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Illustration of sawmill.

After the Storm

In the wake of a blowdown, landowners see trees in a new light.

by Will Weaver

July 2, 2012, began as just another warm, humid day. By midafternoon the temperature in Bemidji was 90 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Cumulus towers rose up in slow motion, shining and mushroom-capped, then collapsed like giant popovers. Far-off thunder muttered and grumbled. By later afternoon the energy-laden skies carried incipience like Saturday night at the State Fair: sweaty, hot, a little bit dangerous. At 6 p.m. my wife, Rose, called me in from our riverside dock.

"You should look at this," she said, pointing to the weather radar on the television. A perfectly round storm cell had blown up west of Bemidji. The pink blob, widening even as we watched, was tracking due east. Its path would take it directly over Bemidji, then down the Mississippi River toward our home nestled in the pines.

"We'd better get ready," Rose said, she who usually takes the weather more seriously than I do.

I went outside to batten down the yard—secure the lawn furniture, check the pontoon ropes, turn over the canoe—the usual routine. I did not pause to look at "our" grand old white pine with its signature, lyre-like trunk curving out over the river. But I should have.

When we had done all we could to prepare, I went to our screened porch to wait for the oncoming weather. I take a childlike pleasure in thunderstorms—their raw power, their capacity to jolt us from our routines, to gather us in the same room or shelter, to unify our thoughts. When I was a child, thunderstorms brought my father in from the fields or barn to the safety of the house. He would have coffee and cookies, or a nap and afterward a game of checkers with us kids. A good old-fashioned thunderstorm was a gift of rain and family time.

But on July 2 my wind chimes rang sharply. Aspens fluttered the whiter undersides of their leaves. A chilly breath washed through the screened porch as if someone had opened a giant refrigerator door. Then from the west came a shimmering wall of straight-line wind. Rain hit the porch screens and exploded like cold aerosol spray.

I hustled inside with Rose and watched the river grow whitecaps, a rarity on this protected stretch of water. As the noise and wind velocity increased, our birch trees, heavy with midsummer leaves, bowed lower and lower. Flying leaves plastered themselves on wet window glass.

In a momentary pause, the trees straightened partway, only to be hit with a knockout gust. The ripping, cracking of tree bark and wood fiber resounded all around the house, and then the seismic Whump! of trees hitting the ground.

"Our trees!" Rose cried, her voice breaking.

Suddenly, like a bullet train thundering through a small station, the storm passed on.

An unnatural light illuminated our tall windows. Not only were many of our shade trees gone, the river was missing—hidden beyond the tangled mess of fallen pines.

The temperature had plummeted to 65 degrees. In the littered yard, we surveyed the damage. Two giant white pines lay crisscrossed over our canoe. Several Norway and jack pines had snapped off halfway up their trunks. Several smaller pines had lost their tops, which lay scattered along the driveway as if someone had spilled a load of Christmas trees. Luckily, our house had not taken a hit.

"The big pine!" I said suddenly to Rose.

"I don't want to look," she answered.

But we clambered over the fallen trees toward the tip of the peninsula, where a strange new light glowed as well. The old sentinel pine, twisted off at its roots, lay in the water, its limbs still reaching for the sky.

Stage One: Recovery

We first checked on our neighbors. No one reported injuries, but some had punctured roofs, upside-down pontoons and docks, and twisted boatlifts. Ted, a younger neighbor, came by to check on us. Packing his chain saw, he helped clear a path to our dock. Surveying the pitch-scented, wet mess of limbs and tree trunks, he shook his head sadly. Then, in true Minnesota fashion, he said, "Well, you've got some nice saw logs."

A few days later, Ted and his college-aged son returned with chain saws, tape measures, and chalk. We marked the fallen trunks for efficient use—lengths of 8, 10, or 12 feet—then cut them into logs. Chain saws spewed pine chips while I stacked limbs and branches. Gradually, the river reappeared. Our canoe was miraculously unscathed.

Taking a break, Ted patted the log he was sitting on. "You'll need some heavy equipment with these guys," he said. It was a kindly way of saying, "Don't try moving these logs alone."

Stage Two: Log Pile

Several days later a friend arrived with a skid-steer loader and a grapple attachment. Taking care not to damage the riverbank, he clamped onto my logs one by one and moved them to a nearby meadow.

To make an orderly pile, we first set down two "stringer" logs, then laid the heavier saw logs perpendicular atop. Soon we had a tall rick.

"Don't let anyone climb on this pile," he warned. "Logs can roll and crush you."

This I didn't doubt, for I knew a man confined to a wheelchair from just such an accident. However, when it comes to logging safety, no one minds a reminder.

Stage Three: Sawyer

Bill Hubble is a school paraprofessional and coach by day. But on evenings and most weekends, he's a sawyer—a guy who cuts logs into boards. It was mid-September by the time Bill and his portable mill came rattling down the road, and none too soon. Some of the logs had begun to "blue" on their faces: From summer heat and moisture in the trees, a blue-gray mold was setting in. By spring the logs would be stained through and greatly reduced in value.

I waved Bill and his portable mill—a long, skinny, orange contraption—into position close alongside the log pile. After a quick greeting, he set to work. He readied the mill with its arcane mix of wheel chocks, levers, and leveling blocks. His moves were efficient, practiced, and mindful of time; the September days were already much shortened.

The last piece of the sawmill puzzle for Bill to place was its blade, a toothed hoop of razor-sharp, stainless steel. The gleaming band-saw blade was alive—it quivered and made whoop sounds—as Bill fit it onto the saw carriage with the care of a snake handler. After a final walk-around safety check, Bill gave me a thumbs-up signal and fired the engine.

A traditional sawmill brings logs to its blade. A portable mill brings blade to log. With a lever, Bill lowered two steel arms toward the log pile where a neighbor fellow and I used old-school log jacks to tumble a log down onto the hydraulic-powered arms. The weight of the big log made the motor groan as the log was lifted into place and clamped down.

After some quick measurements on the face of the log, Bill guided the carriage and its humming band saw forward. Sawdust sprayed, and the first slab came loose. It was the tenders' job to "throw slabs" —four of them come from each log—as the sawyer cuts the log into a square beam. Once milled evenly on four sides, the beam now can be cut into individual boards.

It was also the tenders' job to stack the "green" boards into a tidy pile. That included "stickering" the rick, that is, laying down spacers between each layer of boards. The spacers allowed air to flow through the lumber pile and gradually dry the boards; without spacers, the lumber would mold as quickly as if it were one giant dead tree.

It took a half-hour for our crew to find its rhythm. Sawmill work is noisy and dangerous, and we made sure to keep our walking areas clear and to watch out for one another. A couple of hours into the pile, about the time when a worker can easily get overconfident, I spotted a nail in a log. I threw the universal throat-slash hand signal: Bill halted the carriage and blade in the nick of time. We gathered to examine the big, old spike protruding from the bark.

"Probably pounded in there by swimmers," I said of the riverbank tree. "People tell me they used to come out here and skinny-dip."

"Then you went and ruined it by building a house here," Bill laughed.

It was good to take a short break, a drink of water.

"I once hit a horseshoe," Bill said as he rotated the log to a new position. "It was grown right into the tree. Spikes, deer hunters' bullets, I've seen it all."

The next log had a particularly irregular side, and Bill glanced at my wish list of lumber before continuing. He gestured for the log to be rolled 90 degrees—the geometry of milling—and from it came 2-by-8-inch planks. From one of the last logs in the pile, a true "grandfather" pine, we cut 1-by-20-inch boards.

"Try asking for one of these babies at Home Depot!" Bill called above the noise. He grinned broadly amid the sawdust, haze, and noise. A true sawyer, he never met a tree he did not respect.

We finished in the twilight. The last slabs were thrown, the final board stacked, and Bill killed the engine. Exhausted, I sat on my new, sweet-smelling pile of boards. My big, old trees had been reduced to several hundred board feet of lumber, for which I had plans.

Bill seemed to read my thoughts. "I cut lumber all the time," he said as he removed the band-saw blade, "but I hardly ever see what people make of it."

"I'm thinking of a little barn that could double as a hunting shack," I said. "Or maybe a free-standing outdoor sauna."

"Be sure to send me some pictures," Bill said.

In the end, Bemidji's windstorm affected about 200,000 acres. With winds estimated at more than 80 mph, the storm cut a path up to 15 miles wide in places and 70 miles long. However, the storm left us some gifts.

My wife and I have "improved" access to and a view of the river and all the eagles, ospreys, otters, loons, ducks, swans, kayakers, canoeists, and boaters that come by. We certainly have plenty of firewood and lumber. But we also have a greater understanding of loss and change—of what we can live without. The big sentinel pine that I always worried about is gone, but from my lumber pile, it will rise again.


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