In the past few years, I have been able to spend more time at the cottage where I get to enjoy the use of a wood-burning stove. Starting a fire, gathering logs and splitting wood is a very familiar activity for me. I was raised around wood stoves in my home community of Attawapiskat. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s the only source of heat for our home was a wood-burning stove. Every winter, mom and dad minded the fire day and night.
I have comforting memories of early morning sounds around the fire. As I lay in the dark I could hear my mom or dad rummaging through the wood box. On the edge of sleep I could make out the sound of the creaking of the metal door of the stove, the thumping of a poker stoking the fire and finally the crackling of fresh flames burning a new log. As soon as the steel door shut and the muffled sounds of hot flames burned inside, it was my cue to fall back to sleep knowing that the house would be warm and cozy when I was ready to face my day.
In recent years, I have noticed more and more people in southern towns and even cities switching to wood as a secondary and sometimes even a primary source of heat for their homes. I assume that this trend is a reaction to the rising cost of using oil or gas to heat one’s house. I have met many people who have made the switch while at the same time upgraded their home to make it more energy efficient. This means that while the stove heats the home, a better-insulated house will keep the heat longer and allow the homeowner to burn less wood. This is in contrast to my childhood home in Attawapiskat, where four inches of insulation was barely able to keep the minus-40o weather away for any length of time even though the wood stove burned 24 hours a day.
Wood stoves are great in many ways and these days they seem like a good alternative to more expensive heating solutions. However, I don’t think people realize how much work is involved in maintaining a wood stove.
A wood stove as a primary heat source for our home in Attawapiskat was a lot of work. It was actually a year-round job. Dad and my older brothers set aside different times of the year to gather logs for firewood. This effort requires a lot of skill and experience not to mention stamina. Harvesting trees is also very dangerous considering that chainsaws must be used and that there are all kinds of situations that can quickly turn into tragic events far from medical aid.
During the high water levels of spring run-off, we followed the water ways to cut fresh logs up river and then floated them in great rafts or booms down to the community. These logs had to be transported or carried from the shore to our home, where they were sawn, split and then stacked. If the weather permitted, we would head out again in the fall when water levels rose so that we could gather more wood.
Gathering wood was a never-ending task for our family back then. Wood had to be gathered, cut and split months ahead of time to allow it to season and dry. If the logs lay uncut or if they weren’t split, then the wood took longer to season and it was harder to chop in the winter time. We did most of the harvesting in the summer because it was easier to do this type of work in warm weather rather than in the middle of minus-40 temperatures and drifts of deep snow.
People here in the south seem to let themselves become lured into heating with wood. For some it turns into a type of addiction. I notice that many wood-burners become obsessive about an urgent need to gather wood for the upcoming winter season. The problem is that at one point they never seem to have enough. They plan several years into the future. They gather wood to allow it to season for the second year. Once last season’s is cleared then it is time to plan on filling space for the third year. Some even plan on fourth or fifth seasons just to make sure there is no chance of running out of wood.
Oddly enough, as the south is switching to wood-burning stoves, many people up north are starting to heat their homes with oil and electricity. As the price of gasoline rises, the more it costs to gather firewood with gas-guzzling engines that power trucks, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and tractors. Due to a new hydro line that now services James Bay communities, electricity is more accessible for First Nation people up the coast. If you sat down to calculate what the cost is to harvest wood to burn for the winter and all the time, effort and danger involved then electricity, gas and even oil starts to make sense.
I still really enjoy using a wood stove at the cottage. It is a nostalgic endeavour that makes me feel good. Yet, when it comes to every day, year-round life in town I much prefer turning up the thermostat to warm up the house. I guess you could say I am a recovering wood-burning-holic.