Fear and Loathing (and Terror) Off the Grid

By Cam Mather

Sometimes I get scared. I’m probably not scared of the same things as most people, or at least not city people. I’m not scared of zombies, although I should be. Instead, living in the country and heating with wood and making scrounging a part of my day to day existence, I often find myself in situations way outside of my comfort zone. Certainly my city comfort zone.

I wish I was more like my neighbor Ken Gorter. This man is fearless. Not only did he spend most of his life in prison, working in prisons that is, to get to work he used to drive down the California Road. No one seems to know why it’s called the California Road since it doesn’t take you to California, and it really shouldn’t be called a “road” because it’s more of horse trail. Ken used to drive his rear-wheel-drive “Lada” on it, heading to work, 12 months of the year. He kept a chainsaw in his car to cut any trees that had fallen across the road and he often encountered bears, as well as rushing water on his trips. It’s ten miles of abandoned, desolate, trail with no houses or human beings. I bet Ken would have been playing his radio and singing at the top of his lungs as he drove it.

Ken’s house is at the top of a hill. His wife Alyce owns horses and every week or two she is gracious enough to let me haul away a trailer full of horse manure for my garden. In the snow-less months this is no problem. During the snowy months though it can be a challenge. The trailer is in a tough spot to get to, but I can usually maneuver my truck in to get it. Getting out is another issue. There is a hill up from the barn, then there’s the hill down to the road. This hill is pretty steep and at the bottom there is a culvert with a beautiful beaver pond-fed stream flowing underneath it. In the winter as the snow gets packed down it gets pretty icy. Sometimes it can be really icy, and sometimes it can be glare ice. The challenge is that once you get to the bottom you then have another smaller hill to get back up on to the road. Ideally you should have some momentum when you hit the little bridge if you hope to get up the other side. Especially since I’m hauling a trailer that can be a pretty big drag on the truck.

If I don’t make it up that hill the options aren’t good. I have to try and back down to the lower spot and this isn’t easy with a load of manure. So on those days I’ve got to run the ice bridge gauntlet. Oh it’s not like I’m freebasing, but if things don’t go well, it’s gonna mess up the rest of my day. These photos show what happened one night during an ice storm when Ken arrived home and didn’t have the momentum to make it up the hill to the house. This is what I’m usually thinking about when I race over the ice bridge with a loaded truck and trailer.

Cutting firewood can also be kind of stressful. Well actually, cutting down a big tree can be pretty terrifying. When it falls right where I want it, it’s an absolutely exhilarating feeling. No pain no gain I guess. I am very careful when cutting trees. Some trees pose unique challenges. When we bought this place there were some medium-sized poplar trees near the guesthouse. I never paid them much attention. Eventually I had to start cleaning out the eavstrogh each fall because these trees were dropping so many leaves on the roof. Suddenly the trees were huge! Poplar grow very fast. The downside to a tree that grows fast is that it is inherently weak.

In a perfect world, or in the city, you’d call someone to take trees like this down. In our case, we really can’t afford to pay someone and for two poplar trees, a lot of the tree guys around here would just laugh at me and never show up to do the job anyway. So I knew that I was on my own with these ones.

Just to increase the challenge, the trees were leaning towards the guesthouse, which is the opposite direction of how I wanted them to fall. The one thing I’ve learned about safely falling trees is to always drop them in the direction they’re leaning. So this time we decided to use the truck to pull them away from the house. If things went horribly wrong and the falling tree hit the building we might lose some windows, or worse, the cellphone antenna that keeps us in touch with the outside world. But really, who needs a phone? So there was a huge incentive for things to go well. Murphy has a law about this I believe.

I took the smaller tree down first. I made my notch in the direction I wanted it to fall, and then started my angled back cut. I stopped a few times to check how far through it was. I intended to get it through and leave enough of a hinge so that I could pull it down with the truck. So I stopped at one point and Michelle said “There’s definitely movement at the top of the tree.” Then it started to make a cracking sound so I swore, ran for the truck, got it started and pulled it just in time away from the guesthouse. OK, lesson learned. Have the truck running with tension on the rope.

For the second tree I asked Michelle to sit in the truck while it was running. I kept a whistle in my mouth to use as the signal for her to gun it if the tree started to fall. I did the cutting and left a larger hinge of uncut wood in the middle since I had learned a softwood tree would not stand as well with a small hinge. Once I felt that I had cut enough I asked Michelle to start pulling. The truck is a standard, so Michelle had to ease the clutch and engage it as she pulled this big honkin’ tree. When it started to go I yelled at her to gun it and off she went and the tree dropped perfectly away from the house. Can you imagine anything as sexy as a woman dragging down a big honkin’ tree in her standard 4 wheel drive truck?!

I spent most of the time that I was cutting those trees with great anxiety, but good anxiety. It’s not like the anxiety you feel when you know that your boss is going to come in and yell at you for being an idiot. This anxiety comes from knowing that I can try and control this as much as possible but things might still go horribly wrong. In this case, they went swimmingly well and I was ecstatic. There’s nothing like the high you get when you drop a tree with a chainsaw, especially when it drops right where you wanted it to.

I’ve had that job anxiety before and it’s gross and it doesn’t go away very easily. The running the ice bridge gauntlet and tree close to the house cutting kinda of anxiety can be terrifying for a few minutes, but it’s over soon and then it’s like an endorphin high. So it’s worth the stress.

Now if I can just convince an insurance company that I’m a good risk to start a tree cutting business, specializing in trees close to houses! What a blast that would be! Fear and terror and elation every day at work!

2 Responses to “Fear and Loathing (and Terror) Off the Grid”

  • I hear you. I am a chainsaw novice. No one in the area to teach chainsaw skills, except the guy selling it to me. I did however get a nice book at our free library outlining the does and don’ts of chainsaw
    practice and safety.

    Starting the thing is scary and I provide it a LOT of respect and safety.
    So far I am cutting the fallen trees on my property. Sooner than later though I have a few trees that must come down. Pointers are welcome.

  • Neil:

    I got my first chainsaw last summer. I bought the safety equipment, read the booklets, then off I went to fell my first tree… something on the small side of medium to start. It went fine, although quite slow, and I ended up having to hammer in wedges to get the thing to fall. Subsequent trees, all fairly straight-standing medium size ones also came down okay, and I know that feeling you mean when it falls with a thud exactly where you wanted it!! The initial success last season was encouraging but I’ve decided not to push my luck for a city-guy-cum-country-guy and you’ll be happy to know (as will my insurer) I’ve signed up for a 3 day chainsaw operator course at Fleming College in late April.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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