An Ode to the Pulaski, the Hero’s Tool

The Pulaski is not an elegant object – half axe, half mattock – it chops and cleaves, it excavates and


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The Pulaski is not an elegant object – half axe, half mattock – it chops and cleaves, it excavates and grubs. It is, above all, a workhorse, just like the man who created it. You may have never hefted one, but odds are you’ve ridden a trail that was shaped by a Pulaski or walked beneath trees protected by it. That’s because the Pulaski is the first tool trailbuilders reach for when constructing new trail and the one tool you’ll always see firefighters carry into a wilderness inferno. It’s been that way for more than a hundred years now.

THE LEGEND
adventure-journal-daily-bike-ed-pulaskiThey called him “Big Ed” Pulaski and when he was hired by the fledgling Forest Service in 1908 as an assistant ranger the 40-year old woodsman had already spent the previous 25 years rambling the west as a miner, ranch hand, railroad worker, and part-time blacksmith. The summer of 1910 found Edward Pulaski overseeing a group of firefighters near Wallace, Idaho. They had their hands full. It was bone-dry that summer-it hadn’t rained since May-and firefighters across the west were battling thousands of small fires. But on August 20, everything suddenly went to hell. On that day, a rare hurricane-force windstorm, known as a “Palouser,” united scores of smaller fires into a conflagration that within just two days devoured three million acres of forest-an area about the size of Connecticut. The inferno consumed towns completely and left 86 people dead-78 of them the largely untrained firefighters who battled the blaze with nothing more than shovels, axes, and buckets of water.

They didn’t have a chance.

Today that particular fire is known as “The Big Blow Up” and “The Big Burn.” Many experts believe we haven’t seen a more devastating wildfire since. Even with today’s advanced tools and training, many firefighters today would have been forced to cut and run-which is exactly what Pulaski and 46 of his men found themselves doing until they realized they were surrounded.

Remembering an abandoned mine from his prospecting days, Pulaski led his men inside and ordered them to lay down on their stomachs on the mud. Throughout the night, the fire raged outside. It was so hot inside the tunnel that the support timbers caught fire-sucking oxygen from the air and creating conditions so hot that some of the men’s clothes burned off. Panicked, some of the men tried to run out of the tunnel, but Pulaski, knowing it was certain death outside, pulled out a revolver and kept his men safe, albeit at gunpoint. Throughout the night Pulaski kept the heat at bay by dousing the mineshaft timbers with hatfuls of water he collected from a seep inside the tunnel.

THE TOOL
The next day, Pulaski and his men staggered back to Wallace-40 of them had survived, though they were all in bad shape. Pulaski himself spent the next two months in the hospital. He would never be the same-the severe heat and smoke inhalation blinded one of his eyes and decimated his lungs. Pulaski, however, stayed on the job another ten years. One of the first things he did after the blaze, in fact, was build a better tool.

adventure-journal-daily-bike-pulaski-3If Pulaski had learned one thing from The Big Burn, it was that you needed to be fast on your feet. Dragging armfuls of tools around was not only impractical when fighting fires; if it slowed you down, it might also kill you. Working in his backyard forge, Pulaski combined two of the most important tools-the axe and the mattock, a kind of lightweight hoe.

When Pulaski presented his invention to his superiors in the Forest Service, they were initially unimpressed. To be fair, the tool is an ungainly-looking mutt. What Edward Pulaski’s creation lacks in finesse, however, it more than makes up for in sheer utility. The hybrid axe-hoe has an excellent balance to it, you can swing it all day and, with the flick of your wrist, you can go from chopping through roots to digging trenches. Firefighters in the field immediately took to it and by 1920 the Forest Service was issuing thousands of Pulaskis to their crews.

Edward Pulaski and his tool have become iconic-symbols of sacrifice and hard work. Unfortunately, while headlines lauded Pulaski as a hero in his own time, he died an impoverished and physically beaten man. Pulaski never fully recovered his health following The Big Burn and the Forest Service refused to pay for his and other firefighters’ medical bills. Furthermore, Pulaski was unable to patent his tool within two years of forging it (he was denied a patent in 1914); thus, while his tool entered widespread circulation within his lifetime, Pulaski himself never earned a cent from it.

Firefighters aren’t the only fans of the tool that bears its creator’s name. Today, trail builders the world over consider Pulaskis invaluable when it comes to laying the foundation for any trail. I’ve built singletrack in Colorado, North Carolina, Upstate New York, and the redwood forests of Northern California and while the Pulaski isn’t the only tool I drag to the trailhead, it is the only one I consider absolutely indispensable. If you’ve mountain biked, gone trail running, or hiked a lonely bit of singletrack anywhere in North America, rest assured, you’ve traveled trail touched by the hero’s tool.


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Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
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Showing 5 comments
  • mims
    Reply

    This guy qualifies as a historical bad ass as well. Great story. Thanks.

  • ECP
    Reply

    And you even got a photo of a pulaski stamped by the WTA — the Washington Trails Association. I’ve hefted many pulaskis, and even helped sharpen a few. Thanks for the post about one of the unsung heroes of trail construction. Next up? The macleod.

  • Mitch
    Reply

    Oh yeah! I paid for a good part of my college education swinging one of these during the summer. It is indispensable. On our fire crew we probably carried four Pulaskis to every one shovel or McCloud. However I would disagree with one comment. It is not particularly well balanced. Try throwing one like an axe and you’ll likely break the handle.
    I’ve also used one building trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Pulaski and the ‘hodag’ (pick/mattic) were our primary tools. Being slightly wider, the hodag was a little better for the trail bed but you can’t beat a Pulaski for digging stumps.
    He must have been a pretty good blacksmith because I have never heard of a broken head.
    BTW I’m now 66 and still own one.

    • Rebecca
      Reply

      Mitch, It’s never too late to reconnect with a pulaski in the Bob Marshall Wilderness! The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation has over 40 volunteer adventures planned this summer. They supply food, tools, pack support and a crew leader and you just bring your personal gear…and it FREE!
      check out http://www.bmwf.org/volunteer for the list

  • keith
    Reply

    So glad to hear more about this tool! I bought one from the hardware store for a stump removal home project. Now it’s the best camping/overland tool I’ve ever had. The Pulaski is so nice for splinting campfire wood and those emergency dirt digging that happens every once in a while in the back country. I kind of wondered why it’s not more popular for those uses.

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