Chainsaw School

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Shenandoah National Park, November 29 – December 2, 2021 — Once upon a time the kid thought he knew a fair amount about chainsawing – not everything, but enough.  After all, he’d owned one for 30 years and first used one about age 16.  Then I took my first sawyer certification course from the National Park Service in 2015.  It was a major wake up that hit me up side the head like a beaned baseball batter.

I realized that I knew nothing compared to what I needed to know; sawing small bore firewood is nothing compared to bucking huge oaks and tulip poplars; professional chainsaws are bigger and badder than the backyard models I’d been using.  So began a steep learning curve seasoned with a lot of caution.

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Previously chainsaw training for volunteers took place over a weekend with some homework done prior to class.  After some lecture and passing the written test, a practical exam followed in the field where students demonstrated the required competency to be certified.

For decades there has been a tug of war on chainsaw certification between the U.S. Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) and the National Park Service (Department of the Interior).  It’s my guess that the NPS moved toward the USFS judging that chainsaw training is now 40 hours and far more comprehensive.  Now we receive the exact same comprehensive training park service employees get.

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Ya gotta love COVID, grrrr.  The masks weren’t really that much of an inconvenience. 

The course did cover some things we, especially the volunteers, didn’t need to know.  When learning to sharpen chains, I noted that if my chain got dull, I’d simply change it and take it to the shop when I got home.  I have six, in part because I don’t have the patience to sharpen them.

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Demonstrating cuts.  The bucket is the fake log.

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Chainsaw accidents happen in a flash and they’re ugly.  We’ve always been drilled on safety, but this course went into a lot more depth.  For someone with several years experience, I learned more about safety and accidents than I knew before the course. 

Safety is a big damn deal as it should be.  Rule one:  If you are uncomfortable with your assignment, decline.  No one will fault you for doing so. 

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I passed on one this summer and the park service crew did too.  Too hairy.  It’s in a wilderness area where it’s well within policy to leave it.

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The course reminded me a lot of military training where everyone starts at square one and demonstrates competency at each step of the way.  Here is square one:  Safely starting your saw.  There are wrong ways that are very unsafe.

Steph has an electric chainsaw and used a standing start. Dan is using my saw which was already warm.  He used a ground start.

Steph was in my last recertification class and allowed me to borrow her saw for my competency demonstration.  They are very cool featuring less pollution, noise, and maintenance.  Their power is good and battery life ok.  I’d eventually like to get one, but would probably buy three batteries.  Of course, electric chainsaws are like printers.  The saw costs far less than the batteries.

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Note how John applies the chain brake immediately after cutting.  That’s a safety rule.

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We practiced making sawdust and demonstrating the cuts we’d have to make.  Everyone passed.

We stayed in PATC’s Huntley cabin, just outside the park.  It’s a fully modern and well designed building with a NYC apartment-size kitchen.  The three of us there took turns making dinner.  Let’s say everybody got a go on that assignment.  I made prosciutto, green apple and Gorgonzola pizza.

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We woke up to a light dusting one morning.

The capper was a display of some vintage and very ginormous chainsaws.  No chainsaw envy here.

The next day Gang of Four member Catherine “Badass” Berger and I pounded out the final 12 miles she need to complete the AT in Maryland and earn her Maryland end to end patch.   We found some work for the Maryland sawyers along the way.

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4 thoughts on “Chainsaw School

  1. Damn – after seeing those “colorful” pictures of chainsaw accident victims I think I’ll skip training and keep swamping for you brave folks.

  2. After our derecho Aug 2020, I wondered how many more chainsaw injuries showed up at the area hospitals. Lots of people were novices and cavalier in their use. Also, I wondered if some chainsaws come with the auto-braking feature found on some table saws. That would make them heavier and more costly.

    • The good ones such as Stihl and Huskvarna have inertial brakes similar to seatbelts. The help but are imperfect. The problem with the table saw brakes is when a chainsaw punches into pithy wood. It wouldn’t be able to differentiate between that and a body part.

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