“Who are the nobles of the earth, the true aristocrats, who need not bow their heads to kings nor doff to lords their hats? Who are they but men of toil who cleave the forest down and plant amid the wilderness the forest and the towns?”
Two alarms wail as the hour hits five o’clock in the morning. The rustling of turning in the bed and groaning is highly audible as my roommate and I attempt to command our bodies out of our bunks. 5:15 a.m.: another alarm, slightly louder and more annoying sends it screeching song into the room as once again we try and summon up the motivation to leave our warm peaceful beds. Like the walking dead, the rest of the crew begins to rise from their graves as the sun’s unwelcomed light forces us from our slumber. Some of us pour cups of coffee, others prepare their breakfast, while others slink to the couch and watch the morning news and see which weather lady is on this morning. We are a grizzled bunch of veterans, coming from all different services and even more different walks of life. Seaman, soldiers, marines and even an airman finds himself amongst our ranks. With 5:55 a.m. slowly rolling around the corner, we all make our ways out to the rigs to check oil, brake lights, brights and other maintenance checks before we can leave for the day.
After we finish our morning maintenance checks, Matt and Roop call us over to discuss what we’ll be doing for PT (that means exercise for all you civilian types). Mondays are usually shorter runs interlaid with some sort of pushups, pullups, and crunches. Tuesdays are usually a circuit course of some type, however, recently we have taken up “digging line” aka digging with various tools to create a fire break, a skill requiring back breaking effort and even more teamwork and communication. Wednesdays are our long run day, ranging from 4 to 7 miles through the hills and trails that encompass our backyard at the Frazier bunkhouse. Thursdays are designated hike days. A time for Matt and Roop to bring us to whatever hell scorn cliff face they’ve found, in order for us to pack all of our gear, grab our tools, chainsaws, and dolmars (plastic cans full of chainsaw gas and bar oil) and climb up until our legs burn, our lungs sting, and the smell of gasoline, bar oil, pine and B.O. overtake our olfactory senses.
The temperature at 7:00 a.m. is still cold and steam rises off our bodies from our exertions as we make our way back to the bunkhouse. “Twenty minutes, be back at the trucks ready to move,” our boss, Matt Weseman says as he laughs at our pain. No time for a shower as we slip on our working clothes and boots, and even less time for a snack as we grab all that we’ll need for the rest of the day. Most of us pack our lunches and fill our water bottles the night before so we can just slip on our clothes, answer nature’s call, grab our packs and run to the rigs. Our dolmars, 5-gallon water jugs, and chainsaws are loaded into the truck early. Everything else, including road signs, spare chainsaw parts, tools, and other necessities for cutting the whole day is either already loaded into the rig or getting loaded before we leave.
The rigs are loaded up according to our squads (4-5 man teams) and we’re wheels up by 7:30 a.m. It’s a 45 minute drive from the bunkhouse to our thinning unit. Some of us sleep in the trucks, some of us talk, and some of us quietly sip our coffee and eat our granola bars as we listen to Rammstein screaming their beautiful symphony to us as we attempt to get our minds on the right plain for the day ahead.
Our job for the most part consists of thinning designated areas within the Umatilla National Forest. Seventy-five feet from the road we cut lodgepole pine, Grand fir, Douglas fir, tamarack, and an occasional ponderosa pine. The chainsaws roar as a designated sawyer (the guy who cuts) and swamper (the guy who carries cut trees into burn piles) journey to their lane and start their inexorable push to thin their area. The first couple of weeks on the unit, I can only imagine watching us new guys. It must have looked very much like the monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey when they discovered the obelisk and first understood the idea that they can use tools to make life easier. Lots of scratching heads, clueless looks, grunts, and I even chapped myself once (you’re not supposed to do that last one FYI).
But, as our muscles eventually hardened and our knowledge and experience grew we came to understand the process and the routine that we’d follow for the next several months. Repetition of instructions became less frequent, other than the occasional ass chewing we inevitably deserved for someone’s mistake or oversight. We aren’t experts by any means, but we suck less than we did before. After cutting for the majority of the morning and into the afternoon, we cover our burn piles with plastic so they can dry out, load up all of our gear and head back to the bunkhouse to clean and sharpen chainsaws, refill dolmars, and prep everything for the next day. A short 5 minute debrief for the day is carried out and we mention any problems or challenges we had that the crew may need to know. By 4:30 p.m. we’re all done with the 10 hour day and we’re set free until the next one.
After we’re done with work, many of us prep for the next day by packing lunches, some of us shed our sweaty clothes, crack open a can of cheap beer and plop ourselves on the couch, and some of us even put our gym clothes on and overrun the gym that lies under the bunkhouse for the crew from the Ukiah District (we have a gym, but theirs has better equipment).
Regardless of what any of us do, we find ourselves in one of the most beautiful places on earth. We’re surrounded by hundreds of miles of open land, with barely a person in any direction for 20 miles. The rushing of the wind through the trees and plethora of aviary songs and other creatures is our only background noise. Reception with our cell phones is spotty, at best. There is no internet. And we’re still waiting on maintenance to find out what’s wrong with our landline phone. Our only indoor amenities are the satellite dish with cable and our movies from our hard drives and DVDs that have probably seen every corner of the globe.
Despite our background, we’ve all come from professions that strive off of shared suffering. Through our struggle, we come together and operate more closely. With the remoteness of our residence, and the lack of technological comforts we find ourselves relying on each other either when we struggle through PT or are covered in saw chips, bugs and sweat. A time to put down the chainsaw and help your swamper, or a friendly “don’t be a wuss, suck it up”, or even a “dude, this sucks” is all we need to gather our motivation and keep moving and be effective. Giving praise has never been a characteristic that any of us share, however, through our warped sense of pessimistic and uncouth humor we find that little extra bit in our depleting energy stores to keep pushing through.
With fire school looming in front of us, we’re all chomping at the bit to get on a fire and do what wildland firefighters are known for and embrace the next challenge. The work is hard and the pay isn’t phenomenal, but I honestly couldn’t find myself in a better place.
“We need the iron qualities that go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done.”