Now that winter is on the way people are starting to think about what to do when the cold weather arrives. Anyone who has spent time in the north knows that winters can be very hard if you are not prepared. We are like the animals in the forest: as the days grow shorter and colder, we become more active to get our homes ready for the cold and finish any last-minute chores before our world is covered in snow and ice.

I took the time recently to help a friend gather some wood for the winter. We spent several days cutting down trees, sawing them to length for transporting, hauling them and cutting them into fireplace-sized logs.

We used a chainsaw for most of our work and I was comfortable in operating what, when you think about it, is a very dangerous machine. Imagine, where else would you operate a small two-stroke motor that you hold in your hands and that powers an exposed high-speed chain spiked with razor sharp blades? Not only is this a dangerous thing in the best of situations but a chainsaw is sometimes used in the midst of dense undergrowth. While cutting trees you have to deal with twigs and branches picking and pulling at you while you try your best to maintain control of a noisy engine with a spinning cutting chain vibrating in your hands. I have a lot of respect for the chainsaw and I am very cautious when using it.

My brothers and I were taught to be careful around any power tool but we grew up in a lifestyle where we were constantly handling chainsaws, power saws and other types of small engines for cutting, shaping or grinding. When you live in a remote northern community where there are no professionals or contractors to help you with your work, you learn to do just about everything. I was never allowed to use a chainsaw when I was young.

However, I was in many situations where I worked with my dad and my older brothers who taught me how to handle this tool. In time, when I became a teenager I started using the chainsaw and became comfortable enough to bring down trees, delimb them and then cut them into logs.

The whole process of heating a home with wood is very work intensive. When I was young I knew first hand that heating with wood was hard. We all had to chip in to help. My brothers and I were called by my parents every few days to do the work of filling up the wood box for the fireplace. Adults or older siblings split large logs and we younger ones had to gather split wood to carry into the house. Then someone was required to regularly watch over the stove to make sure there was enough of a fire to keep our home warm.

Later on I started learning about where we got our wood. Dad and my brothers had to go through much more work in order to bring enough logs to our home to season during the summer. As an option we also collected dry burnable wood from the forest.

There is a whole process and science as to how to collect firewood to heat your home. In the summers, we gathered wood near the river that we floated back to the community in large booms that were pulled by our freighter canoes. This wood then had to transported by hand, truck and tractor to our home where we cut the long lengths into logs. In the wintertime when supplies ran low, we went out into the surrounding forest to search for dead wood. Normally this would be a stand of forest that had been burned over the year before and the still standing trees had seasoned to the point where they were perfect for our stove.

On the James Bay coast, there is a great supply of pine and it is the most popular type of wood that is used for burning. However, there is a variety of pine and it takes knowledgeable woodsmen to pick out the best trees that will take the least amount of time to season yet provide long-lasting fuel for a fireplace. Most other types of trees are considered less attractive as they burn poorly and create too much creosote and smoke or they do not have the long-lasting heat of pine logs.

I love being in the forest and I feel at home with the odour, sights and sounds of the wilderness. I have a great respect for trees. They provide us with so much. We get our heat, shade and building products from trees. I never cut one just at a whim. I must have a very good reason to bring one of these old giants down. I prefer to take dead or diseased trees and to let the living ones thrive for future generations.

Let’s hope there are still lots of trees around a hundred years from now. We might need the shade.