There aren't many people left in Mendocino County whose lives are lived with the seasons, fishing and hunting and making split stuff when the rains come, logging in the summer months, with maybe an abalone excursion or two on a mid-summer Saturday morning if the tides are right. There are even fewer people whose livings derive from both the natural world's seasonal rhythms and its bounty.
Ricky Adams of Boonville is among the last generation of Northcoast people who live the old way, and he knows he's the last. A married man with two grown children, the middle-aged logger scarcely recognizes the place he was born and raised. A familiar sight in the front yard of his modest Boonville home where he spends whole days chopping firewood and stacking it in precise cords, Ricky Adams talks about then and now.
AVA: You remind me a lot of the late Buck Clark, Anderson Valley's legendary logger and split-stuff man. We'd see Buck out in his yard in all kinds of weather with his axe and his splitting maul.
Adams: I made a lot of splits with old Buck. He was a good friend of mine. He taught me how to make split stuff. He used to come down here and I'd have a bunch of splits made up and the scraps throwed out and he’d pick up some of my scraps and say, “You know, you’re throwin’ the best part of ’em away.” Anything you could make outta redwood, that old guy could make it. Dang right.
AVA: How long have you been at it?
Adams: Probably 30 years. I went to work in the woods in ‘70. And I’m 50. Back then I started scrounging up ol’ redwood stuff, and I’d ask ol’ Buck, Howya do this, and howya do that? He’d come down and show me. When he got so old he couldn't work much, I made a lot of split stuff with Rex, Buck's son-in-law. We’d be the loader and chopper, and Buck’d be the boss, more or less. In the summer I’d fall timber, run cat. Winter time I’d cut wood; or if somebody comes around and needs some trees cut here or there, I'd do that. Plus about every November I take a month off and go stay with my cousin in Arkansas and we'd go deer huntin’. Come back here and start over again.
AVA: What was firewood going for in 1970?
Adams: I tellya what. I’ve sold it for 13 bucks a tier and there’s three tiers to the cord. That was in high school, mostly on weekends. We’d cut a load-a-wood, and get $13 bucks for it and think we'd struck gold. Heck, gas was only 30¢ a gallon too. With $13, me an’ ol’ Wayne we’d go find somebody who’d buy us a case a beer, fill our car up with gas and we’d still have money left over!
Adams: I’ve been gettin’ $200 a cord for it. It’s goin’ up to $225 this year.
AVA: Can you cut it fast enough to sell it to everyone who wants it?
Adams: Last winter I went through 70 cord. I was out of wood when winter was over. I’ve got a lot of people bought wood from me for the last seven or eight years. Plus, I got people goin’ campin’ somewhere and if they got room they’ll stop by and pick up a cord to take home with ’em. I’ve never had none of this wood rot! What I don’t sell — I got a wood stove and my wife’ll sure take care of it, I tellya.
AVA: Is that splitter fairly new?
Adams: I’ve had it for five years. I used to split all the stuff with a splittin; maul. And it just got to be too much work. It’s still a lot of work doin’ it this way, but it sure saves a lot of time. This here’s not too bad splittin’ tan oak, but you get some of this ol’ live oak… It just stays together, man. You can beat yourself to death on that.
AVA: Is it gettin’ harder to find wood?
Adams: Yeah, it is. Most of the places they’re loggin’ they don’t want you cuttin’ firewood anyway. They’d just as soon see it lay there and rot. The vineyard people… every once in a while you run into somebody who lets you on to cut up down stuff. I used to cut stuff that blew down at Scharffenbergers. But most of these places now they don’t want you cuttin’ no wood or doin’ nuthin'. I can show you wood all around here that’s just wasted, just layin’ there and rottin’. Redwood, same way. Windfall like this , there’s a lot of this around here. They just won’t let you have ‘em.
AVA: The Valley isn't the same place. It's scary how fast it's changed.
Adams: When I was a kid I was raised up here where Jimmy Wellington is now. We’d take off and you could go up on them mountains and hunt and there wasn’t a road or nuthin’. Never run into nobody. Just point your gun any which way you want and that’s the way you went. Nobody never bothered you. Go up Conn Creek and stay up there from Friday night to Sunday. Me and Ronnie’d go up there and camp out and fish and eat ever what we got — we was really Daniel Boone. Any more you can’t go nowhere or do nuthin’.
AVA: They hear a gunshot up there and they call 911 and here come the helicopters and the boys in the black jumpsuits.
Adams: Oh yeah! It’s not rural hardly anymore.
AVA: So you’ll hear about downed wood, or people will call you…?
Adams: People will have a tree blow down, or… I got this up there in Manchester where they was loggin’. We cut the right away for the road, and there was a lot of old oak in there and they told me I could have it. They told me to take a few days off and if I wanted some of that oak, go up there and get it. They have the loaders right there, so I just loaded it into the pickup and haul ’em home. When I get time or feel like comin’ out here… If I get it in the yard, I can go at my own pace. If I feel like doin’ a little splittin,’ fine, if I don’t, that's fine too. I might go six months before I get a chance to get in and get some wood. You never know.
AVA: The old Masonite would let people in to take downed trees, right?
Adams: Yes. I worked out on their property. If you needed posts they’d give ya a permit to get the old redwood logs and any firewood that was down or dead. You could get all you wanted. And then that even quit. Used to be able to get a huntin’ permit for out there too. Now, the people that own it are more like hunt clubs. If you wanna pay $1000 a year you can hunt on their property. Whoopee! The day I gotta pay $1000 here to hunt in this damn place, that’s when I quit! I Got a little buck right there in the backyard once. Damn right. Got horns about that high. If I need some deer meat, I know what happens. As long as it stays outta my garden, that’s fine.
AVA: Wasn’t it L-P that stopped giving out wood cutting permits?
Adams: When L-P first took over from Masonite they’d give you a permit for a while. Then they said, No more. Used to be when a tree blowed down on the side of the road, you’d go down and cut it up. Now you’re supposed to go down and see the state, and they gotta go through a bunch of bull to get you a permit before you can cut wood even on the side of the road! I was cuttin’ some out in Yorkville when a guy stopped by and said, ' Ya know, you’re not supposed to be doin’ that. I personally don’t care how much you cut, but you need to go down there and get the piece of paper. They told me it’d take six months to get a damn permit and I said it’s not even worth it to fool around with it.
AVA: And work in the woods is slowing down.
Adams: Last year I started April 4. This year I started June 4. We finished up cuttin’ a job Tuesday. We were supposed to be goin’ over on to another job Monday, but on account of the paperwork and what else, we're still not workin'. I think this is going to be my last year in the woods, anyway. I’ve been in there just long enough and it’s just gettin’ worse every year. Just work, work, work and I don’t feel like I gain anything. Except get crippled up, my back hurtin’, and… I’m not gettin’ no younger. It’s a young man’s job. When I was 25 or 30 I could… Now by God I’ll tell you, I cain’t do as much as I used to. I get tired quicker. I still got it here (points to head). I know how to fall trees and every other job out there, but dang it, I just can’t cut as many or do what I used to.
AVA: Wood is still the best heat. Those Monitor heaters are good, but…
Adams: My cousin in Arkansas has that propane heat, or whatever. I don’t like ‘em. It’s just not wood heat. I’ve had wood heat all my life, even when I was a kid, wood heat.
AVA: Still do some abalone-ing?
Adams: Yeah! I went three times this year.
AVA: Special place?
Adams: Near the mouth of the river. Me and Jerry Smith go up there. He’s bigger and a lot younger in case I get down in there and can’t get back up. It’s a good place, but you need a rope to get in and out. Last time I went I didn’t go from here to that wheelbarrow and the first abalone I found was all good abalone. I got my limit early and those guys got theirs. It took me longer to get in there and back out than it did to get the abalone. But there aren't very many places any more. This place I go to, I’m not sure if it’s private or not. I’ve been goin’ there for I don’t know how many years and I’ve never had anybody give me no grief, or nuthin’. We used to go up there at Salmon Creek, and then they got to gripin’ and bitchin’ about that. I don’t even deer hunt around here anymore. Haven’t got a place to go. It ain’t worth it to me any more to have to argue with somebody, or get in trouble over something.
Adams: I flat quit fishing down there in the river. $42 for a fishin’ permit? Why? I bought ‘em for abalone-ing. You go down there and you catch a fish and then you gotta let it go. I like to eat one once in a while! Go down there and freeze to death all day long and catch one fish and then have to let it go? I don’t like that too good. This year the water got up and them steelhead got up around up in here and then no more rain and it went down and there are still steelhead in these holes up through here. They ain’t no good now. They’d be real soft cause water’s got warm. Why don’t Fish and Game come up here and take them out and put them back in the ocean instead of letting them sit there? They’re complaining about no fish. Why don’t they do something like that? Instead, they took all them prisoners and cleaned North Fork out. Then the fish ain’t got any shade and they went back and put the stuff back in there for shade. Leave stuff alone and mother nature will take care of most of it. Start foolin’ with it and mother nature’s going to get unhappy.
Me and my grandpa used to fish up on Minnie Creek when I was maybe 7-8 years old, trout fishing up there. And them old logjams are still up there and you can go up there in the winter and there are steelhead clear up in there… How they get up there, I don’t know. But they do. You can go up there and see some nice trout too. These other creeks around here you don’t see ‘em because they cleaned all the shade out. The little fish have to have somewhere to go to get out of the sun or they’ll just die. Why can’t Fish and Game figure some of this out? A lot of stuff they do is good. But some of it just don’t make sense to me. They went to college and all that. Open up the book and the book says to do it and they do it.
AVA: How many cords have you cut already this year?
Adams: I got 20 stacked up here and I’m trying to buy some logs from a guy in Yorkville that’s sawed up in rounds. Got some more over here on Jack June’s that sawed up, maybe 15 or 20 cords over there. I’ll probably go through 50 or 60 cord again.
AVA: You set chokers when you started in the woods?
Adams: Yup. Set chokers for Kay Hiatt. Did that for awhile and then he came by one day and asked, “Do you wanna run cat?” I said, I didn’t know how to run any damn cat. He said, “Well you know how to shift gears in that car! So he put me out on an old 6. And I’m tellin’ you, I just tore it up. I thought, Hell, I can go anywhere now. It was an older cat anyway. But when I got done with it, it was totaled out. He said, Well, since you totaled that one out, by golly, I’ll get ya another one. I think you’re gonna be a good cat skinner if you don’t kill yourself.
AVA: Then you work up to fallin’ trees?
Adams: Old Jack Hiatt, Kay's brother, he was workin; with us. Me and him got along good. We fished together a little. When they used to have trap shoots up here, me and him would go up there and shoot. He’d get tired of fallin’ trees. If I happened to build a road or was skiddin’ around him or something, he’d say, Hell, you don’t know how to run cat anyway so go down there and fall some trees. He knew I wanted to start fallin’. That’s the way I learned, just go do it! He wouldn’t let anybody get ahold of his chainsaw so he must of figured I’d do all right with it. He was particular about his saws.
AVA: Isn’t it a lot more dangerous now, steeper slopes…?
Adams: The timber used to be thicker and better. Most times better ground. Now they got these yarders and stuff and they log some real steep ground. I try not to have nuthin’ to do with that. I cut one yarder strip once and that was enough. It was hard. Trying to buck stuff. Hell, logs are fallin’ all around you on all sides. You’re buckin’, you fall another one and the tree will hit and it’ll go down beneath the other logs, and you gotta try to get in there and buck in stuff, I…
AVA: Any close calls setting chokers?
Adams: No. I set behind Kay. He just worked the hell out of me, is what he did. (Laughs) If I’d had a few beers the night before, the next day, that’s when he really made me work. He wouldn’t quit. “Pull that line! Sweat that beer out, boy!” I tell ya.
AVA: How long have you lived in this house?
Adams: I’ve lived here 22 or 23 years. I’m renting. I missed buyin’ it by two damn days. Harold (Perry) here next door bought it. I didn’t know it was for sale. It sold for $20,000. I’d-a jumped right on it. I was livin’ down in the apartments across from you. I came down and tried to buy it. I said, I’ll give you $30,000 and you don’t even gotta do nuthin’. He wouldn’t do it. So I ended up renting. Hell. He could have sold it four or five times, but he said, Aw, you’ve lived there for so long I’m not going to sell it. I’d hate to have to see you move all that wood.
AVA: That's a very nice fire wood for sale sign. Did you carve it?
Adams: Yeah. That’ll stop tourists and people from comin’ through here right on in to my house. They see the sign and me workin' here, they stop where they're supposed to stop. I got another one in my pumphouse over there that I finally took down. People were runnin’ me nuts! You’d be surprised how much wood I sell to people goin’ campin’. It’s not much, but sometimes they’ll get a couple of armloads and hand you a $20 bill. There was one or two guys goin’ campin’, I had a couple wheelbarrows full and they gave me $20. I said, That’s too much. They said, Where we come from that ain’t enough! He said they’d stopped down somewhere in the city in the Safeway store and it was $17 for a little old box a wood. They had a wheelbarrow full, but he said $20 ain’t enough for it.
AVA: Cords down below go for $400 or more.
Adams: I imagine. Friedman Bros. it was selling for $320 a cord last winter.
AVA: And in the cold months you can go through…
Adams: This guy that bought five cords from me last year, he ran out of wood — I don’t know what kind of stove he’s got! He burns wood. He’s a good customer. I don’t know how much I burn. I just burn odds and ends. It all comes out ashes anyway. As long as it burns, I don’t care. I don’t know how much wood mom and dad burned when they was burnin’ wood. I couldn’t keep enough wood down there. They kept it stoked up! If it was snowin’ right here and you go down there you better start sheddin’ clothes cause it won’t be snowin in that house; it’ll be 110 degrees!
AVA: When you visit Arkansas, “the old country” Jeff Short called it, do you go to Mount Ida?
Adams: Story’s the name of the town I go to. Mount Ida’s the closest town to it about 13 miles away. There’s a lot of people here that are in the valley from back there. I meet relatives I never knew I had when I go back there. I know more about people back there now than I do here.
AVA: All kinds of new people here. No place to hunt.
Adams: I don’t see as many deer as I used to. Goin’ over to Ukiah, you don’t see as many as you used to.
AVA: The impact of grapes?
Adams: They’ll pump water out of the creeks and stuff. Let somebody go up there and try to get a load with a water truck and they’ll be in trouble. It wasn’t that long ago the creek down there had quite a bit of water in it. It was crystal clear. I was telling Dad that Anderson Creek was looking pretty good for fish. Pretty clear for fishing. Next morning, I don’t know what they was doin’, but it was just as muddy as the middle of damn winter. These vineyards, I guess they keep a lot of people workin’ but they don’t do a damn thing for me! Every once in a while I can get a little bit of wood from one of 'em, but I don’t drink wine. They’ve made this valley where a person can’t hardly afford to live here anymore. The property just went up so high. They bought everything. Cain’t do nuthin’ no more. I know at one vineyard down there they catch deer inside in the grapes, they just shoot the hell out of them. And they're supposed to get the Fish and Game to do something with them. I have seen them deer get shot and just left out in the vineyard to rot. I don’t like that a bit. If you’re gonna kill something, use it. That’s what my grandpa always taught me. He said, you catch a fish, if you don’t want it, release it. If you’re not going to use something, then don’t shoot it or kill it. Because, if you do, one of these days you’re not going to have all this game. And it’s damn sure happened. But there’s still some. I saw two nice bucks near the fence back there when I got back from Arkansas. Somebody said, How come you didn’t shoot one of them? I said, I got plenty of deer meat. I don’t need no deer meat. Why in hell shoot it?
AVA: Do you think you’ll get a little more woods work this summer?
Adams: Some. Start a new job Monday out at Orr Springs Road somewhere. That won’t be much, about 100,000 feet. Then we’re goin’ out there on the Libeu’s and log some more and that’ll ‘bout do it. It could be raining next week, who knows?
Adams: There was four rootin’ down Soda Creek the other day. That’s the first pigs I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. Used to see 'em on the way to Ukiah all the time, and you’d always see some deer. But not any more. On Van’s old place up there, it was so brushy you couldn’t see one if you wanted to. I wish it was like it was when I was smaller. When we lived up here on the hill we raised our own cows, chickens… Back then Dad couldn’t afford to run to the store all the time. He worked in the sawmill before he worked in the school. My grandson doesn’t do none of that. I guess I’ll buy us a little boat here. I’m gonna buy a 12 foot aluminum boat, and when he gets a little older we can throw it in the back and go over to the lake and fiddle around and I'll try to show him something. I don’t want him to get 20 and not even know how to catch a fish. But I was born in Ukiah and lived in this valley all my life. I’ve seen a lot of changes. Fish and Game used to tell me not to fish out in the open; that's the way they'd handle it. The game warden would tell my dad he knew I was hunting out in Yorkville years ago and tell my dad to tell me to quit parking his pickup right on the side of the road. Everybody around knows what he’s doing and they’re pestering the hell out of me!
AVA: We've got a lot of government here in Mendocino County for only a few of us.
Adams: You know it. Don’t get me started on that government stuff. Crookedest damn people in the world running everything. If we did some of the stuff they do, you know where we’d end up. I’ve been there! I tried to do some of the stuff they done! (Laughs) It didn’t work out for me, so I went straight.