monday, I set out with the Hulk to finish the job.

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The Hulk is incredible (HA! I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist…), blasting out chunks the size of dinner plates with an extra pound of steel and added momentum. In the above photo, I am widening the notch I created two days earlier. Eventually, I had to re-widen the notch a third time before making it all the way through.

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It took me probably 4 hours to buck this end of the log (not counting the time spent on the previous Saturday). That was 4 hours of taking my time and not rushing, using the weight of the 4.5 lb Hulk to my advantage. I counted 100 annual growth rings on this Scarlet Oak.

The Hulk did exceptionally well. It’s starting to earn its patina :).

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