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.”
“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.