We picked up our saws and started hiking steeply uphill on Waldo Trail west of Waldo Mountain.  I figured we had at least 600 feet of elevation gain ahead, so I looked at my altimeter and estimated a bit more, 200 meters. It’s difficult for me to hike an unknown trail without knowing where I am regarding elevation and distance.  Many would say I am too focused on those things.  True, but I don’t ask how far it is, how much climbing there is, and what time we will get there. I know.

I was with two others, the crew leader with our volunteer trail group, the Scorpions, and a well-known sawyer from a nearby town, who not only uses saws but is the central Oregon expert in sharpening them.  

I hadn’t done trail work in 25 years when I first started doing it in Oregon. The trail work I did in Minnesota was a very different kind where we cleaned campsites, dug latrines. checked peoples permits and instructed them how to canoe safely and care for the wilderness.

I tend to try new fields, learn new vocabulary, new skills, starting at the bottom and working my way up.  I gain competence that suits me, then I move on, not giving up what I have learned but seeking another new adventure.  I have done this with medicine, statistics, astronomy, meteorology, canoe tripping, German, leading hikes, and even writing.  I don’t leave these fields: I tutor statistics, I still observe the sky, the weather, watch German TV, write, lead hikes and canoe trip. I just don’t do as much of them.  My latest interest is trail work.

I had little experience using a 2-man crosscut saw, no experience repairing trails, and constantly needing correction and instruction. Few knew me, and I wasn’t considered much of an asset.  I did a two night trip in the wilderness last summer, helped cut a lot of logs out, hurt my knee, and stayed away from work for about three months. In the winter, a lot of low elevation trail work nearby made it easier for me to go out again for a few hours, and I started doing more.

We had a rough winter, with a lot of trees down on the nearby trails, and I was a swamper, the person who helps the chain saw cutter remove the logs and cleans up the smaller debris.  I didn’t miss a chance to go out, making about two dozen consecutive trips into the woods with the group.  People at least knew me, knew I was out there, but I still wasn’t considered too valuable, at lease in my eyes.  

Two days prior, I had worked in the Diamond Peak Wilderness clearing logs, two of which were north of 25 inches in diameter.  One had serious binding, meaning there was compression of part of the log which made the saw bind or stop cutting.  It took our threesome 3 hours to cut the log out.  We had to keep plastic wedges in the first cut to keep it open and prevent the second cut from binding as well.  I learned a lot from that day, but my arms were dead tired and I was expecting to leave early on the next outing in the Waldo Lake Wilderness.

We started with a 24-inch diameter log that could be pushed downhill, except there was not a lot of room for it on that side.  I made the counterintuitive suggestion that we push it the other way, even slightly uphill a few feet, because we wouldn’t have to push it far to get it off the trail. My way worked well, and the crew leader was pleased.  He hadn’t thought of pushing it the other way.

I worked with the sawyer, also named Mike, on the first 15 incher.  He was experienced, and I expected a lot of criticism. The log was dry, my arms were not as sore as I expected, and I was careful to sight along the saw so that it was straight and not bent.  Bends make it difficult to do a straight cut.  We cut through it smoothly, made a second cut, and pushed the cut log off the trail. No corrections made. The day was going better.

About a half mile up the trail, we had another issue where the log was above the trail and we had top bind, where the top wood was under compression and the lower under tension.  I suggested we cut underneath, since tension leads to a tendency for the cut to open rather than to close.  This would be an “under buck,” and I thought of it because I had encountered this same type of problem two days prior.  We put the saw into position below the log, cut upward, and I just let the saw cut with a trace of upward pressure. It seemed right, and I could hear the saw sing, a sound that meant we were doing it right. We cut through the bottom part of the log, and it dropped, the saw remaining away from the ground, which is important to avoid damage to it.

On the next cut, the sawyer said that despite my being new to this, I was cutting well.

I was stunned,  This was the first compliment I had had ever about my sawing or trail work.  I have been out with the group forty-seven different times, over four hundred volunteer hours, into four wilderness areas, three national forests, and I had never once heard “Good job” applied to me as an individual.

I thanked him, and we moved on and under bucked a second log.  We were making good progress along the trail.  I had stopped counting how many logs I had cut out, but it was a lot.  We were finally descending, after climbing about a thousand feet, far more than the six hundred I expected.  My arms felt good; nothing was difficult.  I was careful how I cut, trying not to force the saw, and I felt confident.

On the next log, when I suggested an under buck, Mike looked up at me and the crew leader, held up a hand with three fingers, and said, “I can think of only three people I will do an under buck with.  You are doing a great job with it.”

Wow, I was not walking on the trail any more.  I was floating.  

Later on, Mike showed me how to get part of a log off the ground using wedges and a small log. On one log, I asked him where he wanted to start, and he said, “You tell me.”  I did, thrilled that my reasoning was good and I had read the log correctly. 

We finished our part of the trail, hooked up with another crew that did a nearby trail, and walked three miles out of the woods to the cars.  Sure, I was tired, I had a long drive ahead home on a lot of dirt roads, and I would be leading a 12 mile hike the next day.  But I’d do fine.  I knew the area. 

I also knew a good teacher, one who could both instruct and positively reinforce a student. Both matter a great deal.  I had long wondered whether I would ever fit in to the trail crew.  This was the day I realized my skills and work mattered.

The two Mikes under bucking a log. Author in orange hard hat. Waldo Lake Wilderness.

Two of the crew taking some pulls at a 26 inch Western hemlock. The wedges in the top of the log are keeping the cut open. Diamond Peak Wilderness.


  1. Steve Nash Says:

    Looks like real work. Thanks for making it easy for the rest of us!

    • Mike Says:

      Nice way to see different trails, new country, and enjoy working and being in the woods with other like minded people. I learn a lot about different places to explore through this. Plenty of overnight possibilities as well.

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