“The June rise used to be always luck for me; because as soon as that rise begins, here comes cord-wood floating down, and pieces of log rafts – sometimes a dozen logs together; so all you have to do is catch them and sell them to the wood yards and sawmill.”
–Quote from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
I am reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn right now (mostly because everyone that considers themselves a fair-bit learned says it’s a proper read) and I came across the above paragraph about wood floating down the river. It struck me for two reasons. First off, I see the river every day and can’t help but be drawn to it for the logs that float past my shop. The second, and most appropriate reason, is that it mentions the “June rise”.
I didn’t know the “June rise” was a thing, even though I knew the river was highest in the spring. Personally, I think of June as the summer, but early June is still spring, and this year the rise was in spring and interestingly enough, in June. As a matter of fact, it was June 1st officially, but started with a vengeance on May 31st.
That night we were at the Ameristar Casino, on the Missouri River, in downtown St. Charles for my dad’s retirement party, planning on an upscale night out with the family. We were going to attend the retirement party, go swimming, watch TV in the bathtub (they have TV’s in the bathrooms), probably go swimming again the next morning and go out to breakfast, and just generally live it up as much as possible with our 7-year-old daughter. I say, “We were going to,” because things didn’t go as planned.
After the party, we went to the pool and were told that we would have to get out because a storm with lightning was headed our way. It wasn’t a big deal because we knew that we could swim the next morning, so we headed up to the room to find something else to do. We ended up watching out from the 22nd floor, with a great view, to see the approaching storm and lightning. It looked rather ominous, so we turned on the news to see that a tornado was headed in our general direction, and so, ended our night of fun.
We sheltered in the basement, hearing second-hand damage reports as we waited for it to pass. We weren’t in the basement long, but the hotel lost power, so we spent the rest of the evening in the lobby until the power came back on. When we finally got up to our room, we, of course, looked out the window and could see vast areas of darkness where there should be light, punctuated by areas of bright flashing lights. The tornado had come very close to the hotel and the lights were from emergency response teams. It looked like the tornado might have went close to our house as well, but there was nothing to do that night. All of the power was out and traffic was all locked up because the highway was closed, so we just hung out in our room, watched the news, watched the rain, and went to bed.
When the sun came up, there was some evident damage from high winds, but the most obvious outcome from the storm was the rising river. It was already a little high before this latest storm, and the all-night rain pushed it to flood levels. The water from the river was starting to fill the lower parking lot, making the hotel an island.
As I looked out from the 22nd floor, I could easily see a large segment of the Missouri River, and guess what I saw. Logs, logs and more logs. Huge ones floating right on by, and in good numbers. In just one minute, easily three to four giant trees would go by, along with all the smaller pieces. The “June rise” was on.
As much as I wanted to get all of those logs, it was obviously too dangerous. The water was high and swift, and as far as I could tell, only an idiot would get on the river in those conditions. It didn’t matter right then anyway, because I had to focus on the ramifications of the tornado.
A few days later, as I was looking at some downed trees from the tornado, one of the guys in the conversation mentioned how fast the river can drop in just a day, “like someone pulled the drain plug,” he said. Near the river, he had a house that was flooded the day before and was now on dry land. He also mentioned that he had a lot of trees just float onto his land, as well as some that were knocked over by the tornado.
This got me thinking more about the logs on the river, and that it would be a good time to look for logs or driftwood. But, I didn’t do much about it. I had a never-ending supply of logs right around my shop from the tornado and didn’t need to go looking for trees in the river. Plus, the river was still high, even though it had dropped a lot.
As much as I tried to avoid them, I couldn’t. Within just a couple of days, I was headed across the Missouri River on the Blanchette Bridge back into St. Charles, when I noticed the mother lode. Off to the right, near a parking lot for downtown St. Charles and Frontier Park was the biggest log jam I have ever seen. It was as big as a football field full of logs and driftwood, all piled in tight and screaming my name. It was huge, and I expected that I could pick logs from this pile for a long time. All I had to do was wait for the ground to dry a bit, and I could move in (with the proper clearance, of course). I knew that the logs would be there awhile because every person working for St. Charles was cleaning up the tornado debris and none of them were going to worry about this pile of logs, no matter how big it was, on the banks of the river. Heck, another good rain would take it down river anyway. So, I waited – but not long.
Only two days later, I was headed across the bridge in the same direction and looked down at the giant log jam to see only dirt. A football field-sized piece of real estate that used to be covered in logs, was now just dirt. It was incredible that they could have cleaned up that many logs that fast, but somehow they did. I thought I had plenty of time, but I still missed them, just like the great walnut log I let go downstream at the end of winter.
I told myself it was for the best, and that I didn’t need to chase river logs, but I was sure that the “June rise” had left something for me. It is a big river, and I knew that there were treasures to be found. I held out as long as I could, but then finally, I took the official “plunge”.
It happened a couple of weeks ago and knowing that summer was coming to an end, I went out and picked up five river logs, figuring that I better do it now before the water gets cold. I didn’t find any walnuts this time, but I did find one, in particular, that makes me want to go back. It is a silver maple, like the others that I picked up, but it must have spent more time in the water because the sapwood was very dark, almost black. At the same time, the heartwood looked almost new, making the boards with both sapwood and heartwood have amazing contrast. I was especially excited at how the dark sapwood looks like marble or some other stone. I always say, the less it looks like wood, the better it is.
Here are some photos of my prized log. Click on any of the photos for a closer look and to view the slide show.
The entire log was solid, including the sapwood and produced six slabs up to 22″ wide and 2-3/8″ thick, and in case you were wondering, all of them smell like the bottom of a river. Other than that, milling this log was a completely enjoyable experience. And, even though I can find plenty of logs on land, this one log will have me going back to the river again, especially around June.
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.