Mountain Musings

In mountain cabin, you need to ‘log on’ to warm up

Special to The CambrianNovember 5, 2012 

It’s that time of year again. Time to stock up and prepare for winter. Time to fill the cupboards with plenty of water, food for people and pets, flashlights, batteries, et cetera, and time to stack firewood in the woodshed.

Here in these Santa Lucia Mountains, in this cabin the only heat source is a fire in the woodstove. Besides extra layers of clothing and a down comforter, a supply of good quality dry firewood is essential in order to live here in comfort through the cold months.

If you, too, burn firewood for heat during a power outage or enjoy the ambiance of an occasional fire, you’ll want to burn dry wood in a regularly maintained fireplace or woodstove. By dry firewood, I mean it hasn’t been rained on and it’s seasoned.

Seasoned means the wood has approximately 20 percent moisture content. Moisture content can be determined with a moisture meter, or a practiced ear can get a rough estimate when he or she bangs two pieces of wood together and listens for the clink sound rather than the thud of green wood.  Examine cut ends of firewood pieces to get clues as well, because as wood dries it shrinks and cracks.

Is it that important to burn dry wood? Oh, yeah. Dry wood means less smoke, less hazardous creosote buildup in the chimney or stovepipe, and more heat. Sounds simple, but it’s a time consuming and laborious process to get the wood just right for the cleanest, most efficient, burning.

First, someone locates broken branches or wind-toppled trees. Next, they don protective gear such as safety glasses, ear muffs and boots, then they fire up the chainsaw — which is very dangerous and should never be attempted by anyone who is not trained.

After the cut wood is in logs of desired lengths, much of it needs splitting into smaller pieces. An experienced woodsman reads the grain, the cracks, and the knots during each stage to determine where to cut and how to split.

Every once in awhile, there will be a log too gnarly to split, period. No matter how many times the wedge of the log splitter is rammed into the log, the grain is so tangled it will not separate into pieces.

Which woods are good for heating the home? Dense, heavy local hardwoods are best. Oak and madrone are favored, but eucalyptus, sycamore and maple are fine woods. These woods put out higher BTUs (British thermal units) than pine and each has its own unique characteristics, such as the smell of the smoke. Cruise by a red oak barbecue topped with red meat and think primal chest pounding and salivation.

Drive through a Cambria neighborhood some dark and foggy night and smell the sweet scent of pine smoke — very distinct. Think comfort and contentment.

OK, it’s back to work. Have a great autumn.

Michele Oksen’s column is special to The Cambrian. Email the resident of Cambria’s mountain community in the Santa Lucia range at

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