Fall, Buck, and Scale

Fiction / Ken Post

:: Fall, Buck, and Scale ::

​​Muf­fled steps, occa­sion­al grunts, and blue­ber­ry bush­es whapped against their legs, punc­tur­ing the silence. Mon­ty fol­lowed as Don pushed through brush. Nobody said a word. Heat and sweat built inside Monty’s rain gear as it rose from behind his knees, chim­neyed up through his groin toward his armpits, and vent­ed out his neck. He self-bast­ed in his rub­ber out­fit as he entered anoth­er thick­et. Every mus­cle in his body fixed on the next step he took. Per­spi­ra­tion burned his neck and stung his eyes. 

Don packed a chain­saw across one shoul­der. It bobbed up and down on his back as he marched across the uneven ground. Matt was a half-dozen steps ahead of Don, shov­ing branch­es out of his way with one hand, the oth­er hand cling­ing to an aer­i­al pho­to clad in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. At the back, Mon­ty car­ried the .375 rifle for brown bear pro­tec­tion. He wished these guys would slow down. 

It was like a sea of leaves and a lat­tice of veg­e­ta­tion they pushed through, climbed over, or crawled under. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, a sil­ver hard­hat or a bright yel­low Helly Hansen rain coat was vis­i­ble before it dis­ap­peared back into the ver­dan­cy burst­ing forth in a for­est with over one hun­dred inch­es of rain a year. 

Mon­ty entered a small open­ing next to a trio of tow­er­ing spruce trees. Matt and Don stared at an aer­i­al photo. 

We’re almost there,” Matt said. 

They were not lost; they knew exact­ly where they were. It start­ed with the pin­prick Matt made in the aer­i­al pho­to before they left camp. Fif­teen min­utes ear­li­er, the heli­copter had descend­ed into the clos­est muskeg to the photo’s tiny pin­hole, and they were now trav­el­ing north­east to that spot. 

What’s ‘almost there’ mean?” asked Don. He looked at Matt with an expres­sion­less stare. Don was the faller—he cut down the trees and bucked them into six­teen foot logs. He wore an alu­minum, wide-brimmed hard­hat sit­ting low on his head, as if his head had been machined to fit it. All you could see were a few wet strands of hair with almost no trace of fore­head vis­i­ble. His gray eyes and aquiline nose gave him a sharp, pierc­ing look. 

Five, ten min­utes, maybe.” 

Mon­ty placed the gun against a tree. “Do you guys always walk this fast?” He used the inter­lude to catch his breath. 

Matt, a sinewy six-foot-three, with a black beard car­pet­ing his face, and Don, a fire hydrant of knot­ted brawn, were the odd cou­ple of the woods. The one thing they had in com­mon was their abil­i­ty to maneu­ver across roots, ravines, down­fall, thick­ets, and stream cross­ings. How the hell can two guys be so dif­fer­ent but trav­el so quick­ly? Mon­ty was the guy with the gun, and it was all he could do to fol­low them. 

We actu­al­ly slowed down,” Matt said, “to make it a bit eas­i­er on you.” 

Won­der­ful.” Mon­ty had been warned when he accept­ed the For­est Ser­vice job in Sit­ka and been hand­ed his Nomex fire-retar­dant heli­copter flight cov­er­alls and a sleep­ing bag. He had bumped into a beard­ed dude on his way out the door. As he walked out, the guy asked, “Where you head­ing, cowboy?” 

Tim­ber sale prepa­ra­tion in Gilbert Bay.” 

Oh.” The man gri­maced. “You must have drawn the short straw. Good luck.” 

It wasn’t imme­di­ate­ly clear what the man meant, but he under­stood now that he was work­ing with Matt and Don. He was their rifle bear­er and go-fer who held the “dumb end of the tape” when Matt measured. 

Matt wad­ed into a thorny devil’s club patch, their leaves yel­low-tinged and droop­ing. The saw was back on Don’s shoul­der and he dis­ap­peared into the devil’s club. Mon­ty picked up the gun and trudged on, hop­ing they arrived at the pin­prick soon. 

A few min­utes lat­er, Matt held up his hand. “Okay, I think we’re almost there.” 

Mon­ty cra­dled the rifle in his arm, mak­ing a con­scious effort to keep the muz­zle point­ed away from his part­ners. “Looks like the same stuff we’ve been walk­ing through for the last five minutes.” 

Agree, but we have to go to the ran­dom­ly select­ed plot. Oth­er­wise, we might as well just stop at the most con­ve­nient spots, and that would mess up all the sta­tis­ti­cal sam­pling.” In For­est Ser­vice par­lance, Matt was the “scaler,” the per­son who mea­sured the trees, looked for rot, and checked the qual­i­ty of the wood. He was much more; Matt man­aged the small camp, planned the crew’s work, and was a mas­ter for­est navigator. 

Screw the sta­tis­tics. I’m get­ting cold. Let’s go kill some trees.” Don shoul­dered the saw and start­ed off to the area Matt indicated. 

Matt kept walk­ing and looked at the trees. “Okay, this is going to be the cen­ter of the plot. Mon­ty, take this can of spray paint and shoot a dot on each tree I tell you to.” 

Mon­ty turned to look at all the trees around him. “Which tree do you want me to go to?” 

Just start walk­ing and I’ll direct you.” 

This one over here?” Mon­ty pat­ted the tree and paused at the base of a forty-inch diam­e­ter spruce and looked up at it. The first branch­es were thir­ty feet above the ground, and they kept going up like a giant beanstalk. Moss shroud­ed the limbs and hung sus­pend­ed in clumps. 

Yeah, spray that one.” 

What about that big suck­er behind it?” Don said. 

Matt eye­balled the tree. “Nah, that’s out.” 

Spray it any­way. That’s one beau­ti­ful tree.” 

Mon­ty hes­i­tat­ed and looked back at Matt, who shook his head side­ways. “Leave it.” 

For the next ten min­utes, Mon­ty walked in a clock­wise direc­tion spray­ing trees. Sweat built up again as he made his way through devil’s club, skunk cab­bage, and blue­ber­ry brambles. 

After Mon­ty accept­ed the job offer, it occurred to him he could qui­et­ly walk off and nev­er join the crew in Gilbert Bay. Things would be okay—they would find some­body else to do the work. But he didn’t want to aban­don it. He had dis­ap­peared much of his life, an invis­i­ble pres­ence in every­one else’s sto­ry. Too shy at first to make many friends grow­ing up. Too accom­mo­dat­ing to those who didn’t deserve it. In col­lege, he moved past the uneasy first days of dorm life, try­ing to fig­ure where he fit in, but the specter of being on the edge of the stage still hovered. 

Okay, that does it,” Matt yelled. 

Let’s get to work,” Don said. He point­ed to the first tree he was going to cut and ges­tured for Matt and Mon­ty to stay back of him in a safe­ty zone. Don pulled the cord and the motor emit­ted a WAAAAAAAAA! that blot­ted out the rest of the world. 

Mon­ty and Matt took refuge fifty feet back, behind an old hem­lock. Don cut a large wedge in the face of the tree, and chips sprayed out in a white stream, pil­ing up rapid­ly near his feet. He set the idling saw down and ges­tured to Mon­ty. “I’m gonna let you have the plea­sure of knock­ing your first wedge out of this tree.” 

Mon­ty walked to Don, who pulled a small ax from his pack. 

Take this and give it a whack, Mick­ey Mantle.” 

Mon­ty grabbed the ax and took a base­ball swing with the blunt ax head. A hunk of pie-shaped wood land­ed in the chip pile. 

Nice job. We’ll make a log­ger out of you yet. Now head back there with Matt behind that tree until I’m done.” Don read­ied for the back cut and turned around to check on them before start­ing. The saw bit into the tree, eat­ing through nine inch­es of wood in less than a minute. He pulled nar­row plas­tic wedges out of his pack and drove them into the cut with the ax head. Watch­ing the top of the tree, Don pulled the saw clear and backed away. The tip­ping point of a 150-foot col­umn of wood weigh­ing forty tons, changed. It thun­dered down, smash­ing two small­er trees in half. Large branch­es thud­ded to the ground, the weight and momen­tum yank­ing the tree six feet from the stump. The final crash shat­tered limbs and shook the ground. An eerie silence fol­lowed as spruce nee­dles and stray fil­a­ments of moss fil­tered down. 

Right on the mon­ey,” Don said. 

The limbs of the downed tree faced them, spread like giant fans. Don fired the saw up again, walked down the length of the tree, and cut them where they attached to the tree. A geyser of chips and blue exhaust. 

While the tree was limbed, Mon­ty count­ed the stump’s rings—all 397, give or take a few. The fall­en tree looked like a har­pooned whale about to have its blub­ber removed. Ahab, with his chain­saw, had limbed the tree almost to its top. Mon­ty turned away and looked off through the woods. Moments before, this was a liv­ing organ­ism pulling nutri­ents, water, and light into its bulk. His job was con­vert­ing it to two-by-fours. 

Work­ing in Alas­ka after grad­u­a­tion was a huge leap com­pared to Monty’s nor­mal incre­men­tal steps. But the offer was too good to pass up. Dur­ing his first sea­son­al stint in the woods ear­li­er in the year, he tast­ed Alas­ka: breath­tak­ing scenery, fly­ing in heli­copters, camp­ing in the depths of the wilder­ness. His last crew was a band of adven­tur­ers like a cast in an epic-scale play. He want­ed more of all of it. And he need­ed the mon­ey after an unin­sured drunk totaled his pick­up truck. At Gilbert Bay, he wasn’t sure of any of it. 

Matt looked at Mon­ty. “Our turn. Take this and work your way along the tree.” Mon­ty grabbed the end of a fifty-foot log­ging tape which unspooled from a blue alu­minum case attached to Matt’s suspenders. 

Mon­ty stum­bled and climbed over the pile of limbs until Matt yelled, “Stop! Mark it!” Mon­ty chopped a deep gash into the fis­sured bark. Halfway along the tree, Mon­ty noticed the quiet. 

Don had retreat­ed, watch­ing their work from atop the stump, large as the cof­fee table back in Monty’s home in Indi­ana. He reclined with one arm back prop­ping him up, and the oppo­site knee up. A cig­a­rette perched in his mouth as he exhaled and tilt­ed his head back like a wolf about to howl. A cloud of smoke float­ed upward into the mist and dis­si­pat­ed. He had the con­tent look of a man who just got laid.  

Matt was busy tak­ing notes and noticed Mon­ty arrive at the tree top, half a foot­ball field away. He looked in Don’s direc­tion and shout­ed, “You’re up!” 

Don flicked the nub of the cig­a­rette butt into a skunk cab­bage patch, hopped off the stump, and grabbed his saw. A few pulls and the saw rum­bled to life as Mon­ty and Matt pushed foam ear plugs in. Don cut chunks of tree out at every mark Mon­ty made. Matt inspect­ed the tree at each cut, scrib­bling in his yel­low note­book about wood defect, qual­i­ty, and volume. 

After sev­er­al more trees were cut down, Matt looked around and scratched his head with the brim of his hard hat. “I guess it’s time for lunch.” They hud­dled under a large spruce pro­vid­ing a roof over them from the mist. 

Damn, I’m hun­gry.” Sev­er­al large plas­tic bags emerged from Don’s pack, laden with sand­wich­es, can­dy bars, apples, crack­ers, cheese, and cans of pop. 

Mon­ty and Don used the spruce as a back­rest, and Matt sat on a large root. They gob­bled their lunch­es and the talk turned to the remain­ing work. The chat­ter fad­ed, and Matt laid down in full raingear with his pack under his head. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for a nap.” Tak­ing a cue from their boss, Mon­ty and Don stretched out as well. 

Don rolled up his chain saw chaps and used them as a pil­low. “Best part of the job.” 



Mon­ty awak­ened to a hard driz­zle. He tried to remem­ber why he need­ed to keep prov­ing him­self, and won­dered how many sea­sons it would take before Matt and Don ever thought he was any­thing oth­er than a go-fer for them. 

Well, I guess lunch break is over,” Matt shiv­ered as the last chill from the nap passed. 

Don groped for his saw and eyed the spruce shel­ter­ing them. “You’re next,” he said to the tree. 

The cut­ting con­tin­ued until every large tree in the plot was down and denud­ed. Mon­ty count­ed twelve mas­sive trees on the ground, with sev­er­al oth­er small­er trees shat­tered, top­pled over, or oth­er­wise mashed by the behe­moths dur­ing their brief fight with grav­i­ty. The for­est floor lit­tered with cut limbs, emit­ted the pun­gent smell of fresh­ly cut spruce and hem­lock trees. The car­nage last­ed six hours, and it was too late to do anoth­er plot that day. Mon­ty sur­veyed the destruc­tion sur­round­ing him. It would take a cen­tu­ry to fill the hole in the for­est they cre­at­ed. Word­less­ly, they packed up their sod­den gear and walked out the way they came, back toward the land­ing zone. 

Not far from their pick­up point, Matt point­ed at the ground. “Check that out.” A large, steam­ing pile of bear scat lay in a mound ten feet in front of them. They fell silent know­ing the bear couldn’t be too far off. 

Did you hear or see any­thing?” Don asked. 

Noth­ing,” Matt answered. 

Me nei­ther,” Mon­ty added. 

They all paused and looked around for any sign of the bear that left behind the heap of semi-digest­ed grass and berries, insert­ing an excla­ma­tion point of fear into their march. 

Mon­ty, keep that rifle ready and your eyes peeled,” Matt said. 

Did you remem­ber to load it?” Don asked. 

Mon­ty gave Don a wry smile. “I’m ready, the safety’s off, I have four rounds in the mag­a­zine, none in the cham­ber, and three more in my pock­et. Any­thing else?” Their sched­ule had them work­ing “ten­ners”: ten days in the woods in between four days off in Sit­ka, for the next three months. If this crap kept up, it was going to be a long season. 



On the next ten­ner they slogged along­side a swollen creek to their next plot. 

Shit, that didn’t go as planned.” The tree Don cut tot­tered and wob­bled before dump­ing the butt end into the ground next to the stump. The top was sup­posed to clear a large spruce about a hun­dred feet away. Instead, it hung up in the spruce at a sev­en­ty-degree angle with the miss-cut spruce mak­ing a very large hypotenuse. 

Can you cut the bot­tom and get the top to drop out?” Matt asked. “That could do it.” 

Let’s take a clos­er look.” Don walked to the tree where the cut spruce was hanging. 

Matt and Mon­ty fol­lowed Don to the tree. Don stared up at the tree, scan­ning for some hid­den clue unlock­ing this large wood­en puzzle. 

What do you think?” Matt said. 

Mon­ty,” Don com­mand­ed. “Go get my saw, wedges, and ax.” 

Uncer­tain, Mon­ty looked at Matt. It didn’t look safe to cut the tree, but Don was con­fi­dent. Maybe too confident. 

Don’t be such a wee­nie, Mon­ty,” said Don. “Get the god­damn saw.” 

Matt’s face pinched with an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic taut­ness to it, “Do you think this is a good idea?” 

Don’s plan was now appar­ent. Mon­ty real­ized Don was going to take down the stand­ing tree with the cut tree loom­ing over the top of him, hop­ing both trees came down together. 

Just like domi­nos,” Don said. 

The only dif­fer­ence is you die if you lose this game,” Matt added in a mea­sured tone. 

Always with the dra­ma, Matt. I’ve done this before—don’t like to make a habit of it though. Mon­ty, go get the saw.” 

Mon­ty stayed root­ed in place, not sure how this was going to play out. The woods were silent; no thrush called, no breeze flut­tered the blue­ber­ry bush­es, no pat­ter of rain. 

We don’t need this fuck­ing tree, Don.” 

It is part of the plot, right? 

Yeah, but we don’t need to take a tree with this lev­el of risk. You’re not crazy, are you?” Matt asked. 

Maybe I am crazy, or maybe it’s a cal­cu­lat­ed risk.” 

Well Don,” Matt said, “I don’t like your math.” 

The tree is com­ing down; it’s part of the code.” 

What code?” Matt asked. 

All trees come to the ground—that’s the code.” Don gave Matt a pained look sug­gest­ing he didn’t care if Matt under­stood or not. Don looked again at Mon­ty. “Are you get­ting that saw or not?” Mon­ty went to get the saw. 

You are crazy. You know that, don’t you? I could fire you for this, right here too.” 

Fire away, the tree is com­ing down.” Don rum­maged in his back­pack and pulled a fist-size spool of para­chute cord out. “Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to tie one end of this cord to my sus­penders, and Matt is going to hold the oth­er end. The two of you will be behind that big hem­lock over there.” He point­ed to a shag­gy, moss-cov­ered trunk. “If you see any­thing fun­ny, pull the cord, and I’m gonna run like hell to where you are. That tree is under a shit­load of ten­sion from the one hang­ing up in it so when I start my back cut, I’m gonna real­ly let loose with the saw. It should go right over with that tree lean­ing on it.” 

Don yanked the pull cord of the saw and it roared for a sec­ond and slowed to a low-throat­ed growl. Matt and Mon­ty scur­ried to the hem­lock trail­ing the cord, the life­line to Don. Don drove the saw into the tree with a vengeance. A large wood­en chunk plunked out and fell to the ground among a pile of wood­chips. The tree hadn’t moved, but the dan­ger­ous back cut was about to begin. Don looked at the tops of the com­min­gled trees and back to Matt and Mon­ty. Matt gave a “thumbs up” and Don began the back cut as Matt fin­gered the cord in his hand. Don imme­di­ate­ly pressed the saw’s trig­ger and it ripped through the tree. There was a loud crack, but the tree appeared immov­able. The tree made a pop­ping sound and began to teeter. For anoth­er microsec­ond, Don gave the saw every­thing it had. The mass of branch­es at the top of the tree lev­ered the tree over, and Don tugged the saw from the tree and hur­ried to the big hem­lock for safe­ty. Don squint­ed at Matt who still had the cord in his hand, their eyes locked momen­tar­i­ly, and they watched the con­clu­sion of his work. 

The trees top­pled side by side in a cacoph­o­nous crash. The ground shud­dered and a Whumpf! car­ried across the for­est floor like a shock wave. Large limbs crashed to the ground near where Don stood moments before; any of them could have crushed him instant­ly. Mon­ty and Matt approached the stump, like two bystanders at a car crash. 

Don fol­lowed, streams of sweat drip­ping from under the brim of his hard­hat. Don hand­ed Matt his end of the cord. “So,” Don said, “let’s fin­ish the plot.”



Back at camp, their hair was still damp after using the propane-fired show­er. Din­ner call was not far off. The tin stove radi­at­ed warm air across the wall tent. The tang of wood smoke mixed with the funk of dry­ing, dirty pants and shirts hang­ing from nails in the wood­en tent frame. 

So am I fired?” Don was play­ing soli­taire on a small fold­ing table, each card snap­ping on the table as he played it. His shirt was off, reveal­ing a hair­less but pow­er­ful physique. Sus­penders hung down in a loop from his pants to the floor. 

No,” Matt answered. “I know one thing for sure, though.” 

What’s that?” 

You’re one crazy asshole.” 

I’ve heard that before,” Don said as he set a king down. 

You seem proud of that.” 

Not proud or ashamed if you want it straight up. It’s just me. That’s the way I am.” 

Matt set an aer­i­al pho­to down, rose from his bunk and stood in front of Don. Mon­ty, not sure what was going to hap­pen, put his book aside and watched for any sign of trou­ble. If it came to that, he knew he would have no choice but to join in. Don was much short­er than Matt, but there was no way Matt’s lanky body could han­dle Don’s strength in tight quarters. 

Don played anoth­er card and looked up at Matt, stand­ing in front of him. “What?” 

Promise you won’t pull any more shit like you did today.” 

Don looked at a card, wait­ed a few sec­onds. “Agreed.” 

Matt put out his hand and Don, still seat­ed, shook it. Matt walked back to his bunk, picked up the pho­to and stud­ied it while Don played anoth­er card. Mon­ty, wit­ness to this back­woods détente, picked up his book on the mat­tress and tried to find the place he left off. 



The rest of their ten-day tour in the woods was unevent­ful, with each pass­ing day a few less ticks of day­light. More than ever, the four days off seemed to be a pause, an exha­la­tion, every­one on the crew need­ed. The float plane swooped them away from Gilbert Bay, and forty-five min­utes lat­er it tax­ied on the lapis-col­ored water of Jamestown Bay in Sit­ka. Don, Matt, and Mon­ty and two oth­er crew mem­bers helped unload their gear from the plane and put it in a big pile of duf­fle bags, back­packs, and emp­ty fuel jugs on the dock. Don’s two large chain­saws dom­i­nat­ed the pile; he nev­er left them in the field and babied them like they were twin Stradivari. 

It was Thurs­day after­noon and Matt said to Don, “See you at 8:00 a.m. on Tues­day, right?” It was as if Matt had an unset­tling doubt about Don return­ing to the crew. 

Don placed his saws and a duf­fle in the back of a rust­ed Ford pick­up with one head­light miss­ing and opened the door of the truck. “Yup,” was all he said before the truck fish­tailed out of the park­ing lot. 

See what I have to deal with,” Matt said. 

How come you didn’t fire him?” Mon­ty asked. 

Good fall­ers are in short sup­ply. Don’s one of the best. He knows it too.” 



The late Octo­ber sun­light had lit­tle effect on the chill air pool­ing around them. Don, Mon­ty, and Matt walked out from the for­est with the sound of the approach­ing heli­copter. They crouched in the open and watched it cir­cle overhead. 

The heli­copter set down in the tiny muskeg at the base of a steep hill that led up to the pre­cip­i­tous flanks of a moun­tain. Its rub­ber pon­toon floats rocked gen­tly for a few sec­onds while the rotors flashed over their heads. Eli, their beard­ed heli­copter fore­man, jumped out with his hel­met visor down, hand­ed every­one Nomex flame-resis­tant cov­er­alls, and stowed the rifle under the bench seat in the back. Don suit­ed up first so he scoot­ed into the mid­dle with his pack in his lap. Matt and Mon­ty took seats by the door latched shut by Eli. There were three hel­mets on the back seat and each of them put one on, but only two hel­mets, those of Matt and Mon­ty, could plug into the two avail­able inter­com jacks. Eli climbed in, grabbed his clip­board and did a quick load cal­cu­la­tion. He gave Kirk, the pilot, a thumbs-up they were good to go. 

The heli­copter ascend­ed slow­ly and cleared a hud­dle of short, scrub­by trees. It climbed a bit more and trem­bled, like a May­tag on spin cycle, instead of con­tin­u­ing to glide upwards. They sat there sus­pend­ed momen­tar­i­ly, but the shak­ing only got worse until it became a hard shud­der. Kirk fever­ish­ly worked the con­trols. Matt and Mon­ty looked out the win­dow know­ing some­thing was not right. A red light flashed on the con­sole, fol­lowed by a loud alarm buzzing. Small trees loomed below, and the heli­copter began a very slow descent—each pass­ing sec­ond frozen in time. 

Kirk yelled into his mic, “We’re too heavy. Throw your packs out!” 

Mon­ty and Matt opened their doors and tossed their packs out the door. Don, with the biggest pack of all, couldn’t hear with­out an inter­com hookup, and was try­ing to under­stand what they were doing. Mon­ty ripped the pack out of Don’s lap and flung it out the door. For good mea­sure, he reached under the seat and heaved the rifle out the door too. 

The heli­copter stopped its descent, flut­tered momen­tar­i­ly and slow­ly rose. Mon­ty breathed a sigh of relief. But not enough weight was shed. It lurched for­ward to anoth­er area of the muskeg. If the heli­copter set­tled into the trees, the rotors would rip off, spew­ing met­al shards. When the chop­per hit the ground like a wound­ed duck, it would flop around with an angry tur­bo-charged engine attached to it. In front of them was a wall of taller spruce the heli­copter could not clear unless some­thing rad­i­cal hap­pened. Everyone’s eyes, wide with fear, were on the trees not far below. Kirk’s right hand clung to the Cyclic stick and his left hand on the Col­lec­tive con­trol. He tried to wres­tle a mechan­i­cal beast at the lim­it of its capa­bil­i­ties, strain­ing for the last bit of lift left in the rotors. 

Mon­ty opened the door and looked down at the spots between the trees and fig­ured it couldn’t be more than twen­ty-five feet down. It was a sim­ple deci­sion. They were going to crash and pos­si­bly die unless more weight was unloaded. He unplugged his hel­met from the inter­com, stepped out on the pon­toon and jumped. As soon as he did, the heli­copter popped up in the air like a cham­pagne cork, shot out over the trees, and disappeared. 

Mon­ty sunk a foot into the cush­iony muskeg and his rub­ber boots were still stuck in the peat while he lay on his side with his stock­ing feet. He had done a parachutist’s land­ing to help absorb the shock of his fall, some­thing he had learned from a few token sky­div­ing trips in col­lege. He lay pant­i­ng, star­ing up into an azure sky, men­tal­ly check­ing if all his body parts were still there. Except for an aching ankle, he was intact. He wres­tled his boots out of the mud and put them on, stand­ing up slow­ly, sus­pi­cious of a hid­den injury. Limp­ing slight­ly, he wan­dered the muskeg retriev­ing the dis­card­ed gear. The rifle was embed­ded, bar­rel down, two feet into the mud. 

A pow­er­ful thirst and chill hit. He grabbed his water bot­tle and drank when the radio in Matt’s pack called his name. 

Mon­ty, Mon­ty, are you okay?” Matt’s voice had a ten­sion he had not heard before. 

Mon­ty undid the pack straps and pulled the radio out. Before he could respond he got anoth­er call. 

Mon­ty are you there?” 

I’m a bit dazed and have a sore ankle, but I’m okay. Where are you guys?” 

We dropped off Don, Eli, and a few items in a muskeg down the hill to light­en our load and did a quick check of the heli­copter. Every­thing seems to be work­ing good though. We’re gonna come get you ASAP.” 

Mon­ty looked around the muskeg; the trees stood like silent ghost sol­diers in a field, and he sat on Don’s pack, not car­ing what squished. His ass was already wet, but he didn’t want to sit back down on the damp, cold ground. He felt grog­gy, like the tail end of a hang­over set­tling on him. The adren­a­line rush was fad­ing, and he won­dered if he was going into shock. “How long before you get here?” 

We’re in the air now. Should be there in five, max.” 

I’m not going any­where, but I’m start­ing to get cold. You sure you can find this place again?” 

There was a pause and Mon­ty real­ized how fool­ish his ques­tion was. A muskeg Matt couldn’t find? There was no way that could happen—his mind was like one large aer­i­al pho­to. Matt nor­mal­ly gave a sharp retort to a chal­lenge about his abil­i­ty to recon­noi­ter, but giv­en the cir­cum­stances he said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to for­get that spot. Hang on, we’ll be there in a bit. I have blan­kets and a first aid kit too.” 

Mon­ty draped his yel­low Helly Hansen over him­self and pulled the hood up. Light slant­ed through the trees, leav­ing thawed lines across the frost. “Okay, see you in a bit.” 

The heli­copter appeared from behind a low ridge. He saw Matt point to him from inside the Plex­i­glas bub­ble as the heli­copter cut over the trees at a sharp angle. The heli­copter touched down, and Mon­ty took a step before he saw Matt hold up his hand to stop mov­ing. This time, Kirk shut the heli­copter down and nobody moved until the blades ceased turning. 

Matt approached like he was star­ing at an alien. “You okay?” 

The deci­sion hap­pened quick­ly, but the fall to the ground seemed to sus­pend him momen­tar­i­ly in the air like an out-of-body expe­ri­ence. In some ways it seemed like a dream now. “All things con­sid­ered, I guess I am.” Mon­ty reached down to pick up a pack. 

Don’t make any sud­den move­ment; you may have some inter­nal or spinal injuries.” Matt was by his side and put an arm around Mon­ty to escort him to the helicopter. 

I can do this. Let’s just take it slow because I think I rolled my ankle.” 

Kirk walked over to Mon­ty. “I’ve got 6,000 hours in a chop­per but nev­er had a per­son jump out of one before. You kept that ship,” Kirk ges­tured with his thumb over his shoul­der, “from going down. Damn­d­est thing I’ve ever seen.” 

It would be hard to explain to any­one. A per­son casu­al­ly steps out of a heli­copter, like drop­ping down a rab­bit hole, not know­ing how bad­ly he was going to get injured. It seemed so unheroic; five peo­ple were hit­ting the ground in a crash if one of them didn’t do some­thing. Only he, Eli, and Matt were eli­gi­ble can­di­dates since Kirk was nec­es­sary and Don was in a mid­dle seat. Monty’s door was still open from throw­ing the rifle out, so that made the deci­sion clear. Mon­ty sur­prised him­self with the ease of his decision—more a reflex than any­thing else. 

Matt ush­ered Mon­ty into the heli­copter. “Let’s head out. We can sort this out back at camp.” 



Mon­ty lay on his bunk with an ice pack on his ankle, a cup of hot cocoa steam­ing on an upturned crate next to it. Tylenol dulled the ache creep­ing into his ankle. 

Eli and Kirk, both still wear­ing their Nomex, pulled the tent flaps aside and came in. 

So what the hell hap­pened up there?” Matt jammed anoth­er piece of wood into the stove and strad­dled a fold­ing chair backwards. 

Eli and I have been try­ing to sort it out,” said Kirk. “Near as I can tell we were still with­in the load limit—just bare­ly. I checked Eli’s cal­cu­la­tions. And no sign of mechan­i­cal issues.” 

Eli sighed but said noth­ing. He looked addled, as if his body had stopped vibrat­ing and a qui­et thrum­ming had over­tak­en it. 

There must have been just enough of a down­draft off that peak,” Kirk point­ed in the direc­tion of the moun­tain, “and we were so close to the hill­side it was like an invis­i­ble riv­er flow­ing that made it hard for the chop­per to gain lift.” Kirk fid­dled with a zip­per on his flight suit, open­ing and shut­ting a pock­et. “Imper­cep­ti­ble. Nev­er seen any­thing like that.” 

Mon­ty couldn’t help but think back an hour ear­li­er. He had felt that cold air, but all it did was chill them while they wait­ed for the heli­copter. He had no idea it would be such an insid­i­ous force. Would they have died? No way to tell. Maybe burned or maimed; being swathed in ban­dages and splint­ed in a crit­i­cal care ward unnerved him. 

Don sat up in his bed, mat­tress frame springs groan­ing. “That high dive you took saved us from seri­ous­ly deep shit.” 

Mon­ty was so tired he could bare­ly keep his eyes open. In his bewil­dered state it dawned on him he wasn’t sens­ing friend­ship. It wasn’t cama­raderie. As near as Mon­ty could tell, it was kin­ship. The prim­i­tive form of belong­ing to a tribe. They toiled in the dark for­est, slept in the same tent, and broke bread at the same table. Con­nect­ing all those dots didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to friend­ship. At this point, Mon­ty would take it. 



Lat­er that week Matt was look­ing through the stere­o­scope star­ing at aer­i­al pho­tos and he pushed the scope over to Mon­ty. “Check out this plot we’re going to tomor­row. What do you think is a good route?” 

It took Mon­ty a minute for his eyes to adjust to stereo vision. He saw a pos­si­ble route up a small ridge from the land­ing zone. “I think this way could work,” as he traced a line with his fin­ger for Matt. 

Matt pulled the stere­o­scope back, “That’s what I was think­ing too.” His ever-present red grease pen­cil marked the route. 

The fol­low­ing night, Don was sharp­en­ing his chain­saw on a home­made bench in their wall tent. The famil­iar zzzzzt, zzzzzt, zzzzzt of the file on the chain stopped. “Why don’t you come over here and I’ll show you the fine points of sharp­en­ing a saw. Might as well learn from a pro.” 



At the begin­ning of Novem­ber, leaves laid in bunch­es on the ground, cov­ered in the morn­ing frost. It was too dark to work more than a few hours, and camp was shut­ting down now. In the past three months they criss­crossed this val­ley dozens of times by air, and cursed their way across it on foot. 

The heli­copter rose from the muskeg for the last time. It moved faster, skim­ming over the trees and pick­ing up alti­tude. Mon­ty was between Don and Matt in the back seat, their gear lashed to the pon­toon racks. 

Mon­ty watched as the val­ley unfold­ed below, rec­og­niz­ing the creeks, ponds, and ravines. Obsta­cles to avoid, not admire. He wished he had stopped more often, soak­ing in this spe­cial place of unend­ing soli­tude. He paid par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the muskegs since the heli­copter left them there to begin the jour­ney to each plot. Many of the muskegs were named based on their shape—the Air­port because it was so large; the Catcher’s Mitt was cir­cu­lar; and the Nee­dle was so hard to find. Then there was Shit­hole, where the steam­ing bear scat stirred their fears. 

Mon­ty craned his neck, search­ing for oth­er land­marks to give con­text to the immen­si­ty of the land­scape. Rain ran in streaks across the Plex­i­glas dome of the heli­copter and once or twice, Mon­ty thought he saw a plot, but it was hard to tell since the plot was a speck among the broad expanse of green. The only tell­tale sign was the tiny clear­ing and the white of fresh­ly cut stumps vis­i­ble below. 

Don was eat­ing a Her­shey bar and hold­ing a half-eat­en apple in his oth­er hand. He noticed Mon­ty look­ing at him, stopped in mid-chew, and gave him a thumbs-up with the Her­shey bar. Matt had an aer­i­al pho­to in his hand, com­par­ing it to the real thing on his side of the heli­copter. He saw the thumbs up and glanced at Mon­ty. Matt gave a quick nod and looked back down at his photo. 

The heli­copter passed the last of the trees and was over slate-col­ored water. The val­ley was gone. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I worked as a heli­copter fore­man for an Alas­ka tim­ber crew for one sea­son and want­ed to cap­ture the hard work, the cama­raderie, and the raw feel­ings that build liv­ing in very close prox­im­i­ty for weeks on end. It’s more than a tale about peo­ple since the land­scape is so awe-inspir­ing it’s almost anoth­er char­ac­ter in the sto­ry. The valley’s fate is in the hands of the tim­ber crew.


Orig­i­nal­ly from the sub­urbs of New Jer­sey, Ken Post worked for the For­est Ser­vice in Alas­ka for 40 years, includ­ing many sea­sons on a mil­lion-acre island with more brown (griz­zly) bears than there are peo­ple. He writes short sto­ries dur­ing the long, dark win­ters. His fic­tion has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Cirque, Red Fez, and Poor Yorick and is forth­com­ing in Woven Tale Press and Kansas City Voic­es. The sto­ry, “Eno­la Gay,” in Red Fez, was nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Push­cart Prize.