When a Tree Falls in the Wissahickon, They Hear It and Clear It

FOW photo
In the absence of bears and cougars (for now), the most dangerous volunteer job in the Friends of the Wissahickon has to offer these days is likely clearing fallen trees. Chuck Kirkland teaches FOW volunteers.

Maura McCarthy, Executive Director, Friends of the Wissahickon

It’s been a big year for heavy storms in our area — the kind that knock down trees. In the aftermath of such weather, the air is filled with the sound of chainsaws as tree-service crews rush to clean up the debris that has downed power lines and blocked roads. But when trees fall in the Wissahickon, who clears them from the trails? Enter the Friends of the Wissahickon Volunteer Sawyers Crew. When a tree falls in the Wissahickon, they hear it and clear it.

A “sawyer” is someone whose job is to cut wood. While that may sound simple, it’s really anything but. With so many large canopy trees in the Wissahickon, when they fall it’s always a big job to remove them. Since 2013, FOW has partnered with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to keep the upper trails clear of fallen trees through the Volunteer Sawyers, a small subset of FOW’s volunteer crew leaders with specialized skills and training. In 2017, FOW’s Volunteer Sawyers cleared 50 fallen trees. But this year, our heroic crew has already cleared nearly 90 trees – with six months still to go! Sadly among the trees lost this year was one of my favorites – the massive cucumber magnolia behind Cedars House Café, just off Northwestern Avenue, which succumbed to a strong rainstorm in June.

Led by Chuck Kirkland, our group of motivated and self-directed saw-wielding stewards is organized to respond rapidly to fallen-tree alerts — often within 48 hours. In the depths of winter or the peak of summer, they haul 40, 50, sometimes 60 pounds of gear into the woods. Besides the physical challenges and unpredictable weather conditions, the very nature of clearing fallen trees poses numerous hazards, particularly on steep terrain. Yet this dedicated team has spent countless hours performing this dangerous work without a single injury.

Following the lead sawyer on site, the crew assesses the situation together and develops a strategy. Tasks are assigned, responsibilities are reviewed; only then does the team go to work. Last year, for the first time, FOW’s volunteer Trail Ambassadors were invited to assist the Volunteer Sawyers, acting as flaggers to intercept trail users ahead of the work zone. This has proven to be a great opportunity for outreach and public education and, of course, ensures the safety of both sawyers and trail users. We hope to expand the ranks of Trail Ambassadors in this role.

Based on the sawyer crew program’s success, FOW initiated a formal sawyer training last December with Chuck at the helm of an intensive two-day, 16-hour program that teaches future sawyers the following skills: 

Safe Aware Working Standards (SAWS). n in-class review of every component of sawyer safety. Chuck covers communication in the field, public safety and first aid response, operational features of chainsaws, personal protective equipment and supplies, crew responsibilities and unique challenges of the Wissahickon.

Field Application. essons move outdoors as Chuck demonstrates, and participants practice under his close supervision, how to handle and operate a chainsaw. Volunteers who complete the two-day safety training are eligible to join the crew in the field. New volunteers continue to work under Chuck’s direction to gain experience and skills before they are eligible to officially join the ranks of the valiant FOW Volunteer Sawyers crew!

If you think you have what it takes to be an FOW Volunteer Sawyer, contact Shawn Green, volunteer coordinator, at green@fow.org. The next training is in December, and now is a good time to apply. 

Or, if you see sawyer work in your future but need to build your outdoor skills, try volunteering for FOW’s Trail Work Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Work involves regular trail-maintenance projects, including repairing drains and grade reversals, fixing stonework, narrowing widened trails and emergency trail repairs. Volunteers meet at Pachella Field (6751 Henry Ave.) then head off to the work site. Contact Shawn for this as well.

Here’s how you can help the FOW Volunteer Sawyers when visiting the park: If you come upon a tree fallen across a trail, please report it by taking a picture, pinning it to a Google map, and texting WISS to 267-966-2207. Follow the prompts to report a downed tree with your map link and photo. We need to know the exact location and be able to assess the size and level of difficulty of the removal job in order to promptly and safely clear the tree from the trail. If you are lucky enough to see the sawyers in action, heed their safety signs, stay on the trail and wait for the OK to proceed. 

Happy trails!

For more information about Friends of the Wissahickon, visit the website at www.fow.org.