The Macho Month
If there is such a thing as a macho month here in the Canadian wilderness, a time when the many facets of manliness are called upon at one sitting, November is surely it.
As the weather turns cold and bitter and the rain, sleet and snow begin to batter our little valley it seems that even the most menial of tasks takes on Herculean proportions.
To make matters bleaker, some of the year’s toughest jobs line up at this time of year, each howling for completion before the heavy snows of winter finally descend.
First off is a bout of chimney-sweeping on slick, treacherous roofs.
This is a daredevil process that involves clambering up two slippery ladders and manhandling a spindly device with a small wire brush down a small reluctant opening.
Once the brush is in place you must yank it up and down with vigour to displace 12 months of accumulated soot without destroying the delicate folds of the metal chimney.
I took one look at the slippery roofs, remembered how Kristin mocked my hesitating ascent and shaking knees the last time I attempted the task, and quietly begged Sunny, our friend and neighbour, to do the chimneys.
Next on the list was several days of chain-sawing logging-truck-sized timbers from the forest and hand-splitting huge sections of wood with a splitting maul heavy enough to kill a moose.
Then finally there is the last-minute frenzy of splinting and bracing our various out-buildings against the snow loads of deep winter than can reach up to three or four feet deep and each weigh several tons.
All this makes for a painful bout of muscle-straining activity and, as I sit at my table and write, the snow falling thick outside my window, we are still less than half way through our checklist of man-sized November tasks.
In theory this should be a breeze of a month, a time of the calendar given over to watching movies carefully stowed during the busy summer, whimsical strumming of the guitar and morsels nibbled in front of the glowing wood stove.
We have just closed our six-month season, our last guests have safely made it home, the grizzly bears have headed up the mountain to hibernate and the clock moves forward bringing early darkness to the valley and longer evenings.
In keeping with this illusion of anticipated sloth we make it an annual staple to head off to Vancouver for a week of sipping lattes, gorging on Chinese food, hanging out with our urban friends and parading up and down Robson Street (Vancouver’s Oxford Street).
Then, later in the month, we host our annual friends, staff and neighbours party where we serve bottles of ice-cold vodka in shot glasses inscribed in Cyrillic (To the Defence of Stalingrad is one) and Russian appetizers to the worthies of our valley until they howl with pleasure or pass out in the corners (that’s coming up this Saturday.)
But all this bacchanalian pleasure merely makes the intervening periods of muscle-tearing labour that much harder to endure and the frigid touch of snow on cheek more bone-chilling.
In a bid to soften the transition I even went for a run or two while we were in Vancouver.
But it did little to prepare me the groaning aches of chain-sawing up half a dozen cords of wood, heaving each hefty slice on to one of our battered trailers until the tyres threatened to burst, and then disgorging it in our front yard for splitting.
After the first day of labour – a lonesome affair – Kristin joined in, lifting, stacking, delivering, unloading, all with little more than the occasional grunt. She also held the shorter logs to stop them jumping as I sawed them up.
It takes a certain kind of woman to hold firmly onto a slippery log with a razor-sharp chain slicing away only inches from your extended fingers at thousands of revolutions a minute.
Once the wood was bucked (loggers’ terminology, I think, for cut up into cake-like sections) and plonked down in the yard, the wooden-handled maul (an axe with a wide head designed to split) came out.
After two years using a light version, I finally switched to a much heavier model last year – Heaven when it comes to splitting recalcitrant blocks of wood, but Hell on my spindly wrists and forearms.
One of the joys of this whole autumnal process, is that I get to use my fancy logging gear: steel-toed boots, kevlar trousers, a smart set of orange braces with Husqvarna written on them in large blue letters and a matching orange hard hat with ear protectors and a face shield.
This year I also added a new chainsaw bar, half a dozen freshly-minted chains and a stump vice, a small and ingenious little device that anchors the saw as you sharpen the chain, to my already long list of accessories.
And then for good measure, and to get us both in the spirit, we bought a DVD called Axemen, a glitzy reality show that chronicles the travails of four logging companies and as they turn the US Pacific Northwest into a wasteland.
It’s not exactly cerebral entertainment and the men on the slopes are far from eloquent but it made our task ahead seem a little less daunting. (I was also secretly pleased to recognize some of the brands that I use in the hands of the professionals.)
After a couple of episodes, fired up and dressed for the occasion we set about sawing and hand-splitting an entire year’s supply. (That’s the main house and three wood-hungry cabins.) Hour after hour, Kristin set the logs on a stump and I hammered away at them with the splitting maul.
Four days into this plodding task we are both sore and aching. We grunt and groan as we stand up and sigh as we ease ourselves back into our armchairs each evening.
For the last three nights we have both been fast asleep by 9.30 in the evening – and we are still less than half way through this monstrous task.
I remember vaguely back in October looking forward to this month. It seemed a week or so of good, honest work. It now seems like a task from hell as I stare at seemingly unending pile of wood to be chopped.
Anyway, enough with the whining. Time to don my freezing gear, clamp my head into the icy hard hat, corral my hillbilly wife to the task ahead and swing my way to a full woodshed. Ah, the romance of life in the bush.