At loggerheads

I took a trip to an active cut block to get a glimpse of logging life in the Revelstoke area.

File photo: A skidder at work on the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation tenure. Photo: Bryce Borlick

It’s 7:12 a.m. and despite the fact that sun‘s first rays have barely crested the horizon, Al is already taking a well-earned lunch break. He’s been hard at work since 2 a.m., running the grader up and down the mainline logging road, clearing the recent snowfall for the rest of forestry crew who had the luxury of arriving at 5 a.m. In my mind, I run through some old corny logging jokes.

Ben Parsons take a break from falling. Photo: Bryce Borlick

“So, two Irishmen were walking past the sorting yard the other day and they saw the sign “TREE FELLERS WANTED.” One guy says to the other, ‘Too bad Murphy’s not with us today.’”

I’m 40 kilometres north of town in the landing of an active cut block on tree farm license 56 with Revelstoke Community Forest General Manager Mike Copperthwaite. For Mike, it’s a routine visit, but for me it’s a curious glimpse into the daily work of a logger. The massive machines working all around us — a skidder, a hoe chucker, a processor, and a loader — are juggernauts of the forest that I’ve only encountered a few times, rarely up close, and certainly not in action.

A hoe-chucker and processor at work. Photo: Bryce Borlick

The landing, situated on a hillside just below the clear cut, is where logs are sorted, checked, cut to size, and loaded onto trucks. Although Al and Mike walk the landing casually, they’re well-aware that mistakes and inattentiveness can be deadly in the logging industry. The processor just off to our side is swinging huge logs around like toothpicks, and it’s quite apparent that the only real safety zones in this landing are the steel cages of the machines that we’re not in.

“Forestry has always been a dangerous profession, but the industry puts protocols and safety requirements in place to mitigate those risks.” Mike explains. “The mandatory training nowadays is extensive. Unfortunately, it also costs about ten grand, so you don’t see a lot of young guys out here.”

Al Pylatuk operating a processor. Photo: Bryce Borlick

One of the young guys is the faller, Ben. His chainsaw hums on the far side of the cut block. As we watch the trees fall from a safe distance, Mike gives me a quick rundown of how the size and location of a cut block is determined. First they consider environmental constraints like water courses and caribou migration. Then they look at practicalities like steep hillsides and road access. After that, a timber cruiser assesses the forest, identifying species, density, maturity, and health. Lastly, Mike marks out the blocks on foot, ensuring that no site details have been overlooked.

Just to the side of the active falling area, a hoe-chucker (think: huge excavator) crawls up the hillside, picking up the freshly fallen logs and piling them in bunches next to the road. From there, a skidder drags them down the road by the dozen to the landing, where Al is now operating the processor. His machine is similar to the hoe-chucker, except that it has a computer controlled cutting assembly. The cost of each machine varies, but million dollar figures aren’t uncommon. Al motions for us to climb into the cab.

Timber! Photo: Bryce Borlick

“See I can select my species here. This is spruce. When I hit this button, it’ll automatically cut it at forty-nine foot, six.” he says.

The computer in the processor, pre-programmed with the cut lengths requested by mills for each type of wood, measures the length of the log and the diameter at each end. It then combines this data to determine the most efficient cut lengths, and it makes the cuts at the touch of a button. The log in the jaws of the machine is cut and piled next to the road for loading.

“What’s wrong with that one?” I ask, referring to another log he’s dumped off to the side after making an initial cut.

“It’s a pulp log. Too much rot in the middle. It’ll go to the pulp mill eventually,” Al replies as he moves fluidly to a new position. It’s evident that the computing power and hydraulic power of this machine are natural extensions of the operator’s dexterity, experience, and judgement. Al cuts back the engine, “You guys oughta go, we’re gonna need to load pretty soon and your truck‘s in the way.”

We’ve reached the end of our visit and Mike and I drive back down the mainline toward the highway, periodically calling out our position on the radio to the logging truck coming up. Mike points out some unique sections of forest, like an area earmarked to produce telephone poles once the trees are large enough. He trails off occasionally, wondering if the non-responsive logging truck driver is on another channel. When we round the final bend, the cause is clear — he’s hit ice and he’s in the ditch.

“I’ll get out OK but, Mike, we need salt up here, these corners are getting icy,” the driver says.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, statements were improperly attributed to Mike Copperthwaite. They have been corrected. We apologize for the error.

Bryce Borlick is a world traveler, outdoor enthusiast, and urban refugee whom you’re most likely to find wandering the mountains in search of nothing in particular. With an unruly interest in sustainability and permaculture, he may be the only person in Revelstoke dreaming of one day doing burnouts in an electric F-250 towing a tiny house.