As wood-burning stoves proliferate in the Eastern Sierra, so do wood gatherers. Most houses and condominiums in Mammoth have a wood stove or fireplace, or both, and a typical household uses three or four cords--at $100 to $175 a cord--during the fall and winter. The upshot is that wooding is becoming almost a competitive sport. Plenty of people with chain saws show up when gathering season opens May 1; go too late in the season, which ends Oct. 31, and wood can be scarce.
For many, wood gathering isn't simply a way to beat the cost of firewood--or even a necessary chore. It's a ritual of fresh air, truck caravans and picnic lunches. A few of the more rustic types bring handsaws to cut the wood into manageable size while enjoying a respite from city life and perhaps a glimpse of a deer or a gliding golden eagle.
No matter what group you fall into, it's illegal to cut down a tree, dead or alive, but you are allowed to take wood from the ground. Most of the available legal wood is left from commercial logging, the most common being Jeffrey or lodgepole pine. Lodgepole is considered best because it burns hotter and is easier to split. Wood may be gathered between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. and only with a permit, which is issued by the Forest Service and costs $5 for each cord you expect to gather; the minimum fee is $10, the maximum $30.
The final pleasure is the sense of accomplishment as you head down the highway with your wood stacked in the pickup, fuel for a warm winter ahead.