Sunday, November 29, 2009

"The Sled"; do-over; 11-29-09

Yesterday I wrote a post about the historical role of the dog sled in northern culture...and then the computer monster came and ate my post. An hour's hard work was swallowed up right there at my finger tips. Imagine my dismay, or even my anger and frustration. I went outside and stood on the porch in my Hawaiian shirt and shorts to cool off; the temp was a brisk 12 above, so the cooling effect was rapid.

(my wife just admonished me, "Save, save, save", so I will. There, I did it)

Anyway, dog sleds were basic transportation for decades; even centuries. Today they have been replaced by snow machines, a.k.a. "snowmobiles" or "sno-gos", but sleds are still the staple for the official Alaskan State sport; dog mushing (does your state have an official sport?)

In a wild country, lumber yards are hard to find, so the would-be sled maker must obtain his materials from the natural surroundings. Birch is the standard ingredient in any rural sled  recipe, and it's readily available. You just have to go out there and get it.

But not just any birch will do.

Yesterday, as I was beginning my own sled building project, a guy looked at my stack of birch logs and asked, "How can you tell good birch?"

("Good birch" is used in sled making; "birch" is just any old birch wood, used for firewood.)

My response, though somewhat lengthy, is an extremely and deceptively condensed version of what real-time birch hunting involves.

"You have to look for a very straight tree; one with no bends, and no punk growing on it either" ('punk' is a fungus commonly found on birch trees). Look for one with no branches on the lower trunk. Not too big or too small. And it can't have a bunch of lumps on it; it needs to be real smooth.

"Then you hew it with your axe. Chop off the bark in an area and then cut into the wood. You have to get a piece that will peel down the tree. As you peel it, make sure it peels straight down with no twist. (Many trees grow with a twist, a little or a lot, and twisted wood will warp, making it unusable).

"If it peels good, then you cut into it with your chainsaw and remove a wedge (this wedge will be the undercut for falling the tree). Make sure there isn't too much brown wood, and make sure it's not rotten inside.

"If it still looks good, drop the tree. Then cut a piece off the end (the stump/butt end) and split it to make sure it splits very straight. If it doesn't it's no good. If it does it's probably 'good birch', so bring it home and start working on it".

And that is about where I am now. After collecting a few logs before Thanksgiving, I began work yesterday. As you can see in the photos, I put a log up on blocks, ripped it in two with the chainsaw, then began peeling bark with a drawknife. In the days ahead I'll use more of the chainsaw, a circular saw, the drawknife and a planer.  If you can't tell already, a lot of work goes into making a sled, as they are transformed from a living tree into a usable hand.

The work begins with the runners. Runners are the hardest pieces to make and they are the backbone of the sled, so they are a priority. Once they have been cut, planed and  shaped properly, they will be steam-bent and put on a "bender" to dry. Then they will possess the upsweep at the front necessary for smooth traveling over rough terrain.

More on that later.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Cold weather and the stove"; 11-19-09

This is the first "cold weather" of the season. Twenty and thirty below (Farenheit) really isn't all that cold for around here, but the first time you face it each winter it seems pretty chilly.

This morning, while making coffee (a decent cup of Guatemalan/Costco beans; not very fresh, but in the wilderness one must make do), my dear wife made a wishful request, to no one in particular.

"I hope this cold weather breaks soon".

At that exact time I was turning the valve on the stove, watching expectantly to see if the propane would ignite. A modest burst of blue flame followed by a slight drop in pressure and a sustained flame meant the 90lb. propane bottle outside was cold, but not too cold. The stove was working and the coffee on the way.

"It's really not that cold; I use the stove as my guide"; an opinion I shared with the stove, the kitchen and a wife who probably wasn't interested. "If the stove works, I figure it's really not that cold. When the stove quits's COLD!

I'm told propane in the bottle is compressed and in a liquid state (lpg); a natural condition for propane at a temperature of around minus forty (much like water below its boiling point). So as northern temps are dropping and the chill approaches minus forty, the propane wants to stay put.

Minus twenty usually means the stove will work; not at 100%, but it works. Minus thirty means it's very questionable; probably won't work due to insufficient pressure, (the liquid propane doesn't want to expand and take on a gas form, forcing it through the line to the stove). And forty below is just out of the question; plan on cooking in the microwave or on top of the wood stove.

So the stove is working and life is still good. Let's hope it stays that way :)

(The guy in the photo doesn't complain; his food is cooked over a wood fire. His main complaint right now is the insufficient snowfall; another good storm and he and his team mates will hit the trail)