The day of a fish fry begins with a trip to the woods to cut green vine maple for the fire. My grandpa was not much of a cook. His contribution to a fish fry was a wheelbarrow load of vine maple cut early in the morning while the dew was still on the grass. He also built a fire in the pit where the salmon would roast. Grandpa cut lengths of vine maple two to two and a half feet long, thickness ranging from five inch logs to finger size twigs. He would split the larger logs. In my memory, Grandpa used an ax and a Swedish bow saw to cut fuel for fish fries. He had a bright yellow McCullough chain saw, but I don’t recall him ever using it. After cutting the fuel, Grandpa would start the fire with newspaper, a little kindling, and dry stove wood from the wood shed and later throw on the fresh cut green vine maple. When the fire was going well, sweet and pungent smoke billowing, snow white ashes juxtaposed to black charcoal, flames barely visible in the bright sunlight, responsibility went to the cook, usually my uncle. Grandpa died when I was eight, taking with him, I believe, more secrets about vine maple than I can tell.
Vine maple is harder, denser, and closer grained than big leaf maple, but its trunk does not grow large or straight. There is not much lumber in a vine maple tree. I have seen vine maple grow to a foot in diameter and straight logs ten or twelve feet long but logs like that are exceptions. A typical vine maple trunk is less than six inches in diameter and curves sinuously. Trunks that soar upward twenty feet before branching are common, but they are typically so twisted that you would be lucky to cut straight four foot boards from one of those logs.
I once overheard John Schaefer, who survived treatment in an army hospital ward for pneumonia contracted in the flu pandemic of 1918 and knew something about life in the shadow of Mount Baker, suggest to Dad that he find two curved vine maple logs to replace the worn out runners of a stone boat Dad used for spreading barrels of aged cattle urine over the fields, a nasty job, still nasty but now replaced by more elaborate technology. Dad and John talked it over. Yes, vine maple was the right wood for stone boat runners. It would last forever. But finding two logs with the same curve was too difficult. If I knew what I know now, and had the resources currently at my disposal, I would have proposed that we find one log and rip it down the middle with a chain saw. I could do that. It would have been a perfect solution. But that was fifty years ago and I could not have said that then. Ten years ago, I could have split a vine maple log with a chainsaw, but today, perhaps not.
Vine maple wood is tough, not brittle. When I was a kid, John Schaefer taught us to make bows from vine maple. They were easy to make, find a a nice length of vine maple; a four foot length and three quarter inch diameter would be about right. Cut it green and whittle notches for the string at each end. We used cotton sack tyeing string for bow strings– they wore out quickly, but when we were sacking potatoes to sell in Bellingham every week, replacement strings were always close at hand. For arrows, we used fine-grained first growth cedar. Most were not fletched and had no arrowhead, just a notch for the bow string, although during a period when I was obsessed with Robin Hood, I made a few arrows with chicken feather fletches and arrow heads made from fragments of copper water pipe. The Indians made usually made their bows from yew, like English long bows, but they used vine maple for the bent wood frames of fish and bird nets.
The Indians also wove long thin and tough vine maple wands into baskets for carrying heavy loads like camas roots and clams. My great grandfather wove baskets which he sold in Bellingham in the early days before we had much cleared land and he had to rely on ingenuity instead of farming to buy coffee and pay the property tax. We still have one of his baskets and I think the frame work is made from vine maple wands, although my grandmother said the basket was woven from willow.
Vine maple sap is sweet. One spring, I tried to make maple syrup. I had no luck with big leaf maples, but I gathered a half cup, probably less, of sweet sap from a vine maple by cutting a half dozen vee-shaped gashes in the bark, driving a nail at base of the vee, putting a little wire bail on a tin can and hanging the can on the nail. The sap collected at the base of the vee, ran down the nail and dripped into the can. The sap was clear and colorless as water and tasted distinctly sweet. The sap stopped running before I got more than that half cup, and I did not try to boil the sap down to syrup. My mother was more impressed by the bugs and dirt that collected in the tin can than with the sap, but I drank it and thought it was pretty good, yet I never tried to gather sap again. Still, in the spring, when I think of it, I cut off a vine maple twig with my jack knife and chew on it, sucking out the the sweetness like a farmer chewing on a stalk of sweet grass.