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My Worst Job 

In which Dan the Faller Man remembers his choker-setter days

click to enlarge Tree faller Dan DeArmond. Photo by Nels Israelson
  • Tree faller Dan DeArmond. Photo by Nels Israelson

I met Dan DeArmond last summer on the property I hoped to subdivide and buy. My friend Dick and I were thinning trees on the entire parcel in preparation for the subdivision. We planned to improve the forest health by clearing around the largest healthiest trees, open up some areas around the homes for improved solar access and also remove dangerous trees around current and future dwellings. Dick had been felling trees for several years on his non-industrial timber property (and is a non-commercial licensed timber operator), but was not up for the difficult task of falling these dense interwoven third-growth woods. Left to ourselves we would have created a hanging tree garden.

Who do you call? Why, Tree Faller Dan, of course. (Note: He is not to be confused with Tree Climber Dan.) Dan felled the Monterey Pine that blocked Arcata City Hall's solar array. He also laid out a 100-foot fir on my friend's 100-foot lot without trimming the top or even crossing the property line. He's the go-to guy for difficult trees.

Dan cut his first tree while a student in the forestry department at HSU in 1994. He was on a break from classes and living in the infamous "Baasgaard House" in McKinleyville and needed to stay warm and keep up with his classes. So he practiced on his landlord's windbreak. It was soon after that he had his most memorable experience.

"I had been working at the Mission lath mill in Arcata for a couple of weeks, making $7.50 an hour, which was pretty good then. But the job was bad, noisy and very repetitive.

"My roommate at the time was a timber faller and had contacts in the business, and so he offered to help me find a better job. One night really late I got this call offering me a job in the woods the next day for $10.50 an hour. It sounded exciting, so I jumped on it. I was told to show up at Elk River Park and Ride at 6 a.m. the next morning.

"I met the crummy [Note: That's what they call the work van] and a bunch of guys milling around the parking lot, and was told we'd be going out to Elk River to cut large trees. They said I would be a choker-setter. When I was in the crummy and heading east they told me I was the fifth choker-setter hired that week, and that the other four had already been fired. And then one of them asks me if I had caulks [metal-studded work boots]. I didn't even know what he was talking about. 'What do you need corks for?' And so someone else tells me that I was in luck, and digs up an old pair from somewhere in the back and offers to rent them to me for $5 per week. They had holes and they didn't fit at all. My roommate later stuffed cardboard in them. Just like Dickens.

"So we drive up this big hill, a small mountain, and finally get to the logging site where I am immediately told by the rigging-slinger (the guy I'd be setting chokers with) to 'go down in the hole and get to work.' He never stopped barking orders at me. It was a very steep hillside and so I walked kind of tentatively over to the edge of the landing to look down 'into the unit.' I didn't know what to expect, but immediately flashed on the movie Sometimes a Great Notion.

"I will never forget the scene. There was complete chaos below me. There were old-growth limbs and logs everywhere and bedding made from smaller trees. I go down with this Yurok guy and he says to me 'Stick with me and you won't get killed.'

"This confusion and jumble made my job really difficult. The choker-setter has to wrap the cable around the prize tree and avoid all the limbs, branches and smaller trees that surround it. Imagine a brush pile the size of a large house. There's a 10-foot diameter tree buried in the middle and you have to snake 20-pound steel cables around it. You have to get the choker-cable nubbin through the slash and under the tree and then up and the around the top of the log. Those logs were so huge that the butts — the thick end — were too high for me to climb on. I had to run to the other end of the tree — with the boss yelling 'hurry your ass up' — just to get up on top. And then run all the way back down to the cable. Often one choker was not enough and I had to use two or even three 18-foot chokers to get around the tree trunk.

"I worked a couple of days and it was the hardest thing I ever did. At the end of the week I got a call from the rigging slinger and was told I was fired. Later that day the boss called me from the work site to ask where I was. I told him the rigging slinger had fired me. The boss said that it wasn't the rigging slinger's job to fire me, and that 'I do the firing, but because you didn't show up for work, you're fired anyway.' I was the fifth fire that week. It was a miserable job anyway."

I just called Dan on his cell to wrap up this story and to ask him what the best part of that Elk River job was. I first asked him what he was doing right then, while we were on the phone talking. He told me he was on his quad in southern Humboldt and was just entering some nice old growth Douglas fir.

"I just delivered some redwood saplings for planting," he said. "We didn't cut any conifers, instead we removed the hardwoods and will be planting little redwoods. The landowner is spending tens of thousands of dollars to improve his forest to be sustainably managed for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Part of the project is being funded by California Forest Improvement Program."

He then he told me this story about that job 13 years ago:

"We came across an old tree, a 'buckskin' on the forest floor, and decided to grab it for the next turn on the yarder. We bucked it to length, I set a choker, and then got out of the way while the yarder pulled the first log up. When the log was up in the air, water just flowed out the cut end like a stream. It was like when Moses hit the rock. He had been out in the desert and God told him to speak to the rock to get water for his people. Instead Moses got mad, hit the rock with his staff, and the water flowed out on the desert floor. It was similar to me."

To be continued ...

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  • In which Dan the Faller Man remembers his choker-setter days

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About The Author

Peter Starr

Bio:
Peter Starr is an editor and an avid mushroom hunter in Arcata.

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