Guest Post: The Tools Make the Woman, by 'Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods' Author Christine Byl

Photo Credit: Gabe Travis.
This summer, I had the privilege of receiving a complimentary copy of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods. More than just a memoir filled with tales of what it's like to build trails for a living, author Christine Byl explores gender dynamics, relationships between people and relationships with nature, what it means to fit in and how our lives are shaped by the environments we choose to work in. In today's guest post, Christine described how she still uses what she learned to maintain her home in remote central Alaska through all seasons.

It's fall in Interior Alaska, and with migrating sandhill cranes overhead and vibrant tundra underfoot, fall means firewood. Temperatures drop and freezing nights require banking the woodstove for a slow burn. After a record-warm summer, the realization hits: we have to refill the woodshed.

I love getting wood. Felling, bucking, splitting and stacking is concrete work, requiring one of my favorite tools: the chainsaw. Though I've been using a saw now for 18 years, my orange-and-white Stihl always conjures memories of my first season on a trail crew, when the tool was both intimidating and seductive. If you'd told that 23-year-old rookie on a Glacier National Park trail crew that someday I'd be a sawyer like the ones I admired from afar--men and women who could start a saw, fix it, and heft it over shoulder without a grimace--I would have been skeptical. But here I am, decades later, my life heavily reliant on a chainsaw and its efficient use.

Photo Credit: Christine Byl.
If I didn't foresee my future as a sawyer, that younger self had a hunch that the tools in the shop could be more than a one-season lark or a fetish for old guys. From Dirt Work: "over seasons, as my expertise increased, I saw that the skills I was honing had uses beyond the work site—log notches for bridge sills could be used to build a cabin. I could fell, limb, and buck trees for firewood the same way I cleared a trail. The endurance and strength and confidence I’d built up from long days of work outside would do me good living in any wild place. The skills I was learning were old ones that had served working people for a long time, and in that sense, I was apprenticed not just to mastery, but to history."

In honor of mastery, history, and people the world over turning their hands towards their daily survival, here's a loving nod to some of the tools that have moved with me from my first trail crew job to making a living--and a life--in a remote home.

Chainsaw Initial tasks were basic: how to start it, avoid kick-back, buckle my chaps right. Now I use a chainsaw weekly. This summer's jobs included decommissioning an old timber bridge, log bench construction, clearing a neighbor's hazard trees, brushing on our property, and endless firewood. As field season wraps up, we'll use the chainsaw for log notching on a cabin-in-progress.

Axe I thought I knew how to use one until my first crew leader asked me to chop out a downed tree. It turns out the proper use of an axe is as intricate a skill as running a chainsaw. The axe is now among my top 5 hand tools. With the hatchet and maul, this family of tools gets near-daily use. On a trail layout job, the axe blazes standing trees. At home, it chops rounds, splits kindling, and limbs small trees. (It also skinned my finger last week, but we won't talk about that.)

Shovel Where would any of us be without you? On this summer's job sites, shovels helped me shape banked turns on a mountain bike trail, set rock bollards, dig bridge abutments, and sample soil along a trail reroute. At home, I've dug footings for a shed, a grave for our dearly departed sled dog, gravel poached from an abandoned DOT roadside pile. Mulched the garden, planted potatoes in old tires. Stockpiled chicken shit from the neighbor's coop to cover raised beds for winter. Filled spice bottles in the bulk aisle with the world's tiniest shovel, the scoop.

Photo Credit: Christine Byl.
Rock Bar This Archimedian standby is another favorite. Beyond dry stone masonry, the rock bar with its elegant fulcrum tip came in handy for leveraging bridge stringers and prying off rusty hardware. At home I reach for some trusty iron bar (digging bars and pry pars, close cousins) any time I need extra strength. Moving a heavy doghouse, lifting the cabin floor to shim beneath the girders, tamping soil around a post. Iron bars are precious metal..

Pulaski This axe/adze combo can handily chop or grub, making it the Superman of tools, with no need for a phone booth to switch identities. With the shovel, a pulaski comes along to every job site. I grubbed tread, chopped roots, and blazed a tree with one when the axe was absent. Building a bridge with a youth crew, I taught a 16-year-old girl how to sharpen a pulaski, a season highlight. Grubbing aside, I've used a pulaski to uncover pavement for traction beneath a tire spinning on ice, and to bang the handle of a lug wrench when changing a flat with a tight nut (same tire.) In a remote, cold place where town's a two-hour drive, we don't leave home without a tow strap, a sleeping bag and a pulaski in the back of the truck..

Sledge/Hammer/Mallet Practically ubiquitous, some member of this tool family gets used every day. My first laborer season I could barely lift the 12-lb sledge, let alone swing it overhead like John Henry, but this year I used the double jack to spike bridge decking. The framing hammer built handrails and the youth crew loved learning to twirl it in the air like seasoned carpenters. The rubber mallet is indispensable for driving in survey stakes, and just yesterday, was the perfect soft-blow deliverer to whack an old door back into plumb. Not including my fingers, few things are made worse by a couple well-directed blows.

So many more cherished props help hold up my days: wheelbarrow, wedge, rope, chisel, drawknife, bucket, tarp. Years ago, by accident and then by choice, I made a life out of tools, and somewhere along the line, tools enabled me to make a life. I'm thankful to them every day.

If you're interested in learning more about Christine's work as a trail dog, the tools she used and what it's like to get a real education in the woods, be sure to pick up a copy of Dirt Work. Also visit The Campsite Blog for a complete review. 

Have you ever done any trail building? Do any of these tools sound familiar?


Mike Arrera said…
Love this article and love me some tough, hardworking women.