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.