Back when I started the Hiawassee project, I studied with some intensity the variety of lightweight sawmills on the market. I thought, perhaps, that I could buy such a mill, dismantle it to components small enough to be carried on a pack frame, and reassemble on site. I was particularly interested in the Hud-son Sawyer.

As it turned out, there was a severe shortage of inventory owing to the pandemic. A Hud-son Sawyer would not be available for many months, perhaps even a year, whereupon I was directed elsewhere and found the Lumbersmith. However, now that the Lumbersmith had defied me, I reconsidered my options.

My sawmill supplier (now also a friend), Jim Lugo, had recently come in possession of a Hud-son Sawyer on trade-in. In December, he offered it to me for a good deal.

The ship weight of the Sawyer is around 330 pounds. Obviously, I wasn’t going to be able to carry it up in one piece.

Trip #1

I made one trip in early December. The mill head itself needed a couple of tune-ups, so on this occasion, I carried components of the track, squaring arms, and a log dog — altogether about fifty pounds of metal.

I left about 7:30 on a Saturday morning. At the parking spot, I loaded the material into a backpack. I chose to use my old backpack, not being sure that the heavy pieces wouldn’t punch through. It was an awkward load, but the pack was fine.

The landscape was curiously green, a surprise since the last time I was there the entire place was pervaded by a late-autumn brownness. Nothing has grown in the meantime, however, and I think the impression that was made on me was really one of contrast. Brown is a color after all and, since my last visit, most of the brown had turned to gray, which is a shade unrepresented on the color wheel. Whilst in November the brown overwhelmed the understory mountain laurels and pines, against the more muted grays, these shrubs and saplings were foregrounded. 

Carrying only the material, some emergency supplies, and my lunch, I made it to the campsite in the record time of fifty-nine minutes.

Knowing a major front was coming through, I didn’t dawdle but stashed my load and turned tail to get back to my car. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t to return for another month. The front caught up with me as I was driving back home to Athens. I was grateful not to be on the mountain then.

Trip #2

I managed a second trip a month later, in early January. On this occasion, I picked up the remaining mill components from Jim on a Saturday afternoon. After staying at an Airbnb in Blairsville, I was at the trailhead at dawn’s first light.

Again, a front was coming through. I had a limited window during my weekend off to ferry sawmill components and I intended to make the most of it. By 8:00am I was hiking. It was the last day of hunting season so I called out, as I went along, “Hiker on the road!” and “Hiker approaching the gap” or else singing songs as I went, all sounds that deer don’t make. But I didn’t see another soul on my trip.

For my first load, I carried two large pieces of the frame and a cardboard box with two blades, perhaps sixty pounds or so. Arriving at the campsite, I was relieved to see nothing had been disturbed since my last visit.

Most of the mill frames are powder-coated, but a new bearing was attached to each of the two frame pieces I carried. As these might rust, I wanted them kept out of the weather. I, therefore, disassembled the covered woodpile, made a space for the frame pieces, and then covered it up again. The saw blades I stashed under the ATV to stay dry.

Thirty minutes later I was back at the jeep. For a second load, I carried the horizontal member that supports the band wheels. I previously weighed this component at sixty-two pounds. (Sixty pounds is my standard limit.) Although this was doable, I wouldn’t want to carry more. Near the top of the ridge, I started to get a cramp in my left leg. The charley horse is a good signal not to push matters. On this round trip, there were gusts from time to time and small periods of freezing drizzle (if that’s a thing).

Preferring not to be on the mountain when the front would arrive in full force, I high-tailed again for the jeep, arriving just in time to remove my boots and change my shirt before it really began to blow.

Trip #3

It was agreed that my friend Rico and his fourteen-year-old son Adrian would join me in Hiawassee for the first weekend in February. This would be the final trip to deliver the Hud-son Sawyer.

Rico and I deliberated the pros and cons of driving up Friday vs Saturday and camping vs staying in an Airbnb. Ultimately, we decided it was simply too cold to camp and we would have more time to work if driving up Friday. 

We met at the Nacoochee Tavern in Helen for a dinner of pizza and salad and proceeded from there to a nearby Airbnb.

Day 1

We were up at 7:00 to have a cold breakfast of coffee and rolls. The main goal for the day was to move the remainder of the Sawyer to the site and put it together. We began hiking at 8:00 and had no difficulty reaching the campsite by 9:30. There was a nice dusting of snow everywhere. On the way, the sun rose and much of the snow melted by mid-morning. We stopped on a couple of occasions for some pretty woods-snowy pictures. My load was the gasoline engine lashed to a pack frame and a bandsaw wheel lashed to this. Rico carried the other wheel and various parts, tools, and other components.

Once at the site I oriented Rico and Adrian to the tasks of the day. One more load still remained to be ferried. It didn’t make sense for all of us to go and I knew it would be faster if just I went. I left Rico and Adrian to make a fire for warming up as it was still less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit around 10:00am when I left to go back to the cars.

My trip back was speedy and my return trip with the remaining mill components was not too bad until I realized (about two-thirds of the way back to camp) that I had left the two metal band saw guards in the weeds beside the jeep. No wonder I was making such good time. The pack I had been carrying was perhaps 35 or 40 pounds when I had expected it to be about 60! My chief objective for the day was to get the mill running. This would not be possible without the guards. So, I stashed my pack on the side of the path and returned a little more than a mile to the cars. I retrieved the guards, about ten pounds each, and carried them in my hands back to my pack. This was somewhat awkward since they were an odd shape and had sharp edges in exactly the wrong places. Once I had regained my pack I lashed one of the guards to the pack enabling me to carry the other one with both hands, switching frequently to accommodate the sharp pressure of the sheet metal against the palm of my hand.

I returned to camp not long after noon. The fire had died down, so I rebuilt it and we ate our lunches. For the afternoon, Rico worked on extending and modifying the track to take the new mill. As newly created, the track is 28 feet long — long enough to accommodate a 25-foot log and have a small space for the mill.

Adrian and I worked on the mill. This took some effort to get everything lined up correctly. For instance, one of the band wheels had been installed backwards on its shaft. This doesn’t affect the functioning as long as the pillar block bearings and covers are also reversed, but this took some doing, undoing, and doing again to fully figure out. I am confident that we got it right in the end, but it certainly took some work.

The disappointment came when we sought to start the engine and it wouldn’t budge. There were so many reasons why this could be the case, especially since the motor had been taken up in a backpack: a flooded cylinder, air in the system, fouled spark plug, etc. It was after 5pm and darkness was coming with two miles still to get back to the car. We decided to pack up for the evening.

We stopped at the Airbnb for showers and a change of clothes. Dinner was Philly cheesesteaks and fish-and-chips at the Hiawassee Brewery. Bed was not far behind.

Day 2

Day 2 started with a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, and homefries courtesy of yours truly. It turns out Rico doesn’t eat Tabasco sauce at breakfast. Go figure.

We checked out of the Airbnb and were hiking by 8:40am. Rico carried a few small items and our lunches. I carried a five-gallon jerry can of fuel to add to my supply. 

Our first task was to get the mill motor running. The night before, I had picked up some starter fluid in case that was needed. One thing we discovered was that the new drive belt we had installed was too tight, putting too much back pressure on the engine preventing it from starting. A frustration then encountered is that, evidently, we had lost the 18mm combination wrench needed to adjust the belt tensioner. With some difficulty and two crescent wrenches of different sizes, we did eventually get it started. However, even after it was hot, it didn’t seem to run as readily or as smoothly as when we tested it at Jim Lugo’s. This is a cause of worry for the future. But, it did run and it did cut. (I later discussed with Jim, who suggests running some seafoam motor treatment through the engine.)

The first log to be milled was already next to the mill. Using the woodchuck and peavey hook, Rico, Adrian, and I managed to maneuver the log onto the mill. It was initially placed at an angle to the track. To move it into place, we first anchored one end to a tree with a length of ⅜” chain outfitted with a clevis choker. Even still, at twenty-five feet, the log was too long to mill in the position that it now rested. It is impossible for two men (and a teenager) to manually shift such an object, at perhaps a thousand pounds or more. The ideal movement was about twenty-four inches. To accomplish this, we positioned the ATV in front of the mill and chained the log to the hitch. Initially, we couldn’t budge the log, but with a little slack in the change and a jackrabbit start, we moved it just the right amount.

Clearly, one thing that will be needed is a better means of maneuvering logs around the mill. Dad has offered me a chain hoist that he has, but we haven’t seen each other in months (he is in Ohio and I am in Georgia, and the pandemic…). My best current idea is to make a winch-based assist with a manually cranked boat winch. I’d like to mount it to a tree near the mill and put a snatch block high in the tree. Such a system could be used to move logs up my ramps to the mill, holding them in place at intermediate points as a worker on the ground uses a peavey hook for guidance.

One lesson learned in this exercise is that the quarter-inch lag bolts (two inches long) affixing the track to its ties are just not sturdy enough. Some bent. Others pulled out of the timbers. I will bring some ⅜” bolts on my next trip (suitable for the pre-drilled aluminum rails that came with the Hud-son mill) as well as some longer ¼” lag bolts (for the steel rails that I installed, and are rather hard for drilling larger holes).

My intention with the log was to mill a twenty-five-foot timber for the long wall of the cabin. In fact, the log we were milling was too crooked for this purpose, as we discovered when the blade was at the log’s center by the time we reached the lengthwise middle. To salvage the straightest part of the log we cut the log in half with a chainsaw. I should still be able to obtain a timber or two from the larger, butt end of the log. On this day, however, we finished milling the more crooked, skinnier end. Our products for the day were a 2×4 and a 4×4. Besides these, there were a number of slabs that may yet be milled down to one-inch boards. Return on investment is, at this stage, questionable. But, I remain undaunted.

For further consideration, some difficulties encountered include rocking of the log when milling and rapid dulling of the saw blade. For the purposes of one day’s work, Rico sat on the log, which effectively stabilized it during sawing. Rico suggests getting some carpenter’s clamps or furniture clamps to help stabilize the cant. (Jim doesn’t think clamps will work.) Initially, we weren’t sure why the saw was cutting so poorly, but once we changed the blade things improved dramatically, showing that the cause was the dullness of the first blade. What had caused the blade to dull so quickly? Jim thinks it is dirt lodged in the bark from skidding the log. Jim strongly advises using the log arch as much as possible.

At one point during sawing, Rico looked down into the hollow below the campsite to see three pigs. I was surprised to find pigs so high on the mountain, but given the soil disturbance we’d seen the day before, I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised.

Rico and Adrian had to leave around 3:00pm. I stayed a couple of hours longer to organize and clean up the campsite. I also put together my Hud-son debarker, but discovered that the drive chain I had bought for it was og the wrong dimensions. Better to have found out during this trip and be more prepared next time! I also need to pick up a few additional 5/16” washers.