Friday, April 17, 2009

Do I Need to Prove It?

I love to work. Really I do. Didn't love it so much as a kid, but the older I get the more I seem to enjoy knowing that my body is strong; that I can tackle a physically challenging job and accomplish it. To me, there is a joy in strong work. Not grueling, backbreaking, punishing work. Just strong work that lets me feel tired for good reason at the end of the day.

So Saturday was one of those days. We were hauling firewood. Actually more than hauling. We were yarding large rounds, I mean LARGE rounds, of wood to an open area for splitting. We divided the labor, each to our best abilities. I was doing the moving and DH Dale was doing the splitting, since my attempts with the maul were nearly fultile. But skid, I could do with determination. So I would roll the heavy rounds into place and Dale would split them into six neat pieces, or eight for the especially big ones, like segments of a brittle orange.

We had found the rhythm of our work, like a reliable team of draft horses, pacing with each other, pulling evenly. As I would roll a hefty round, Dale would study the piece. "Reading the wood" he calls it. He would judge the checked cracks that mark where a round might split with deceptive ease. He'd choose the best end and hoist the heavy maul. Adhering to woods-wise protocol, the splitter has final say. The "choker setter", in this case "me", just does the yarding, bringing the log into place.

We had already hauled one pickup load and were more than halfway through our second. It was looking like the possibility of a three load day. We were making big progress on this long-standing job. The day was shining, full of Spring. It was just the right temperature for heavy work, and just enough breeze to keep the air fresh.

"Which one next?", I asked.
Dale made his selection and studied the piece as I struggled to roll it the few feet to our splitting area. We commented on a nice crack going right through the center of the end.

"This end?" I smirked as it fell onto a flat side.

"Yeah, that's the one with the crack," Dale said.

"Well, actually it was the other side," I replied.

"No, it was this end."

"Naw. It's the other one," I maintained. "Do I need to flip it over to prove it to you?" All in good spirits of course. No animosity between such a finely matched pair.

He shrugged. With a smile. He simply shrugged, as in "Suit yourself". That was it - the challenge was on.

I bent my knees, and stretched my arms over the top of the round, that Paul Bunyun-sized pancake of sorts. I put all my strength into turning the thing, flipping it toward me, straining to reveal the side I was sure had the better checking. The side I was sure Dale had chosen in the first place.

As I pulled, concentrating on the effort, my hands slipped from the freshly-barked, wet, slippery wood. I fell backwards and landed on my butt. Now, I have plenty of padding on my posterior and the ground in the area was soft with deep mulch. There was plenty of cushioning all around to absorb the impact without any major damage. Except.... except for a small stick on the ground under my left hand. Just enough to create a wrist-cracking angle. Funny how small things can cause such big problems so quickly.

Dale finished for the day by splitting that controversial round while I sat on a stump practicing my transcendental breathing. He loaded the pieces and drove us home. After an hour, when ice and elevation and Advil had no effect, we headed to the ER. Yep. My arm now is in a chic black cast, palm to elbow. And Dale has his inscription in mind, as soon as we get a silver marking pen. It will proudly read "One Tough Mother". I'm glad he thinks so.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Open Air

It really wasn't all that difficult to get to the end of the road. It was a drive, yes. Snowy roads, yes. But plowed and plenty wide. After all, I grew up on snowpacked gravel roads. And they seem more familiar to me than the road-hazed, white-knuckle terror of navigating I-5. So after 26 miles out the gravel, and only major, road on Mitkof Island, I strapped on my snowshoes and started off.

Glorious day, blue sky, white snow and gleaming mountains; life distilled to its essentials, with no thoughts other than those of the immediate moment. The roadbed had not been plowed after the snows of the last few days. There were tracks made by snowmobilers, probably the day before. Right now there was no sight or sound of any other people out this way. Alongside the machine tracks were the largest canine tracks I had ever seen. "Huge dog," I thought, but didn't pay them much more mind.
Then came the REAL end of the road. A four-foot berm marked where early season plowing had stopped. The road would not open past this point again until spring rains melted the snow. A small trail veered off to the right. In summer it leads to a remote camping area with an open view of the Wrangell Narrows. But in winter it is a barely discernable path. Rather than staying out on the open road grade I decided to follow the narrow path. The snow machines had made the same choice. But it wasn't long before the snow became too spotty for machines, and frustratingly thin even for snowshoes. I removed mine and walked in booted feet for another hundred yards or so. The snow thickened again to a point where I needed the gear again to make my way through or sink knee-deep. Ahead lay virgin snow on the trail, leaving all other tracks behind. Except for...
those "huge dog" tracks that I had seen early on as I started out. They ran ahead of me, the only marks on the white blanket of snow. Now those tracks grabbed my attention. Definitely they were canine tracks and definitely huge. They stayed straight on line, cutting the curve of the snowed-over road, never deviating or distracting off course. I bent to admire them even closer and put my hand beside one for comparison. Straightening, I eyeballed the path of the prints as they ran to the distance. It was then I noticed the other tracks about three feet off to the right. But where the huge tracks were clear and untrampled the tracks to the right were less distinct. Scrutinizing them, I realized these were tracks of more than one animal walking along in a line, one's steps following on top of the previous animal's trail.
I was following a small pack of wolves. The leader was obviously on the left, walking a bit removed, while the other animals trailed to the side. I followed the tracks for a little over a mile where they cut up into the timber. There I turned for my return.
Following my own meandering tracks back to the truck, I arrived just as solid dark was falling. Those other tracks had never doubled back, had never turned aside or drifted. I had stopped and started, turned and returned while they had kept on some compass-straight course that I could never comprehend. They had kept moving forward into places where I didn't follow.
Somehow, holding the memory of all that, reflecting while I sit now in a small town coffee shop, I feel both freer and more confined for the awareness of their passing.