Logging and its lost artisans

Machines make hand techniques obsolete, uncommon

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

Logging technology and loggers live in a delicate balance. As technology improves, the skills and the men who use it become obsolete.

Early hand fallers hacked away at the woods with axes too short or too dull for the job. However, they were the cream of the logging crop, an elite class of men at the logging camp.

"Steady nerves were needed to balance on a narrow springboard, sometimes far above the ground of a steep sidehill, and to chip away calmly and methodically at an eight-foot-diameter Douglas fir, waiting until the last moment when it began to fall before walking to safety with dignity. It required a certain artistry to select and hone an axe or saw ... And it required enormous strength and endurance to swing an axe and pull a handsaw all day," Ken Drushka wrote in his book, "Working in the Woods," a comprehensive hisory of logging in British Columbia.

Handsaws and the hand fallers gave way to power saws in the 1920's, just as cable yarders gave way to grapple yarders in the 1970's. Now, grapple yarders are losing ground to skyline logging.

Each innovation makes logging more efficient and safer, often at the cost of the men who use them.

"Being mechanized, with the way things are becoming you can probably do the same thing with three men with three machines," said Russ Sullivan, a former logger who worked at the Whitestone camp out of Hoonah for nine years from 1995 to 2004.

The change to more mechanized logging is also impacting loggers and their families. With less men required for the same amount of work, camps are downsizing to work camps where loggers work at a camp for a week or two and then go home.

Sullivan's family lived at the Whitestone camp.

"The whole atmosphere, the whole lifestyle, that's what we miss. That's what we lost was our lifestyle. It was a good lifestyle, it was a good atmosphere for kids to grow up in, for families to grow up in. My kids, they learned a work ethic there that kids in the city will never learn," Sullivan said.

"I have mixed feelings (about the change) because I like to see people working. I don't like it, I don't necessarily like it when industries become so mechanized or automated that it puts people out of work," Sullivan said. "But at the same time and being able to do more selective logging, I recognize that they have to become more efficient to keep industries moving forward."

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