The Fish Lake Trip

This is the year of the log piles on trails. Nobody can remember a previous year like this. The worst blowdown is in the upper Cle Elum River drainage. It’s as if a whirling skirling winter wind screamed down through the valley and up the slopes like a knife edge. Narrow swathes of trees are uprooted and tipped in more or less the same direction. Some are big, some are small. Some shattered on the ground, some stacked up in twisted knots. Intrepid hikers have been clambering over and around. Everyone seems to understand that the government isn’t fielding large trail crews this season and is patient with the amount of time it takes to get the work done.

Katie is taking the packstring to Deep Lake in early September to supply a volunteer work party on the Pacific Crest Trail. Eight tough miles in, and the way needs to be clear before the horses can go. The trail crew spent this past week camped at Fish Lake to start cutting logs on the Cathedral Pass trail. We had a rough idea what was there since Jared brought us a list of diameters and locations noted on his wilderness ranger trip.

Jon and I spent hours at a log pile less than a mile in. We have noticed (and complained about) the strange binds on all the logs this year. Nothing cuts easy. I’m coming to the idea that the violence with which these trees were knocked over is still in the wood. The fibers are stressed and twisted, catching our saws, and making the logs behave in ways we don’t have experience with. We can cut a log all the way through, and instead of dropping to the ground, the chunk stays compressed between the cut ends. We have tried compound cuts, counteracting the bind with blocks, prying with poles. When these don’t succeed, we get out the ax and swear words. Nothing for it but to chop.

Much of what we have to cut is Pacific silver fir, which is a soft resinous wood. The green trees are springy, and usually a joy to chop. In the photo above, Jon is using a pruning saw to cut big limbs off the top of a western hemlock that fell across the trail. It was a huge tree, at least 45 inches in diameter at the base. We felt lucky to only be dealing with the top which was 18 inches in diameter. Still, Jon eyed it with a bleak expression while we worked on the silver firs. “That’s a gnarly old thing,” he said, and started calling it The Ogre.

As the day went on, it became The F***ing Ogre. I crawled over it and heard the ripping sound as a knot caught the seat of my pants. I crawled under it, and there was more ripping as a knee went out. There was pitch on my pants and soon on my skin. We ended up single bucking The Ogre, since there was no place for a second sawyer to stand at one end and we were having trouble with the crosscut binding. Single bucking, I watched rotten fibers puke out of the saw kerf, and felt gratitude that fungus had gotten to the center of the tree. Rot makes for easy cutting. Hemlock may be the hardest wood known to trail crews in the Northwest. We call it “hemrock”, and sometimes it seems that steel is no match for it.

This is when trail work becomes mental. It’s true that the job is physically demanding, and being young and athletic helps a lot. But there are times when solving the problems can be tough. There are times when you just have to make yourself keep going. Stubbornness is an advantage. You can see the sun heading for the west, you are tired and almost out of water and camp is a long walk away. Bugs have been flying up your nose for hours and biting through your work clothes. You are sawing on an awkward piece of hemrock. It won’t fall, and you have to chop it. You can spit some invective at it, and start laughing. Maybe you get the heavy bugger on the ground, then it still has to be moved off the trail. Maybe you feel like you got your butt kicked that day. It happens.

We got The Ogre on the ground, then came back the next day with the whole crew. It took pry poles, rollers, more invective and some brute strength to get the two chunks of it off the trail. Then we went on.

The Ogre wasn’t even the worst of it. The next time someone complains about useless government workers in my hearing, I want to tell them about the three crew members who hiked eight miles over Cathedral Pass to cut six logs by Deep Lake, then eight miles back to camp. A 14 hour day for them, and filled with ravenous mosquitoes. They did it willingly, cheerfully, and for extremely modest pay. Nearly everyone we meet on the trail is appreciative of our work, and I have to say it feels good to be thanked. We didn’t get it all done. We’ll have to go back.

When I close my eyes at night, I see logs across the trail. When I crawl out of the tent in the morning, my fingers are swollen into sausages from gripping the saw and the ax. I ask myself how much longer I’m going to do this work…Look up at the early light, see the waving meadow grasses, take a deep breath. I know the answer: as long as I can, or until something just as good comes along. In the meantime, I nurse my hands, scratch bug bites, and look for some new work pants. And hold summer days in the mountains close to my heart and memory.

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