Field Notes

Crosscut Jake's Big Mistake

Feb 13
Crosscut Jake's Big Mistake
Posted February 13, 2014


When I was a young man, just out of college, I lived a life of an entrepreneurial carpenter in the western United States, working hard, partying hard, backpacking often and chasing pagan adventures. Our Lord, though, did not give up on me; he fished for me and he hunted for me; he used the lures of faith and reason to capture me. Now he was driving me back into the wilderness to train me to do the real work he required of me.

The year was 2006. It had been over 25 years since I had last been in the deep back country; in the wilderness. I was 15 miles from the trailhead, in a basecamp in the Diamond Peak Wilderness in the Cascades of Oregon, with a secular Americorp group of early to mid-20s men and women.

The goal for the next 10 days was to reclaim a deeply rutted 5 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail south of the Three Sisters and north of Crater Lake. The work we were undertaking required building rock and log water drainage structures; moving and placing large rocks with rock bars, bucking and  placing 16” diameter pines dropped with cross cut saws.  

Learning how to build trails, even at the age of 54, came easy for me. At a very early age I was taught the most important principle of learning a new skill. It is called docility. It is the ability to divorce oneself from pride and become childlike in the experience. This allows us to remove the impediments of our faulty mental models that pull us down like mill stones. Besides that, I grew up in a family construction company, the son of a builder, carpenter and surveyor. I was tutored in the art, science and craft of physical work, by laborers, concrete workers and carpenters; tough intelligent men who gave all they had each day with a sense of humor undergirded with a healthy fear of the Lord.  By the time I was 18, I was equally comfortable swinging a pick mattock, reading a set of blue prints or laying out a building with a surveyor’s transit.

Suzanne had been designated by the Americorp office as the team leader, though it became evident early on that she lacked crucial leadership skills, the least of which was not commanding the respect of the other men and women in the group.  During the hike in we encountered several trail intersections that she was trying to navigate from her memory of a map hanging on a wall. We finally came to a standstill and I could see from the look on her face that she was worried that we were lost.  

Letting this learning opportunity sink in for a several angst filled moments I finally pulled out my map. Suzanne quickly saw the map in my hand, moved toward me with a look of wide eyed terror in her eyes, asked “Can I see that?”, and before I could say yay or nay, she abruptly jerked it out of my hand, unfolded it and laid it on the ground. As she struggled to orient the map, rotating it one way and then the other, I finally pulled out my compass and silently handed it to her. Unfortunately this only seemed to increase her degrees of confusion. Finally Kevin, the real team leader, came forward looked at the map and compass, looked at me and asked “Is this set for our declination?” “Yes.” I said. “Thanks.” He replied and within a few seconds Kevin had the map and compass properly oriented and zeroed in on our location.

On the first day of trail work, having ascertained that I had no experience in it, Suzanne decided that I should work with Jake. Jake was a college graduate and considered the team member expert in cross cut saw work. Our job was to remove fallen trees over the trail and fell, clean and buck standing pine trees, for water bar construction. Our first order of business was removing a 24” diameter lodgepole pine lying horizontally across the trail.

I listened attentively while Jake explained the use of a crosscut saw and within a few minutes we were rowing back and forth watching the noodles of pine eject from the log.       I knew sooner or later that the log would start collapsing and pinch the blade. I waited for Jake’s instruction to remedy this problem but it didn’t come and we kept cutting. Within a few minutes the log started collapsing and the blade was stuck. Jake seemed perturbed by this turn of events. I stood up and said “Wait here a minute”. I spied a good sturdy 10’ long log and large rock a few yards away, retrieved them and brought the improvised lever and fulcrum to bear on the bottom side of the trunk. As I pried down, the trunk lifted and the blade was freed. “Finish the cut while I hold it.” I told Jake.

The next day Jake and I were a hundred feet above the trail on a steep hillside preparing to drop lodgepole pines for water bars. We were eying a 16” diameter tree.  Interestingly, the trees on the hillsides in this part of the mountains grow about 15 degrees off the vertical with the center of gravity pointing drastically uphill. Again I listened attentively as Jake explained the felling operation with a cross cut saw. He concluded his instruction with “We are going to drop the tree downhill.” “Really?” I responded somewhat whimsically. Sensing my disbelief Jake retorted out of pride “Yes I have done this before. I know what I am doing.” “Ok” I said. “Let’s get it done.”

This is an important point about learning, mentorship and training for boys and men. They learn best through active learning, trial and error. The most important lessons and morals I have learned in my life are the ones I learned through making mistakes. And men and boys need this type of active laboratory to grow into real men.

We started our cut making a felling notch facing downhill about half the thickness of the tree. We then started the horizontal cut from the uphill side of the tree. When we got to about 1” of cutting through to the notch, theoretically, the tree should have started to fall downhill. But it didn’t. Its center of gravity and an uphill breeze wouldn’t allow it. The tree just stood there swaying precariously in the mountain breeze.

Jake got scared. He knew we had a dangerous problem on our hands and we had to do something about it, but he didn’t know what. He knew we couldn’t just walk away. He looked at me wide eyed yelled “What are we going to do?!” “Well” I said “the first thing and most important thing is that we are going to stay safe. The second thing is that we are going to drop this tree up hill.” “How are we going to do that?” He asked more out of fear than reason.

As we assessed the situation and devised our plan, I could see that Jake was calming down and his adrenalin rush was subsiding.  After convincing ourselves that the tree was stable and not going anywhere, we repositioned the saw, cut a notch above the first one, but on the uphill side of the tree, and then started making the horizontal cut into the notch; all the while watching the tree warily for signs of movement. Within a few minutes the tree was starting to fall, safely uphill.

This leads us to another important point about men, boys and mentorship: Men and boys build authentic relationships best through the crucible of work, problem solving, challenge and competition. During this ordeal with the tree I did not belittle or cajole Jake. We accepted the situation as a mutual challenge that we would work through together. I didn’t  speak about this experience with the other men and women.

Later that evening, I retrieved a star chart from my tent and left the warm glow of the campfire. Jake looked up and asked me “Hey where you going?” “Look at some stars.” I said. Jake and a few of the other young men followed me up on a hillside above the tree line. Each of us took our turns talking about the constellations we knew. There was a lot of good quiet. Jake broke the silence and spoke up. “John saved my ass today”. Embracing his humility, he told the story of the tree in explicit detail. As all the men listened quietly, my heart grew in respect and friendship for this young man. I felt like a father and a brother. I was proud of him.

As the days in the Diamond Peak continued, Jake went out of his way asking me my opinion about work and life. We talked about books we read and ideas that inspired us. We sharpened all the axes and pulaskis with files to a razors edge; “Sharp enough to shave with.”


John Bradford is the founder of Wilderness Outreach. If you would like to know more about Wilderness Outreach contact John at: , , Wilderness Outreach Facebook or 614-679-6761.