This post is from Jan. 2013. It came to mind as I prepare to teach Spring chainsaw classes again, so I'm reposting here. Enjoy!
When I learned to use a chainsaw, I was 23, on my first National Park Service trail crew, and in well over my head. I’d gotten hired on a pure fluke, and, hoping that my incompetence would be ignored long enough for me to get good at something–-anything!–-I kept quiet and watched everyone. Our shop tech was Sherri, a 5’1 woman with a blonde ponytail whose end pointed like an arrow tip between the back pockets of her Carhartts. Sherri taught me to start a Stihl 026 (the smallest full-sized saw on the market then, christened “The Lady Logger” by the brawny guys who could have used it to shave.) She was patient while I pulled and tugged and sweated and blushed with pressure and shame until, after 20 minutes–-more?–-I finally got the thing started, its roar startling me so thoroughly that I almost dropped it on the gravel parking pad. That was the inauspicious start to a love affair that would deepen over the next two decades of chainsaw-based labor.
This past summer I taught a basic saw class to the Panguingue Creek Fire Brigade, the all-volunteer group in my rural Alaskan neighborhood. A local woman attended–-Barb, a fellow tai-chi group member whose husband had died unexpectedly the year before-–and brought along her daughter, Emily, a recent high-school grad to whom the task of family firewood gathering had fallen in her dad’s absence. The group circled around the logs I had laid out on the ground for basic bucking lessons. Barb had a hard time starting the saw from a standing position, so I showed her the crouched ground-start/foot pinch option, better for weaker upper bodies and early-user timidity. She gamely persisted past the initial discouragement and when the saw finally growled to life and idled at her feet, the group cheered. Passing the saw to Emily, Barb grinned like a kid at a birthday party. Her daughter held the saw in starting position, handle pinched between her knees, and, coached through two or three sharp short pulls, she started it easily. Barb’s smile got bigger: “Wow, Emily!” she said. “Impressive!” And it was.
Along with a handful of other neighbors, Barb and Emily went, in two hours, from the arms-length, self-abasing terror that had characterized my own first attempts with the chainsaw to enough confidence that I could encourage them to buck their own firewood that weekend. They left knowing how to check the chain tension and tighten it if it came loose, how to stand with the saw to one side while bucking, how to make an off-sides cut. They headed home to take on a job that a beloved husband, a missed dad, used to do.
I love teaching people how to use a chainsaw, or how to use one better, more safely, with grace instead of machismo. I love teaching men–-salty old-timers who built their own cabins but don’t know how to sharpen chain properly, young ranch kids who can fix saws but have never felled a tree, guys new to the woods who are hoping for a quick study to conceal their inexperience from the buddies they’re supposed to go cut firewood with the next weekend-–but I love teaching women best. Maybe because they are usually eager, easy to coach, and likely to show the tool the respect it deserves. Partly because the payoff is often high, their turn from intimidated to confident so surprising to them that they leave a class with an inner esteem boost in addition to a technical skill. And definitely partly because it reminds me of me, my own lurching path to competence, the mentorship inherent in any learned task. The way a skill–-sought, honed, and cherished–-can sometimes wrest confidence from loss.
Wonder where the term "traildog" comes from? I wrote an article for National Parks Conservation Association Magazine explaining the proud lineage of traildogs. If you want a little peek into what’s behind the traildog identity, read HERE. Comments welcome!
Welcome to Interior Trails’ blog, Traildog Log.
Gabe Travis and Christine Byl are long-time traildogs who, after many seasons working for federal public land agencies (NPS and USFS), started their own trail design and consulting company in 2008. We plan to use this space for miscellaneous posting–sharing details about our projects, publicizing important issues and events in the trails community, spreading the word about the many cool things our partners and clients are up to, and relating stories and thoughts from years on the trail.
Technical, anecdotal, activist or hilarious–here’s where you’ll get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at a field-based small business in Alaska. Akin to the park service cabin log and the smeared Rite-in-the-Rain field notes, The Traildog Log proudly preserves the oral tradition of traildogs everywhere.
Tools Make the Woman I wrote this piece in 2013 for the blog "Adventure Inspired." You'll find musings on the tools that are critical to my life, both as a traildog, and as the inhabitant of a rural, rugged, isolated place, where sometimes, a sharp axe makes the difference between a good and a bad day. Now, off to cut firewood...
Get Your Hands Dirty Blog Tour! Soon after my first book, Dirt Work, came out, I was hosted by six blogs, from the famous (Patagonia) to the family-run (Mountain Family.) These posts discuss various element of trail work; some pieces are excerpted from the book.
1. Tales of A Mountain Family: “Lucky Girls” (In which I meet hikers on the trail, one old, one young.)
2. Hike.Bike.Travel: “Wolf Sightings in the Wild” (Excerpt from Dirt Work about a wolf sighting in Montana.)
3. Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line: “Backseat of the Ford” (Excerpt from Dirt Work in which I ford the Middle Fork in my underwear.)
4. Half Past Done: “The Long Haul” (Life as an industrial athlete.)
5. The Campsite: “Tired Comparisons” (How many ways to be exhausted?)
6. Hiker to Hiker: Book review & Interview
And two bonus posts not on the official tour but appearing that week:
7. WE-News: “Feisty Mountain Crew” (On my first trail crew run by women.)
8. Books for Better Living: “5 Lessons from the Trail” (Make your lunch ahead, and others.)