With chainsaw roaring, Mindy Carter cleared trails for months after the August 2015 windstorm affected Sleeping Bear Dunes trails, mostly working on Alligator Hill.

Emily Bingham talks to her about what it’s like to be a sawyer after the storm, with this piece originally published in the February 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

When Mindy Carter began working at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore 16 seasons ago, she didn’t start out wielding a chainsaw—but over the years she found herself using a saw more and more, until she eventually became one of the park’s two primary sawyers, performing road and trail maintenance, and tending to dead and diseased trees. It’s a demanding job that became even more so when the epic storm of August 2015 blew through the park, leaving unprecedented forest destruction in its wake. We caught up with Carter to talk about her work and what it was like to tackle the aftermath of that storm.

What was it like to see Sleeping Bear Dunes after the storm came through?

I had never witnessed anything like that before. It was quite amazing and awe-inspiring to see the power of the wind and what it was able to do to these huge trees and forested areas.

What was your role in the cleanup process?

My primary work was on Alligator Hill, which was very hard hit. To see dozens upon dozens of full-grown, mature trees stacked on top of each other, 30 feet high, was unbelievable.

How long did you and your crew work on that area?  

We pretty much worked that area three weeks straight for 10-hour days, six days a week.

That sounds exhausting! Does that do a number on your body?

Pretty much! You’re exhausted, you’re sore. I use a saw every day, but I don’t use a saw like that every day! As a crew, we tried to take care of each other, take long breaks, drink lots of water. Safety is always the number-one concern, especially during a complex job like that. Storm damage is some of the most difficult cutting you’ll ever do. It’s far more straightforward to walk up to a tree and cut it down than to walk up to a mangled pile of twisted and bound up trees and then stick a chainsaw saw in that.

So how did you approach the cleanup?

For lack of a better description, we almost tunneled through it, and we used equipment, like backhoes and an excavator, to literally just move it off to the side. So all the wood is right there. As far as I know, the park is going to leave all of that there with the idea that this was a natural event—even if it’s not as pretty as everyone would like—so we will let the natural processes happen. Right now it’s making great habitat for animals, and it’ll start to decompose and go back to the soil and finish the cycle that is Mother Nature.

Do you like being a sawyer?

I love what I do. It’s definitely not something I aspired to when I was younger, but it’s really exciting. It’s challenging, especially being a woman, because the equipment is heavy, and the work is hard. But it’s very fulfilling.

What did you take away from your storm cleanup experience?

The sense of how everybody really pulls together in a moment like this. It not only got people together but out in places they’d never been before. We had guys in the crew who’d worked in the park a long time, but they never actually had been on that particular trail. So even though it kind of looks like the storm tore our park apart a little bit, I really think it’s also brought our park together.

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