After the drought last summer all of the local rivers were very low. The Missouri River, right across the street from my shop, was lower than I had ever seen it. It was a trickle compared to its normal self. This big and forbidding river had become almost friendly with giant sandbars and never-ending chances to explore.
The more I explored, the more I found. I found a lot of cool driftwood pieces and lots of logs. At first, I blew of the logs that I saw, assuming that they were probably cottonwood or some other quick-to-rot species. But, then I thought a little more and wondered, “What if they aren’t all cottonwood or rotten?” So, I started taking a little closer look.
It didn’t take long to find a walnut that was solid and then a nice maple, but both of those were in Frontier Park in downtown St. Charles and there was no real way to get to them, so I let them go. Besides the fact that I couldn’t get to them, I didn’t need to get to them. I had a big supply of logs and plenty of paying jobs to do otherwise. I didn’t need to chase river logs. But, as you might have guessed, logic doesn’t rule in my world.
I began small and started bringing back driftwood pieces to the shop. I looked at the bigger logs, most of which were cottonwood, but didn’t pursue them. I didn’t see any that were easy to get out. Nothing was sitting right next to a boat ramp, and I wasn’t in a hurry to go out on the river in the middle of winter. I can swim, but that doesn’t make a difference if the water is freezing cold. I kept bringing back pieces I could carry, and I was fine… until I found one particular walnut log.
This log sucked me in. It was literally right across the street from the shop, big, and walnut, with the coolest exterior. The outside was so cool that, no matter what wood it was, I would have made it into mantels or something else that I could leave unpeeled. I had to have it, or at least cut into it, and then decide if I had to have it.
The main thing that had kept me from doing this sooner was getting the log. None of the others I found were easy to get to or get out, and this one was no different. It was far from the road and, at this point, far from the river. I decided I was going to go old school on this one and mill it in place with my chainsaw. If anything good came out of it I was sure I could find someone or several someones to help me carry it out (I have a lot of wood-loving friends that I can pay in wood).
The plan I hatched was military inspired. I went in quick and light with only my chainsaw, a few wedges, a hammer, and extra gas and oil. I didn’t plan to stay long. After all, this wasn’t making me any money, and I had other paying jobs to do. In and out was the mantra. I limited my stay to one sharp chain and only one sharp chain – the one on the saw. I knew it wouldn’t last too long since I was going to cut dirty roots from a muddy tree at the bottom of a sandy river. I would’ve been happy with the chain staying sharp for just one full tank of gas. I figured by that time I would know if I wanted to come back. And, if I did, I could make more formal plans.
I picked a nice sunny, slightly warm morning and launched my attack. I sharpened the chain on my saw, packed my saw bag, checked the battery on my camera and headed in. I started with the root section and made a couple of small cuts, just to make sure it was walnut and see how things looked. I worked my way back and forth and up and down the tree making cuts to assess the situation and try not to screw things up.
The entire tree, including the root section, was pretty accessible even though it was wedged between two piles. Even so, in order to get to the main root section, I had to cut off the tap root. I wouldn’t normally do anything with the tap root, but this tree was big and so was the tap root. This seemed like a fine place to start milling and finish off my chain.
After it was all said and done I ended up with six chunks from the tap root that we hauled back. You can tell from the video commentary that I wasn’t too impressed with them, but the rest of the log looked great. I left the tree in three sections (two nine-foot long logs and the root section) and packed out.
I spent the next few days working on my paying jobs, telling friends about the log and planning the next big milling session. Then it began to precipitate, and precipitate, and you guessed it, snow. I kept thinking that we should have tied up the logs, but we didn’t. I knew the river would eventually go back to normal levels, I just didn’t think it would all happen in a few days. Now the river is back to its normal width, and it just snowed another foot.
Needless to say, that log is gone. It is somewhere downstream for someone else to find. I was telling a friend of mine about it and how the log was in New Orleans now and how someone was just going find an awesome piece of ready-to-go walnut, when he mentioned Shelby Stanga. We both watch Ax Men and love Shelby Stanga. I think Shelby should have his own show, so I can see more of him and the logs that he pulls out of the Louisiana swamps and Lake Pontchartrain. Anyway, we both laughed and thought about how funny it would be if Shelby found that walnut and it ended up on our favorite show with our favorite logger. Well, if I can’t have it, I would want Shelby to have it. Happy Birthday Shelby!
Earlier this year, I was reintroduced to the Missouri River when my daughter, Mira and I were almost blown off of this planet by a group of reenactors. We were cruising the river bank and wandered in to a not-so-secure, secure area right before the big moment. Luckily, we escaped with our lives and have been able to go back to look for more treasures. (click here for the full story)
A few weeks ago, after Mira’s girl scout outing to learn about the river, we ventured out on our own. Mira found pieces of colored glass, mussel shells and special rocks, while I, of course, looked for wood. I found some cool pieces that weren’t too big to take back and was especially intrigued by long slender pieces of wood that were debarked. I don’t know what did it, but I assume it was a small rodent. I don’t think it was a beaver because the teeth marks are small, so I am calling them “Muskrat Sticks” until I learn something different. Every stem was chewed like corn on the cob (the way I do it with all of the corn gone, not like the girls do it with sporadic bites between kernels). I was drawn to them because they were so uniform in size and texture, and all of them were recently chewed down, so the color was consistent too. I don’t know that anyone will use them, but I grabbed them anyway.
After that, I got thinking even more about wood (I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but I did). Specifically, I was thinking about that giant river running right by my shop and all of the other treasures that it might be dropping in my lap. Since then, I have had two occasions to cruise the river and look for more goodies, and I must admit, I am pretty proud of myself. My biggest/best find was an old railroad tie. It was just floating right next to the bank, and I grabbed it. I almost walked right by it because I was focused on logs and branches. If you look really close, you can see where the spikes went through it originally. Now, the holes merge into the hollowness created by the years of bobbing in the river. Amazingly, it is completely solid, except for all of the wood that is missing. It will make a great rustic fireplace mantel for the right person in the right house.
While I was searching, I also found a couple of other pieces that stood out in the crowd. One looked like a rock or something unwood (I can sell any wood that doesn’t look like wood – weird, I know), while the other was chewed by a very cooperative beaver. He left just enough for it to be useable and picked the perfect diameter log to make a table leg. I have always thought that it would help to have a well-trained beaver, and he couldn’t have done a better job. Thank you, beaver.