Silver Water man finds the secret of living the good life in his wood pile

SILVER LAKE—John Armstrong enjoys working alone, he finds it very peaceful, but since the Silver Water man is approaching 86 (this coming October) everyone, it seems, wants to lend a hand.

“I’m finished,” announced Mr. Armstrong when The Expositor called him on Thursday to find out how this year’s splitting and stacking was going. But we already knew that as Mr. Armstrong’s daughter Debby Fabiani had been slipping us a photos of the woodpile progress. In fact, The Expositor had been following the saga of the Armstrong woodpile ever since Mike Corbiere of M’Chigeeng had dropped off this year’s load of hardwood logs. She thought it could make a nice story. “It wasn’t my idea (to do a story on the woodpile),” said Mr. Armstrong, putting his disclaimer in right from the start of the conversation.

The raw logs Mr. Armstrong started out with were mostly maple. “But there was the odd ironwood log in there as well. Maple is about the best, in my opinion, but the ironwood is pretty good too; just a little bit harder to cut.”

The hardwood is destined to combat the winter’s cold in the family’s house, but when it comes to the small stove in his garage Mr. Armstrong said he prefers poplar. “It burns fast and it burns really hot,” he said. The perfect thing to quickly take the edge off in the garage. “You have to put it in the stove more often,” he admits, but that’s all part of the fun of wood heat.

The logs are cut…

Mr. Armstrong retired to Manitoulin 30 years ago after leaving his job of 23 years as a funeral director in Port Colburne, but he was very familiar with the Island long before that. “We built the old hunt camp back in ’78 on 100 acres,” he recalled. But in 1986 he and his wife made the move to Manitoulin.

“My parents fell in love with Manitoulin in their early years when Dad used to travel there to hunt,” said Ms. Fabiani. “When opportunity to purchase some property became available he set his sights on retiring as early as possible to live out his remaining years in what he refers to as ‘God’s Country’.”

Travelling the eight to 10-hour drive from Port Colborne to Silver Water on weekends did not deter Mr. Armstrong’s eagerness to start building their dream home to prepare for their move, noted his daughter. “With only a framed building to start, he completed the inside and built most of the furnishings bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, weekend after weekend.”

…then split…

Once the house was complete, the couple made their move. “With only a few savings, he retired from his occupation as a funeral director in Port Colborne and he and my mother packed up their pickup truck with an attached trailer with only a few belongings and made the journey to start a new life on the Island. Picture the image of the Clampetts on the old sitcom ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and you can envision the scenario,” she laughed.

Wood cutting, and piling, is certainly nothing new to Mr. Armstrong. “I have been cutting wood most of my life, it’s something I pretty much have always done,” he said. “I was almost born in the bush.”

When it comes to working on the woodpile, Mr. Armstrong said that he really prefers to fly solo, but that a number of people tend to show up to help.

“They wanted to help cut the logs, but I made sure I had the cutting all done before they got here,” he laughed. “So a few of the guys helped out with the splitting. They just couldn’t believe someone my age can get it all done.”

His secret? “You just take your time,” he said. “I find that at my lifespan working makes you feel better. You realize that things are going to keep working as long as you do.” There may come a day when you can’t, he admits, but keeping on keeping on does tend to put that day off for quite a while, judging from his own experience.

Besides, “I like piling wood,” he said. “I like to look at it all neatly piled.” There is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in a neatly stacked supply of winter fuel.

As to his wife’s take on the woodpile philosophy? “She thinks I am a little off,” admits Mr. Armstrong. His daughter agrees. “We think he’s crazy doing all this at his age, in this heat,” she wrote when she sent the final woodpile photo, “but he’s standing proud and happy!”

“I am astounded that at almost 86 years of age my father has the stamina to tackle these logs; to cut, split and then pile all on his own,” said Ms. Fabiani, but she admits that it has a pretty big upside. “I believe life on the Island has certainly attributed to his longevity and more significantly his physically active lifestyle.”

…and stacked neatly for the winter!

When he isn’t cutting, splitting and stacking wood, Mr. Armstrong still has plenty to do. “I have a pretty big garden,” he said. But he has cut it back a bit this year. “I usually have around 100 tomato plants,” he said, “but this year there is only around 70 or so. I give it all away anyway. I put it all on the table in my shop and when people drop by they take some away with them. It isn’t going to be too good a year this year though, too hot and dry.”

“Thirty years later as a resident of Silver Water Dad has made his mark in the community,” said Ms. Fabiani. “On a daily basis local residents congregate at their property, sometimes as many as 15 people at a time. They sit in the garage that Dad lovingly and proudly built, complete with a wood burning stove, a fridge and stove to entertain, or to sit outside in a circle either surrounding the fire pit or sitting under a large spruce and enjoying the breeze from Silver Lake. Dad is well known for his infamous ‘fish frys’ that he hosts for all their friends when he reaps benefits of a great catch.”

Mr. Armstrong still enjoys hunting and fishing.

Then there is the grass. “I have about 20 acres here (no, not all of it is grass) and a riding mower,” he said. “Trimming is the worst.”

“I’m not surprised that Dad still wants to take on the woodpile,” said Ms. Fabiani. “The wood is a source of heat to get them through the cold snowy winters, but electric heat is an option if required (it’s an option I wish he would utilize). That being said, as much as I fear the danger of this feat—a feat that even a youthful person would find challenging—I understand that letting go of this chore would mean he would be succumbing to old age and that is not something he’s ready to do. Dad is 85 going on 25.”

Mr. Armstrong doesn’t mind sharing the secret of staying hale, hearty and content into the mid 80s, but suggests that, not to be ungrateful, but…perhaps it would be best if people were to find the secret to life in their own woodpile.