As the Woodpile Burns
I've done it once again; and embarrassingly, I’ve done it despite the mildest winter in anyone’s memory: by March, I’d run out of firewood. A statement like that doesn’t mean much unless you live in or own a cabin in the North Country, but if you happen to be one who does, then you know what it means to see an empty woodshed in March. It means chilly nights, desperate phone calls to chuckling woodcutters, or a necessary tramp into the back woodlot, struggling to find something to cut that can burn without filling the chimney with creosote or sputtering away uselessly for hours. Believe it or not, there are options for those foolish mortals who, like me, run out of wood before winter runs out of cold.
Before Grabbing Your Chainsaw
Sawmills often have great mounds of old cut-offs, warped boards, and other culls; if your camp is close to one, ask to scrounge for dry wood. Sawmill operators may be happy to see the clutter go, but be sure to seek and obtain permission before you take anything. Keep in mind that most sawmills work with softwoods, and those that handle hardwoods often work with oak, beech, or maple, the worst unseasoned woods to burn. If you can’t find reasonably dried pieces of these, you’re not going to get a good fire from them for weeks to come.
Failing a handy sawmill, local road crews may know of roadside piles of wood from windstorm clean-ups, road-widening, or repair projects. Loggers working at their headers may be willing to let you take some dead limbs or tops if you ask nicely. And of course, you’re on good terms with your neighbors, right? If you’re willing to ask, they may have some firewood to help you make it through the last weeks of heating season.
If you can afford to purchase wood, and know a woodcutter who actually has wood to sell, you’re in luck. Pay the premium for seasoned wood and be thankful. Chances are slim that anyone has much seasoned wood left in March, but you can still make the best of things even if you can only get green wood. Ask for a load of firewood that is heavy on the following species: ash, cherry, and white birch, preferably already split (all woods dry much faster if they are split). Ash and Cherry naturally have low water content, and white birch dries rapidly if it is debarked.
If the wood comes as rounds, sort out the aforementioned species and split them into quarters, or even eighths. The idea is to create smaller pieces with more surface area so internal moisture can escape. If possible, remove all the bark from the split pieces, but at the very least remove all the bark from the white birch pieces. White birch bark is famously waterproof, so any remnants of it will slow the drying process considerably. When you split the bigger pieces, don’t necessarily split them in the traditional way. Split off the sapwood around the log, then quarter the heartwood. Cherry sapwood in particular may be quite wet but its heartwood is often nearly dry, so you can get good firewood just by splitting it in this manner. Likewise, ash is the procrastinator’s pal: cleave off the outer sapwood and you’ve got a decent log for burning right away.
Into the Woods!
If you have no access to firewood from a sawmill, road crew, or supplier, you’ll have to take your chainsaw for a walk in your woodlot. All the standard warnings about chainsaws and tree cutting apply if it comes to this, of course, but be extra careful when you’re cutting wood that you plan to burn right away. Typically, you’re looking for dead standing wood, so the trees you’re cutting may be dangerously ready to collapse. Do NOT cut down dead standing white birch trees! Because their bark holds water, the wood of a dead birch tree stays water-logged, rots, and becomes a heavy, wobbly tower that can easily kill; these are one of the more notorious ‘widow-makers’ of the woods. As with purchasing green firewood for immediate burning, you are looking for cherry and ash, but in this case search for dead trees that are still standing, and forget about white birch.
Red maple wood shrinks a lot when it dies, pulling apart the wood from the bark, allowing water vapor to escape. Frequently, the wood splits to the core as it dries, so the wood loses moisture quickly and thoroughly without suffering much fungal damage. Red maple grows just about anywhere but prefers moist areas; because of this any downed wood may be too damp and decayed to be worth taking.
Most other maples decay similarly to red maple, but sugar (a.k.a. hard) maple holds its bark longer and usually ends up decaying while it stands. Striped maple, the other common native maple of the Adirondacks, rarely reaches a size worth collecting.
Cherry prefers mild winters but manages to grow to useable size in sheltered areas up to an altitude of about 2000’ in the Adirondacks. The stress of North Country winters eventually kills the higher stem, so another, lower branch takes over as the main trunk, growing to about the same height before it too succumbs to a particularly harsh winter. This means that often, cherry trees will consist of one or more standing, dead trunks and one live one. While you can get adequate wood from the live stem, the dead trunks are pre-seasoned firewood waiting to be harvested. Cherry heartwood is very dry naturally and contains chemicals that ward off fungi and insects. It is also a large portion of the tree’s girth. Often there is an inch or less of the moister, unprotected sapwood, which quickly becomes punky and rots away, leaving the dry heartwood ready for bucking and burning.
Ash will burn fairly well even if it is cut green, compared to all other common species in the North Country. Standing dead trees yield much greater heat for the work however, so look for them. They are harder to find than other types of tree because even thriving, healthy ash trees look pretty sickly before their leaves sprout. While other trees’ branches taper to fine, small ends, ash branches terminate in fat stubs that look a bit like the broken ends of branches on a dead tree. The best way to confirm a standing-dead ash tree is to look at the bark lower down the tree. When an ash dies, the bark may become loose. Even if the tree is still alive but a good portion of the lower bark peels off easily, much of the wood will be dry and seasoned, ready to burn. Even if you make a mistake and cut down a live ash, you can still use the wood. Just remember to split it like any other wood.
If you’re really desperate and your woodlot doesn’t have much in the way of ash or cherry, look around for standing dead pine trees. To reduce the amount of resin pockets exploding while it burns, cut away the branch whorls and burn only the wood between them. While you’re at it, cut the branches off in the same way and save them for kindling. Keep in mind that dead, dry pine provides a good hot fire quickly, but it won’t make long-lasting coals.
While you can do the same thing with balsam, spruce, tamarack, and hemlock, pine’s regular growth pattern makes it the best of the bunch for this process. None of the softwoods, including pine, should be burned green. Moisture runs throughout the wood of most softwoods, there is no dry heartwood, so live pine, spruce, balsam, and hemlock burn poorly.
General Spring Woodlot Rules
Wood that has lain on the ground all winter will be very damp and provide poor heat; but if there are dead trees that have fallen in the past month or so, consider using them for firewood. They’re already down so you save yourself the trouble and risk of felling them. A 'bridge' tree, one that has fallen across a gap, may have solid dry wood along the suspended part of its length, if it is far enough off the ground to be above the snow line. Saw a slice through and look at the cross section: take whatever looks both solid and dry. Be careful when cutting bridge trees to avoid jamming your chainsaw or getting injured.
Leaning trees are another story. While they may be dead and dry, the risks involved in getting them down to the ground may exceed their fuel value. If it is unsafe, look elsewhere: you may stay warm in a hospital bed but there are cheaper ways to get heat!
When you cut a dead tree, the lowest meter or two will be damp and punky from sitting in the snow year after year. The very top may be similarly ruined for firewood because it takes the brunt of rain and snow showers. If this is the case, just cut off the bad wood and take what is still solid and dry.
Critters such as ants may take up residence in dead or dying trees, and if so they will be living near the bottom of the tree. You don’t want to bring them into your house, so take a quick look at all the wood you cut. Most of these unwelcome guests are eliminated along with the tree bark; one more good reason to remove that!
If you run out of wood in spring, you’ll want to collect plenty of kindling to keep a flame going while the wetter logs steam out their moisture. Here again you should avoid collecting wood off the ground unless it has fallen recently from a tree. Dead softwood branches work well for kindling; if you’ve cut a pine down for firewood, you can use the limbs for this task. Because softwood burns rapidly, collect larger diameter pieces than normal kindling wood.
Unlike the wood of its main stem, ash branches don’t make good kindling because their central pith is usually very damp. Small dead maple, oak, or beech branches still hanging on a tree but that have lost their bark make good kindling wood. And while you might pass up striped maple as firewood, it makes excellent kindling wood.
When it comes time to build a fire, don’t fill the firebox with kindling or the sudden intense heat may damage your stove. Get a good fire going with a moderate amount, add your driest firewood and a bit more of the thickest kindling you have. Continue adding a few sticks of bigger kindling occasionally to keep the fire going.
An Ounce of Prevention...
As with most things in life, adequate preparation for the entire heating season is much better than tromping around the woods cutting whatever mediocre firewood you can find when March or April roll around. While you may enjoy a search for firewood when it gets cold this spring, you may not feel so inspired next year; and after a few seasons of foolhardy firewood gathering, the available ash, cherry, and red maple in your woodlot will disappear. Don't forget also that cherry and ash are excellent hardwoods to cultivate for lumber; cut them all down for fool's firewood and you rob yourself of a greater reward in years to come.