Extreme Tree Felling

Just so you know, this is an honest blog. I share successes at our little house off the grid, along with our failures. And when it comes to cutting big trees near your house, this is an activity fraught with many potential hazards, especially to those who come from the city. Actually that’s an inaccurate description – felling trees is a dangerous and unpredictable vocation for anyone, including the professionals. I have often heard the line “he cut trees his whole life” about the guy who was just killed by a falling tree he’d cut. And I remember an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper a while back that described cutting trees as the most hazardous profession in Canada.

I have seen ads on TV for cruise ships that now offer all sorts of “extreme” sports and activities to occupy your time. Wall climbing and zip lining and other activities are designed to create the impression of danger while you are tightly tethered to a safety line. There is no doubt though that our society is full of extreme activities and plenty of adrenaline junkies that seek them out.

I, on the other hand, do not seek out extreme activities. I find just driving my neighbors’ borrowed tractor on a 10% incline to be terrifying enough, so base jumping is not on my To Do List. Cutting down trees though continues to be a part of my experience here at Sunflower Farm. After 15 years I believe I am getting much better at anticipating how a tree will fall, but I do not say this with hubris, only humility. I am extremely careful, to the point of paranoia. This past winter I cut down the biggest tree I’ve ever cut that was growing near our garden. It was a giant poplar and was casting a shadow on the solar panel that runs the pump on our dug well, so it had to go. It was one of those trees that started out at the base with a clear lean in one direction but had a large amount of mass in the canopy that swung back the opposite way, so it could have fallen in any direction. I made my cut based on the lower lean, and then took half an hour to drive wedges into the backcut to force it to fall in the direction I wanted it to. We are miles from the nearest human being but I do believe someone must have heard my “Woo Hoo” yell when it fell exactly the way I had hoped.

Our guesthouse is surrounded by poplar trees. Our friend Heidi told me they are called “Aspens” and that they make an enchanting sound as the leaves rustle even in the slightest breeze. I guess I had fallen under their spell because I hadn’t noticed that they were getting pretty big in the decade and a half we’ve lived here. Poplars grow at an amazing pace but the downside of that rapid growth is that they are a pretty weak tree and will be blown down easily in a big windstorm.

In the city I would have called someone to take down a big tree leaning towards my house. When I first moved here I would have called my neighbor Ken to help. But I believe I’ve reached the point now where I have to grow up and do this stuff myself. I’d love to have the money to pay a professional (with lots of insurance) to take these dangerous trees down, but I don’t and I have a sneaking suspicion that when it comes time to make the claim all may not be what it seems in the insurance department.

I started by taking down a few smaller ones to work my way up to the large one on the far side of our guesthouse. It had kind of a nasty lean. I even got Michelle involved in this fun time.

I asked her to stand at the base of the tree while I discussed my strategy, the perceived lean and how I wanted her to pull on the rope that I had tied high up the tree, preferably away from the guesthouse. I also explained in unequivical terms that the tree ‘could’ misbehave and hit the house. I explained that the worst-case scenario was that I’d be repairing the roof and eavestrough later that day. I could tell she took little comfort in my assessment of the situation.

I did my front directional cut in the direction I ‘wanted’ the tree to fall. Then I made my felling cut from the back but only went in 60% of the amount I would usually go. The object is to have the back cut get close to the directional cut but not hit it so you leave a small uncut area call the “hinge” which does indeed act like a door hinge and helps to control the fall and prevent it from bouncing back up and doing dangerous things. This time I got out the wedges and sledgehammer and drove them until the tree finally started to fall. And it fell exactly where I wanted it to. Yee ha!

Then came the final and absolute worst tree yet. It was beside the driveway and leaned directly towards our cell phone tower. We have a yagi antenna on this tower to boost our signal to a local cell tower. So if tree felling went wrong it would have either smashed into the house or taken out our phone. And this tall poplar was 20 or 30 feet above the roofline so it would have lots of momentum for damage.

The driveway was still mostly ice covered that day but I chipped out a section down to the gravel for traction. Then it was time to get Michelle involved in the operation. I put two ropes on the tree and decided that rather than have the truck a really long distance away, which would reduce leverage and increase the likelihood of the rope breaking, I’d put two ropes on and situate the truck closer to the tree. I had a whistle and told Michelle that when she heard the whistle blow she should get the truck moving and start to pull the tree. Continued short blasts from the whistle would indicate that she needed to keep driving, but only about 5 feet to just allow the tree to clear the antenna. I had marked Michelle’s target with an orange pylon. Any further and we would have risked pulling the tree down on to the truck. My last instruction to her was that a long continuous blast of the whistle meant that it would be time to pop the clutch and drive like a crazy person because the tree would be coming her way!

I’m hoping that early on in this post I created the impression that things went horribly wrong with this little enterprise, but they didn’t. Once the tree started to fall Michelle pulled it just enough to miss the tower and it fell exactly where I had hoped it would. And if you are wondering, “what’s with the whole trying to create the impression that the tree hit the house” thing, my response is that this was a highly possible outcome, so when you’re able to overcome that probability, it’s a pretty darn fine feeling. Pretty awesome. After the tree is down and the fear subsides you get this incredible rush of endorphins, just like when you jump off a mountain in the Alps in your wing suit and sail at 100 miles per hour into the valley pulling your parachute at the last possible minute. Only this way you’re not nearly as likely to get killed and you avoid a tree blowing onto your house in a windstorm. Oh, and you get a week’s worth of heat from each of the big honkin’ poplars that you just cut down.

Even 24 hours after this activity I still felt a buzz.  Extreme sports … hah! They’ve got nothing on extreme tree felling at Sunflower Farm!


Michelle’s Note: To make it even more terrifying, our old truck has a manual (standard) transmission and so when I heard the whistle it wasn’t just a case of hitting the gas. I had to let out on the clutch while giving it gas and hoped that it wouldn’t choose that moment to stall on me. I learned how to drive a manual when I was a teenager but I rarely drive our truck so it was rather nerve-racking!


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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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