Sharp Teeth Moving at Very High Speeds: What Could Go Wrong?

About 15 years ago, my late wife, Susan, our two boys and I had a chance to spend a long fall weekend at a beautiful house on Martha’s Vineyard. Could we cut down an unsightly dead pine tree on the property in exchange for three glorious days at this West Tisbury house, asked the owner? You bet!

Being a city boy — born and bred in Hanover —naturally I didn’t own a chainsaw. Growing up on Maple Street, one didn’t tend to need one. So I jump on the phone with my old friend, John Hammond, and he says, “Sure, c’mon down.”

I’ve cut a few logs over the years (with a chainsaw), so I figure cool: All I need is a refresher. Out of the shadows of his Cornish barn, John pulls this … this industrial-sized Stihl chainsaw that looks like it might have been used by one of those angry, frustrated loggers on the Discovery Channel whose lives are constantly in peril from 9-foot diameter redwood trunks dangling above their inadequately hard-hatted heads, and whose resulting heavy smoker, gravelly dialogue is comprised of more bleeps than words. “Gulp,” I think. “Wow. Cool …” I exclaim out loud.

“Real easy,” says John, who is not one to over-teach. It takes me about seven seconds to conclude, “Mmmmaybe not …” I thank John for his faith in me, and head off to the Vineyard the next day with a good old-fashioned, non-life-threatening buck saw. Tree got felled to within — no kidding — an inch of where Susan and I wanted it to land; got it bucked up and stacked; dog got about 27 engorged deer ticks on her during the process; and I thought little about chainsaws for the next 15 years.

Fast forward: My fiancee, Susan Salter Reynolds, has this really nice place in Barnard, and there are lots of opportunities to not pay someone $125 to come over and cut down one of the many dead or dying ice-storm-damaged white birches. But that’s what we’ve been doing.

With the help of John’s cousin, Forrest (cool name for this story, right?), I find my way to Vermont Coverts: Woodlands for Wildlife, an organization that teaches woodland owners about forest management, enhancing wildlife habitat and maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. (I just want to learn how to not slice through my quadriceps!) I sign up for a Soren Eriksson’s Game of Logging Landowner Saw Training class, Level 1, and visions of that great big Stihl begin to haunt me. But I put the axe to them, as it were.

So now, on one of those perfect, resplendent early June days, I am actually on my way. I am cruising north on County Road in Calais, Vt., with strains of Monty Python’s “I’m a lumber jack and I’m OK” messing with my subconscious.

There are about 20 of us, you know, sort of standing there shuffling in the tall grass on the edge of the woods, making perfunctory conversation, subtly checking out each other’s equipment or lack thereof (me), and waiting for the class to start at 8:30 a.m. I assume I’m the only city boy in the crowd, and that everyone else has come from more rural parts to brush up on their already considerable chainsaw skills. In fact, there are a couple of real city boys: a Boston orthopedic surgeon (oh good: someone who can stem the flow from my femoral artery), and his grown, just-bought-some-property-in-New-Hampshire son.

We learn the anatomy of a chainsaw and how ESSENTIAL it is to wear the right protective gear; we watch as renowned logger and teacher John Adler and his co-instructor John Michalski demonstrate the basic dos and don’ts; and then it really gets terrifying-I-mean-interesting as Adler regales us with chainsaw stories. You could hear a screwdriver drop.

We hear how he sliced through his thigh and told the emergency room doc that nope, he wasn’t wearing chaps, hard had, ear protection. … And then this no-kidding-around-lumberjack-and-he’s-OK rock of a man looks at us a little sheepishly and admits, “Because nobody did.” He continues, rolling a sleeve up to expose a scar; passes around a pair of pretty much destroyed Kevlar chaps that saved a tibia from being destroyed.

And then there’s the tale about a logger who sliced his lip open with one of the teeth of a not-running saw that was slung over his shoulder.

OK, so let’s see: we hear about a saw that isn’t running but that can still slice through a lip; a saw cutting into the arch of a foot (destroying it for good); the need to carry a tourniquet and a signal mirror (for passing airplanes and to check for breathing on an unconscious logging companion); and then the surgeon chimes in with this encouraging thought: gangrene will set in within six hours if a severed artery is not properly patched up.

Say, this is sounding like more and more fun!

We split into two groups. It’s a thorough, very well-taught class. Protective gear on, we learn, step-by-step (and Michalski keeps score on everything we do), to check for overhead hazards; to determine the good and bad sides of the tree; how to pick an escape route for when the tree starts to fall; how not to hold your thumb on the chainsaw brake and where to place your feet while cutting; the safe and unsafe sections of the blade (the attack and kick back quadrants, respectively); and, of course, the actual geometry and physics of making correct cuts and felling a tree.

Eventually, each of us selects and cuts our own tree. After that soft “Whoomph!” and bounce of my maple hitting the forest floor, it takes a good five minutes for the adrenaline to subside and for the look-what-I-just-did! trembling in my hands to stop. When our saws are all quieted, there are just the woodland birds, the faint rustle of dry, quivering beechnut leaves, and a lot of silence. For this city boy, the experience is transcendent.