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Nature Nut: A mighty oak splits under a mighty (and well-placed) swing of the ax

January 21, 2019

It has been just over a year since I wrote of the oak trees around my cabin that had either been felled by a summer storm, or were obviously diseased and needed to be taken down before another storm landed them on my cabin. For almost the past two years they had been laying in piles, after being cut into 18-inch pieces by the crew I hired to eliminate them as a problem.

So, this winter I thought I should try to split the wood to use in my cabin wood stove, as well as the fireplace in my Silver Lake home. But I had never split wood like this before, with my experience limited to small pieces with a little axe in the Boundary Waters on trips many years ago.

However, I was in luck, because my source of wood up until now was from my good friend, “Backwater” Bob Kennedy. For decades Bob had made a science out of splitting oaks during the cold of winter. Many had met a fate similar to mine, on the backwater 40 acres where he and brother Dave spend much of their time.

So, on a sunny but cold day last month, friend Jim Hair and I paid a visit to Bob. We knew he would be in the woods splitting oak to warm his cabin for spring fishing and fall duck hunting, as well as for his and wife Mary’s home in Rochester.

We found Bob in the woods, and after a bit of small talk, he got back to work. We watched him carefully stand on end each piece of oak previously cut by chainsaw to the proper length, about 18 inches. He would point out its cracks, which had developed in the drying oaks, revealing its weakness to resist splitting.

And then Bob, approaching his 81st birthday in a few weeks, would swing the splitting ax Mary had bought him. Sometimes it took more than one swing, but soon the oak would split open through a hundred or more years of growth.

Some may question whether at his age Bob should be splitting wood, but given the fact that he water skied and paddle-boarded last summer, wood splitting must be part of his good recipe for staying fit.

After watching him do this over and over, Jim and I decided to take turns with the ax. While I was surprised I could split the wood, I was also surprised hitting the right spot was not near as easy as Bob made it look, since I often missed by inches. As I was giving it a try, Jim mentioned Thoreau’s writing,

“cutting wood warms you twice — once when you split it and again when you burn it.” Starting to break a sweat, I definitely agreed.

Dave had now arrived, so both he and Bob gave us a few more tips. One was to do splitting on cold days, as frozen wood splits easier, something which seemed to make sense. And, they pointed out if knobs from branches were evident, to ‘stand the piece upside down to split it’.

And so, with those lessons out of the way, about a month later I decided I would give it a try on the wood at my cabin. I picked a nice day, cold but sunny, with no one else around. Using an ax Jim had loaned me, I would try to perfect my swing in a couple hours like Bob had over many decades. Again, I still missed the cracks more often than not.

But soon I was getting the hang of it, warming myself up as Thoreau suggested, shedding my hat and jacket. And even though I hated to see the demise of these aged towering oaks, I felt kind of proud, as I soon had a pretty good looking pile of burnable oak stacked up on my cabin deck.

So now I will not only look forward to time sitting by the heat of the wood stove, but also to thinking back to the fun and satisfaction of splitting the wood myself.

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