Clearing the Sagebrush Bench: A Masochist’s Heaven

Never thought of myself as a masochist until June 10. Clearing the sagebrush bench at Holy Waters Ranch of the various encroaching evergreens made me sit up at and take notice. Having decided to “spend my summer Mondays” with chainsaw in hand, I headed out of Deer Lodge early enough to put in a full afternoon on the Ovando, Montana, acreage. By the time my half-shift day was done, my observational eyeballs were wide open, staring and blinking all at the same time.

I’d learned a few things:

1. Most of the trees that need to go are junipers which are just no fun at all. Their thick, covering branch-and-foliage system presents a challenge which is nothing like walking up to a towering Douglas fir and dropping that puppy to the ground. First, it’s necessary to more or less chew one’s way in toward the center where the trunks live. Then the real fun begins.

2. Yep. Trunks, plural. Juniper trees laugh at the straight-and-true lifestyle of lodgepole pines.

3. Add to that the 30 degree slope coming down off the bench, which was where I decided to remove the first trees, and boy howdy, have fun. Every serious logger works in “sidehill gouger” territory on steep mountain slopes but whenever possible they send the cut logs downsiope, not up. I couldn’t do that without a swamp buggy and/or boat as a slough (still water) comes right up next to the bench where I was cutting. Hence, every little (but heavy) green cedar log and every branch of slash had to be toted uphill by hand.

4. None of this would have been fun when I was thirty. At seventy-five (and after a mostly sedentary winter to boot), ’twas a whole ‘nother ball game.

5. Next Monday, dummy, remember to take your log chain with you. Yeah, I’ve got one. It’s not designed for monster logs but for towing off grid vehicles out of the mud during southern Arizona monsoon months. But it’s plenty heavy enough for small to medium sized trees and dragging the junipers (or small pine trees, later) up to level ground with the truck would beat the dickens out of slope-wrestling green cedar logs. (Because, see, I couldn’t start out with a little juniper, now could I?)

6. Figuring on moving one large juniper out of the way per Monday was optimistic. Getting the tree on the ground isn’t so bad. It’s hauling the slash away that’s a real pain.

All that said, I had my tree picked out and when the day’s work was done, yes, the view from our future living room window had indeed improved dramatically. Let’s take a look.

This juniper had to go. It was blocking a whole lot of view. Note: Camera perspective doesn’t show it well, but the tree is rooted some twelve feet or so down from the bench on a steep 30 degree slope.

Once the cutting was done, the view was vastly improved out over this slough…

Then over this creek (Dick Creek)….

And beyond, to the mountains.

Took a break on June 11. Drove to Anaconda for a chiropractic treatment. Having used my body to move the biggest cedar log upslope, little end over big end over little end, etc., I’d at minimum strained some lower back muscles and considerably aggravated the lower left back spot that is always first to yell at me. “Yep, that leg is way out of whack,” I was told in terms I could understand. Figured I’d best get the adjustment done quickly so there’d be as many days as possible to heal up and get ready for next Monday.

Ugh! Must. Remember. Log chain!

The chainsaw poses with the smaller cedar (juniper) log’s butt end.

Oops. Where’s the photo of the larger log? Looks like I neglected to grab the camera for that one. Maybe next time. For now, here’s a look at the stumps. Yes, stumps plural. Two sizeable and several smaller stumps, all part of the sane juniper tree shown above. For a logger, even a micro-mini-logger like I’m being now, the only words to describe this would be, “What a mess.”

The multiple stumps of a single juniper tree.

With logs up on level ground and my energy levels flagging, hey, time to sit in the truck for a few minutes. Glug some water. Then, before starting the long, slow slog of hiking up and down the slope, dragging or carrying bits of slash (branches, foliage) to the truck, why not take a few pictures of, let’s see…other stuff!

One fascinating photo op? The development of pine cones. At least with the species nearest to my juniper-cutting site, the first two stages involve what seem to be “pine flowers,” then the growth of a…core, perhaps? I’m no botanist but expect to get somewhat educated on this subject by the time summer is done.

Pine flower. Not a “true flower,” pine flowers are apparently called “stroibili.” Singular strobulus?

Some pines (I’m not certain if this is true for all species) produce male flowers (a prettier word that strobili) for years before they mature enough to begin producing female flowers. When a tree is old enough to produce both, however, the differences are noticeable:

1. The male cone (developed from the flower) sits higher on the tree, has closed, tight scales, and only lives a few weeks.

2. The female cone sits lower on the tree (the better to catch your pollen with, my love), has more open scales, and may live for several years.

In the meantime, a few more pretty strobili pics.

Those flower/strobilus photos all came from one pine tree. Another tree provided a look at stage two.

Cone development, phase two.

Not a day goes by on the Holy Waters Ranch property without me missing at least one great photo I wish I could have gotten. There are several reasons for this. I’m doing other things than just photography, the chance is so quickly over that it would take superhuman reflexes to catch it, and–for birds in flight especially–the digital camera’s built-in delay costs me. On the 10th, the “big miss” involved gophers. During the early part of my break, a very short time after shutting down the chainsaw, a perky little gopher hopped up on top of an old rotten log and assumed the still, erect position of the gopher sentinel.

I lost my chance at that one because my fumbling fingers took too long to find where I’d left the camera in the mess of “stuff” on the truck’s front seat. Then, sometime later, three gophers exited their holes and chased each other around in the grass and sagebrush. Yep, missed ’em.

Flowers, thankfully, move slower than that.

Iris flower patch. Native or once planted by a human resident of the area? Got me.

Next step: Taking care of the slash, which is pretty much everything from a tree except the logs themselves. There’s a lot of slash with junipers and a lot of it looks really pretty. If people were willing to use juniper branches and foliage for Christmas decorations, this lone tree–the only one I tackled on the tenth–could have provided a couple dozen Christmas “trees” and forty to fifty wreaths.

The slash from just one juniper tree, prior to removal.

Juniper berries on the tree, before cutting.

Disposing of the slash is simple enough. Every logging operation–even my “one tiny tree” logging that “real” loggers have every right to laugh at–produces slash that is eventually gathered into a “slash pile,” a gathering of discarded branches. On this property, there’s a cut bank at some distance from the selected homesite that jumped right out, a prime candidate to host the slash pile. There’s already some discarded “stuff” lying around there, old sections of PVC pipe, a chipped concrete block and such. If a wildfire hits the area (always a possibility in timber country), it’s far enough away from the future house to be no threat at all.

Not that “simple” means “easy.” My truck still has the camper shell on it, so every branch has to be stuffed into the relatively narrow opening to the truck bed rather than simply tossed on top of the load. Every branch has to be retrieved from downslope. Then I spotted a trail that would reduce around-the-bench travel distance by 2/3 but which required a bit of chainsaw use to clear a dozen or so sagebrush obstacles.

At 4:30 p.m., I decided to call it a day. Hey, I’d worked fairly steadily (if slowly, I will admit, once the saw work was done) for a half shift, four hours give or take. Commuting requires more than an hour of driving, each way, and I also wanted to drive over to Seeley Lake to kind of check out the nearest town of any size. Ovando will be my home town but if I need an ACE Hardware, Seeley is closest. After all, I’m not trying to earn a living at Holy Waters, just get more acquainted with the property and feel like I’m doing a “little something.” So there.

Loading the slash.

Photographically cool branch fork.

Two pickup truck loads, the beginnings of a slash pile. All this amounts to maybe 40% of the total from the first juniper tree removed.

Yep, the slash not yet hauled, from just that one tree, amounts to an estimated 60%. It’s also farther downslope but may not be more work overall because some of it is still in pretty big chunks and can be towed up the grade next Monday…when I will definitely remember to take my log chain.

Downslope slash remaining.

3 thoughts on “Clearing the Sagebrush Bench: A Masochist’s Heaven

  1. Ghost, I did something similar some 30 years ago, on a small mountain valley property my mother had, fixing it up for weekend use by the family and myself… I was in divorce proceedings and the valley was my “safe haven” where I could whack trees, brush, bamboo and sugar canes out of the different paths I made to reach the water spring (yep, cleared it and made a small wading pool for my toddlers there), made an adult water hole area in the creek, and basically fixed up paths for the berry bushes, orange, plantain, lemon, mango and other trees we had. LOTS of work that lasted a decade of effort. A mere 60-90 minutes from home in the city! 🙂 That’s where I learned to work a small gasoline chainsaw, and a machete. I have to admit it was good for my Soul to be there, and the place left me many memories and friends. 🙂 The name of the place ? “Los Hornos”, which means the ovens, referring to old lime ovens by the creek. Not too much flat areas for building, but my friends and I were thinking of creating a retreat center there…
    By the way, I’d suggest getting a forest ranger or someone else to verify that taking out the junipers won’t increase erosion on the slope. Of course, you could plant some berry bushes (B&B: Birds and Bears food)… LOL
    Thanks for the memories, Ghost! Enjoy your Holy Waters rehab sessions!

  2. When I was a teenager, I would go with my parents and some of their friends to cut firewood. They would go out and cut a tree or two, depending on how much wood and how many trucks we had with us. We would fill 3-6 truck beds and trailers in one day. Lots of workers, and lots of wood. The men would cut the trees down and limb them, and then cut them into segments. The women and us girls would then throw the logs down the hill towards the trucks. We would usually form a conveyor line of throwers, and when we got it to the trucks, we loaded. The men usually helped load when they got done cutting. Lots of work and usually sore the next day or two.

  3. Manny: It’s definitely good for Soul. Plus, it lets the land get to know me and, of course, vice versa. I wouldn’t bother talking to a Forest Ranger or any other so called expert when it comes to taking care of the acreage, though. Except for the Fish & Wildlife agent I meet with every year to keep the conservation easement squared away. The very thought is unacceptable. “Mr. Ranger Rick, by the way, iffen I cuts me down a tree, is the soil gonna wash away?” “Well, let me see, Mr. Too Stupid to Think for Himself Landowner, that’s a right tricky question now….” No way, Jose.

    I do have an understanding of slopes, erosion, and the like. It would be worse if I were to rip out the entire root system, leaving a gaping bare-dirt-and-rocks hole. But there’s plenty of grass growing right up close to those juniper stumps, plus a carpet of needles. The slope will be fine.

    Don’t think I’ll be planting anything, either. Pretty cool thought, but the ecosystem on the acreage looks downright healthy and robust to me “as is.” Plus, deliberately luring bears even closer is not high on my priority list. Whenever I get bear photo ops, great, but bear bait? Somehow doubt that would be wise.


    Becky: Having your family and friends help form an awesome wood-harvesting crew sounds great. The closest I came to that was when I was married to Wife #6. For a few years, we had two woodstoves to feed through South Dakota winters. Took 12 cords of wood each year, give or take. A few times, Faye & I took her boys with us, the last time being when they were 10 and 11 years of age. Faye was a great worker. The youngsters were not, though one was noticeably better than the other. Eventually, we stopped taking them at all and it’d be just the two of us. Or sometimes, just me, though she usually helped me unload the pickup and tow-behind trailer when I got back.

    Eventually, I swapped out the woodstoves for a pair of propane burners, the kind that show “fake fireplace” through glass fronts. Loved those.

    Definitely sore “the next day or two” now, though. Just hoping I’m tuned back up by next Monday for Phase Two.

    On the ranch when I was growing up, it was a slightly different scenario. Dad and I would go wood cutting, taking his 2 1/2 ton stock truck. He’d fire up the chainsaw and I’d start hauling firewood blocks to the truck. Not that I could keep up with the saw, but when he had enough, he’d shut that down and start throwing blocks up to me so I could place them farther forward in the load. We’d spend a day and come back with a huge load, enough to fill the woodshed to capacity. And being a young, growing lad used to hard work on a daily basis, no next-day soreness, either.

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