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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Cutting Edge — Showing Your Teeth

By Tamia Nelson

March 22, 2005

Saws are tools for carpenters, not backcountry explorers, right? Wrong. Forget the countless reproductions of nineteenth-century romantic prints you've seen. You know the ones I mean. An Old Woodsman strikes a pose on some barren ridge, brass-bound Henry repeater in his right hand and double-bit ax over his shoulder. It's a powerful image, and it still shapes our attitudes. It certainly shaped mine. When I first started collecting gear, saws weren't high on my list of priorities. Knives were, though, along with larger blades for bigger jobs. With a folding knife on my PFD, a sheath knife at my waist, a Hudson Bay ax in my pack basket, and a machete in my rucksack, I figured I was ready for anything nature could throw my way. But nature had other ideas.

There was this sweeper, see? It stretched right across the tiny rill that flowed out of a remote beaver pond. Luckily, the current wasn't very strong, and anyway we were working our way upriver. There was little danger we'd be swept into the lethal embrace of the branches. But a quick probe with a paddle showed that the banks were hip-deep mud. And the sweeper was blocking our path. Out came the machete. While I held us steady in midstream, Farwell started hacking away. The boat rose and fell with each gentle pulse of water. Farwell braced one knee against the deck and kept chopping. Suddenly, the bow of the boat dipped lower than he'd expected. He missed his aim altogether, and the sharp blade sliced downward through empty air, coming to rest against his leg. It didn't even break the skin, but Farwell's silent inspection of the neat new cut in his whipcord pants was long and thoughtful. Seated in the stern, I started to wonder if I'd been wrong to ignore…

Tools With Teeth

When we got home, the first item on my list of things to buy before the next trip was a Sven-Saw. I've never regretted the decision. The Sven-Saw is one of those gloriously simple tools whose unglamorous appearance belies a boundless utility. Short enough to stow in a canoe pack or pack basket when knocked-down — the raker-tooth blade tucks safely into the backbar — the Sven-Saw's triangular frame is large enough to make cutting through three-inch logs a snap. Before long, I was a convert. Not only could I use the saw in places where there just wasn't room to swing an ax or machete, but it was safer, as well, and much more efficient. My ax scattered wood chips around me each time I built a campfire. Now only a dusting of sawdust remained beneath my saw. The rest went into the flames. I liked that. Wood is too precious to squander.

The Sven-Saw isn't perfect, of course. The original saw was too big to fit in a small rucksack. (There's now a "compact" version, however. It's perfect for kayakers and amphibious paddlers.) Getting the blade tension just right is a fussy business, too, and if you lose the little wing nut — this is disconcertingly easy to do — it becomes impossible. The remedy? Carry a spare nut in your repair kit. Then there's the triangular frame. It's rigid, to be sure, but it limits the Sven-Saw's utility for heavy work. If you tackle anything much larger than three inches in diameter you'll find that you're forced to use short, choppy strokes, and you're likely to bark your knuckles into the bargain. As handy as it is, therefore, the Sven-Saw isn't a very good choice for trail maintenance crews, cabin builders, or home-woodlot loggers.

None of these shortcomings is a great handicap to most backcountry travelers, obviously, though that hasn't stopped other manufacturers from making improvements, usually by substituting a rectangular frame for the Sven-Saw's triangle and eliminating the easy-to-lose wing nut. The Sawvivor is one example. There are many others, some of which seem intended for junior Paul Bunyans rather than recreational paddlers. One outfitter even advertises a "take-down buck-saw" that "cuts 15-inch-diameter logs." OK. I'm trying to recollect when I last needed to cut a 15-inch-diameter log. Not since I helped my Grandad get in cordwood for the winter, I guess — and then I used a one-man crosscut saw that was almost as long as I was tall. It certainly made quick work of even the biggest logs. Few paddlers will need anything like this, however. Often even the smallest saw will do the job. Sometimes all you need are…

Baby Teeth

Farwell once saved a Christmas-tree-cutting expedition from disaster with the tiny saw on a Swiss Army knife. (He says he can't remember who forgot to bring the bow saw intended for the job, however. But I do.) The little saw — Farwell calls it a "toy saw" — whipped right through a balsam fir that was thicker than the saw was long. The only drawback? Cleaning the sticky sap off the blade afterward. Still, I wouldn't want to depend entirely on a Swiss Army knife's saw in the backcountry. There are better alternatives. Compact, folding pruning saws have been used by gardeners, viniculturists, and foresters for generations. Nowadays similar "jacksaws" are being designed specifically for paddlers. A representative example is the Gerber "rescue/sport saw" I noticed in a recent catalog. It folds down to eight inches, small enough to carry in a (large) PFD pocket. Yet the catalog copy also claims it can "hack through the hull of a pinned boat." From what I've seen of folding pruning saws, I'm willing to bet this is no exaggeration. And for those times when even a jacksaw is too much of a burden, you'll find a variety of flexible saws in most military surplus stores. Ranging from abrasive-impregnated cords to sections of cutting chain with handles fitted at each end, these are certainly easy to stow, but they're not very versatile. All in all, they're probably best reserved for survival kits.

The choice is yours. No matter what kind of saw you favor, though, give a little thought to…

Taking Care of Your Teeth

I sharpen all my knives, but sharpening small saws is tricky, requiring an inventory of special files and stones, as well as the delicate touch of a picklock. It's one job I'm content to leave to a pro. The problem here is finding that pro. The days of the itinerant saw-filer are long gone, at least in North America. Of course replacement blades are usually fairly cheap. They're hard to come by in the backcountry, though. Fortunately, you can stretch the life of a saw blade almost indefinitely by following a few common-sense rules:

  • First and foremost, don't pinch your blade! The cutting teeth of a saw are slightly splayed. This splay is called the "set," and it establishes the width of the kerf (groove) that the saw cuts. If the set of a blade is lost, it's efficiency plummets. That's most likely to happen if the blade is pinched, something that's terribly easy to do. Just try to cut a log that's supported on both ends. As your saw works deeper, the cut becomes a hinge, and sooner or later the hinge closes on your blade like the jaws of a steel trap on some hapless creature's leg. If you try to force the blade past this point, you'll quickly squeeze the life out of your saw.

    What's the cure? Support only one end of any wood you're working on. In difficult situations — when you're clearing a sweeper, for example, and you need to cut an overarching limb that's grounded on both banks — it may even pay to start your cut on the underside, being careful to keep your head and body clear. And never, ever, try to force a stuck blade. Instead, open the hinge. Just lift the log near the cut. Or if that's not possible, insert a makeshift wedge. Then back the blade out gently.

  • Once you've returned home from a trip, clean your saw's blade thoroughly — and carefully — and oil it before putting it away. (Corn oil will often loosen hardened sap that no amount of scrubbing can remove. Once the teeth are clean, wash the corn oil off with detergent, let the blade dry, and protect it from corrosion with machine oil or petrolatum.)

  • Lastly, shield the teeth of any saw that's not in use, either by folding the blade into its handle or by covering it with a sheath of some sort. (Cardboard is better than nothing.)

With this last point in mind, it's a good idea to remember that…

Teeth Bite!

While it's not likely that you'll split your foot open with a single misaimed stroke — as can happen all too easily with an ax — saws can still do a horrific amount of damage to soft tissues in a very short time. A saw is a knife with teeth, after all. Treat it with the same respect you show your sharpest knives and biggest blades, or face the consequences. In particular, always wipe from the back of the blade toward the teeth when oiling or cleaning a saw.

And speaking of safety, don't forget that saws can hurt many things apart from your own skin. They can also do fatal damage to the places you love. Paddlers who plan to return someday will know…

When to Say NO

Let me make myself clear. Saws are useful tools, and they're worth taking along on almost any paddling trip. But just as a knife or a gun can do untold injury if used carelessly, a saw can leave a scar on the landscape that will take years to heal. Don't fell standing trees, alive or dead, and be judicious in your use of downed wood. Nothing goes to waste in nature. Every campfire levies a tax on the land, a tax borne largely by the residents. You're a guest in their home. So even when nature is generous, and wood fires are both legal and prudent, keep your campfires small. And be sure to exercise extreme caution in clearing sweepers. Approach them from downstream, and if they don't block the only channel, leave them where they are. A remote river isn't an amusement park ride. The dangers are real — and inevitable. Floodwaters flowing through a sweeper's submerged branches may indeed whisper of death, but this, too, is a necessary theme in the music of wild places.

A river trip is a journey, and every now and then a blowdown or sweeper will stop you in your tracks. It's almost always possible to get going again, but only if you have the proper tools. And while an ax or machete will usually do the trick, a saw is often a better choice. Later, in camp, that same saw can also reduce a windfall limb to firewood in minutes, with little waste and no chance that you'll hack your foot off in the process. Big and small blades will always have a place in paddlers' packs, of course, but sometimes you need to show your teeth. When this need arises just reach for your saw, then grin and bring your cutting edge to bear.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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