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  • Kevin Kossowan

The Wood Library (Resupply)

I’ve spent enough days in the bush when it’s wet to have learned the impact of wet wood...the hard way. Struggling to light a fire, struggling to get it thriving, hissing its moisture out and smoking heavily. It’s disheartening, frustrating, and can put you in the weeds if you need that heat, now. Wet wood requires the fire’s heat gets busy evaporating the moisture before the wood can become proper fuel (if it can), and radiates far less heat. Don’t believe me? Try it.

When I built the field kitchen, it was clear that having storage space for wood to be put up, dry, was essential to my hopes of doing fire cookery dependent events. I designed the structure to be a wood shed, with the side facing the kitchen having shelving to hold our glassware, plateware, barware, pantry, and so on - flanked on either side by columns of firewood of varied species. Sometimes crazy ideas work out, and this is one of those. Each year I’m even more resolved in maintaining the wood variety, as our knowledge and experience builds with each species of wood. They’re markedly different. It’s no subtle thing.

Before burning though, one has to start from the beginning. Standing in a forest, determining where to start. What species of tree are even present? I’ve been in locations where that’s oak, maple, and yellow birch. In bushcamp it’s lodgepole pine, black spruce, and there’s the odd balsam fir even. But not here. This place is predominantly aspen, with a heavy dose of white spruce, and the odd stretch of jack pine where the soils are sandy. The draws leading seasonal creeks down to the Tawatinaw river are filled with alder and birch, both species that like wet feet. Another such species, scattered through the river valley: tamarack. That is the composition of this forest, so those will compose the properties at play when building and maintaining a fire, as well as define the flavours and aromas of the food and beverages created from them. I think that’s pretty incredible: place, where you are, impacts your food.

Next step: choice of tree specimen. This matters more once you've done it wrong a whole bunch. I’m now very fussy about which tree is going to put my life at risk (via me felling it), and consume my limited energy while in the field that day. This simple decision impacts every move I make as I use the resource I've created. Some trees are in states of decomposition that simply make them a waste of time. If I make a mistake and realize I’m working on such a tree, I’ll now just abandon it. Not worth the labour. So what am I looking for? Standing dead is nice, especially if you need wood right away, but green works. Straight, and with long stretches of few knots from branches: critical for when it meets the splitting axe. Not too big or the rounds just get too hard to manage, and hard to execute that first split. Dense. Most standing dead trees are already compromised by fungal activity, especially in a damp forest like this. If the tree is spongy, light, soft AT ALL it’s a hard pass. It has to be solid when you thump it with an axe. I now can tell the condition of the wood as soon as the chips fly off the chainsaw, and by how the saw responds to the wood. Green trees will be perfectly dense, which is great. The problem with green is you need to have time to cure it (months) and maybe worse: because it’s holding all of its water it’s super heavy relative to nice dry standing dead. That dead weight is just and unpleasant burden if you can avoid it - hence the worthwhile hunt for the perfect standing dead specimen.

Another factor: proximity to camp. I’m on foot here. No trucks or quad trails. I need to be able to fill a sled, harness up, and haul that tree to camp. Sometimes this makes decisions easy. Except for when it makes them hard, and the pine you want is a few draws over, and you need to hike a sled full of wood up and down a river valley. I realize most folks wouldn't bother. I'm weird like that though.

I’ve actually missed a step. Before choosing a tree even: choose the when. The season. It matters tremendously. This is not a job for July heat and bugs. It’s also not a job for -20C and deep snow - although wood sure splits easily when it’s frozen that deeply. I’ve determined the optimal months for this kind of work are October, or April. Cool enough that the heavy labour is comfortable, you may have a skiff of snow to make sledding wood easy, but not enough snow to make trudging through it encumbering and fatiguing. If those two months: April is king. October is still hunting season and overall a busy time. April is a month of gardening, ice fishing’s just wrapped, and the busy-ness of May and spring yet to come. April has bandwidth to get this kind of work in.

The selected trees are felled and cut into rounds. I’m particular that these rounds are of uniform length, so I measure each one with the length of my chainsaw bar, which is approximately the depth of fire box for most of my wood stoves. Don Kevilus from Four Dog Stoves says the optimal firewood length for a wood stove is 4” shorter than the firebox size, to allow a couple inches at the back, and front. From my experience, Don is correct about all things wood stoves. The rounds go into a sled. I harness up to it, and haul rounds back to camp. They then meet a splitting maul to break them into quarters. After that I’ll pick up a small splitting axe and finish the job. The end goal in most cases is forearm sized firewood. My favourite wood stack? About 70% forearm sized, 15% larger pieces (maybe bicep/shoulder? Knots are good here), and 15% smaller pieces. That variety allows you choice when firing - smaller stuff to start or help along a fire, forearm sized for standard use of getting heat up quickly, and larger pieces for holding a longer burn, or developing larger coals. Seldom are we firing a stove and need the heat...later. We generally need it right now - having returned from a hunt, about to fire a course for guests, cooking dinner, whatever. The forearm size does that job nicely. Night fires? A different discussion entirely, for another journal entry.

I’ll keep a campfire going nearby to burn any pieces that won’t split nicely, maybe shearing or breaking or too knotty - only the best stuff gets stacked for firewood. Read that line again. Junk wood needs to go away. The opposite applies too: any particularly choice piece need extra attention. Any with a great run of straight grain, I’ll cut into finger sized splits for starting fires. It all gets stacked. The face of the pile gets tapped with an axe to make it relatively uniformly flush. Then it all sits and waits. For months. How many months depends on the species, whether it was dry or green when cut into rounds, how much sun exposure and wind airflow exist in your storage space, and how densely you’ve stacked your pile.

The birch bark supply is full for lighting fires. That’s all we use. I’ll knock a couple aspen down to halve, stack, and dry on the opposite side of the wood shed to make my life easier next year. And that’s it. Resupply day is done. In a few months, we’ll be laying out food prep with guests about to arrive, and we don’t have to spend a moment fussing over firewood, we just have to 'do'. Had I not taken these prep steps? Nightmare. With them taken? Truly a romantic dream of smells of cooking food and wisping smoke, and the sounds of crackling fires, laughter and conviviality.

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