I ran a Stihl hedge trimmer the other day, but rather than trim hedges in neighborhoods, we had about 5.2 miles of the South Willamette Trail in the Willamette National Forest to brush out.  The trail connects the Hardesty Mountain trail with Eula Ridge Trail, and it is possible to make a full 14 mile loop. I’ve hiked that loop several times by myself, led a hike called “Hardesty XX Black Diamond,” and tried to run it once, to see if I could make the Hardesty Hard Core race cut off time in 4 hours.  I hiked it in 4 1/2 with a pack and felt I could probably break 4 hours, but was so wasted I asked myself why would I want to?  Age is such a nice thing sometimes.  Hardesty climbs 1000+ meters or 3500 feet in a few miles; Eula Ridge is one of the steepest climbs or descents I’ve seen in Oregon.  South Willamette is easy by comparison, with gentle ups and downs in a lovely forest. 

It is muddy out in the woods during the wet season, and streams are on the trail where in summer one would think water had never been. The first day we were out there, assignments were divvied up, and I took the rake and stayed in the back, clearing the trail, well behind the others who were doing the actual trimming with the 7 foot long Stihl whackers. I removed cut sword fern, Salal, and Oregon grape, along with a few small but difficult to remove vine maples that were encroaching on the trail.  Vine maples are nature’s way of getting back at trail clearers.

Small stream flooding South Willamette Trail. We turned it into a crossing.

I thought back 65 years to Crow Lake, Ontario, and later the Finger Lakes of New York, and the 5 hp green outboard (the 5 was in red) with “Johnson” blazed on it, the first power machine I learned to use. I have to laugh when country music singers talk about their “old days” first motor as a 40 horse or Alan Jackson’s ’75 Johnson with an electric choke. They are soooo young. Forty horse? Electric what? This Johnson had a cylindrical shaped “primer” that we pushed down a few times and could turn, although I never knew what the numbers meant and never did turn it. My father didn’t, so I didn’t. The gas tank was in the back on top. You didn’t have an external one. Those came later.  It was a 2 cycle engine, and for years I thought we had to add oil to gasoline to run a motor, one quart of oil per gallon of gas.  I still remember using a can opener on the oil can.  Oil first, not last. Fortunately, I never did that to a car.  I cringe today when I think of the pollution.

Blindfold me, put me in the stern with that motor hanging off the transom, and I could start it right now. Drop the 2-bladed green prop into the water.  Turn the brass four cross knob on the left bottom counterclockwise to start the fuel flow.  I can hear it running.  Then open the top on the fuel line on the back top of the motor, hearing the sound of escaping vapor for a couple of seconds. Then push the silver clutch on the right side out like an ear, which it looked like, move the throttle from off to start, which had an automatic stop. I always moved the throttle up to the automatic stop. I never once started it without the clutch in place.  I can still hear every sound as I describe it, the trickle, the psssst, the clunk of the clutch, the throttle banging against the stop, the sound of the primer as I pushed it down a few times—clunk, clunk… clunk, clunk…clank.  Then grab the handle on the right front side of the motor, holding the steering handle with the other hand, and pull.  Usually on the second or third pull, if that, it would start, with a cloud of smoke. Move the throttle to the left a couple of inches to slow, then slowly push the clutch back flush with the motor. Reverse gear was turning the motor in a circle, before letting in the clutch.  When I was ready to go, I gradually advanced the throttle. I knew every sound of that Johnson.  When I was 12, I used the boat, a 14 foot plywood cruiser called “Osprey,” to deliver the Rochester Sunday paper along 3 miles of the west shore of Honeoye Lake, so I didn’t have to stash papers along the road.  Newspaper delivery by boat—what a ball, and I made good money, too. Hard to believe it was sixty years ago this summer.

I hauled the 7 foot long orange Stihl brusher about a mile west on the trail that we had worked the previous week, trying to avoid trees, ground, rocks, and not fall.  When I got to where we needed to work, I put in my ear plugs, checked the vest on that would connect me to it, and got down next to the motor.  What was fascinating, now that I think about it, was that nobody told me what to do. They either thought I had done this or my confidence at running a motor again was infectious. It had only been 20 years since I last used a lawnmower.  Same approach.  Put on the choke, hit the plastic primer a few times with the fuel visible underneath, then pull the cord.  It pulled really nicely. After 4 or 5 pulls, it started right up. I moved the choke to off and was ready to go.  I lifted the machine up, attached my harness to it, so the engine was to my right and the 7 foot connector to the blade was to my left. Then I hit the throttle a couple of times, mostly because I liked doing that, and started cutting. The ferns were the most common, and the plethora of them along the trail meant that we made slow progress. The first time I used the brusher, we had two guys out with them; each did one side of the trail. That ends up quickly making one side of the body sore from always leaning a certain way.  I liked trimming both sides of the trail with a swinging motion, where I cut the throttle going across, and quickly gave it gas as I leaned into another fern clump, then letting go as I was almost finished.  This reduced the noise and I think saved fuel.  I saw a lot of guys who went full out until it ran out of gas.  Of course, the sooner it ran out, the sooner one could take a break or maybe persuade someone else to run it.

The next time out, someone actually asked me how to start it and how to adjust the blade. Wow. I felt like I should be wearing Stihl orange with the appropriate ball cap. There is a trick to setting the blade, which I figured out when I was off by myself with the beast and my macho self—such as it is at 72—didn’t want anybody to know I didn’t know how to do it.  There was a little cylinder which I tried to turn and push, with no results, so I then pulled, which was the last possible thing physics would allow.  That was the trick. The cylinder opened up, I could reset the blade at another angle, and then reset the cylinder.  Nice.

I tried to start the Stihl while I was strapped to it, but I couldn’t get enough purchase to do it.  I also checked the fuel after about 45 minutes.  It gave me a chance to take a break, and as I had long ago learned with the Johnson, if one doesn’t run the motor until the fuel tank is completely empty, it is a lot easier to start it up afterwards.  The last day out there, I ran it about three hours with one refill. The crew leader finally stopped me. He said he kept waiting until it ran out of fuel and then got impatient.  I laughed.

More fun than raking.  I’ll get the quiet when I hike the trail.

Stihl trimmer with guard over the cutting blade, which is folded over. The hand throttle is easily seen on the handle.
Author running the beast, a bit close to his pack.

Within six months, this growth will be back. If trails are allowed to go three years without being maintained, the blowdowns will make them impassable, and they will rapidly disappear. It’s a fine line as to what should be maintained and what is better off reverting to what it was. But then nobody would know how special it is. That’s another fine line.

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