Fuel for the fire: larch on a lark

Tyler Austin Bradley
By Tyler Austin Bradley
September 15th, 2010

I extend my finger out the open window of my compatriot’s van. Leaning across from the right-hand driver’s side seat (it’s an import), he slows the 4×4 down and squints at the target I have acquired. He shakes his head.

 “Pine.”   We continue. The scene has replayed itself a good half dozen times since we branched off the highway onto Neptune, and now a hint of irritation has crept into his voice. The van wheels turn, non-conforming Ministry-of-Transportation-standards trailer clattering behind as we venture further down the active logging road. My friend’s mildly suicidal dogs (beagle and mutt) criss-cross in front of the van, under and between the trailer and van, as I do my best to differentiate between plain old pine and the coveted, prized Larch we have come for.   “The needles are different, they form in clumps instead of being all bushy. And the branches kind of sweep up. The top of the tree looks like a goblet,” my chainsaw savvy pal explains.    Yes, larch, goblet-like, the holy grail of locally available firewood!   I flashback to four months previous, a beer on the deck of The ‘Shovel, and a conversation between three other friends excited at the pyromaniacal possibilities of their newly installed woodstoves.   “I got a bunch of birch that’s ready to go!”   “My neighbour cut down a willow- is that any good for burning?”   “All I have is fir.”   “Is it Douglas?”   A pause… None of us knows anything about this stuff. Awkward silence… A swig of beer.   “Larch…” a voice rasps from behind.   We turn in our seats. A smouldering cigarette glares at us from between the scissor-like fingers of a well-positioned middle-aged local. Her eyes narrow on us city transplants, uninitiated and foolhardy. She takes a drag, long and thoughtful “Ffffffffffffft” and fixes her gaze squarely on us. Without exhaling, her voice a full octave lower, she nods in agreement with herself.   “You… Want… Larch.”   How do you argue with that? We accepted her counsel as sage and filed it away for future reference.    So here I am, four months later, eight km down Neptune Road and doing my best to spot a reasonably sized, dead-standing larch (cutting down the live stuff in active cut-blocks is not OK, so you need to operate like a carrion bird. Or woodpecker).    “There’s one.”   The van slows to a near stop with one of the dogs courting death alongside the front tire. “me keep walking? Duh?”   “Pine,” the driver laughs. I am a terrible spotter.    Three trucks loaded with chainsaws, camouflage garbed occupants and beer overtake us, passengers cheersing us out the windows.    “Maybe we should follow those guys,” I suggest.    But that would be poor etiquette. And vaguely emasculating. So we opt to continue on as we have thus far.   “Larch?” I point out the window.   “Yep. But that one’s still alive.”    ‘Not if we cut it down,’ I think to myself.    But again, that would be poor form/illegal, and it would never be dry enough to burn efficiently this year. Creosote and heavy smoke = bad.   Efficiency is key with wood burning- a quick visit to The Lung Association of British Columbia is an excellent primer as to why and how we ought to burn efficiently/conscientiously.   We stop the van and inspect a slash-pile to one side of the road. Another convoy of pick-ups roars by, accompanied by more friendly honks (maybe sarcastic- are they making fun of us?) and hooting and hollering. This is fraternal stuff. Hunting and gathering the manly man way. It’s busy out there, the backwoods simply teeming with men on a mission.    In a perfect world, I would have had this chore taken care of the day after my run-in with the wizened, dragon-like lady of the larch. That is, had I planned to properly season my wood (not as funny as it sounds; good wood needs plenty of time to dry out).    But the world is not perfect. In the middle of a clear-cut moonscape, we try to keep our eyes on the prize.   I do a lap of the slash-pile, inspect the carcasses of trees. Bunky cedar and pine jutting out like the skeletal remains, ribs, of some giant, fallen ungulate.    Again, like carrion birds, we pick at it. Slash-piles are fair game. One of the dogs alters the moisture content of some low-hanging trunks. Back in the van. We continue.   I bought my woodstove just about a year agoas a supplementary heat source for the baseboards and pellet stove I have in the house. I got a sweet deal on it, too; Quadra Fire is based in Colville (they manufacture woodstoves, inserts, pellet stoves), and sometimes their factory seconds come up for grabs- dings, mis-tints, scratched, they’re all certified and CSA and EPA approved, but you can get a smoking deal. Ha. Ha. And they’re NAFTA friendly. And you can access a grant via the Provincial Woodstove Exchange Program by retiring your old, inefficient wood burner in favour of a new, high efficiency model:  
Back in the woods, we’ve found a small stand of three dead-standing larchies. Larchies because they’re small, choked out by the surrounding foliage. The only problem? They’re a full 100 metres off the road and uphill from the van. Still, better than hauling the rounds uphill.   Sharpen up the chains, slap on the chaps, head, eye and ear protection in place, dogs out of the fall-zone, steel toed boots, escape route planned, bar-oil and gassed up. Check, check and check. Two-stroke roaring to life. And all I can come up with is forested Zen, asking myself not whether a tree falling with no one around makes a sound, but how much wood a woodchuck might chuck if a woodchuck did chuck wood. And would said woodchuck, grasshopper or ant, have the forethought, next year, to get this done in advance of wanting to light up Hearth-Vader? (my little black stove)   Tires on gravel, trucks full of larch, lurch by our splitting zone after the fall. Cheers. At least we are not alone.

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