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Smoke on the breeze
Jan. 21, 2013
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by Ivan Raconteur

I was driving down the road the other day on my way to some meeting when suddenly it hit me – the aroma of wood smoke on the breeze.

Before you could say “Grizzly Adams” I was transported to a wood lot in northern Minnesota to a time long past.

I spent a lot of time in the woods in those days, when I was a Boy Scout.

There may be better ways to understand the cycle of life than camping in the north woods, but offhand, I can’t think of any.

We camped at least once a month in those days. Our fearless leaders took the motto, “be prepared,” seriously, which meant training under all conditions, not just ideal conditions.

Collecting firewood began in the spring, and went on until deep snow blanketed the landscape. Every chance we got, my comrades and I scoured the woods around the cabin looking for fallen trees and branches.

We would cut the logs into manageable pieces and haul them out of the forest using nothing but Scout power.

Back at camp, there was an area roped off in front of the woodshed designated for converting nature’s rich bounty into firewood.

We learned how to handle an axe, starting with how to pick one up, and moving on to the proper way to maintain and sharpen it, and finally, to the correct way to split wood, always maintaining a safe zone around our perimeter.

Sometimes, one of the leaders would bring a chainsaw with which to cut the logs to length, but a lot of the work was done with manual labor and a bucksaw.

After the logs had been cut to length, they were split and stacked. We got plenty of practice with an axe. Wood detail often went on for hours at a time.

I miss the feel of an axe in my hand, and the sound it made as it neatly split the logs. Standing in a clearing on a crisp autumn day converting logs into firewood is one of those elemental tasks that one never forgets.

The woodshed was nearly empty by spring, but by late fall, it would be overflowing with neatly stacked wood. We would also load up the cabin, and each of the campsites that ringed the clearing around the cabin.

Each patrol had its own campsite, set slightly back in the woods. Preparing firewood was shared by all Scouts, but each patrol was responsible for maintaining its own campsite.

Carrying wood involved teamwork. One guy would hold his arms in front of him forming a sort of cradle, while his buddy stacked wood to maximize the load.

We camped in tents most of the time, but on the coldest days, our fearless leaders made the concession of allowing us to sleep indoors in the cabin, which was arranged barracks-fashion with a massive old wood stove occupying the center. That stove had a voracious appetite.

Around the stove was a sort of fence made of metal pipes. On winter evenings, the rails were lined with steaming boot socks, gloves, and hats drying in the heat.

Along one of the long walls of the cabin was a row of bunks, three deep. The temperature was uneven in the cabin. The floor was always cold, and the guys in the lower bunks needed their sleeping bags. The middle bunks were about perfect, temperature-wise, while the guys in the top bunks often slept on top of their sleeping bags clad only in their skivvies because it was like a sauna near the ceiling.

Down the middle of the room was a long table around which we ate, played cards, and worked on various projects.

We were allowed to sleep indoors, but the luxury did not extend to meal preparation. Each patrol planned and cooked its own meals in its campsite, regardless of the weather.

One soon learns the value of properly split and dried wood when one has had the experience of digging one’s firewood from beneath a blanket of snow on a frigid January morning to make breakfast.

Preparing firewood was hard work, but it was good work. It was necessary, and no doubt our leaders realized manual labor is a good way to burn off energy and keep two dozen wild young men in a state of manageable semi-exhaustion.

The road to the cabin was not plowed, and in the winter we packed in everything we needed on our backs, wading half a mile through waist-deep snow, taking turns breaking trail.

Like a gang of lumberjacks, we worked hard and played hard. At the end of the day, when our chores were done, we were allowed to play games and relax for awhile before lights out.

Spending a cold, dark winter’s eve in fellowship with friends, basking in the heat generated by wood one has collected, split, stacked, and carried is as near to a religious experience as any I can think of. It gives one an understanding of the cycle of life and a deep sense of accomplishment.

Relaxing around a campfire or gazing into a fireplace is often a pleasant experience, but using firewood purchased in neat little bundles is not the same as burning wood one has collected and split by hand.

That kind of work makes an indelible impression. Perhaps that’s why even now, decades later, a faint whiff of wood smoke on the breeze is all it takes to carry me back through time to a cabin in the north woods on the shore of Island Lake where I learned about firewood and much more.


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