The Game of Logging - a Women's Workshop
BY ELIZABETH GABRIEL
Game? It’s ironic because the last word I would use to describe anything to do with a chainsaw is “game”. While I am the kind of person who puts together new furniture or a new gadget without reading the instructions, I’m not the kind of person who uses a deadly tool without guidance and confidence. And certainly, I don’t want to play any type of game with this tool.
A few years ago I was given a Stihl chainsaw and chaps for Christmas. My partner, a forester, has taught me to use it at least four times. Each time I feel oriented to the machine, comfortable enough using it with him nearby and pleased with myself. But, each time a few months go by that I don’t use the saw and again, I am fearful to use it.
These machines can be deadly. The extremely sharp chain, with 50-100 tiny cutting teeth, is running at nearly 60mph around the bar. It’s designed to cut through wood. Our bones are much less dense than wood and our brain’s reaction time to feel the pain if the saw were to cut us is far too slow compared to the power of this machine.
I first witnessed the result of this combination – man vs. saw – when I was eight. At the annual ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day,’ I met one of my dad’s patients, Mr. Jacobson. Mr. Jacobson, a professional arborist, was in a tree when his saw kicked back and sliced his face and neck. (Did you know, what appears to be a guard on chainsaw helmets is just there to block sawdust? It provides absolutely no protection from the saw.) To this day, I vividly remember the wound my dad had stitched on this man, that both saved his life and ran from just under his eye, down his nose, across his chin and down part of his neck. It’s a miracle Mr. Jacobson didn’t decapitate himself, and my dad has always been in disbelief that Mr. Jacobson was able to speak at all – albeit impaired – because of the damage done to his vocal cords.
Just this past summer a neighbor of mine, a somewhat overly confident 32-year-old DIYer, experienced a similar sort of miracle. (I had seen Duncan use an electric chainsaw a year earlier, and was dismayed by his lackadaisical approach. It actually turns out that electric chainsaws can be more dangerous than gas ones because they don’t bind up in Kevlar, or an equivalent material used in chainsaw chaps, and people think they’re safer because they are light and quiet). Duncan has been clearing a house site on newly acquired land for a few months and this day was no different. While his eight-and-a-half-month pregnant wife was off in the distance moving brush, Duncan was bucking up a tree in his usual way – without any safety gear other than ear protection – when his gas-powered saw kicked back. In an instant, the saw had sliced through his thigh deep enough to see the femur bone, but incredibly, did not cut through it. His wife raced him to the hospital where 49 stitches put his muscle and skin back together. (For those who don’t know, breaking, or cutting, a femur bone can be considered life-threatening and damage to this region is concerning because of its proximity to the femoral artery). Needless to say, I hold so much respect for this dangerous tool, it impaired me from getting to know it well enough to fall in love with its usefulness – and for years I wanted to know and to love it.
But, I digress. The point of this essay is not to scare you into wearing safety gear (though I hope it did and I hope you do). Rather, it’s to tell you about the Game of Logging – a hands-on chainsaw safety and productivity training which I had the opportunity to take Level 1 and Level 2 of in October when it was offered just for women by CCE-Greene County.
Certainly, I could have enrolled in the Game of Logging – open to all genders – anytime over the last few years since owning my chainsaw, but we all know the logging industry is very male-dominated, plus, I know from both my partner and some friends who had taken the training, that there are generally no women in it and the instructor, while extremely knowledgeable, can be a bit of an a*s so I wasn’t really jumping on the opportunity. While it might be possible for a woman to learn in a group of all men, the fact is that this setting is not usually the most comfortable or conducive to my learning style. I could only imagine the machoness (and grunts) that would exude from a group of men gathered around their saws, and I anticipated not being able to ask questions or being supported if I wasn’t quick to catch on. When it came to chainsawing, I knew learning with other women would be ideal.
It turns out many other women and gender-nonconforming people feel the same way I do. Within a day of registration opening, the 2-day workshop was filled and 14 others joined me on the cold, wet October weekend at the Siuslaw Model Forest in Acra, NY. Every single person said they would not have enrolled if it wasn’t a workshop for women, because “I was afraid of it [the chainsaw] and felt like I couldn’t do it, but knowing I’d be with other women made me think, ‘I can do it!’”.
Each person was required to bring their own saw and safety gear – chaps, helmet and ear protection. While some of us had used a saw as often as a dozen times, most of the participants had never used a saw before. A few had never even turned their saw on – or tried to but couldn’t (admittedly, it’s not always easy to get them on!).
The Game of Logging was initially developed for loggers to play a competitive “game” that would improve their chainsaw techniques and tree-felling methods to be safer and more successful (i.e. fewer snags). Once trained, loggers (or the companies they work for) also experience a discounted price on their required insurance policies. The course, as I took it, for the home-owner, left the competition aspect aside, for which I am grateful.
The Level 1 and 2 trainings focus on safety, saw maintenance, tree felling including spring poles and wedges, and bucking. Levels 3 and 4 delve into more nuanced techniques and situations that loggers or experienced foresters might encounter. The course as a whole is designed to be hands-on, repetitive (practice makes habit), offer a variety of circumstances (different tree, density of woods, varying slopes, etc.), and drill in the safety checks. It successfully did all those things – and more.
In two days, I learned far more than I can share here – everything from the 5 Major Safety Checks, to adjusting the carburetor, replacing the drawcord, and lowering a snag – so I will just share a few of the biggest takeaways.
The first is that helmets expire even if nothing ever hits them (this is also true for bike helmets). The plastic weakens and should a limb actually fall on you, it will not protect your head if it’s more than ~5 years old. A helmet should have some shine to it and the plastic should have flexibility. If you look under the visor of the helmet, there’s actually an emblem with a month and year – this is the date it was made. (Turns out mine is from 2008!)
The second thing I learned is that Agway (and most places) does a terrible job of sharpening chains. I brought two chains to the workshop that I had just picked up from being sharpened and both were not only done incorrectly but were dangerous – the raker was far lower than the tooth causing it to catch and bounce. ‘Bouncing’ is definitely not a descriptor you ever want to use for a chainsaw! I learned that for not a lot of money, with a few simple tools including a round file, a depth gauge, and a sharpening gauge, I can and should set myself up to sharpen my own chains.
The third thing I learned is the methodology and approach that made this course well-known, and that is to use a bore core on every tree with a D.B.H. (diameter at breast height) greater than 6-8”.
To back up for a minute: simply put, the standard or commonly used approach to tree felling involves two cuts, the face cut and the felling cut. The face cut creates a notch on the side of the tree in the direction you want it to fall. The felling cut is then made from the back of the tree toward the notch, leaving a thin section of the trunk to act as a hinge, guiding the tree as it falls (see image).
This common method doesn’t take into account felling a tree with any kind of lean (forward, back, side) and it doesn’t reduce the risk of stump-jump – when the hinge breaks and the tree “jumps” toward you as it’s falling (terrifying, right?!).
The alternative is to use a bore cut, which involves three cuts. The first is again the face cut to create a notch. The width of the deepest part of the notch (which is the width of the hinge as well) should be 80% of the tree’s D.B.H. In the second cut, hold the saw so the bar is parallel to the ground, at the same level as the bottom of the notch, and behind the hinge which you will create, and then bore (plunge) your saw into the tree just behind the notch using the bottom half of the bar tip, leaving a hinge and working your way toward the back of the tree, stopping short to leave a “strap” of wood. Your hinge should be about 10% of the tree’s D.B.H. You now have a strap of wood at the back of the tree and a hinge that holds the tree safely on its stump until you’re ready. This is when you would place wedges if needed. Finally, the third cut cuts the strap, and the tree falls. When you use a bore cut, not only can you precisely control the direction the tree falls, but the strap holds it safely and securely, allowing you all the time you need to make the hinge exactly the way you want it and leave the zone safely.
There’s apparently some fear of the bore cut because of the risk of kickback, but if done properly, using a sharp chain and the bottom corner of the bar – staying clear of the kickback zone in the top corner of the bar – the bore cut is significantly safer than other methods. (A great way to practice the bore cut is to use some stumps either you create or have in your woods).
I was surprised we’d be felling trees in a Level 1 training, and I assumed we would practice on a single tree in an open field. Given that that scenario is pretty rare, I was foolish to think that would be our training ground. Instead, we each were paired with a poplar in a pretty dense forest to practice on. Once paired with our tree, we took turns assessing and sharing the HELP steps aloud (Hazards, Escape Path, Lean, Plan) before making our cuts. My tree smacked down on a tall stump just as I had planned. The group clapped. Another squeezed in between two other trees just as she planned. The group clapped again. One by one, each of the 14 women landed their tree exactly where it was intended – followed by cheers and claps. We confirmed with the instructor, who has taught Game of Logging for a few decades, that clapping and cheering only happens at the women-only courses.
If you use a chainsaw, I highly recommend taking the Game of Logging. Not only did I learn an exceptional amount about the saw and cutting safely, but taking the workshop with only women created an environment where all of us were comfortable asking questions and helping each other. While I do hope that one day there is a woman teaching the Game of Logging, the instructor was just a little bit crass, but mostly patient, helpful and a great teacher. Being part of the group, even just for 2 days, elicited a camaraderie in knowing that all of us were going to head home with our newly found confidence and skill. Perhaps that sense of connection will also lead to being part of a network of women working with the woods.
Two of the participants, Elisha and Catherine, run the maple program at Cornell University’s student farm and plan to use their new skill to help manage the maple woods. Another, Aysha, is a mushroom grower in Orange County and will now be able to harvest and buck up some of her own mushroom logs. As for me, while I don’t feel confident tree felling by myself yet and continue to do so with my partner nearby, I was able to cut up a tree that fell in our driveway the other day and have been bucking up firewood for our home and mushroom logs for our farm all on my own – and that’s all quite satisfying and useful!