Fuel For Thought

How much wood can these Woodchucks chuck? Enough to keep their neighbors warm all winter. 

On a brisk, blue-sky Saturday morning in November, a group of men in insulated, well-worn work clothes stands atop a sprawling woodpile at the back of the Boothbay Public Works Department lot. Chatting and joking with each other, they pick up logs in their gloved hands, transferring them to a rattling conveyer belt, which loads the logs into the bed of a dump truck. When the truck is full, the wood will be delivered free of charge to someone nearby, who—without the fuel to fill their woodstove—would not be able to heat their home.

Called the Woodchucks, the group operates one of the oldest wood banks in Maine, and most of its 18 or so volunteer members are retirees. Boothbay native Bill Smith had been retired from Bath Iron Works for nearly two decades when he read a notice about the Woodchucks in the Boothbay Register eight years ago. “I had two wood splitters that I built from scratch just sitting there most of the time,” he says. Smith is the Woodchucks’ MacGyver; in addition to the splitters, he fashioned the log-loading contraption from an old hay conveyor. “I thought it would be a good way to get some exercise and I love working with wood,” he says of his involvement with the group.

Barclay Shepard, who at 91 can still wield a chainsaw, was a U.S. Navy surgeon, then worked at the Veterans Administration, leading the investigation into the adverse health effects of Agent Orange, the herbicide used during the Vietnam War. Born in Boothbay, he lived until the age of 12 in Istanbul, Turkey, where his physician father established the American hospital. “I’ve always been interested in the community,” says Shepard, who serves as the group’s scribe. “I like the outdoors and it’s a good way to get to know people.”

Boothbay area residents can reach out to the Woodchucks to remove trees that have fallen down on their properties, or to fell trees, as long as there are no buildings or wires to contend with. “We’re very careful with what we do in terms of taking down trees,” says Shepard, adding that the group takes hardwood only, not soft wood such as pine, which burns very fast and can cause chimney fires.

The wood bank concept is growing in the state, where wood is often used as a supplemental—as well as the sole— heating source, and long winters can force those who live on fixed or limited incomes to choose between heating their homes or putting dinner on their tables. One in eight Maine homes is heated primarily with wood, while two-thirds of the state’s households heat with oil, making the state the most petroleum-dependent in the country and especially vulnerable to price spikes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Operating much like a food bank, a wood bank’s volunteer members collect and/ or harvest donated wood, then split, season, and store it before distributing ready-to-burn logs to local homeowners in need. So far this heating season, the Woodchucks have delivered 40 cords of wood to 35 area households, the list of which its parent agency, the Boothbay Region Community Resource Council, keeps strictly confidential. Most Maine wood banks operate under the auspices of a similar community organization; for example, the Cumberland Wood Bank is run by the Cumberland Congregational Church, while the wood bank in Camden is a program of the Vets Helping Vets support group. Maine also has wood banks in Waldo County, Bucksport, and Penobscot, all maintained by volunteers.

From spring through just before the holidays, or the first snowfall, the Woodchucks meet at the Public Works lot on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. “We usually get between four and 12 people,” says Smith. “Whoever shows up is great.” This morning, Mark Phillips and his 11-year-old son, Evan, are stacking wood in a Quonset hut at the edge of the lot. Sometimes, personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard station in Boothbay Harbor turn up, or local students, fulfilling the community service hours required for graduation. “We had eight kids and two teachers— they stacked 12 cords of wood in three hours,” Smith says.

As members of the Woodchucks arrive today, they’re directed to a sympathy card waiting for signatures on the tailgate of Smith’s truck. One of the group’s founding members, Maurice Landemare, has recently passed away and the card will be sent to his wife. “He was my dentist and we sang in the choir together,” says Shepard, explaining that it was Landemare who invited him to join the Woodchucks. “He and Henry Rowe started the whole thing back in 2008.” Rowe, who is not in the group today, retired from the CIA after a career as an electronic engineer designing spy gadgets. Other Woodchucks members have equally colorful stories. Marine biologist Seth Barker launched Maine Fresh Sea Farms after retiring from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He and a partner grow seaweed in the Damariscotta River, supplying 16 restaurants and a brewery with kelp and dulse. Harry Dudley and his wife, Gail, founded the Landmark School in Massachusetts, which provides specialized education for children with language-based learning disabilities.

“What I love is sitting down and having quiet time to hear the stories,” says Doug Fowle, a wooden boat builder who has volunteered with the Woodchucks for four years. “To find all these connections is a wonderful thing, and the guys have all this energy.” The commitment and enthusiasm of its members also garners the group significant community support. In December 2017, the Rotary Club of Boothbay Harbor and the Boothbay Civic Association each provided half of $13,000 for the purchase of a new log loader, which allows the Woodchucks to pick up logs up to 10 feet long and transfer them to the splitter. “I went on a joy ride to dodge the traffic in Wiscasset and passed one for sale,” says Smith with characteristic dry wit. “I brought it up at a meeting and in two weeks we had the money. We can do two to three times the amount of work we could with our muscles, which are wearing out because we’re so damned old.” While the new equipment will make the work easier, efficiency, and age, isn’t necessarily the point. “I think it’s about the idea of volunteerism—it’s something I can do—and the camaraderie,” says Barker. “It’s a matter of many hands.” To echo the familiar saying, the Woodchucks’ hands make light work, and life better, for their fellow Mainers.