When you come to Sterling College you have to be ready to learn about tree felling. Not only do you get an axe at the end of your introductory intensive, there is a required class called Tools and Their Application that teaches you the basics of using your ax, like how to sharpen it, clean it, and care for it. This is the tool that will enable you to chop and split your firewood on Expedition.
Winter Expedition is a 50 year Sterling tradition. It is an epic four-day, three night trek in December that all first year and transfer students accomplish alongside faculty guides. Needless to say, it is absolutely vital that you know how to use your axe and keep it in the best condition possible.
Using any hand tool is an empowering experience that allows the user a new perspective. Cutting down a tree with a chainsaw is a different experience than cutting down a tree with an axe. Some would say that it is harder to cut down a tree with an axe, and they would be absolutely correct! So why bother? Well, using an axe brings you closer to the work. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you are doing and the most efficient and safe way to get your tree on the ground. You also have to expend more energy when using an axe.
There are many steps to go through before you even begin to take action. First, you have to select your tree. This involves quite a bit of discernment. Softwood or hardwood? Which way is the tree leaning? Are there any other trees around that pose danger and will your tree get hung up on the branches surrounding it? Even before you take the first swing, you have to measure out a hinge, and where you will be making your back and front cut, so that after you finish your front cut, the tree doesn’t kick back and kill you. You have to remove anything and everything around where you’ll be making swings so that you don’t lose your footing or get distracted by low hanging branches. You have to set two escape routes and always be prepared to move quickly should something go awry. And things often do go awry.
During our class session, several people got their trees hung up on overlying branches in the canopy. That meant that everyone had to stop and help them out. A hung up tree is not exactly safe, and so the utmost caution must be used when approaching the situation. One person tied a knot in this incredibly heavy rope around the base of the tree, and the rest of the class got on the other end of the rope and pulled. It was like a game of tug of war, but with higher stakes. Once you start cutting down a tree, it’s not something you can walk away from. That tree must come down.
I have yet to use a chainsaw to take down a tree, and while I suspect the overall feeling of awe at my ability to bring down a tree will be similar, the process and atmosphere of the work will be different. Not to say that there isn’t merit in efficiency and technology, but there is so much beauty to be had in slowing it down and doing some hard physical labor with your own two hands.