Who needs a man once an Alaska girl has mastered the chain saw?

NOME — I used to joke and tell my friends that other than for obvious reasons, I only need a man to operate my chain saw. Because really, I’m an Alaska girl, and can bleed the line when I run out of fuel at the house. I thaw my pipes when they freeze. I can change a flat tire, butcher a caribou and catch, filet, smoke and can a silver salmon. Oh, and shoot a few ptarmigan with a .22 for dinner. You know. Normal stuff.

But here’s the thing. I’ve relied on a man for seven years to supply the wood for the stove. And it’s embarrassing.

Here’s why. Any piece of machinery with a choke and a pull start kind of freaks me out. I spent too many moments during the formative years of my life standing next to a flooded electric blue Indy snowmachine. In the cold. Frustrated.

Until this past Tuesday, I didn’t even know my chain saw had a spark plug. And for some reason, seeing that spark plug made me realize this Husky was something I could master. Everyone tells you to face your fears. So this week, I did.

The gumption needed to face my fears didn’t start last Tuesday. I have to believe the taproot starts in Unalakleet, my hometown, the center of my universe. My great Auntie Eva, one of the oldest women in the community, has one of the biggest firewood piles. In the summer, you won’t find her at home but out on her four-wheeler. She’s picking berries, manaqingfor trout or scouring the beach for a good piece of spruce driftwood to saw up and load in her trailer, and she’s having the best time doing it, probably even when it’s going terribly. In the winter, she’s on her snowmachine. Once, sans gun, she saw a lone caribou while checking out what was going on in the valley. She chased the animal, ran over it and stabbed it to bring it home. We all need examples in life and I (and I’m not the only one) thank the stars she’s one of mine. That lady is a whole lotta woman and then some.

‘I need to do that’

And then there’s Sheri. She doesn’t know it, but she beefed up my face-your-fears gumption this year. In the spring, I saw a photo of Sheri wearing goggles and earmuffs and holding a big chain saw on the beach, looking tough and accomplished. I don’t know about you, but when I see a woman doing what I don’t want to, I think, “I can totally do that.” But this spring, when I saw the photo of Sheri, I thought to myself, “I need to do that.”

Here’s why. I don’t want to say it, but winter is coming. Come December, I will either hear my boiler fire up or I will load the woodstove and light a match. When heating oil is $6.22 a gallon, a girl will brace herself, swallow hard and face her there’s-a-choke-I-don’t-want-to-flood fear to be sure that a woodpile sits in her yard.

So here’s how it went down. Thanks to a patient friend and a trip to the hardware store for tools I don’t even know the names of, I now know the basics of maintaining a chain saw to gather firewood to stay warm and cozy during the winter. Yes, a chain saw has a spark plug. I now share with you my growing list of things to know when operating a chain saw:

1) If the spark plug is bum, change it. The machine will start better.

2) Be sure your chain isn’t too loose or too tight. Loosen those two nuts with the cool new tool to turn the bolt that tightens the chain. (My chain was loose.)

3) For every gallon of gas, mix in the little bottle of oil. The engine needs it.

4) When you run out of gas, add chain and bar oil the same time gas is added. The machines are designed to run out of both at the same time.

5) Keep the chain sharp. Get that cylindrical file and check YouTube for a video on sharpening a chain saw blade. Good tutorials pop up. Believe me, you want a sharp chain.

6) When you’re ready to start the machine, choke it fully. Pull five times, then position the choke halfway and pull again. This really worked for me and the little machine fired up. The sound was beautiful. There was no standing on the beach looking at a flooded chain saw, helpless.

Don’t forget No. 7

So there I was on Wednesday night, cutting spruce on the beach – the proudest person east of Nome, making sawdust and dumping 14-inch logs into my truck. And while cutting up a beauty of a piece of spruce, I realized the best thing to do when facing your fears is to go out with someone who’s mastered the skill and soak up their know-how.

I drove down the beach with someone who showed the chain saw what’s up to show me what’s up. It helped immensely to see the process of tightening the chain, starting the machine, filling it with gas and oil and cutting like a boss.

So what did I do Wednesday? I sharpened the chain and drove on the beach. I cut and cut and cut and stopped when the machine ran out of gas. I went to the truck to fill the now-friendly, very useful beast with gas and chain and bar oil and realized I left the gas jug at home. So I’ve added item number seven to the list.

7) Don’t forget the gas jug.

On the satisfying drive home, at mile 17, I saw a guy walking down the road with a bucket. He looked at me, smiled and stuck out his thumb – a berry-picking hitchhiker. So there I went — with a truck bed half filled with firewood and a man sitting on my haul with his bucket half filled with berries.

This piece was previously published for Alaska Dispatch News and won the 2015 Alaska Press Club award for Best Humor.

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