Nora gets me up at 3am and I dozily take her outside for piddles. There is a little lightning from a far valley over the high hills. Nora is terrified of thunder and has had a rough time during the days of storm- her Thundershirt has taken the edge off, but when the lightning thunders she shakes so hard her teeth chatter. I sleepily wonder if she awoke me because of the storm when a flash blinds the night, and Nora manically races a tight circle around my feet. The thunderclap sends her like a shot out into the night, straight toward the forest, and untold miles of nowhere. I run to the house for my headlamp, and call for her swinging the dim beacon into the rainy ink. I jump back inside and grab the truck keys, jumbling the key fob to chirp the locks: she loves the truck and always races to it when it chirps. I can feel the next lightning bolt building in a dead pressure, and Nora flashes out of the wet night appearing at the door and bolts inside. There is a large metal roofing panel affixed to the house outside the door, where my dad’s dog frantically ate away the house panelling in a mad terror during a pounding storm; and that dog wasn’t afraid of storms.
I got up bright and early to make the cattle drive, with frost on the windshield and heavy mud on the road from days of rain. A breeze turned to a wind as the sun came up, and gusted through the chill alpine day. The drive assembled 6 cowpokes on horseback, a slew of 4 wheelers, and a lead truck & trailer outfit, quickly setting about moving the 180 cow/calf pairs 17 miles from their low winter pasture at our lessee’s ranch up to the high summer pasture on my family spread. (Pressing our start was the neighbor’s big cattle drive of 400 head of red angus, a giant red swarm on the high green hills.) It takes 7 or 8 hours to make the distance, with a few little rodeos along the way, but moving a herd of new calves and their mothers always keeps the day interesting. (and it was my 50th birthday)
E & I had planned a ski trip to the ranch in February, but Montana’s -20F arctic air and feet of snow had kept us homebound 530 miles due south in balmy Salt Lake City. Last weekend would be the last weekend for snow, so we drove out in a bit of a snowstorm that spanned nearly the entire trip, but only spat out a few white-out 4×4-only sections. We saw a huge herd of hundreds of Elk in the Madison River valley outside Yellowstone Park, as well as a Bald Eagle flying up the river. At Three Forks we saw Blue Heron’s and Buffle Heads (ducks), near where we spotted a Moose and her calf in fall. We made it over King’s Hill pass before the storm settled in, and I jumped back over the snow-blasted pass the next morning for powder skiing at Showdown before it closed for the season. The rest of the week was spent sledding, taking Nora up Belt Creek canyon for a Nordic ski along a snowbound mountain creek, skiing the snowbound Kibbey Ridge road section of our bluebird houses, stomping about the hills in snow-boots, and keeping the wood-stove fed. As we diddled around on the snow, the Mountain Bluebirds began arriving in threes and pairs- or multiple singles.
Our overwintering Nuthatches had kept watch over the house and greeted us with enthusiastic antics. Mountain Chickadees had joined them and the ranch yard was a jungle gym of little birds catching bugs from the air. On a clear starry night standing out in the frozen silence, a sonar note repeated mechanically from midway up a hillside. It was emanating from a rotating platform, fading and growing more precise as it pointed in my direction, then past me and down the valley rotating around up the valley and down again. I hadn’t known we got submarines up this high, that, or it was a Saw-Whet Owl (it took two bird books to rule out the submarine). Coyotes sang at night and chirped from the hills during the day. The arrival of the Robins and the thawing of the yard creek signaled the slushing of the snow and the mushing of the mud, and we headed home a few days early in a truck more mud-ball than metal.
When cutting down a tree I’ve learned 3 key tricks to making sure it falls where you want it to. (1) Wedge-cut to 1/3 of tree and at the correct angles to the ground (or @ 80 degree angle to 1/4 of tree is even better); (2) a sly slip-in bore-cut starting a bit higher than the wedge cut and stopping at least an inch from the clean singular line of the wedge cut and; (3) The Tag/Trigger: leaving a skein of wood to the outside/back to anchor the tree (steps 1 & 2 create a tripod of sorts that keep the tree standing securely till the Tag is released, and alignments of the slip-in to the wedge-cut keeps the falling tree from kicking back, rolling, or the dreaded barberchair). Stop at each point and check yourself before going on to the next. If at the last step everything is in place, i.e. no pets (in the house is best) and no people on the fall line, pop the Tag with an axe blow or the saw. A good indicator that you have screwed up is if the tree moves mid sly slip-in back-cut and traps the chainsaw. You probably didn’t pre-check for tree lean or counterweight branches, which should always be step (0). You probably didn’t stop after the wedge cut and make sure the line met clean, or remember to start the second & inward cut from near-to-far to ensure a clean line and just came in from the face like a newbie. You probably didn’t align the bore-cut just above the wedge cut, or leave a perfect inch-thick line of uncut tree between the two cuts because you didn’t back-cut first, then move forward to establish the inch-thick line and the saw jumped too far forward. While you were at it, you likely took too much from the back of the slip-in leaving mostly bark to keep the tree in place, and you certainly didn’t use a logging wedge to assist the Tag from spin or back-pressure. You probably didn’t review your process that you keep in writing with your chainsaw gear (including unused chainsaw wedges), as you don’t fell trees much at all any more and need to keep the engineering aspects certain. Doing any 1 of the 3 correctly can make a pretty decent fell, screwing them all up (while hilarious) requires knowing where to run. The chainsaw bar is stuck fast mid tree and may be bent, the tree is nearly cut clean through (and all “caddywhompus” as my stepdad would have pointed out), with a sturdy Tag being just a bit of bark-covered wood holding it from toppling. One way forward at this point to free the saw and topple the tree, is one clean hit to the Tag with the axe; the recommended method at this point of “caddywhompus” would be to drive in a few felling wedges first for a mitigated safeguard. We can assume no wedges were employed… and E yells “RUN”. When standing right next to a falling tree you can’t really tell where it is going, just that it is going- if your spotter yells run then something has gone wrong and you dash for safety. The part before cutting with a saw, more important than parts 1-3, a part I’m pretty fussy about, is clearing low branches and making clear paths for escape. And having a good spotter that stands well clear and can yell RUN in a such a way that you just wind up running to safety- like stealing a base in baseball. E was in charge of RUN command without even knowing it was her job, and I got the running to base part right.
First thing this morning, after arriving back in Utah last night, was ordering two 24 packs of Mauget Tree Injectors to treat the 3 remaining Spruce trees for bark beetle, each massive tree is 30′ and higher- each tree like a giant sequoia version of the little runt that bested me. There is one behind me here, towering over the tool shed and obscuring perspective as I am far in the foreground.