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Trail cutters

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PROSPECT — The rhythmic swoop of 100-year-old steel as it cuts through a Douglas fir snag is both methodic and melodic to Angie Panter and her crew charged with keeping the Upper Rogue River Trail passable for feet and hooves.

Panter and fellow crew member Tabitha Olson are on opposite ends of the ancient cross-cut saw, plenty old but still leagues better than newer knockoffs. Together they sway to the beat of the saw’s meticulously crafted teeth gouging and chiseling its way through the wayward wood in an experience not possible with a chainsaw.

“That sound right there,” says Panter, crew leader in the four-person team. “You can hear the wood talking, so you know when it’s going to change, but you can still hear the birds.”

This joint Forest Service-Bureau of Land Management crew is rounding out its summer by clearing the overgrown and snag-laden Upper Rogue River Trail using crosscut saws not because they have to, but because they prefer to.

Using 19th century tools and techniques to tackle 21st century trail woes makes plenty of sense for this all-women team, which gets more work done by eschewing chainsaws on this 3-foot-thick snag on a stretch of trail about 6 miles south of Union Creek.

In just a few Sunday morning hours, a 7-foot cross-section of the snag will be cut and pushed to the side so hikers, horseback riders and other disciples of nature will again be able pass through this sliver of trail.

Only Panter is certified to run a chainsaw for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on this crew, so the other three crew members and three volunteers along for the day would have to stand and watch her work.

Also, fire restrictions ban chainsaws after 1 p.m., so it would make for a short work day.

“And we just like using these better,” Panter says.

Regardless of tools, you just don’t hike up to a snag on the trail and start whacking away at it.

The crew is bent upon safety. They assess the snag’s pressure points on the round, adjacent trees and any overhanging snags.

Olson uses a Pulaski tool to hack away the snag’s stout bark to make clear paths for sawing. They use smaller Japanese-made handsaws to buck limbs off the trunk between the two spots they plan to cut so they can roll the cross-section off the trail once it’s free.

“Sometimes it gets longer to get ready,” Panter says. “It can take longer to set everything up than the actual cut. “It’s a big process, it keeps the sawyers thinking and not being complacent.”

Once ready, Olson brings out the big gun. She unsheathes the Atkins 52, a 6-1/2-foot-long saw blade made in Indianapolis, Indiana, sometime between the 1870s and 1940, and attaches its two handles.

Panter and volunteer Kinda Krawczyk each take a handle and slowly etch in the cut pattern. In no time, the saw’s exquisite teeth have wood shavings collecting at their feet.

“The arc of the saw is going to do most of the work, the weight of the saw is going to do most of the work,” says Panter, who owns 20 antique cross-cut saws. "All we have to do is guide it through.”

The saw’s heavy steel is ground so the base is thinner than the teeth side so it better slides down the cut as the blade works its way through the log and its two kinds of teeth do their magic.

The offset cutting teeth score down the line of wood, then raker teeth act like chisels and force the shavings into round gouges between sets of teeth. As the sawyers pull the saw toward them, the shavings fall out of the gouges to the forest floor.

While the crew takes turns on the saw, Panter taps in wedges to keep the wood from sagging onto the saw. A citrus-based oil is pumped onto the blade to help rid it of resin as the blade works its way through.

With just inches to go, Panter stops the crew to have the Atkins 52 removed and placed aside.

A younger, cheaper Katanaboy handsaw is substituted in like a stunt man to finish the job and take the brunt of any damage that may occur.

“The Kitana is replaceable,” Panter says. “They make hundreds of thousands of these. They don’t make these (Atkins) any more at all.”

By noon, both crosscuts are done and the log has been rolled off the trail, then it’s off to do some trail contouring work a half-mile away.

The crew happened to end up with all women “because that’s the way the cards played out,” Panter says. “It could have all been men.”

“They’re the hardest working, most determined, willing-to-do anything people I’ve ever worked with,” Panter says. "They all have different personalities, but they all love working with the trees."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Members of a BLM trail crew push a log off the Upper Rogue River Trail. Mail Tribune/Tom Backman