Forget the health club. The Alaskans who chop firewood are in great shape.



DONNELLY DISH – It can be difficult to think of cutting firewood as an outdoor recreational activity. But if chopping and chopping wood is a chore, try approaching it from a different perspective.

Gathering firewood can get you out on a snowmobile, allow you to postpone garage cleaning, offer you the opportunity to hunt for grouse, and even get in shape.

Maybe nothing will get you into good physical shape faster than lifting a snowmobile over a fallen log or pulling it out from behind the stump hanging on the inside of a ski leg (do this exercise 10 times.) Who needs a club membership?

Grouse can come and watch, so the well-prepared firewood collector will have a shotgun on the machine.

A snowmobile transporting timber should not be a climber. The older I get, the smaller my machines get. Personally, I started with Elans, graduated in Skandics and now I’m moving towards Tundra single cylinders. Whichever machine you choose, reverse gear is a huge plus in the woods. There is no doubt that a decent sled is a must. The sled should not be wider than the snowmobile to prevent it from getting caught between the trees. The high sides are a plus as well, although additional exercise can be gained by recharging the sled several times per trip.

There are a few firewood cutting areas that can be reached by truck. The Delta Junction area, where I get most of my wood, is the firewood capital of Alaska. Forest fires near the road network, combined with countless firebreaks and typical light snow conditions provide extremely easy access. But there is a downside to a truck in these fire-killed spruce stands. Fire-hardened branches can easily puncture the sidewalls of tires.

Discounting potential costs, fire-killed spruce provides many more BTUs than beetle-killed trees. Some people question the value of poplar or poplar as a heat source, and they’re right if it dries up with the bark. However, a beautiful, burning forest fire burns the branches and bark, leaving a hard, dry log. Poplar roots do not hold together well, so the tree is almost always on the ground. Cotton is much lighter than spruce, which makes it easier for us old folks to handle.

Birch is a harder wood to use. As a rule, birch bark does not burn in a fire, and the tree remains upright. The wood does not dry well standing in the forest and quickly becomes punky. Standing dead birch does not provide much heat.

From time to time, the Department of Natural Resources or the Federal Bureau of Land Management will open up an area where green trees can be cut. They should be split soon after cutting to dry properly. Wood cut now will not be ready to burn until winter. Moist birch or spruce will hold the fire for quite a while, but neither will provide much heat.

The benefit of burning wet wood is the added exercise of lifting large chunks into the sled or truck. Beyond that, burning wet material in your stove will build up creosote in the stove pipe. This will improve climbing and balancing skills as you venture to the top of the roof with a 16ft chimney brush.

The equipment needed to burn wood is relatively simple. In addition to the chimney brush, a decent chainsaw and ax will complete the arsenal. A hydraulic log splitter can be added if you are a bell and whistle guy, but this is considered cheating by purists.

There is no doubt that chainsaws are essential to any efficient wood cutting operation. Everyone has favorites. My suggestion is to avoid very small or very large saws. The bar length should be between 16-20 inches, with fat guys usually preferring longer bars. This is great if you are working with bigger trees. The tendency of the long bar to come into contact with strangers on the other side of the tree you are cutting is a factor in your decision. An invisible stone can wreak havoc with the saw chain. If you’re cutting away from home, take a spare chain, just in case.

Cutting in woods also requires a chain file and bar clamping tool. Cutting with a dull or loose chain is frustrating and potentially dangerous. Bar oil is another necessity. Commercial bar oil is available, but it must be diluted if you are working at lower temperatures. Try ATF fluid as a diluting agent; it mixes easily and works well.

A good ax can be fun to use. Some people like single bits, others like doubles. Regardless of the choice, make sure it has the correct grip length and the balance is suitable for the user. Frozen wood splits easily and I would say minus -20 is the ideal temperature. Splitting half a cord of wood will soon put you in shirt sleeves, even in freezing weather.

Maybe it’s easier to buy a bead or two. If you think this is the case, know what you are getting. First of all, know what kind of lumber is delivered. Also, if you are buying by cord, make sure you really get what you bought. A cord is 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high – 128 cubic feet. This is stacked wood, not stacked wood in a jumble. A standard pick-up bed without sideboards can hold about half a cord.

Buy wood or cut wood? Either way, there’s nothing quite like standing against a hot wood stove early in the morning and the satisfaction of a winter of firewood piled up by the garage.

John Schandelmeier is a longtime Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Firewood in the public domain

The Alaska Forestry Division aims to provide firewood on state land. Permits allowing holders to take 3 to 10 cords for personal use are required. They are available online, for cutting in the Fairbanks, Tok, Glennallen, Haines, Mat-Su and Kenai areas. Check the website for details:

The Districts of Seward and Glacier Ranger of the National Forest Service only allow the removal of dead material as free-use lumber. With the high spruce mortality caused by the spruce bark beetle on the Kenai Peninsula, the agency intends to preserve the remaining green trees as a source of seeds for future forests. Personal use firewood cannot be sold or bartered for personal gain – and can cut and remove up to 25 cords of deadwood per year on national forest lands.



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