Author Archive for Alex Bisso

Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark — Revisited

Back in 2012/13, Alex Bis­so drew upon his many years of find­ing and col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark and authored a five part series aimed at those who might want to try find­ing and col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark on their own.  With Spring FINALLY arriv­ing here in the US, this seemed a good time to revis­it those arti­cles.  If you want to try your hand at gath­er­ing your own bark, you will find invalu­able infor­ma­tion in these arti­cles.  (Please note that Alex is no longer active­ly col­lect­ing and sell­ing cot­ton­wood bark).

Part I — Obtain­ing Legal Access to Prop­er­ty and Per­mis­sion to Col­lect — click HERE

Part 2 — The Bone Hunt — or What To Look For — click HERE

Part 3 — Tools for Col­lect­ing and Clean­ing Bark — click HERE

Part 4 — Bark Clean­ing and Stor­age — click HERE

Part 5 — Mis­cel­la­neous Haz­ards and Relat­ed Com­ments — click HERE


Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark, Part 5

Find­ing and Col­lect­ing Cot­ton­wood Bark

By Alex Bisso

Part 5 — Mis­cel­la­neous Haz­ards and Relat­ed Com­ments


Col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark is always hard work and under hot con­di­tions this can be haz­ardous – espe­cial­ly if the job requires haul­ing or car­ry­ing bark con­sid­er­able dis­tances and through high grass or thick brush.  Most impor­tant is to bring and drink a lot of water.  I have also found that eat­ing salty chips help water reten­tion and reduc­tion of cramp­ing.  While these pre­cau­tions have saved me from heat exhaus­tion or stroke, I still have had to deal with severe leg cramps either while dri­ving home or while col­lect­ing the bark on a num­ber of occa­sions.  Once, in a very remote area, my legs cramped so bad that I could not walk through the thick grass to get back to my Blaz­er.  I had to lay on the ground in the shade of a tree for almost 40 min­utes before I could stand up and stum­ble stiff-legged to the vehi­cle.  In spite of more water and salt my legs con­tin­ued to cramp when bent and I resort­ed to sit­ting it the cold water of the riv­er for about 20 min­utes to be able to dri­ve home – and still I had to stop, walk around and stretch the backs of my legs some to be able to con­tin­ue dri­ving.  Because of that expe­ri­ence I try to bring some­one with me when I go to a real­ly remote area.


It seems like every year some­one gets acci­den­tal­ly shot by a hunter.  I do not want to be one of those sta­tis­tics, so when col­lect­ing in hunt­ing sea­son I always wear at least an orange hat or vest.  The only per­son like­ly to be in an area where I col­lect bark is a hunter and I want him to be able to see me clear­ly.

Ani­mals, Snakes and Insects

Large dead and/or broken/fallen trees that are shed­ding cot­ton­wood bark are havens for var­i­ous ani­mals, snakes and insects.  Besides harm­less game and oth­er birds and deer, I have come across fox, coy­otes, skunks, por­cu­pines, and bad­gers using the areas where I col­lect bark.  To date I have not come across a bear although a landown­er told me that there was one in her yard (adja­cent to where I col­lect) last fall and Fish and Game per­son­nel say black bears reg­u­lar­ly trav­el long dis­tances along the Yel­low­stone riv­er cor­ri­dor where I do a lot of col­lect­ing.  I have fre­quent­ly found snakes, both under fall­en bark or in the space between the bark and the tree while col­lect­ing.  So far they have only been garter snakes, rac­ers and bull snakes.  How­ev­er I have occa­sion­al­ly seen rat­tlesnakes on the roads near where I col­lect so they are def­i­nite­ly a haz­ard watch out for when col­lect­ing bark.

30-MeshGearWorst of all to con­tend with are insects and they def­i­nite­ly demand pre­cau­tions.  One I real­ly dis­like but must con­tend with is ticks – espe­cial­ly in the spring­time.  They are thick in the spring every­where I col­lect.  My typ­i­cal rou­tine for deal­ing with them is:

Pants bot­tom:  Either, 1) tuck my pants bot­toms into my socks, secure with rub­ber bands, and spray all around my ankles and legs with deep woods off or equiv­a­lent or 2) dou­ble up my pants leg so I can spray the insides of them and my socks and then turn them down and spray the out­side.  Shirt:  Def­i­nite­ly a light­weight, light col­ored long sleeve shirt, tucked in secure­ly.  I spray this and every­where else, includ­ing around the edges of my hat and col­lar.  For my neck, face and head I put spray in the palm of my hands and wipe it on to avoid con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing my eyes and glass­es.  Some­times I also wear a pro­tec­tive mesh over-shirt or a mesh head-cov­er.  When I get home, all cloth­ing comes off for a close inspec­tion inside and out.  I have been amazed by the num­ber of ticks I have found inside of fold­ed seams inside of my pants and shirts after being out in tick sea­son.  If you neglect to do the thor­ough cloth­ing inspec­tion imme­di­ate­ly upon get­ting home, you are like­ly to lat­er find ticks crawl­ing on the beds, fur­ni­ture or walls in your housOf course the cloth­ing inspec­tion is fol­lowed by a through body inspec­tion and hot, soapy show­er.  I have also learned that it is best not to bring a dog along for com­pa­ny dur­ing the tick sea­son.  My body has become a sen­si­tive tick detec­tor and I can feel one if it moves any­where on me – some­times even when it is not there!

Mos­qui­toes also can often be too bad for repel­lent sprays alone require the mesh over-shirt or head-cov­er for pro­tec­tion.  In one area this sum­mer they were so bad the riv­er flood­ing that even with these pre­cau­tions, it was intol­er­a­ble to try to col­lect bark.  I quit and swore not to return there until after a freeze.  Bees are anoth­er fear­some insect to expect and beware of – espe­cial­ly paper wasps and yel­low-jack­ets.  They can hurt you and ruin a trip if you do not have some wasp spray avail­able to deal with them so that you can con­tin­ue col­lect­ing.  Oth­er creepy and poten­tial­ly haz­ardous insects to expect include cen­tipedes and spi­ders (includ­ing black wid­ow and brown recluse).  These are often found around fall­en bark, on the bark and between the bark and the trees when it is removed.  I have nev­er real­ly had a prob­lem with these and find that being watch­ful and wear­ing a good pair of gloves is suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion.

Unfriend­ly plants

Some plants like var­i­ous hitch-hik­ers and cock-a-burrs are just both­er­some but some can be real­ly mean.  The ones that one should be pre­pared for when out in the boonies col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark include wild rose bush­es and oth­er thorn bush­es and this­tles as well as locust thorn trees, Russ­ian olive trees, which also have thorns, and sting­ing net­tles.   These plants seem to like the same riv­er-bot­tom areas as large cot­ton­woods and espe­cial­ly like to grown in an area where a large tree has died and/or fall­en down.  Good gloves are help­ful as are stur­dy pants such as Carharts or oth­ers made of tight­ly knit, can­vas-weave fab­ric.  Although they are cool­er in the sum­mer, I always regret wear­ing light­weight pants because invari­ably when I do I wind up with numer­ous thorns imbed­ded in my thighs and legs, espe­cial­ly on and above the knees which have to pow­er through thick areas, etc..  When going through areas thick with sting­ing net­tle, espe­cial­ly in the late sum­mer and fall when it grows tall, it is impor­tant to keep your hands and arms up high to avoid the plants brush­ing on your bare skin.

Since it has been a cou­ple of years since I last “had the itch”, I for­got about a fre­quent­ly present unfriend­ly plant haz­ard to bark col­lect­ing.  Poi­son Ivy is very often found in areas with large cot­ton­wood trees and seems to like both the shady areas under the trees and the very brushy areas around fallen/dead trees.  I know from expe­ri­ence that wear­ing shorts to col­lect bark in such areas is not a good idea and that long sleeve shirts and gloves is a good idea.  Also, don’t leave your pants inside out after col­lect­ing because your wife might get the itch from reach­ing in the legs to turn them right-side out for wash­ing – mine did at least once.  Scrub­bing with a lot of soap in the show­er, soon after get­ting home, to remove any poi­son ivy residue/sap is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed as well.


Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so is a wood­carv­er, and col­lec­tor and sell­er of cot­ton­wood bark and oth­er found wood. To view some of Alex’s carv­ings and cot­ton­wood bark sup­ply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.

Copy­right 2013, All rights reserved. May not be repro­duced in whole or in part with­out pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion.

Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark, Part 4

Find­ing and Col­lect­ing Cot­ton­wood Bark

By Alex Bisso

Part 4 — Bark Clean­ing and Stor­age

Bark Clean­ing and Stor­age

All of the bark that I col­lect is moved to my bark work and stor­age areas.  These are the areas where I do the final clean­ing of the back of the bark and break or cut the bark into rea­son­ably sized pieces for sale and stor­age.  To min­i­mize required move­ment of the bark I find it help­ful to have my work area close to both my rough bark stor­age areas and my sale-ready bark stor­age areas.  My rough bark stor­age is kept out­side and includes most­ly bark that has not had the back cleaned yet and pos­si­bly has not had the out­side hosed or swept.


Rough Bark Stor­age Area

When stack­ing bark in the out­side stor­age areas, I always put down some tim­bers to hold the stored bark off the ground, pri­mar­i­ly to help keep the bot­tom of the stor­age pile dry.  I stack each lay­er of the bark par­al­lel to the one below it so I can get as much bark as pos­si­ble in the area avail­able.  Alter­nat­ing the direc­tion of each lay­er would pro­vide more ven­ti­la­tion but this would take up a lot more space and make the piles larg­er and hard­er to cov­er.  I have found that stack­ing the bark as close­ly as pos­si­ble still leaves plen­ty of spaces in the stack for ven­ti­la­tion and I have nev­er had a prob­lem with that prac­tice.  How­ev­er, I def­i­nite­ly rec­om­mend keep­ing the stor­age pile cov­ered, espe­cial­ly through the win­ter and any rainy weath­er. 
Anoth­er impor­tant thing to have in the bark stor­age area is a good-sized stump to use to set the bot­tom end of the bark on as you work to clean off the back of the bark.  The two main ben­e­fits of this is that it allows you to clean the bark with­out too much bend­ing over and the end of the stump helps pro­tect the blade of you knife as you chop down on it.  I rake up around this area week­ly (pri­or to garbage col­lec­tion) to keep it rea­son­ably clean.  As you can imag­ine, I spend a lot of hours here.  In this pho­to you can see a cov­ered stor­age area on the left side of the pho­to.


Bark Work Area

I should note that I posed for this pho­to and was not actu­al­ly clean­ing the bark, which is why I am not wear­ing gloves.  I keep my bolo knife very sharp and have learned to always wear gloves when doing this – it guards against not only a bad cut from the knife but also from wear­ing out fin­ger­tips on the bark.  For win­ter I will restack the bark along the house and at least cov­er it with a piece of blue con­struc­tion foam.


My pri­ma­ry stor­age area for ready-to-sell bark is a large (10′ wide x 20′ long) tarp shed.  Besides the stored bark, I have a 6″ jointer/planer and a 14″ band saw in this shed.  The band saw is extreme­ly use­ful for final trim­ming and divid­ing up sec­tions of bark.  I also use it some­times to cut bark into small blocks or planks or rough cone shapes for trees when I get requests for such items.

The shed includes met­al shelv­ing for short pieces of bark in the front left as well as met­al shelv­ing stand­ing in the mid­dle that I use length­wise for long pieces of bark.


Shed Stor­age Area

In the pri­ma­ry, ready to sell, bark stor­age areas, I cca­sion­al­ly label the kinds of pieces stored in a loca­tion to facil­i­tate select­ing pieces for an order.  Although you can­not read the labels in the pho­to, the top of the shelf here is des­ig­nat­ed for pieces for light­hous­es and/or pieces for San­tas with trees.  The mid­dle shelf is for pieces for reg­u­lar whim­si­cal hous­es.  The table lev­el shelf is for pieces that make or can be cut into pairs for in-the-round hous­es.


Bark Stor­age Area

A sim­i­lar arrange­ment for bark stor­age exists in the back, left area of the tarp shed.  In gen­er­al, I have found that going ver­ti­cal and stor­ing the bark on sev­er­al acces­si­ble lay­ers of shelves makes it much eas­i­er to find pieces that fit the requests of my bark cus­tomers.


Steel Shed Stor­age

In addi­tion to a large tarp shed, a 10′ wide x 8′ deep steel stor­age shed is also used for bark stor­age.  Like the tarp shed, this is an excel­lent way to store the bark because it keeps it pro­tect­ed from mois­ture.  As you can see, espe­cial­ly on the left side of the shed, it could be hard to look through this bark to find pieces with­out cre­at­ing a bark­slide.   Like in the tarp shed, all of this bark is cleaned and ready to sell  and hope­ful­ly some of it will be moved into the bet­ter orga­nized tarp shed soon.  There are also two large stor­age piles along the fences in my yard, soon to be cov­ered by tarps.  Stor­age capac­i­ty is about maxed out but that is good as we are into the win­ter sea­son.  Col­lect­ing bark in the win­ter is dif­fi­cult because access to many poten­tial areas is pre­vent­ed or lim­it­ed by unplowed road;, because snow makes trav­el­ing through wood­ed areas dif­fi­cult and see­ing what is on the ground dif­fi­cult; because bark on dead trees is often frozen on and not to be removed, and because bark on the ground is often frozen to the ground.  Expe­ri­ence has taught me that it is best to stock up before the win­ter than to have to try to col­lect bark under win­ter con­di­tions.


Steel Stor­age Shed

Com­ing up in Part 5 — Haz­ards of Col­lect­ing and Oth­er Com­ments

Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so is a wood­carv­er, and col­lec­tor and sell­er of cot­ton­wood bark and oth­er found wood. To view some of Alex’s carv­ings and cot­ton­wood bark sup­ply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.

Copy­right 2012, All rights reserved. May not be repro­duced in whole or in part with­out pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion.

Finding And Collecting Cottonwood Bark, Part 3

Find­ing and Col­lect­ing Cot­ton­wood Bark

By Alex Bisso

Part 3 — Tools for Col­lect­ing and Clean­ing


I use a num­ber to tools and equip­ment to safe­ly col­lect and process bark:

Gloves – The out­er crust on cot­ton­wood bark can be very hard and abra­sive and good gloves are impor­tant to avoid dam­age to your hands.  What­ev­er gloves you use, they are like­ly to wear out quick­ly if you han­dle a lot of bark.  Heavy cloth work gloves seem to hold up fair­ly well and are far supe­ri­or to gloves made of soft leather.  Soft leather gloves feel good but are quick­ly ruined when han­dling bark.  Stiff leather work gloves hold up for quite a while before holes are worn in the fin­ger tips.  One of my favorite type of gloves is a woven mesh glove that has a ribbed rub­ber coat­ing on the palms and fin­gers.  These are very com­fort­able, espe­cial­ly in warm weath­er, and wear sur­pris­ing­ly well.


Gloves Used To Col­lect Bark

Flat pry-bar and medi­um sized crow­bar – My main tool for remov­ing bark from a dead tree is a flat pry-bar.  Some­times how­ev­er it will not pry the bark far enough from the tree to free it and then the thick­er crow­bar comes in handy.  The crow­bar also can serve as a ham­mer to dri­ve the edge of the pry-bar into a bark crack to get it deep enough under the bark so it can be pried off.  Although I do most of the bark clean­ing at home, the flat end of the pry-bar is use­ful for remov­ing a lot crud from the back of the bark in the field.

Exten­sion lad­der and/or pole – I have found that these come in very handy when you find that there is good bark that is loose­ly attached to a stand­ing tree and high­er up the tree than you can reach.  This can be a haz­ardous oper­a­tion so it is impor­tant to posi­tion your­self and/or the lad­der behind and to the side of the area of bark that you plan to pry or push off the tree.  Some­times when you push on a piece of bark you just knock of that piece, but some­times when you push on a piece a huge slab (could be 2′ wide x 10′ tall or more) comes crash­ing down so you have to be care­ful.  Wear­ing a hard hat while doing this is also a good idea.


Lad­der and Long Pole

 Tools for trans­port­ing bark out of the woods – My favorite tool for this is a light­weight but strong, wide, shal­low gar­den cart as it allows me to haul a very large amount of bark through fair­ly rough ter­rain.  I fill the low­er part of the cart with small­er pieces which fit there and then start lay­ing larg­er pieces length­wise over the front and back edges of the cart.  I typ­i­cal­ly stack the bark on the cart in this man­ner up to 2.5 feet over the top edge of the cart.  Then I use sev­er­al bungee cords hooked under the edge of the cart and over the bark to the oth­er side to hold the bark in place dur­ing trans­port.  I also have a heavy can­vas army duf­fle bag with shoul­der straps that I like to wear when hik­ing through an area look­ing for sources.  This allows me to pack some select pieces out if I find any­thing good.  I have also used this to pack out bark from loca­tions that were just too hard to get to with a cart.  If I find some real­ly good bark a long way from rea­son­able access I some­times bring a rigid back­pack frame to the loca­tion to pack bark.  The one I have has a frame at the bot­tom that makes sort of a shelf that sup­ports the bark.  To load it, I lay the back­pack frame on the ground, back up, and care­ful­ly lay the best pieces of bark across the pack, stack­ing on it as many as I think I can han­dle.  Then I use both bungee cords and nylon straps to secure the bark to the frame.  To get it on my back I nor­mal­ly have to hoist the bot­tom of the frame up on a stump or log to hold it up as I get the straps over my shoul­ders.  Some years ago I used to do a lot of this but as I have got­ten old­er I find it eas­i­er to accept that some bark is just too hard to get out to be worth col­lect­ing.


Cart, back­pack and duf­fle bag used to haul out bark

 Get­ting it home – a pick­up truck would be nice but since I do not have one I haul my bark either in the back and on top of my Chevy blaz­er or in a 4′ x 8′ x 2′ sides util­i­ty trail­er.  Many times the loca­tions where I find good bark are quite far, up to 150 miles, from where I live.  I do not mind going that far if I have locat­ed a real­ly good bark source in an area that far away (usu­al­ly done on a trip for oth­er pur­pos­es) but when I do go to col­lect it I want to get as much as I can at a time so the Blaz­er and util­i­ty trail­er are essen­tial tools for me.

Bark Clean­ing Tools – Most bark has lots of shred­ded cam­bi­um lay­er mate­r­i­al and oth­er crude on the back side that needs to be removed and a lot of bark is also dirty on the out­side and should be cleaned before stor­age and use.  I do some clean­ing of dirt and waste mate­r­i­al off the back of the bark in the field with the wide, flat edge of the pry-bar but most is done at home.  If the weath­er is warm enough, I usu­al­ly lay all of the bark that appears to be real­ly dirty out on the grass in my yard and spray it with a hose and jet noz­zle.  Bark pieces knocked from stand­ing trees usu­al­ly does not require this step.   After a day or two for dry­ing I move the bark to a loca­tion where I clean any loose mate­r­i­al from the back side.   My essen­tial tool for this is a machete or bolo knife (and gloves of course).  I have a cou­ple of bolo/machete type knives that I got on e‑bay that are ide­al for the job because the cut­ting edge of the blade is curved such that it fits in the inward curve on the back of the bark.  While I am doing this I also slice off any bark from the front that is bad­ly delam­i­nat­ing and not sol­id enough for carv­ing.

This year there was exten­sive flood­ing along the rivers and lots of bark was coat­ed with a thick lay­er of silt.  Although I hosed bark more thor­ough­ly than usu­al, when clean­ing the back of it I noticed that it was still quite dirty and will need fur­ther clean­ing before carving/finishing.  This is some­thing I rec­om­mend be done with each piece of bark before it is carved and a good way to do it is in the sink or tub with liq­uid soap and a scrub brush.  This will not hurt the bark and will make it eas­i­er to carve and fin­ish.  When it is too cold to water blast the bark I some­times lay it out on the lawn and just sweep it with a broom – one pass of sweep­ing from each direc­tion.  I have also found a hand brush or whisk broom to be use­ful to clean cob­webs and dust off pieces of bark as I select them for use or sale.


Bark clean­ing tools

Com­ing up in Part 4 — Bark Clean­ing and Stor­age


Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.


Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so is a wood­carv­er, and col­lec­tor and sell­er of cot­ton­wood bark and oth­er found wood. To view some of Alex’s carv­ings and cot­ton­wood bark sup­ply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.

Finding & Collecting Cottonwood Bark, Part 2

Find­ing and Col­lect­ing Cot­ton­wood Bark

By Alex Bis­so

Part 2 — The Bone Hunt — or What To Look For

Scout­ing For Col­lect­ing Areas

When I go “scout­ing” for good col­lect­ing areas, there are two means of trans­porta­tion that I use for this activ­i­ty.  Most often I do my scout­ing from my Chevy Blaz­er as I dri­ve the roads or high­ways – I do not dri­ve any­where with­out keep­ing my eye out for poten­tial col­lect­ing sites.  It is always a good idea to take some extra time on a trip to dri­ve off the beat­en path to scout for bark.  For exam­ple, get off the free­way and dri­ve some local access road sec­tions.  Also take some trips using sec­ondary or state high­ways or roads even though it might be quite a bit far­ther and take much longer – get­ting there can be half the fun and very reward­ing.  If a carv­er plan­ning a vaca­tion that gets them into Mon­tana, Wyoming, North Dako­ta, and some oth­er states in this gen­er­al area would be wise to add a day or so to his or her trip to allow time to do some scout­ing for bark off the inter­state high­ways.

To get anoth­er, and clos­er, view of the woods along the Yel­low­stone Riv­er, or oth­er rivers, I like to use my canoe to float 3 to 9 mile stretch­es at a time.  This is always great fun as it allows me to explore the banks and islands, fish, and col­lect drift­wood and rocks as I desire.  If I find a large dead tree or oth­er good source of bark, I try to locate some land­marks that will allow me to find that par­tic­u­lar area to col­lect from my Blaz­er.  I usu­al­ly do take a few select pieces of the bark in the canoe as an incen­tive to get me to hunt down the landown­er and seek access to the loca­tion.  I also let my friend and peo­ple I meet know that I col­lect large, thick bark for carv­ing, and ask that they let me know if they ever learn of a place where I might col­lect.  This has paid off a num­ber of times.


The Tell-tail Signs

There are sev­er­al tell-tale signs that might sug­gest an are be more close­ly explored for poten­tial bark carv­ing. The deter­mined col­lec­tor should be on the look out for the fol­low­ing clues:


Bones” are what I call dead trees from which all or most of the bark has fall­en off, which results a tree, whether stand­ing or fall­en, that stands out from the rest because it is bare and white, like a bleached bone.  “Bones” are the first thing I look for, because regard­less of the time of the year, they stand out and indi­cate that at least one tree in that area is dead, and where there is one, there are prob­a­bly more.  Also, all of the bark that fell from the tree to cre­ate that “bone” has to be some­where and that some­where is most like­ly right around the base of the tree.  Even though most of the bark may be old and weath­ered, some that is under the tree, or on the more pro­tect­ed side of the tree, or under the bark that is on the sur­face, or pro­tect­ed by veg­e­ta­tion, might still be very well suit­ed for col­lec­tion and carv­ing.  In any case, “bones” and areas around them are always worth inves­ti­gat­ing, as are trees on which some “bones” are show­ing while oth­er parts of the tree looks fine.



Sev­er­al “Bones” trees in the dis­tance (Click all pho­tos for a larg­er image; close the image to returm)

Stand­ing Dead Trees

Although “bones” are dead trees, not all dead trees have “bones” – and if you can find dead trees that are still cov­ered with bark, you might just have dis­cov­ered the jack­pot for a bark col­lec­tor.  Stand­ing dead trees which are still cov­ered with bark are very dif­fi­cult to find in the win­ter because they can­not be dis­tin­guished from live trees that have lost their leaves.  How­ev­er, while not as easy to spot as the “bones”, in the sum­mer and ear­ly fall, if you look care­ful­ly, dead trees con­trast enough with their live neigh­bors to be noticed.  They are even more notice­able if they stand alone in the mid­dle or edge of a field or are in a row of trees along a ditch line, and not mixed with a lot of oth­er trees in a thick­ly wood­ed area.  Dead trees, whether stand­ing or fall­en, are always worth inves­ti­gat­ing, as are trees which have some live areas but appear to be par­tial­ly dead.

Fall­en and Bro­ken Trees



Fall­en and bro­ken trees are always a find that deserves inves­ti­ga­tion because, if not already dead, they will soon be, and are pos­si­bly a source of good bark.  My best source of bark this past sum­mer was from a large dou­ble trunk tree that had fall­en over on a prop­er­ty where I had col­lect­ed a lot of bark and have main­tained a friend­ship, includ­ing reg­u­lar vis­its with the landown­er.

Getting Better

Get­ting Bet­ter

Broken Tree

Bro­ken Tree



Under­brush and oth­er foliage can make it very dif­fi­cult to see fall­en trees. How­ev­er, I have found that very often the tops of large dead trees break off leav­ing a 10 — 25 feet of trunk still stand­ing.  Look for these as they are great finds — not only because of the bark on them but because the part that broke off is also there, hid­ing in the under­brush.

Fallen Tree

Fall­en Tree


Fall­en Tree Bark

I noticed this one because a large trunk of the tree had fall­en out­ward, away from the tim­bers and land­ed out in an open, plowed field.  Upon inves­ti­ga­tion, I found that two oth­er large trunks of the tree had fall­en into the tim­bers.  I had to wait over 2 years for the bark on these trunks to start falling off and be loose enough to remove but this was my boon for 2011, both because of the large amount of bark avail­able and because the loca­tion had good access. I missed out on the sec­tion that fell into the field because it was chain­sawed up into large 4″ to 6″ thick disks which were then thrown over the fence along the edge of the field.


New Fall­en Tree 01


New Fall­en Tree 02

Very large trees

While not all very large trees have thick, wide bark and while some trees that are not very large in diam­e­ter do have thick bark, gen­er­al­ly very large trees are the ones most like­ly to have bark that is thick enough for carv­ing.  When­ev­er I am scan­ning a wood­ed area for bark pos­si­bil­i­ties, I am look­ing for some real­ly large trees – those that real­ly stand out from the rest – mon­archs of the area that announce that they have been there 100 years or more.  Areas with these real­ly giant trees are the best areas to look if you want to find some real­ly thick bark.  Even if I do not see any “bones” or dead trees from a dis­tance, if an area has a num­ber of cot­ton­woods that stand out as larg­er that most, it is def­i­nite­ly an area that I want to inves­ti­gate.  The worst that can hap­pen is that I could get to walk amongst some real­ly majes­tic old trees and not find any dead or fall­en ones and that is not too bad at all.


Wood Piles and Drift Piles

These may be drift piles along a riv­er bank or on riv­er island, or piles of trees dozed up by a farmer to clear an area, etc.  In one area where I col­lect the landown­er had allowed a fire­wood col­lec­tor to cut up dead trees from his prop­er­ty for years.  Upon inves­ti­ga­tion I found that at almost every loca­tion where a fall­en tree had been cut up for fire­wood I found a large pile of bark, often mixed with oth­er tree trim­mings that had been removed from the tree.  Some­times pieces of the bark had chain­sawn, but much of the time it appeared that the bark had been removed and piled up before the tree was cut up for the fire­wood.

Although not a source for a large amount of bark, I have often found very nice pieces of bark in drift piles along the Yel­low­stone Riv­er.

There are also areas where I col­lect bark in which the landown­ers had dozed numer­ous large trees into a row, adja­cent to a road or ditch and I have been able to col­lect a lot of nice bark by search­ing through such rub­ble.

Drift piles along rivers or on islands are poten­tial col­lec­tion spots that should not be passed up. Care­ful­ly look­ing in such piles can often result in some finds of nice pieces of bark for carv­ing.  Since one is not like­ly to find a large amount of good bark in a sin­gle pile, I do not expect these to be very help­ful to sup­ply­ing the amount of bark that I need for my cus­tomers but I do enjoy look­ing through them for select pieces of bark and oth­er good carv­ing woods.  Often they con­tain nice pieces of juniper (my “Jump­ing Juniper” carv­ing is an exam­ple) and oth­er good pieces of drift­wood.  Many of these “islands” are acces­si­ble by foot (the ones in the pho­to are) dur­ing low flow peri­ods and in the win­ter when the small­er side chan­nels are frozen or dry.  A vaca­tion­er pass­ing through this area or a sim­i­lar area could expect to have both fun and suc­cess if they did some hiking/hunting on such islands.  There are lots of these in the Yel­low­stone riv­er from Liv­ingston, MT to 200+ miles east of there.  Pub­lic lands, parks, wildlife man­age­ment areas, fish­ing access areas and road cross­ings all offer oppor­tu­ni­ties to access such islands.


Riv­er Piles 01


Riv­er Piles 02


The Impor­tance on On-foot Search­es

I want to stress the impor­tance of doing a very thor­ough, on-foot search  of any areas that look to have bark poten­tial after per­mis­sion, if need­ed, has been obtained to go into an area.

My expe­ri­ence has shown that while scout­ing from a car or boat might iden­ti­fy some good bark sources (as indi­cat­ed by what was found on the “bones” in one of the pho­tos), more often than not, the best bark finds are made when search­ing areas not vis­i­ble from a road or riv­er, but only on foot.  A good exam­ple of this is a dis­cov­ery I made when search­ing deep­er into the woods behind the trees shown in the “bones” pho­to.


Jack­pot 01


Jack­pot 02

I actu­al­ly missed see­ing this on my way into the woods because where I entered the wood are fair­ly thick and I went in a ways above the top end of the fall­en tree; how­ev­er, as I came out on a dif­fer­ent route I walked right into a jack­pot. “jackpot2”.  It had more bark on this side then and boy did I get excit­ed.  This tree is one of those giants that is a very spe­cial bark find.  It is so large in diam­e­ter that I could not reach the bark near the top of the trunk from the ground.  This will require climb­ing up the root end to get on top of the fall­en tree.


Jack­pot 03

A sec­tion far­ther up the tree which had excep­tion­al­ly nice bark.

On large cot­ton­wood trees you often find the best bark 8–10 feet or high­er up the tree.  The best bark on this tree was a good 20 feet above the ground when the tree was stand­ing.  As you can imag­ine from this pho­to, it takes a lot of work to get bark from such loca­tions off the tree and even to an area where you can get a cart to load the bark on for haul­ing out of the woods.

The bark dis­cov­er­ies shown in the pho­tos BrokenTree, Get­ting Bet­ter, and Reward above also would nev­er had been made if I did not hike back to check areas of the woods that are not vis­i­ble from the near­est roads.


Com­ing in Part 3: Tools Used For Bark Col­lect­ing and Clean­ing


Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.

Alex Bis­so is a wood­carv­er, and col­lec­tor and sell­er of cot­ton­wood bark and oth­er found wood. To view some of Alex’s carv­ings and cot­ton­wood bark sup­ply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.

Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark

Edi­tor’s Note

This is the first in a series of arti­cles writ­ten by Alex Bis­so about find­ing and col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark. The arti­cles will be pre­sent­ed over the next sev­er­al issues of WOM. The sub­ject of this first install­ment, although more mun­dane then the parts that will fol­low, is nonethe­less very impor­tant infor­ma­tion.


Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark

By Alex Bisso

Part I — Obtaining Legal Access to Property and Permission to Collect

The fol­low­ing infor­ma­tion is the result of my many years of col­lect­ing cot­ton­wood bark, most­ly in Mon­tana but some in north­ern Wyoming as well.

There are many loca­tions where spe­cial per­mis­sion is not required to explore the land for bark poten­tial.  These places include:

  • Pub­lic (State or Fed­er­al) lands
  • State, coun­ty and munic­i­pal parks
  • Wildlife man­age­ment areas, often pur­chased from pri­vate landown­ers, by State or Fed­er­al Wildlife man­age­ment agen­cies and set aside to pro­vide man­aged wildlife habi­tat and pub­lic hunt­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.
  • Block man­age­ment areas which involve an agree­ment between the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment and pri­vate landown­ers to allow access to land for hunt­ing deer, upland game birds, etc.  Some of these only require sign­ing in at access loca­tions but some require con­tact­ing the landown­ers.  Landown­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in this pro­gram receive a small fee (like­ly paid from hunt­ing license rev­enues) for each per­son who access­es the land dur­ing the cov­ered sea­son. Access to these pri­vate lands is only pro­vid­ed dur­ing the hunt­ing sea­sons for which the area is man­aged for hunt­ing each year and then the access is allowed for hunters. Of course it is OK to look for large dead cot­ton­wood trees while doing that. Whether it be for deer or upland game bird hunt­ing, one should go and scout the area as a hunter. I have gone a num­ber of times with my son who is a bird hunter and found some good trees in this man­ner. Then it is easy to call the landown­er, let him know that you saw the dead tree while hunt­ing and ask for per­mis­sion to go back and col­lect the bark for wood carv­ing.

In all of these areas it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that the per­mis­sion allowed to access the area does not include per­mis­sion to col­lect bark or oth­er wood from that area.  In fact some­times any col­lect­ing is specif­i­cal­ly pro­hib­it­ed.  In most of these areas I feel com­fort­able pick­ing up a few nice pieces of bark when I am check­ing the area out.  How­ev­er, before going in the area to col­lect a large amount of bark I make a prac­tice of and strong­ly rec­om­mend con­tact­ing the landown­er or land man­age­ment per­son­nel to obtain spe­cif­ic per­mis­sion to do the col­lec­tion.  Some­times this requires a num­ber of phone calls to even­tu­al­ly find the per­son who has the author­i­ty to grant you the per­mis­sion you need to col­lect.  The state, coun­ty and city parks usu­al­ly have some­one equiv­a­lent to a park super­in­ten­dent who is respon­si­ble for one or many such parks.  Since the land in block man­age­ment areas is pri­vate­ly owned, it is the landown­er’s per­mis­sion to col­lect that is need­ed.

For state and fed­er­al lands, includ­ing wildlife man­age­ment areas, etc. it could take a num­ber of calls to find the indi­vid­ual who is respon­si­ble for man­age­ment of the area.  This would like­ly be some­one like a state or fed­er­al wildlife biol­o­gist who lives some­where near the area.  A good place to start call­ing is the clos­est region­al office of the agency which man­ages the land where you want to col­lect.

Note that many pub­lic lands in Mon­tana now have signs which say “no wood cut­ting” and while I could tech­ni­cal­ly argue that col­lect­ing bark from dead trees does not involve any wood “cut­ting” I would not be com­fort­able col­lect­ing a whole Blaz­er or util­i­ty trail­er full of bark with­out specif­i­cal­ly obtain­ing per­mis­sion to do so.  Hav­ing per­mis­sion brings great piece of mind and assures that a good col­lect­ing area is not put at risk.

When pri­vate­ly owned land is involved it is impor­tant to get landown­er per­mis­sion both before you go on the prop­er­ty to scout promis­ing areas and before you go on the land to col­lect bark – each time.  When I get per­mis­sion to check pri­vate land for thick bark, I nor­mal­ly bring along an exam­ple piece of bark, and per­haps a bark carv­ing, to show the landown­er what I am look­ing for, and I let them know why their prop­er­ty is of inter­est (bones, dead trees, very large trees, etc.).  I also ask them where they sug­gest I look.  I nor­mal­ly like to do my first scout­ing on foot but some ranch­es are so large that ask­ing them about avail­able access roads is a good idea.  If I find good bark I then go back to the landown­er and exchange con­tact infor­ma­tion and make ten­ta­tive plans to come back on a col­lect­ing trip. Some­times I also get per­mis­sion to go and
col­lect some of the bark right then in addi­tion to mak­ing plans to come back
at a lat­er date to col­lect more if it is avail­able.

Com­pen­sa­tion – I have not yet had to pay cash to col­lect bark but to main­tain good rela­tions with the landown­er I always give them a nice, fin­ished bark carv­ing when I find and get per­mis­sion to col­lect bark from their prop­er­ty.  If I do not have a carv­ing to give them on my scout­ing trip I always bring one when I return to do the col­lect­ing.  Some landown­ers have 3–4 of my bark carv­ings and I have devel­oped some good friends and rela­tion­ships in this man­ner.   Even after years of friend­ship with a landown­er, my prac­tice is to nev­er go on their land unless I obtain their per­mis­sion for that spe­cif­ic trip.

It should be men­tioned that it is a good prac­tice to vis­it with or at least call the landown­er on the way out of his prop­er­ty to let him know that you are safe and leav­ing their prop­er­ty, and that you closed any gates, etc. that you need­ed to go through.  I also like to give a small carved-egg San­ta or Christ­mas tree orna­ment, or pos­si­bly just a card or cook­ies, to landown­ers that I vis­it repeat­ed­ly.

In the next install­ment: Find­ing Cot­ton­wood Bark — or What To Look For

Here’s a peek at what’s ahead:

To give you an idea of scale, note the top of the vehi­cle in the back­ground Click for a larg­er image.


Alex Bis­so with a Cot­ton­wood Monarch.


Alex Bis­so is a wood­carv­er, and col­lec­tor and sell­er of cot­ton­wood bark and oth­er found wood. To view some of Alex’s carv­ings and cot­ton­wood bark sup­pl at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.