Forget the health club. Alaskans who cut firewood get in tip-top shape.

DONNELLY FLATS — It may be tough to think of cutting firewood as an outdoor recreational activity. But if cutting and chopping wood is a chore, try coming at it from a different angle.

Firewood gathering can get you outside on the snowmobile, allow you to postpone garage cleaning, offer an opportunity to hunt grouse and even get you in shape.

Perhaps nothing will get you in good physical condition quicker than lifting a snowmachine over a fallen log or prying it out from behind the stump hung up on the inside of a ski leg (perform this exercise 10 times.) Who needs a membership at the club?

Grouse may come to watch, so the well-prepared firewood gatherer will have a shotgun on the machine.

A wood-hauling snowmobile should not be a mountain climber. The older I get, the smaller my machines become. Personally, I began with Elans, graduated to Skandics and now am digressing to single-cylinder Tundras. Whatever machine one chooses, reverse is a huge asset in the woods. There's no doubt a decent sled is a must. The sled should be no wider than the snowmobile to keep it from being wedged between trees. High sides are also a plus, though additional exercise may be gained by reloading the sled several times a trip.

There are a few firewood-cutting areas that can be reached by truck. The Delta Junction area, where I get most of my wood, is the firewood capital of Alaska.  Forest fires near the highway system, combined with uncountable firebreaks and typical low-snow conditions allow extremely easy access. But there's a drawback to a truck in these stands of fire-killed spruce. Fire-hardened branches can easily puncture tire sidewalls.

Discounting the potential costs, fire-killed spruce delivers far more BTU's than beetle-killed trees. Some folks question the value of cottonwood or poplar as a heat source, and they have a point if it dries with the bark on. However, a nice hot forest fire burns the branches and bark, leaving a hard and dry log. Poplar roots don't hold well, so the tree is almost always on the ground. Cottonwood is much lighter than spruce, making it easier for us old guys to handle.


Birch is a tougher wood to use. Typically, birch bark doesn't burn off in a fire, and the tree remains standing. The wood doesn't dry well standing in the forest and quickly becomes punky. Standing dead birch doesn't deliver much heat.

Occasionally, the Department of Natural Resources or the federal Bureau of Land Management will open an area where one can cut green trees. They should be split shortly after cutting to dry properly. Wood cut now will not be ready to burn until winter. Wet birch or spruce will hold a fire for quite a while, but neither provides much heat.

The upside to burning wet wood is the extra exercise lifting the heavy chunks into the sled or truck. Beyond that, burning wet stuff in your stove will build up creosote in the stove pipe. This will improve climbing and balance skills when you venture to the top of the roof with a 16-foot chimney brush.

Equipment needed for burning wood is relatively simple. In addition to the chimney brush, a chainsaw and a decent ax will complete the arsenal. A hydraulic wood splitter may be added if you are a bells-and-whistles guy, but that is considered cheating by purists.

No doubt chainsaws are critical to any effective wood cutting operation. Everyone has favorites. My suggestion is to avoid very small or very large saws. Bar length should be between 16 and 20 inches, with big guys typically preferring longer bars. That is fine if one is working with larger trees. The tendency for the long bar to contact unknowns on the other side of the tree you're cutting is a factor in your decision. An unseen rock can create havoc with the saw's chain. If you're cutting far from the house, carry a spare chain, just in case.

Cutting in the woods also requires a chainsaw file and a bar-tightening tool. Cutting with a dull or loose chain is frustrating and potentially dangerous. Bar oil is another necessity. Commercial bar oil is available, but it must be thinned if working at lower temperatures. Try ATF fluid as a thinning agent; it mixes easily and works well.

A good ax can be a pleasure to use. Some folks like single bits, others prefer a double. Whichever is chosen, be sure it has the right length handle and the balance fits the user. Frozen wood splits easily, and I'd say minus-20 is the perfect temperature. Splitting a half-cord of wood will have you in shirt sleeves before long, even in frigid weather.

Perhaps it's easier to buy a cord or two. If you think that's the case, know what you are getting. First, know what type of wood is being delivered. Also, if you're buying by the cord, make sure you truly get what you've purchased. A cord is 8-feet long, 4-feet wide and 4-feet high — 128 cubic feet. That is stacked wood, not wood piled in a jumble. A standard pick-up bed without sideboards will hold approximately a half-cord.

Buy wood or cut wood? In either case, there's nothing quite like standing backed up to a hot woodstove early in the morning and the satisfaction of a winter's worth of firewood stacked by the garage.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Firewood on public land

Alaska's Division of Forestry aims to provide firewood on state land. Permits that allow holders to take 3 to 10 cords for personal use are needed. They're available online, for cutting in Fairbanks, Tok, Glennallen, Haines, Mat-Su and Kenai areas. Check the website for details:

The Seward and Glacier Ranger Districts of the National Forest Service only allow the removal of dead material as free-use timber. With the high mortality of spruce trees from the spruce bark beetle on the Kenai Peninsula, the agency intends to preserve the remaining green trees as a seed source for future forests. Personal use firewood may not be sold or bartered for personal gain — and may cut and remove up to 25 cords of dead wood per year from National Forest land.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.