Epic battle of man versus nature turns into opportunity to test the Super Bread knife.
My ½ acre property sits in the middle of old ranch land in Jackson Hole WY. Some is still ranch, most is smaller Gentleman’s Ranchettes. Irrigation ditches dug mostly by hand in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s run throughout the area. Due to many years of neglect, the later 5 years on my watch a large willow tree’ s roots had grown over a culvert in the irrigation ditch that runs under my driveway. Legally property owners are responsible for the water being able to flow through their property.
This year the roots had grown so large that they were obstructing the flow so much that it was flooding much of my upstream neighbors lawn. The water started running through the ditches a couple of days before I was to depart for the 2009 Blade Show in Atlanta, GA. It takes a few days for it fill and flush the winter’s debris. Not until I was literally leaving did it become clear that my roots were backing water up into the neighbors yard.
I made a few feeble attempts to clear it with a pick and pry bar. I quickly realized I would need power. I got a neighbor who has a mini backhoe to come and clear it the next day and I left town.
My neighbor came over as promised and dug a deep trench clearing out the front of the culvert. Unfortunately that only revealed the fact that the roots had grown deeply into the culvert and some of the willow root mat that he had scraped free had gone into the culvert and plugged it entirely. Some valiant neighbors pitched in and cleared the blockage and got it back to original poorly draining state.
My kind and understanding neighbors waited patiently in their new wetlands for my return a few days later. After trains planes and shuttle buses I returned to Jackson at 2:45 AM. The next morning I was overwhelmed with work from being away and was under the understanding the problem had been taken care of. At 5pm my neighbor came over wearing waiters. He had shut off the ditch and was going to work on my culvert. I was of course embarrassed and immediately threw on my waiters and got out every tool in the barn that might allow me to clear the roots.
The lower two thirds of the 30-inch pipe was a solid mass of willow tree root. It was like a giant SOS pad with quarter inch to half inch steel cable running through it. Heavy strikes with a pick or digging bar would mostly just bounce off.
With the help of some neighbors, I worked until dark in theigh deep water and managed to clear the culvert to about three feet deep into it. It was a little discouraging in that the deeper we got into the culvert the deeper the roots seemed to be going.
The next day in the full light of day I was able to make a more accurate assessment of the situation. We had successfully cleared three feet into the pipe. Unfortunately, it was clear that the SOS pad ran a total of 12 feet deep into the culvert, so another 8 feet needed to be cleared. The other problem was that I couldn’t reach any farther into the pipe with the various digging tools I’d been using.
Peak run off on the Snake River and several days of rain were compounding an already bad situation. The irrigation ditches on the West Bank of the Snake are a warren of trenches and headgates that cowboys have been digging for over a century to provide flood irrigation to their hay fields. No single person knows where they all are. By turning off the water in my ditch I was sending the water off into other ditches. It was only a matter of time before an angry rancher in his pick-up would be coming over six guns blazing or more likely a 2nd home owning dude rancher in his range rover with a lawsuit. Time was of the essence.
A backhoe and new culvert was the obvious solution. There was just not enough time to put the logistics together. Not to mention the several thousand dollars that would have been involved was not exciting. My neighbor and actual born and raised Wyoming rancher described some strange contraptions he had seen engineered for the task. Though I do have “an awesome set of tools” in my knife shop the idea of designing, building and testing the ultimate tool for the job again didn’t seem like it would work with urgency of time involved. The water was still rising!
Though I am sure ridiculous situations like this happen in every region of the US. This to me was the classic example of a time when a cowboy is faced with a big problem and there is no one to call for help. Two iconic Western phrases came to mind “Cowboy up” and “gitter’ done”. It was clear there was no alternative but to go frogman into the pipe.
Though I think there is no formal training program for working in a 30 inch pipe two thirds full of freezing water that was snow a couple days before. I was well suited for the job. Years of whitewater kayaking, training in cave rescue as member of the local search and rescue team and of course years of working with a kitchen knife did have me well prepared for one of the nastiest, silliest, situations I’ve had to tackle in a lifetime of ridiculous activities.
All that was left was to figure out what tools I would try out for the hand-to-hand combat with the Willow root mass. The nice Swedish hatchet I use for hunting was an obvious possibility. Having just arrived home from the Blade Show and a decisive victory in the Bread knife/ slicer showdown, I knew my new Super Bread knife would be the most likely tool to have any luck against natures SOS pad.
After layering up in all of Patagoina’s finest wading gear and a headlamp I crawled/ swam into the pit. (A quick technical note, if you find yourself in a similar situation in the future I would recommend a full wetsuit, probably a 4/5 of 5/6. Waiters are great for standing in water but full submersion, not so much.) After a few deep breaths to brush aside the confined space, drowning panic, I was ready to get to work. I immediately realized there wasn’t nearly enough space to swing the hatchet, so it was Super Bread or nothing.
I made few initial stabs into the mat and was pleasantly surprised that the super bread sunk right in. I then made some long slashes to try to cut some chunks lose. It passed through the mat like I was Luke Skywaker wielding a lightsaber. At this point, I started to get excited. This beast had turned back a 30 pound digging bar with 200 pounds of Ohio corn-fed, born again cowboy on the end and the super bread was going through it like it was tofu.
I’ve only been making the Super Bread for 6 months and I don’t have any seconds or returns yet so I had to use a brand new unused one. Brand new they are wicked sharp. The question was how long the edge would hold up. I had 8 feet of SOS pad and steel cable to shred up. My knives have exceptional edge holding but I figured at some point in the project I would need to at least touch up the edge. Again, I was very pleasantly surprised. I was able to cut a 2ft x 2ft x 8ft channel through the root mat without any sharpening. I could feel the cutting edge slowing down a bit by the end but it still cut through nature’s steel wool with ease.
An hour after I started the culvert was clear and there was nothing left to do but dry off and celebrate with a Pabst Blue Ribbon!
So besides being the finest bread knife and all around slicer you will ever own, if you run into a twenty year old mat of willow tree roots it will work nicely on that as well.
Check out my recipe for Coyote Loops freshest salad with hand cut, pan fried croutons. I cut the croutons that night with same Super Bread unsharpened from the days work.