Young, female and eager to cut

By Mary Anne Chute Lynch

Ever hear a metallic, light pinging, “sssccchhh-wing-ing” sound? Crosscut sawyers know what it means.

“Sawyers love nothing more than to cut up some logs and remove them from the trail,” sawyer Maggie Ballew said.

Joan Napolitano helped remove 100 logs last year from 11 miles of the PCT north of Rainy Pass in Washington.

“It’s cerebral,” Angie Panter said about using a crosscut saw. “I loved it so much…from the minute I picked one up.”

Angie Panter, a certified crosscut sawyer and Volunteer Saw Instructor in Training, restores an antique crosscut saw. Photo by Joe Smith.

“The whole purpose is to give back,” said Gwen Tollefson, an avid backpacker, who leads crews clearing trees for hikers, horses and mules. “The world isn’t sustainable, if all we ever do is take.”

“People are passionate about removing logs,” said Jennifer Tripp, PCTA’s Associate Director of Trail Operations.

Whatever the motive, Maggie, Angie, Joan and Gwen have joined the increasing numbers of women becoming certified sawyers to maintain the PCT. And women’s new saw skills are welcome.

“The need we have far outstrips the ability,” and time of the U.S. Forest Service staff, Jennifer said of the 2,650 miles of the PCT.

Angie started car camping in 2006, moved up to backpacking and subsequently trail maintenance work in Oregon. Invigorated by trail work, she went for her A- then B-level saw certifications. Noting a shortage of teachers, Angie began training this year to become an instructor.

“As a child, I didn’t like it when my Mom told me to go outside and play. I’m so busy now with trail work, I haven’t had a weekend home in months,” Angie said blissfully on Independence Day weekend. She scours antique stores and old barns for crosscut saws hanging forgotten on walls. “I’ve got saws all over the garage…It’s literally living history.”

Such refurbishable relics are useful, especially in designated wilderness areas, where motorized transport and mechanized devices, chainsaws included, are prohibited by the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Mother and daughter, Kristin and Maggie, earned crosscut certifications this spring. Six of the nine volunteers in their saw training class were women. Photos by Don Sanderson.

Maggie Ballew is putting her skills with the crosscut to use during a project to replace a deteriorated bridge over a creek near White Pass. Working with Forest Service, the 17-year-old is organizing a crew of sawyers and assistants, also known as swampers, to clear the trail and build a new bridge. The work is part of her service project for the Girls Scouts’ Gold Award, the equivalent of the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout Award.

Maggie, 17, is a steward of three miles of the PCT in the Norse Peak Wilderness. This year she’s organizing a crew of sawyers and swampers to clear the trail and build a new bridge as part of her Girls Scouts’ Gold Award, the equivalent of the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout Award. Photo by Kristin Ballew.

With her family’s help, she has been a steward of three miles of the PCT in the Norse Peak Wilderness since she attended her first PCTA Trail Skills College with her Dad at age 14. She had to wait two years to get certified to use the crosscut saw, as the minimum age allowed is 16.

Her Mom, Kristin, a first-grade teacher outside of Yakima, Washingtin, also took the initial crosscut saw certification course this spring as “an adventure” with Maggie. After completing the course in April, she says, “It looks to me that it’s also going to be an adventure later,” when she retires. 

In April, six of the nine participants in one of PCTA’s weekend-long saw certification courses in Washington were women. Five of 16 students in Basic Saw Crew Training at the North Cascades Trail Skills College were women.

Volunteers Narda, Angie, Ann and Janette clear fallen logs with a crosscut saw. They’re among the increasing numbers of women becoming certified sawyers to maintain the PCT. Photo by Mick Mc Bride.

“The young women now want to give back. I’m very encouraged to be getting a lot of folks under age 30,” said Bill Hawley, PCTA’s North Cascades Regional Representative and saw instructor.

“There have been more guys than gals, but that is gradually shifting over,” said instructor Barry Teschlog. “Chain sawing is mostly guys,” but, he adds, “Joan chain saws with us all the time.”

Trail name “Bump,” Joan Napolitano began her PCTA thru-hike in 2010 and today owns her own chain saw and chaps. Kristen Ballew has chain saw experience from cutting wood on the family’s property.

People with little or no experience can be a big asset, said Barry, a co-founder of the PCTA’ North 350 Blades maintenance group. “They are a blank slate. They have no bad habits to unlearn,” he said. In other words, it’s an opportunity to teach proper safety skills to someone who is ready to learn.

Maggie has limited experience as she assisted sawyers clearing trees from her section of the PCT, but, “It was so much fun to learn to do it myself.

“The biggest thing that you’re learning is safety,” she said. “People don’t realize how much tension there is in a tree. A bend in a tree is storing a whole lot of energy. If you don’t know where to cut, you’re putting yourself and other sawyers at risk as the tree starts to fall or rolls or springs back up, even as you’re cutting.

“It makes me understand that you need to know what your limitations are,”Maggie said. As an A sawyer, “I can’t cut by myself without having a B sawyer present. It’s like having a driver’s permit.”

Certification requires learning proper body mechanics, too. “With crosscut saw, you are using your legs, moving your whole body forward or backward. Your arms are just along for the ride,” Maggie said.

When the two sawyers on either end of the crosscut blade are in synch, they can hear the saw “sing,” a “light pinging, ssscccchhhh-wing-ing sound.” If the blade is dull and grabs and hooks onto the wood, it is called “a misery whip,” said Barry, who thru-hiked the PCT in 2006, trail name “Token Civilian.”

“There is a lot of analyzing,” before any cuts are made in a fallen tree. “You have to assess the whole tree, the situation, where the piece you are cutting is going to go,” said Gwen Tollefson, a level B sawyer who is leading a crew of nine certified sawyers to clear a slice of the PCT in Washington, north of Steven’s Pass that had a “really, really big snowpack this year.

“The PCTA is really active and good about training their volunteers. You get out there enough and you see the work being done and you want to give back,” Gwen said. She finds “the natural world to be very therapeutic.”

Bridget Wisniewski is the Lead Crosscut Sawyer in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. This spring she instructed a chainsaw training at PCTA’s North Cascades Trail Skills College and hired the first all-female back country crew in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest. Photo by Nick Lenn.

Bridget Wisniewski hired the first all-female backcountry crew in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest this summer. They range in age from a new high school graduate to women in their late 20s, she said.

Bridget is the Forestry Technician for Trails and Lead Crosscut Sawyer in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, one of the most visited forests in the country. She began working for the agency following a stint as a teacher in the Peace Corps in Kenya 30 years ago.  “It was on the job training,” when she started sawing. “We designed a program for ourselves. I made my own lesson plans.”

PCTA uses a curriculum based on the Forest Service’s and provides a half day of classroom safety and instruction and a day and a half of field work, said Jennifer. Her goal since she started working for the PCTA 10 years ago has been to develop a volunteer-led saw program. This goal came to fruition in 2012 when PCTA became one of the first organization in the nation to provide training and certifications. Last July the Forest Service announced a new national saw policy that provides a pathway for interested trail organization to have their own program for volunteers to become sawyers, instructors, and evaluators.

Just a few of PCTA’s volunteers who are passionate about removing logs. Photo by Gray Feather Photography.

“Don’t be intimidated by tools,” Jan LePouvoir says. She couldn’t pick up the pick mattock to clear brush on her first day volunteering with a PCTA crew. Today her favorite activity is using the double-handled crosscut saw.

Inspired to volunteer after thru-hiking the PCT in the early ’80s, the former school teacher, and her husband, John, lead trail maintenance crews each year on 60 miles of the PCT between Sonora Pass and Carson Pass and in the Eldorado National Forest in California. She is certified as a level B sawyer.

Clearing trails “is immediate gratification,” she said.

And as a sawyer, you might even hear your blade sing!


Go here to learn about PCTA’s saw certification classes. Most certification events are scheduled for the spring and early summer. In the meantime, fill out a volunteer application and check the online project schedule for opportunities to volunteer alongside certified sawyers.

Read more about crosscut sawing and see “Saws That Sing” here.