ORCAS ISLAND, Washington — Kaj Enderlein is passionate about working with his neighbors on Orcas Island, Washington, to rediscover the art of locally-based, sustainable living.
“My passion is learning more about how we can work together to achieve sustainable island living as we grow in trust, love, community, and education,” said Kaj.
Along with many of his friends and neighbors, Kaj is an explorer attempting to discover more about the systems that support life and how they can be integrated into everyday living on the island, which is located roughly mid-way between Bellingham on the coast and the southeastern edge of Vancouver Island. Kaj focuses on many aspects of island living, including the creation of a healthy, sustainable forest system.
Orcas Island is a particularly vulnerable community both in terms of possible disruptions in the supply of everyday needs, such as food, and the potential for natural disasters that could devastate large portions of the island. The island is almost completely dependent on the Washington State Ferries system to transport food from the mainland. A major weather event or other natural calamity could cut the island off from food, fuel, and other needs for days or even weeks. Because of its scenic beauty the island sometimes has as many visitors as it does permanent residents. Any disruption of supplies of food, fuel, and so forth would result in disastrous shortages in a very short time.
Orcas Island has large expanses of forest land with hundreds of homes and cabins scattered throughout. Being partially in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountain range, the overstocked forests of the island are often tinder-dry and vulnerable to wildfires. A catastrophic forest fire is an ever-present possibility on the island.
According to Kaj, the Wood-Mizer thin kerf, portable band sawmill he has owned and operated on Orcas Island and surrounding islands for nearly a quarter of a century plays an important part in supporting the sustainability aspect of his approach to building community.
“I met my first Wood-Mizer in 1994,” he said. “I was intrigued, then enamored, then became addicted as I realized what this machine could accomplish. My Wood-Mizer provides an opportunity to include others in partnership as I pursue my passion. The mill has allowed me to engage in a creative relationship with hundreds of people over time and, of course, it has allowed me to support myself as well.”
When he first purchased a Wood-Mizer, he operated it as a hobbyist, but he slowly began to work for other people. He acquired an interest in big timber construction in 2004, an interest that eventually led him to obtain a general contractor’s license, membership in the Timber Framers Guild, and a Wood-Mizer LT40 hydraulic sawmill.
“The Wood-Mizer is an incredible tool,” said Kaj. “It allows me to work with others to manifest their own dreams. It enables them to stretch their own horizons and learn how to build things for themselves.”
His interest in forest sustainability is supported by the Wood-Mizer sawmill. The San Juan Islands, of which Orcas is the largest, are the source of some of the finest, tight grain Douglas fir available in the West, noted Kaj. Most of the original island forest was harvested 120 years ago and began to regenerate. About 80 or so years ago, a second generation began to grow beneath the canopy of the first. The second generation trees are marvelous for timbers and other wood products, being tight-grained with a 20-inch maximum base tapering to 12-inch tips. However, they also pose a health problem for the forest. Working with landowners and certified arborists, Kaj is helping to thin some forests to both enhance growth of the residual trees and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire.
“In a sense I’m high-grading,” he said, laughing, “because the understory wood is tremendous and because I pay the highest price on the islands, but the work is also important as we strive to create healthy, sustainable forests for future generations.”
The Wood-Mizer has also been a key piece of equipment as Kaj seeks to expand his own community building skills. His education at Oregon State University to become a civil structural engineer uniquely qualified him to lend his skills, and his sawmill, to what he calls “a legacy gift to the community.” Kaj and dozens of friends and neighbors donated most of a year’s time and energy constructing the Eastsound Village Park Stage On the Green in Eastsound, which is home to nearly half the island’s resident population. The stage roof is held up by four large, hand-peeled, cedar trees mounted on granite boulders. The structure features the timber framer’s art throughout. About half the wood components for the stage were produced on Kaj’s Wood-Mizer LT40 sawmill in collaboration with another island heritage mill. The stage won a People’s Choice Honor Award of the Washington State American Institute of Architects in 2008.
Not one to sit on his laurels, Kaj has been working over the past couple of years with University of Washington horticulturalists studying the use of biochar —charcoal used as a soil amendment — in gardens. The work has shown some promise for an ongoing challenge for sawmills of all sizes: the disposal of waste wood material. At present, Kaj is producing biochar for the experiment himself, using material from his own mill.
The introduction of affordable, efficient, portable thin kerf sawmills to the marketplace 35 or so years ago launched a locally based, small business revolution in the forest products industry. On Orcas Island, Kaj Enderlein stands as an example of the positive impact that thin kerf sawmill owners can have on the sustainability of a community’s economy, its forests, and its overall quality of life.