So much has changed in the woods over the last 30 years.
Much of those early years, the characters I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had now, sadly, represent a bygone era. The hardest part of it all, besides seeing the modernization of logging, is that there’s no one to talk to about those days in the woods—nobody to reminisce with.
Most woodsmen I knew back then were older than me, so now they are gone or close to it. Once in a while, I sit down with an old timer who has worked in the woods, and when that happens, I lose all track of time. We share remembrances, drop names of the big men we knew and we tell stories that only he and I understand without explanation.
In the early 1980s, I arrived in a small logging town called Tupper Lake in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. Much like other remote Adirondack towns at that time, Tupper Lake was a woodsman’s town comprised of hard working, hard charging, risk-taking men who knew “the lady of the woods” was always there waiting to take you away if things went wrong.
When I got to Tupper Lake, one of my first experiences was noticing the size of the arms on every lumberjack. Whether barrel chested or skinny as a rail, everyone had big strong arms. The second thing I noticed was how each could sharpen a chainsaw free hand, making it throw long ribbons of sawdust while the saw literally pulled you into the log you were cutting. Those early days were intimidating—guys like Leon, Slim, Nutsy and Pisser started at 4:00 A.M. and usually hit the tavern by 4:00 P.M. Back then, trees were all cut with saws as big as a car motor with a razor sharp chain that cut through a tree like a hot knife through butter.
One of my first lessons was learning where a tree wanted to fall, because once I made my cut, it was on its way. There were big trees to cut—40 inches on the stump—and when they came down, all hell broke loose!
Big timber takes down anything in its path, and a good lumberjack keeps one eye on the tree and another on the flying limbs, broken splinters and whipping tops overhead.
I learned quickly that if things began badly on any given day they stayed bad so I would either quit while I was ahead or I’d be damn careful. When I was tired, wet or distracted I learned to stop because that’s when accidents happen.
Skidders in those days were operated manually with shifting levers, winch lever and clutch. There were no enclosed cabs and few machines even had doors. In wintertime, some operators placed a grain bag full of hay on the steel floor to keep the cold iron away from their feet and if they could, they reversed the exhaust back toward the cab which gave some warmth at thirty below.
Skidders were loud and echoed off the mountains and valleys below. If you’ve ever heard a Detroit diesel starting and revving, then you know the sound carries for miles. On weekends, I cut, limbed and skidded my own “hitches” or loads. I cut mostly pulpwood and some logs. A good lumberjack could cut 70 trees per day. I was paid $1.25 per tree and could cut 75 per day, and if things were really going good, I’d try for 100. That was big money in those days.
Pine logs went to Canada, cherry was shipped to Vermont, and birch and maple were sent to plywood and furniture companies throughout the northeast. Softwood pulp had to be cut into four-foot bolts and was sent to paper mills that made fine writing paper. In order to load a tractor trailer for these mills, we “bunched pulp” using a pulp hook in piles stacked about four feet to six feet wide for a loader to pick up and load into eight tiers on the truck. This was dangerous because as we bent over bunching pulp, the loader worked above our heads, and it wasn’t unusual to see a big chuck drop out of the bunch as it passed over. Loader operators had to be good and careful. We knew never to bunch pulp under a new loader man! As I bunched pulp, my arms started to look like everyone else’s!
Hardwood pulp was cut in eight-foot lengths and was sent to a different mill to be made into low grade paper, newsprint and cardboard. Too bad we didn’t have Amazon back then with all their need for boxes! While recycling is good for the environment, it was bad for the paper business, and thus the mills began rationing out weekly tickets to limit the loads they would accept. There was intense competition and finagling amongst the crews for those tickets. Some weeks a crew would open the envelope to find only three tickets for the week, which could easily be put up in just one day. The bigger logging contractors, or jobbers, would estimate additional loads and advance the logger the money to get by. However, this often led to trouble, discrepancies and even fist fights on the landing.
Because the biggest wood was located deep in the forest, miles off the main road, temporary haul roads, or winter roads, were cut for access to the big wood. Beginning in late December, subzero temperatures meant the start of 24-hour days spent “roughing out” and freezing winter haul roads. We cleared the snow off swamps and marshes to help them freeze down deep. Brush and mud were packed down and frozen using skidders or bulldozers. This usually involved getting buried in the mud and then winching each other out. It also meant that we had to park our machinery on log piles and spend long hours at the day’s end cleaning mud out of the tracks, otherwise come morning, the tracks would freeze tight and stay that way for a week.
As the roads became frozen enough to hold tractor trailers weighing over 100,000 pounds, they were then cut smooth with drags made from railroad rails cabled together. Eventually the mud, brush and ice created a smooth highway for truck loads bringing out the big logs and pulp traveling at 50 miles per hour. I have seen winter roads that were 40 feet wide, stretching up to 20 miles, and to this day I’m amazed that we did it. It was amazing to see these roads break up and return to nature in the spring. Sometimes I’ll snowmobile along an old winter haul road that’s barely wide enough to pass through, and I’ll tell my fellow riders, “I remember when we used to haul tractor trailers over these trails.” Of course they don’t believe me!
Unfortunately, in one more generation, these logging stories and memories will fade like the day’s last echo of a chainsaw as it’s shut off. Today’s timber is harvested using monstrous, push button machinery that cuts through 200 acres in a week—the same 200 acres that lasted us all summer. Men and chainsaws have been replaced by mechanized equipment, whole tree processors, GPS locators, computerized enclosed cab spaces and equipment with tires the size of a house. The new equipment crushes everything in its path, leaving only a few pole sized trees that will take 100 years to grow into mature trees. We used to think that as the young trees grew, we’d never run out. However, today’s biomass production is simply not sustainable for long-term forest growth, and that impacts the health of its animals and human enjoyment. Add to this the crippling expense for timber companies to buy and maintain new equipment, and you see why it’s the end for the lumberjacks.
Despite this, I continue at age 60 to work in the woods with my sons as I did back then. . . freezing roads, piling wood and watching out for the lady of the woods. Today I cut 25 trees, not 75, and on a good day 30 not 100, yet I still smell the fresh, turned over dirt, summer leaves and sweet maple and cherry sawdust. My arms have grown smaller over the years, but my saw is still sharp enough to cut ribbons out of wood. Nowadays, I cut wood on my own land, and occasionally I get a good paying job from a landowner looking for low impact logging. The pay isn’t enough, but I do the job anyways because the woods are in my heart and soul and my memories live on and can be shared with my boys.
Years ago I asked an old lumberjack friend, “Hey, Bump, what would you do if you won the lottery?” Without hesitation he answered, “Well, that’s easy. I’d log it till the money ran out.”