A Lesson from Pop on a Dying Trade
Felling timber, one of the most dangerous jobs in America
Pop told me before I cranked the saw up: “You can do it, just listen to me and stay after it.”
His old Super Pro 81 McCulloch chainsaw was heavy, and it sounded like a dirt bike on steroids. If you ever see one of those old saws, go buy a Husqvarna or Stihl you’ll thank me later. You have to be tough to crank that sucker, even more to run it.
Pop had found an old hickory nut tree that the wind had leaned over and pulled the roots. He knew it wouldn’t make it through the summer, and for some reason he thought I was ready to start learning something he had done all his life.
Cutting a “footlog”
Pop raised Redbone Coonhounds all his life. Things can get pretty rough when your dog crosses water. To get from one side of a creek to the other you only had a few options.
You could try to wade across or swim. We also kept a few trees across the creek so we could walk from one side to the other. I don’t think I have to tell you that walking footlogs over water is dangerous business. But getting from one side of a creek to the other is serious, too.
What we were about to do that day was nothing to Pop. Being a log cutter was something etched into my family history.
My great grandpa used crosscut saws and sharp axes to fall timber. My grandpa Pop had witnessed those days and the evolution of the power saws we all know today. He did it all. He worked felling timber all over Saline River bottoms.
That Old Hickory
Pop walked me through it. I pulled out the choke lever, gave the crank rope a solid pull. Nothing. I pulled it again and that thing hit. I just about broke my nose as the crank rope jerked back in.
Those old McCullochs were known to jerk the crank rope out of your hand when they started to crank up. Pop let me learn that one the hard way. I can still remember Pop grinning. I pushed the choke in and yanked it again, and it was running. He told me, “Push that oiler button a few times, then saw in there until I tell you to stop.” “I’ll flag you.”
With my heart pumping hard I started sawing. I kept my eye on Pop, glancing over at him, and after a few seconds of sawing he waved me off. Next he had me cut a notch out. He told me where and I did it. A notch relieves a little pressure and helps to guide the tree while falling. I had seen my dad do it thousands of times. He was a log cutter, too.
He told me “when you start sawing the tree down, watch the gap where your bar is at and when you see it starting to open up, keep sawing.” He pointed to my first cut, “stop cutting when you get about an inch from that cut, and get out of the way.”
That’s exactly what I did. That tree popped and cracked as I was sawing. But I listened to what he told me and that tree fell right where it was supposed to. The butt stayed on the bank, and the top landed on the other side of the creek.
Looking back on it now, I just laugh but in those seconds of my life I was scared. But I learned something valuable that summer day, Pop taught me a trade.
Sawing logs with a chainsaw in South Arkansas has been mostly replaced by machines. But over the years I have been able to do something most loggers today cannot do. And that’s safely take down large timber that the machines can’t handle. Timber kept food on the table and allowed me to raise my family. I’m forever grateful for Pop’s lesson.
Here’s an example of me felling from a couple of years ago on an ash tree. Ash trees throughout Arkansas have succumb to the Ash Borer, an insect, and died off. This tree was on its way out so I cut it before it became dangerous to put it on the ground. No one needs to saw a tree with dead limbs above their heads.
If you want to see what not to do when felling a tree, YouTube has “epic fail” or “when things go wrong videos” that are quite entertaining.
There’s been many men maimed and killed from felling timber. Limbs hanging above a saw hand is a serious threat. All too often folks sawing timber get hurt. Whether they don't see a widowmaker limb hanging above them, or they take a risk hoping the hanging limb will stay while they're under it.
Imagine cutting a tree down with other trees standing nearby. As the tree falls, it's breaking limbs off the standing trees , sometimes leaving hanging limbs — widowmakers — above you waiting to fall.
I mentioned YouTube earlier. I’m sure you can find videos showing trees busting to pieces from inexperienced people, and small saws coupled with dull chains that lead to a disaster.
I’ve buried a 066 Stihl chainsaw into some of South Arkansas’ largest timber. You have to be half crazy or have a lot of nerve to do it for a living. When mistakes are made all to often tragedy follows.
As we head into tornado season in Arkansas, remember that trees can, and do kill, folks.
When it’s time to take down a tree call a professional. It may seem cheaper to let the neighbor cut it or buy a saw and watch a video to learn. But trust me when I tell you, I’ve been sawing down trees ever since Pop had me cut that footlog. I learn something new every single time I pull the crank rope to get started.
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