Enter your email address here to receive blog updates.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

New England's Fallen Champion Hemlock

Eight degrees. My thoughts went to the crew of like-minded guys who were heading out to the woods of Mt. Tom this February morning. Are we all crazy? It's cold here in western Massachusetts. Really cold. The split in my thumb that had finally healed over is splitting open again from the stinging cold. To work on a frozen log in the woods on a morning like this is silly. But here we are, just the same. And none of us is sorry to be here.

Why? That's a question I asked myself too. People who cherish the grandest, oldest trees in the forests are just willing to put up with discomfort to be among those hulking giants. In this case, the old tree is lying in repose on the ground, having smashed down unceremoniously a couple months ago.
New England Champion Hemlock, Jan 2009 (Bill Finn photo)
It's New England's champion hemlock tree, or was. It had stood at least 125 feet tall, with a circumference of about 15 feet. Age estimates before its fall put it at over 200 years, but likely not over 300 years. 

Stump of broken champion hemlock

The person who, as far as I know, first measured and documented the tree was Bob Leverett, widely recognized as the "guru" of the country's eastern old growth forests. Through his efforts, the tree became recognized as the New England champion eastern hemlock (determined by a formula applied to a combination of its height, girth, and crown spread). I recall visiting this tree with Bob and his son Rob twenty-something years ago. The first photo above is how many of us remember it, as captured in 2009 by Bill Finn.

In December of 2013, Bob forwarded to me an email from Bill, who had just discovered that the champ had fallen, broken off its 17-foot-high stump from a windstorm, no doubt. Prior to its toppling, it was known to have a serious crack in its trunk, an omen that predicted its demise. As it turns out, the tree also had a rotted core which lessened its ability to resist wind forces.

Bill and Bob, lamenting the loss of this grand specimen, discussed the idea of cutting a "cookie" (a round disc) from the log, to be displayed in the Mt Tom Visitors Center. The disc would be used to plot, in its annual rings, a timeline of events that had occurred during its lifetime. Being a woodturner, I volunteered to make some other artifact, such as a bowl perhaps, from a chunk of the tree, if that would help. As a result of that offer, I met Bill for the first time in January of 2014, when he and I visited the downed hemlock in the snow. Bill spends a lot of time on the mountain hiking, teaching, and doing trail maintenance. Through our shared affinity for the forests around us, we became friends on that day, and Bill invited me to be part of the group who would try to preserve a few remnants of the revered tree.

And so, on February 27th, after obtaining permission from state officials to cut the log, a congenial cadre of characters assembled in the sub-freezing woods at 9am to do the deed. The list of hearty souls included Bill Finn, Mike Zlogar, Don Rickson, Bob Schwobe, Tom Quinn, Carl Libucha, Bob Cowles, and me. Bob Leverett hoped to be there, but was unable to. 

Carl, Tom, Bill, and Don are all enthusiastic members of the Mt Tom Advocacy Group, and give a lot of their time to make the mountain a great place to spend time in the woods. Bob Schwobe is also a member, and is well known in the region as the long-time Mt Tom historian. Mike is a retired Assistant Fire Chief, is quite active in trail maintenance in New England, and is quite capable in many pursuits. Don, a retired prison guard, is an energetic, jovial guy who's experienced in ski patrol, winter mountaineering, ice climbing, and who knows what else. Bob Cowles is also retired from the same fire department as Mike, and has long experience in the woods.

Let the Fun Begin 

The snow was crusty and deep on the slopes of Mt Tom this day, and, of course, the tree lay in a gully downhill from the road. But downhill is good. Um, at least on the way into the woods. With feet clad in snowshoes (except for those of us who lack the ability to envision the extremely-near future), we left the road and began the short descent to the champ. It lay, thankfully, only a couple hundred feet or so down the hill. When we arrived at the log, we performed the mandatory male ritual of forming an informal circle, hands in pockets, meditating on the proper course of action to be taken. These important proceedings can't be ignored or omitted. It was immediately agreed though that Don could forthrightly proceed with the clearing of snow from the top of the log. An uninformed observer might conclude the rest of us were "standing around while one guy did the work". Ha! One need only be part of a work group to know better than that.
The descent to the fallen hemlock

Now, I'm told Bob Cowles is a great guy who has many traits that prove it. One of those enviable traits is his possession of a chainsaw with a 36-inch bar, heh heh. Out of the goodness of his heart, he willingly left the warmth of his homestead that frigid morning to separate hemlock cookie from log. The task wouldn't really be feasible without that saw.

And planning was not lost on this group of resourceful guys. In preparation for the event, Mike, Don, and Bill built a sled, uh, "cookie transport system (CTS)", consisting of a pallet perched atop racing skis to glide the cookies up the hill to the road. All manner of paraphernalia was lugged to the site, including coils of rope and cable, a come-along, straps, saws, hooks, pry bars, shovels, etc, etc. Crowning glory-  a hefty power winch on the back bumper of Mike's pickup to effortlessly draw the harvested load to the road. 
A hefty winch is available... yes!

I was impressed. I can recognize workers when I see them, and these guys, all of whom I had just recently met, were the genuine article. They were all there with one purpose in mind... to get the job done! And so, right then and there, feeling a strong sense of duty and belonging, I decided to pitch right in and stay the heck out of their way. Taking pictures won't interfere with their mission, so I'll do that. No, it's not going to be easy, but it's the least I can do.

Bill, Mike, Tom, Carl plan. Don clears snow from log. 
Due to the obvious rot in the center of the lower part of the trunk, we wouldn't be able to get a good, solid cookie out of the log unless we took it from far enough up the log to get beyond the rot. Since we couldn't tell exactly where the rot ended, we decided to make a trial cut where we thought it might end, and see what that produced. That was at a point in the tree that had been about 21 feet above ground.

So, without fanfare, Bob Cowles sets about his task. There's no wind to exaggerate the cold, the woods are peaceful and quiet, everything is ready to go. Nothing to impede our progress. The saw roars to life, that impressive 36" saw bar comes down on the log, and zips right down into the frozen behemoth, by golly.

Bob starts the first cookie cut
I hear the saw shut down... glancing over at Bob, I see a saw engine in his hands, and the engine end of a saw bar protruding from the log. Uh oh, I don't think this is part of the plan. On hands and knees in snow and sawdust, Bob and I search for the two nuts that used to hold the chain bar on the saw, but starving squirrels wouldn't be up to the task. The only two nuts to be found on the ground were me and Bob. "Well," Bob says, "I can go swipe nuts off my other saw and use those."  A few minutes later Bob is back, the saw is reassembled, and the first cut is quickly completed.


Where are those pesky nuts??

Bob moves the bar 6 or so inches to the left and begins the second cut, which would free our first cookie, hopefully a solid one without rot. Bob deftly guides the saw down into the wood, a low growling engine sound broadcasting that this is going well. Sputter, sputter, sputter ... silence. Hmmm. Upon withdrawing bar from log, Bob discovers the smoking evidence of a seized bar sprocket. Sadly, this saw won't be completing the mission today. I'm thinking maybe the forces that control such things aren't really in on this plan. Poor Bob, this isn't a stellar day in the woods for him, and I'm glad I'm not in his boots.
Bob begins second cut ...

Meanwhile, some of the others are bringing the sled down the slick hill to the site, expecting to be loading the first of several cookie slabs. Along the way, a couple other obstacle logs are cleared from the path.

 Bill, Don, Carl bring sled to log

Mike completes second cut
 After taking a look at the second cut Bob started, Mike says he thinks he can complete it with his smaller saw, and sets about to do that. It takes him several minutes to get the shorter bar to completely sever the log, but he's successful, and our first cookie is about to be liberated from its position in the tree. 

Don, Carl, Bill prepare to remove cookie #1
1st cookie emerges from log, looking great!
But it's not that easy. We can't just slide it out of its place. It must be pulled out with straps, rope, and the come-along, which Mike anchors to a nearby tree. Once the slack is pulled out of the tow strap by the come-along, cookie #1 begins to emerge from the log with a groan.
Mike mans the come-along
There's great anticipation as every one of us is hoping to see a solid cookie come out of there, with no evidence of rot. That's what we're after. But Bob had dampened our expectations a little when he made his first cut through the log, saying he felt an area of less resistance near the center of it, indicati

ng there probably was rot in there. I think everyone's holding his breath, as the cookie, under strain of the tow strap, pops partly out of its place somewhat unexpectedly. Bill, who was pulling on the strap with Carl and Don, is caught off guard and slips backwards on his snowshoes, doing a half-spin to the ground. After a bit of a laugh at Bill's expense, we turn our attention to the partially extracted cookie... is it sound or rotted? What we can see of it at this point looks great! Let's get it all the way out of the log! 

Rotten at its heart
With Mike pumping the come-along handle, the strap re-tensions and the cookie pops out, falling on the snow-covered forest floor. We all rush to it for a look... oh, it does have a rotted center. Though we stayed enthusiastic about the first product of our efforts, I sensed there was some disappointment in the cold air. 

The plan formulated a few weeks earlier was to cut several cookie slabs out of the log and try different methods of drying/preserving them, in the hope that at least one would come out of the process with little or no serious degradation due to cracking. Wood shrinks as it dries out, and if not handled carefully, usually results in splitting ("checking") and/or warping. And the most difficult of all pieces to dry successfully without cracking is a round disc cut off the end of a log, such as the cookies we're seeking. Further, we hope to get a complete disc without a rotted core for the Visitors Center timeline display piece, and this cookie obviously isn't the perfect one. 

Nevertheless, it's what we have, and we're going to keep it. Once Bob gets his big saw repaired, we'll come back and try again. It doesn't look particularly promising, however; the rot in the log probably goes a long way up in the tree, so we'll have to go beyond it to get a solid cookie. That means its diameter will be that much smaller, and it will contain many fewer annual rings. The whole idea is to display a slab that's as old as possible from the tree, which would have come from near ground level in the tree. The farther up the tree we have to cut it from, the farther from our goal we'll be. But such is life.

From Bole to Bowl

At any rate, now that we've got this cookie out of the tree, and don't have Bob's saw to do another one, we can move on to the next chore today- cutting large chunks out of the bole (trunk) of the tree that can hopefully be turned on the lathe into bowls, or other objects. Mike again puts saw to wood while we watch, er, plan.
Bill, Tom, Don, Carl, Bob C. watch Mike cut bowl blanks

It took some time to get several hunks of log excavated, but Mike managed pretty handily.

I now have my work cut out for me, literally.

Yikes, you want me to make a bowl from this??

Slip-Slidin' Away

Ok, now we have this pile of frozen cargo ready to go to the car, but where did the car go? Oh yeah, it's up the hill. Who was it that said "downhill is good"?? I don't know when he did it, but somehow Don suddenly produced a very long rope, and it had a series of looped knots (read: handles), one every five feet or so. Was it a clever mountaineering device, or an implement of torture? I feared I was about to find out.

The cookie was perched, unsecured, on the "CTS", and was ready for ascent. "All hands on the rope"!  Have you tried pulling a heavy load up a packed-snow slope on snowshoes? Ya, me either. I wasn't wearing any, and I don't know which scenario was more laughable. I just remember hearing, in between our grunts and chortles, some crazed former prison guard repeatedly shouting something akin to "Pull pappi, pull!" I won't mention his name, but he's the one in the blue and red hat in this picture. If you see this man in the woods, it would make good sense to run.

In spite of this grand fun, we managed to get the cookie and the bowl chunks upslope to the truck.

WAIT !  What's that-- the WINCH ?? How did we forget about that?!

Cookie meets truck
Oh, but that's not the only little surprise Mike had in store for some of us. Now we had to get the cookie a couple miles up the road to a storage location where it will be left to dry.

Bob Schwobe, deservedly and rightfully, rides in the heated cab with Mike at the wheel. Bill, Carl, and I ride with Cookie in the back of the pickup. Did I mention earlier that it was a balmy day, now somewhere in the vicinity of, oh, maybe 11 degrees? Probably reliving a past fire run, Chief Mike seemed to be in an awful hurry to get somewhere. I'm not absolutely sure he was exceeding the posted speed limit because my eyelids were frozen shut. It's days later as this is written; my fingers are still numb.

But it's ok. The day ended well, and our mission was at least partially accomplished. We'll hopefully return to cut more cookies, and maybe one will be a great specimen to display in the Visitors Center, along with a hemlock bowl.

Maybe the most rewarding part of the day was watching that guy in the blue and red hat scorching back down the hill out of control on the CTS ...

 ... to be continued ...


3-6-14.  Update:

Here are photos of the first set of bowls rough-turned from the tree.

The blank is trimmed down with a chainsaw to fit onto the lathe. A "tenon" is formed on the bottom of the bowl, by which the blank can later be gripped in a chuck to hollow out the inside. The outside shape of the bowl is created, using hand-held woodturning gouges. The blank is then reverse mounted end-for-end, the tenon gripped in a chuck for access to the front (ie, top) of the bowl.

A coring tool is used to extract a nested set of "daughter" bowls from the "mother" bowl, so that little wood is wasted. One of the photos below shows the coring in progress... the first (smallest) inner bowl has been removed and the second is being cut. The walls of the bowls are left thick for now.

Once the coring is completed, the set of soggy bowls is put away to dry out. When the drying is done (which could take many weeks), the bowls will have shrunk and distorted (and possibly cracked); they'll be re-turned on the lathe to make them round again, and to bring the walls to final thickness. Finally, they'll be sanded and a finish applied.

Hemlock is not a wood typically used in bowl making. Being a softwood species, it's just not as durable and appropriate as are hardwoods. But since we're trying to preserve some memories of the champion tree, we're going to give this a shot. At this point, with the wood still being thoroughly wet, it doesn't respond all that well to turning; that is, its fibers don't cut well, and the resultant surface is rough. But hopefully the wood will be more cooperative once the rough-turned bowls have dried. We'll see.

1. First blank, chainsawn to rough shape
2 ... mounted on lathe

3. Turning begins ...

4. Outside turned to shape, tenon formed

5. Reverse-mounted in chuck
6. Coring 2nd inner bowl
7. A bowlful of bowls ..
8. To be dried, and completed later

  ... to be continued ...

1 comment:

alpinism said...

Brilliantly done!