How working a small, family woodlot with my father is a business—and a pleasure.
Looking up from his sharpening job, my father, Douglas Rideout, peers over his glasses and grins. “I like to get cutting in fall,” he says. “The air is cooler and the deer flies fewer.” He looks back down at his saw chain and continues to slide the round file across each tooth.
The two of us are cutting saw logs on the family farm in Carlow, NB, this morning—work we have shared for close to a half century. Returning here to cut after having spent many years working in forests elsewhere is special for me. Not to sound too New Age, but time spent among these silent trees is akin to a spiritual experience—at least until the sawdust starts to fly.
Father was a woodsman his entire life and even at 80, he still eagerly joins me in the cutting operations, if at a more sedate pace. “You’re outside all day,” he says. “Sometimes you see deer or moose. Eat your lunch by a brook.
“I always liked it in the woods, and if you cut carefully, the forest looks good—like it’s being cared for.”
With the filing job done, we head down the twitching trail—a road sufficiently developed to allow log hauling—to continue the cut we started yesterday in a stand of mature balsam fir sprinkled with rough-barked old spruce. The scent of spruce resin makes the air sharp and tangy. Overhead, the canopy has begun to block out light and restrict new growth, both factors that helped us select this particular stand. This was just what we were looking for to finish up our truck load—two to three dozen sound trees reaching maximum mature size.
With 67 years of logging experience, Father is very knowledgeable when cutting among the tall timber. No matter how difficult the situation, he has a trade secret to remedy the problem, generally causing little damage to the surrounding trees. His early cutting jobs taught him much about leaving something for next time.
As we walk along, he speaks in a low voice.
“You had to cut smart or else the boss would get after you,” he says. “[Trees] didn’t fall any old way back then. You tried to not destroy the smaller trees when you were falling timber.
“We yarded with horses, and used one main trail to haul out to the yard.”
The lumber camp years
Like so many of his generation, Father worked on his family’s farm in the summer and in the lumber woods in the winter. His first winter in a New Brunswick lumber camp was during the 1940s at a camp 50 miles northwest of Nackawic, NB.
Father was only 15 years old and had gone in with his older brother. “We was hired as swampers—axe men. Once the cutter dropped a tree, we chopped a trail in, so the horse could get it out to the yard. Had to make sure no snags could catch the horse. Most of the teamsters were heavy with the whip, and the teams would go out pretty fast once they were hooked up. A horse could get hurt bad if the log fetched.”
Father was to spend many years in lumber camps, but he soon graduated from being a swamper. “I liked horses and grew up handling them, knew how to work steady and not kill ’em,” he says. “The boss soon had me at the reins.” As mechanization became more common he learned to operate bulldozers, drive log trucks and finally, handle power saws.
7 Tips for Managing Small Woodlands
Aside from commercial logging woodlots, many folks have stands of trees, or woodlands, on their properties. The late Wilfrid Creighton—a guru of forestry in Nova Scotia—suggested “tickling” the forest, or manipulating it gently, and then stepping back to watch how nature responds. Here are a few ground rules to consider.
1. First of all, decide whether you want to let nature’s forces gradually change your woodland without human interference, or if you prefer to actively manage the woodland for wildlife, recreation or wood products. If you are content to let natural forces rule, nature will not waste your woodland. Fallen trees will feed and shelter wild animals and fuel the growth of young trees such as yellow birch and hemlock, which grow directly on dead tree trunks mouldering in the forest.
2. If you decide to actively manage the forest, consider its wild inhabitants as residents and plan to accommodate their needs as well as your own.
3. Learn to identify the tree species on your property, and the conditions they need to survive. Gradually compile an inventory—including the ground plants and wildlife you encounter in different seasons. These can be mapped. Aerial photos, available from your provincial government, can help.
4. Investigate the soil conditions on the land. Will they sustain the tree species you find, or any trees you want to plant on the land?
5. Are there brooks, ponds, or other waterways on the property? They can be important for wildlife, and probably have aquatic life, too.
6. Products can be carefully taken from forests for human use, but the consequences of taking too much can be ecological degradation: such forests are prone to disease, and there will be shortages of essential foods and shelter that wildlife seek, while waterways become wide, shallow, polluted and too hot for trout and salmon.
7. If you deem there are too many trees in a given area and want to open the area up a bit, keep the most enduring and most valuable species to wildlife and people, and remove the trees competing for root space in the area immediately around them—simply cut off nearby trees just above ground level. Don’t be concerned about too little light filtering through the canopy from above, however; many trees can grow in the forest floor in the shade, and when an old tree falls, quickly ?occupy that open space.
Sawdust in my blood
I guess sawdust must be in my blood since I chose to work in the tall timber too. As a small boy, I moved brush and hooked up yarding chains while Father ran the huge chainsaws. Later on I, too, spent time holding the bucking, growling chainsaw, felling and then limbing the trees. We had only one saw, and a limbing axe was in my hands much of the time. Cutting limbs by hand was a tough job, but once I got the hang of it I became a good axe man, and still am. Our winter’s stove wood was split by hand, and I learned to read the blocks—gauging the best spot to strike and split the rock maple.
When I graduated from high school, I went to work for a big lumber company as a timber cruiser’s helper. For months I walked, taking notes on the possible cutting value of vast areas of Crown land. From the Maine border to the Sou’West Miramichi River and up to Renous country, I walked it all. Tree diameter, species and fibre quality were all carefully recorded. These notes influenced where future cuts would be, and also afforded me a great chance to see a slice of New Brunswick’s wild places.
My woods career has included spacing and thinning with a trim saw, planting trees over thousands of acres, fighting forest fires, and a good many hours just rambling around.
Back in the woods
The sound of a chainsaw starting up pulls me out of my daydream. The overhead canopy now begins to open as each tree comes down. Once the tree is limbed, two 16-foot logs are marked and the diameter on the small end measured to see if it meets regulation.
We have always strived to send good quality logs to the mill. Why load a truck with junk and then complain about the scale? Sometimes a section of rot has to be removed to ensure good-quality saw logs; these sections are used for firewood.
In his day, Father says, they didn’t cut anything “smaller than 10 inches on the stump.” That meant that the logging company could cut the area again in about 15 years.
Now and then, we pause to look around and make sure we aren’t making too big a hole. A large opening in the woods can lead to wind damage and more blow-downs come winter. This pause is also an excuse for a cookie and a mug of black tea.
After break, our day continues at a steady pace. Each of us has done this many times, and with very little wasted effort, we get trees ready for hauling. At one time, we used big workhorses to get logs to the yard but now we use a small farm tractor—a light 30 HP model, but more than powerful enough for this work. We keep the tires slightly low on air, which gives us a soft footprint, damaging the forest floor very little—in fact, after a couple of years, our yarding trails are brushed in and filled with raspberry canes, and are utilized by all sorts of farmland wildlife. Deer, black bear, partridge and hare travel the overgrown trails.
We finish up the morning hauling out logs with the tractor. There will soon be enough logs cut to call in a truck to have a load sent to the mill. As I prepare to cut another tall balsam fir, I notice next to it a crumbling old stump. Almost rotted away, I can tell it was cut down with a crosscut saw—one of my grandfather’s no doubt. As my saw roars into life I smile and reflect on the fact that I am one in a long line of men who have spent their lives “goin’ to the woods.”
A Christmas Garden
by Angela Mombourquette
Steve Bezanson is a patient man. He says it takes from 12 to 14 years for a Christmas tree to grow in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, but he’s in no hurry: “You have to look at the Christmas tree industry the same way you would look at life: you are doing it for the long term.”
Bezanson runs a 90-acre Christmas tree woodlot—Bezanson Family Christmas Tree Farm, in Black Rock, NS—selling trees to Canadian and American markets; he also operates a U-pick, where customers can wander his woodlot in search of their ideal holiday tree.
He grows Nova Scotia balsam fir exclusively. “I’ve tried some other species but I think Mother Nature does it better than any of us—what’s intended to grow here is what grows here,” he says. “Nova Scotia-grown balsam fir is the only tree that has that unique smell of Christmas. You can plant it in Connecticut or you can plant it in Germany and it will still be balsam fir, but it will not have that unique smell. It’s our soil, our salt and being close to the Atlantic. It’s unique to here.”
Bezanson’s farm is a wild stand operation, as opposed to a plantation, in which trees are planted in rows. “In Nova Scotia, 95 per cent of our trees are grown in wild stands. What that means is that the trees are nurtured in their natural environment, so you might have a seedling six inches high, then a three-foot, four-foot, 12-foot tree in the same vicinity.” Although gearing up for Christmas may be the busiest time for Bezanson, the woodlot occupies his time year-round. He spends the rest of the year hand-shearing, or shaping, his trees, removing dead or diseased hardwoods, doing some interplanting and repairing the roads.
“We grow our trees without pesticides or insecticides, in biosolid-free soils—the same way nature would.”
He loves the freedom and the fresh air, and knowing that what he is doing is appreciated, he says. “The other reward is seeing the expressions on peoples’ faces when they purchase a real Christmas tree.” Bezanson says the perfect tree is in the eye of the beholder. He cautions visitors to his U-pick operation to keep in mind that they are “going into Mother Nature’s backyard. Dress warmly, weather appropriate. Wear good footwear. A lot of people stay back there six hours because of the view. It’s really nice to be able to breathe fresh air and walk.”
His key piece of advice? Remember to measure the height of the space in which your Christmas tree will stand.
"We have a big, big ceiling out here.”