At least it wasn’t a skunk

A fire blazes once more in the Nuthatch cabin’s woodstove Saturday night after a marathon cleanup effort.

THE SKITTERING IN MY CHIMNEY stopped midday Thursday. Friday night was cold. I lit a fire. The cabin filled with smoke.

It wasn’t good.

Whatever got into my chimney, and apparently went to its maker there, was now blocking it. Not a tiny bird, I guessed. A squirrel? A hundred bats? Damn.

Saturday was a marathon day of chimney surgery at the Nuthatch. I decided to attack the problem from the inside flue, dreading what I might find.

First I removed every treasured artifact from the mantel. The wedding photos. The ship in a bottle that my brother-in-law Roly constructed. The framed pearl from my father-in-law’s Hood Canal oyster beach. The New Guinea penis gourd from my sister-in-law Ann. All the good stuff.

Moved the wicker chairs to the far side of the room. Draped the furniture with sheets. Tacked a tarp to the wall around the woodstove and spread another across the floor. Soot can go everywhere.

Then I pulled on a white head-to-toe Tyvek painting suit, grabbed my toolchest, a respirator mask and safety glasses from the shed, strapped on my headlamp and commenced peering at the chimney’s every seam and joint to figure out how to open it up.

There were no screws holding the three sections together, just tapered ends fitting snugly into one another. I tried lifting up. I tried pushing down. No budging.

So I did what every home-maintenance wizard does. I checked YouTube.

No luck. All the online chimneys featured screws you could remove, or sliding extensions. Not what I had.

Stymied in my plan to disassemble the flue, I decided to poke and prod from inside the stove. Breathing like an astronaut, with the respirator covering my face, I discovered that the baffles at the top of the fire chamber were backed by bricks that moved when I poked them. Aha!

Fine black soot spilled from above as I moved the bricks. I was able to lift one out and open a clear passage to the chimney. More soot cascaded down. And my headlamp’s beam fell on a small gray lump wedged in one of the baffles. A lump with feathers. A sooty, lifeless sparrow.

I reached in with a gloved hand and gently pulled the limp bird from its trap. It wasn’t big. I don’t see how that small body alone would have blocked the smoke. But maybe its death struggles, all that skittering, had dislodged enough soot to clog the baffles.

With a sense of melancholy relief, I shook the soot and ash from atop each fire brick, replaced them carefully and shoveled the debris from the floor of the stove.

It took hours to get my front room stripped of its protective garments and reassembled as it was. I mixed cinnamon, cloves and orange extract in water and simmered it on the stove all afternoon to purge the cabin’s smoky smell. I buried the bird outside among soggy fallen maple leaves next to the stump looked over by Trudy, the cement garden bunny that came with us from our Bremerton home.

No squirrel, no skunk. No cloud of bats. Just a lonely sparrow who made a bad choice and complicated my Saturday. Sad to think of how its life ended. Rest in peace, you poor, dumb little bird.

The creature in my chimney

The Nuthatch’s galvanized metal chimney soars high into the air. Could any critter climb it?

FOR THREE DAYS, I’VE NOT BUILT A FIRE in my woodstove. For three days, something’s been living in my chimney.

It’s not good.

I was up in the loft on Tuesday, napping maybe, when first I heard it. A sort of metallic skittering noise. Without looking, I blamed Galley Cat, who was down in the front room. I lamely hollered a protest that she should stop scratching whatever new furnishing she’d found on which to sharpen her claws.

But when I was downstairs fixing dinner the noise came again. Galley, at my feet, gave me one of those sideways looks reserved for the righteously indignant. “Not me, see?”

No, I quickly ascertained. The skittering noise was clearly coming from inside the metal chimney rising above my woodstove.

“What the hell?” I muttered. Mice, I first wondered? I’m in a cabin in the woods. I wage battles to keep mice out. I’ve been victorious in that effort for many months now. I have a whole drawer full of anti-mice devices and mice-fighting aids, some not as nice as others. When something goes skitter in the night, mice leap to my mind.

But no, this was coming from inside a distinctly smooth and vertical metal cylinder, part of a closed system whose only opening is some 25 feet in the air, high above my roof. Mice can climb walls, but can they climb smooth metal surfaces? Would they want to? Seems unlikely.

A bird must have flown down the chimney, I decided. Probably some hapless little chickadee that happened to land at the top and perhaps found that the conical cap gave shelter from the wind and rain. Maybe the chimney was still warm from a recent fire. Might have been inviting.

Surely the top of that chimney is screened, though, I told myself. Yes, my cynical other self responded, it was probably screened 20 years ago, but rust and heat have their way with metal, you know?

The skittering noise came and went over the next three days. I reasoned that the little bird had fallen in to the chimney’s narrowest lower section. About eight feet of pipe, some 8 inches in diameter, rises above the stove before transiting the ceiling. The poor thing likely had insufficient room to flap its wings to fly back up to the top.

Could I free it somehow? I peered inside the stove and saw a series of perforated metal baffles between the fire chamber and the chimney. No access. An examination of the pipe above the stove revealed no obvious way to open it up. And, in any case, the specter of a frightened, frantic, soot-caked songbird swooping around inside my home wasn’t high on my “fun” list.

I stepped outside to see how the chimney was attached to the roof. A circle of at least two dozen bolts circled its base. I’ve been meaning to replace that upper chimney, which had been damaged by a fallen tree a decade ago, its cap dented and a supporting strut bent. But it would require opening the metal roof as with a can opener, a task suited only to a summer week without rain, not the middle of the wettest November on record.

Though we were experiencing our coldest nights of the season, I resolved not to build a fire until well after the noise had stopped, meaning either that the bird had escaped or, sadly, expired. Letting it die on its own, and at its own hand, if you will, was surely ethically better than subjecting it to death by smoke inhalation or, worse yet, roasting?

My brother called from sunny Arizona. As I related my problem, he asked if it might not be a squirrel building a nest in there. I shuddered at the thought. A dead bird wouldn’t smell much, or block the flue. But a squirrel?

I tried to put that fear aside, however. I’ve seen squirrels climb straight up tree trunks, but surely even they couldn’t climb the exterior chimney’s sheer galvanized surface. It’s way up in the air, well out of jumping distance. Building codes generally require that chimneys be two feet higher than any part of the roof that is within 10 feet of the chimney. On my high, sharply sloping roof, that makes for a very tall chimney.

In ensuing days, as I’ve sat in my big wicker chair watching a video or working a crossword, not six feet from the woodstove and that recurrent skittering, I’ve had plenty of time to get paranoid about it. Whatever is in there, why have I heard no cries of anguish? No twittering, no squeaking. It’s not nest-building season, but what if something is building a nest in there? It hasn’t complained because it has been happily coming and going from the top of my chimney, thinking, “All right! How cozy is this?

The thought seized my fevered brain. I leaped up and dashed outside in my robe this morning and stood for 10 minutes craning my neck to peer at the chimney’s peak to see if any industrious critter was popping in and out.

Nope.

This afternoon, the skittering seems to be on the wane. I feel bad about it. But I’m just hoping that whatever expires in there is small enough that it won’t stop me from building a warming fire when I need it. We’re talking about life and death in the wild woods.

Please don’t let it be a raccoon.