The Most Sustainably Managed Woodlot in North America

By Cam Mather

In my ongoing quest for blog-o-sphere world domination I decided to ratchet up the hyperbole of my titles and make such over the top claims that people would just have to read my blog. A sustainably managed woodlot? Really, who can resist a title like that?

I know everyone can’t heat with wood, but I can and I love it. It’s carbon neutral. Those beautiful trees are absorbing carbon and storing it in their woody matter as they grow, and will return it to the atmosphere from where it came. They will either die, and fall over and release it while they decompose or in my case release it when I burn it. The tree will release the same amount of heat and carbon while burning in my woodstove, as it would rotting on the forest floor. I just speed up the process.

If you live in an urban area and you heat with natural gas, you take carbon that’s been stored in the ground and you burn it and release that carbon as C02 into the atmosphere. A better option for urbanites would be a ground source heat pump or geothermal heating system.

The trick with firewood from a carbon footprint standpoint is how you get it. If you use a chainsaw it’s a two-stroke engine where you mix gas and oil and is far worse in terms of pollution than a 4-stroke engine. So I now cut as much wood as I can with my electric chainsaw. I cut it into two to four fire log lengths in the bush and then haul it to the house or to where I can get to it with the truck in the spring.

The other option would be to use an industrial harvester, which would have a massive carbon footprint to operate and would really trash the forest as it was harvesting the wood. Some people use horses to haul wood out of the bush, but horses need a pretty wide and straight swath so that their tack doesn’t get tied up in trees, so you’d have to cut live trees to make the path for them.

Wood Harvester (photo from Wikicommons)

I think I’ve got the perfect solution. I use big black sleds that are designed to be pulled behind a snowmobile. These sleds are strong and lightweight and work great in the woods. I can weave my way through the woods with minimal impact. I can scope out a path and make sure I avoid damaging any trees. With the rugged terrain in our woods full of rocks and stumps and all sorts of other barriers, it’s best to wait until we have a good base of snow. Usually by January we’ve had enough snow to make a base and so I pack down a path and leave it overnight on a cold night to harden up. If there are big dips and holes along the route and I plan on using it a lot, I’ll even take the time to fill in some of the low spots with snow and pack them down.

I tend to make one of these trails to a spot on the property where I will cut a lot of wood and that’s usually near a pond, home to one of the dozens of beavers that we share our property with. Beavers are unbelievably destructive and lots of people around here “remove them”, but Michelle has made it very clear that since they were here first, they shall remain in their natural abode undisturbed. I have to respect the scale of the work they do and how they are able to figure out the best places to build dams to fill up ponds is beyond me. Their only view is from about 4 inches off the ground. How do they know where to build?

On the plus side they often bring down large hardwoods. They just want the small branches at the top and I just want the bigger sections below the top, so it’s quite a symbiotic relationship. They take the risks and I get the rewards.

This is a pond where I’ve been working this year. The beavers have flooded a huge area and now the maples are starting to die. Some are dead and I’m just grabbing them before they fall over and rot in the water. I can cut in January when the pond is frozen and haul them out easily. Of course my reality on this property is that beavers make their ponds on low spots, as this is where the water runs. This means that I have to get the wood up out of those low spots, so it seems my paths to haul the wood out are always up hill. I’m not complaining, this is just an observation.

This is my path this year. I take the wood across the pond then I have my biggest hill to climb.

Then I get to a relatively level, albeit bumpy section, through some hemlock, then another hill.

Then I have a long upward incline to a final plateau.

It’s a straight haul out to the road.

I figure this hike is about 200 meters (a meter is close to a yard) so every 5 trips I’ve done a kilometer (about 2/3 of a mile). With the walk back that’s 2 kilometers and since I’ll usually do at least 10 trips, I’m hiking about 4 kilometers or 2-1/2 miles. And not a seedling gets damaged.

On the day that Michelle took these photos it was -22°C (-7° F). I dress in about 5 layers, with the outside layer being a 20-year-old gortex jacket that I take off once I start hauling. By the time I’m finished I’m absolutely soaked. It’s fantastic. If I have a piece of coconut cream pie afterwards I will feel no guilt. Let’s face it, now that I’m 50 I’ve either got to eat fewer calories or burn more calories, and I have little self-control on the eating end. So I’m trading food calories to haul the wood out to produce heat calories or BTUs to heat our home. It’s a good trade off.

I continue to be enamored with wood heat. I love every part of it, the heat you get from it, cutting it and especially hauling it. It forces me out into the absolutely beautiful woods on our 150 acres. After a snowfall, the site of white “icing” on the evergreen trees is magical. I’m usually lost in thought as I plod along and find I can solve all sorts of problems as I haul my wood. Actually, problems tend to disappear and I get into a rhythm. I fall into a very Zen-like trance in which I somehow become part of the natural world that I inhabit. The trees I’m hauling are dead. I am very grateful to have them to heat my home. And by using these sustainable methods I don’t harm any of the living ones while I haul my firewood out. Heating with wood allows me to be at peace with the environment and one with the universe.

Sorry for the hyperbole, but I really, really love heating sustainably with wood.

Photos by Michelle Mather and Wikicommons.

5 Responses to “The Most Sustainably Managed Woodlot in North America”

  • Neil:

    I have one of those sleds… looks like the same one as you… and I’m quite impressed by it. I have a theory that eventually everything at Canadian Tire (except wiper blades, it seems) comes on sale eventually and when the ice fishing/hunting sleds did I snapped one up a few weeks ago. Even at the sale price, it seemed expensive for “just” a piece of plastic but it is one solid piece of plastic: I use it for logs and last weekend I even loaded it with a damn heavy cast concrete piece that was used to support a wood stove and the sled didn’t crack. Maybe I will but the long version of the sled next!

  • Thanks for the great comments! Seems I’m not alone in loving wood heat. And using pallets that would be landfilled is brilliant! I can’t wait for winter and enough snow so that I can start hauling dead wood out on the sled!

  • Roger:

    Like you, I enjoy heating with wood and the experience of cutting and splitting fire wood. I have similar sled that I use for hauling wood from the woodshed. Sometimes I use it in the woods although getting wood back to the house is literally tough sledding since I live in the foothills southwest of Denver, Colorado and there is very little level ground.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Gerry Fradette:

    I TOO LOVE TO HEAT WITH WOOD.It is a live presence in the house. I enjoy the different temperatures throughout the house. If you feel too hot in one room you can go to another. I live in London and do not have a wood lot per se but do live close to the industrial park and harvest my wood supply from the available pallets there. I have a small PV batery system and use my skill saw to cut them up. These otherwise would be landfilled. The nails gleaned from them, I return to the local Habitat Store so they can derive income through their scrap bins. I took your weekend workshop at Fanshaw a couple years ago and it has changed our lives. There is no looking back. Keep up the good work getting out the message.

  • Holly:

    I love your attitude, Cam. I live in the Northwest and many of my friends and relatives are miserable, slogging through another grey, damp winter (we do not get the snow so much which probably does lighten things up). I think it is all in how you look at it. Your perspective on winter and working on your land, even at “OFL” temperatures, is a gift. Thank you!

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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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