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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Fallen Tree on Snowy Road Can’t Block Firewood Mission

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Cursing the fallen spruce blocking the Conley Road, I put the truck’s transmission into reverse and started backing up.

I guess we’d take the long way around to Tom Heberlein’s hunting shack near Cayuga, Wisconsin.

I tried not to pout. This change of course wasn’t the Northwoods equivalent of forsaking the Panama Canal for a trip around Cape Horn. Still, my wife, Penny, and I had spent Christmas morning navigating 145 miles of slippery roads from Eau Claire to central Ashland County.

And then, roughly 3 miles from our destination, we were faced with a long finish: We must retrace 3 miles of an unplowed forest road to County Highway GG, drive northeasterly to Highway 13 at Mellen, head south a few miles to the Conley Road’s eastern terminus, and then head back west 3 miles to the shack.

“If only I’d brought the chain saw,” I muttered as the truck’s tires crunched backward through 8 inches of snow.

Then I stopped to reconsider. Tire tracks showed the toppled tree previously turned back another truck, so I wasn’t the first mope to try this route without a chain saw. But like that unknown driver, I knew I couldn’t drive over the sprawled spruce. It wasn’t that small.

Yes, I’d also forgotten to pack a shovel, but I keep tire chains, a tow rope, and collapsible handsaw behind the rear seat. I’ve used smaller saws to cut through thicker trees. Besides, I could saw faster than drive, and I really didn’t want to traverse Cape Horn.

My course became clear: We would open this route for ourselves and all pilgrims who follow, even at risk of encountering fallen firs farther along or, worse, sliding off the road into wet lowlands and 14-inch snowdrifts.

Puffing out my chest and tugging on my chopper mittens, I told Penny: “Don’t worry, honey. I won’t be long.”

I paused again before braving the 1-degree air.

“Just curious: Does your cell-phone have service?”

Before she could answer, I climbed out of the F-250, opened its back door, retrieved my saw and rope, and attacked the spruce. After sawing through most of its trunk and severing its top 10 feet, I attached the rope, hooked it to my truck, and yanked away the spruce’s midsection.

An appreciative, melodramatic, more naive wife would have squealed, “My hero!” and clasped me closely.

Not Penny.

“My phone shows two bars and 3G service,” she said warily. “If we get stuck, all we have are some cheese, crackers, an apple and an orange. It’s still a long walk to Old T, and we didn’t bring our snowshoes.”

“No meat?” I asked.

“No meat,” she verified.


I got out, repacked my equipment, slid back behind the wheel, and churned onward past the vanquished spruce.

We reached the old shack without further delay, and unloaded our cargo: eight contractor bags filled with kindling for Heberlein’s wood stove. Although I don’t list it on my resume, my principal role in Heberlein’s deer camp is to tend its treestands and supply its firewood, including kindling.

COVID-19 dashed Heberlein’s original plan to join forces in July to split a nearby stack into firewood and replenish his woodshed. Instead, I tackled that chore during a solo trip in early October, which also revealed his low kindling supply.

I decided to saw, split and pack my entire cache of kindling before November’s gun-deer season. But COVID-19 killed that plan, too, when Heberlein and I agreed we shouldn’t risk our health for the outside chance of shooting a deer. But that revised plan had an upside: It let me procrastinate on my camp obligations until forced to drag Penny into them.

We teamed up on my chores in mid-December while cleaning out our garage in Waupaca. We’re in the process of moving from there to Eau Claire and, not surprisingly, we left one of our worst jobs for last: cutting and bagging about a year’s worth of lumber rejects and woodworking scraps for Heberlein’s kindling.

We started by cutting most of those 1- to 1.5-inch thick sticks into stove-length pieces until my battery-operated reciprocating saw lost all power. We then hauled what wood remained to the basement on Christmas Eve day, where I handed Penny ear and eye protection, and taught her how to operate my 10-inch table saw.

“This saw is faster and easier anyway,” I assured her before retreating upstairs to meet a writing deadline. The next day I took my hatchet to split what remained of my 2-by-4 stubs, and dragged all the kindling to our truck.

We typically spend Christmas Day with family, but we’re trying to follow the best available science for thwarting COVID-19. Therefore, to avoid C-19 germs at indoor gatherings, we packed all the kindling for a socially isolated day-trip to Old T.

Once at the shack’s snowed-in driveway, I pulled the kindling and our ice-fishing sled from the truck’s box. I then loaded the sled with two bags of wood and my old office chair, which is destined to spend its remaining days in Heberlein’s deer stand.

That load seemed prudent as I leaned forward and pulled the sled toward the shack, but I was soon mistaken. It bogged down as I turned past the buckpole, spilling the chair into the snow.

After Penny dusted the chair free of snow, we resumed our wood-restocking mission. We needed three full hauls to move all the wood from truck to shack, all the while reminding ourselves that it’s a cheap alternative to rent. Heberlein, after all, lets us use the shack regularly but never bills us by day or stay. He only asks that we sweep the shack clean, and close its curtains and empty its stove ashes before locking up.

The adventure of getting there and back, of course, is our problem.

A Christmas Day road trip to restock firewood at Tom Heberlein’s hunting shack in Ashland County required cutting through a fallen tree and pushing through 6 miles of unplowed road. — Patrick Durkin photos

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