Stick haulers

| May 07, 2008

Freshly cut trees are stripped of their branches and cut to a uniform length. From a distance, they look like giant toothpicks as they’re loaded onto trucks. The loading process is coordinated between machine operator and trucker to ensure the outbound shipments are within weight restrictions.

It’s 4 a.m. in midsummer on a mountaintop southeast of Aberdeen, Wash. The sky – momentarily clear, inky black and awash with pulsing, brilliant stars – is beginning to show the first signs of a new day: a hint of bluish purple light that’s slowly oozing into the eastern horizon. The air is calm but brisk (about 50 degrees) and heavily scented with wet pine. Around us, everything is damp, thanks to a heavy dew and the intermittent showers that strafe these hills with some frequency.

While most people along the West Coast are still asleep, my companions here are very much awake and already on duty. They’re loggers.

Logging isn’t a job for slackers or the faint of heart. The days usually start between 2:30 and 3 a.m., kicked off with a dark drive to a loading site buried deep in the woods, often at the end of a winding, unmarked two-track goat path no wider than your truck’s side-view mirrors. On good days, the trips are merely treacherous, as man and machine scale ascents sometimes steeper than 15 percent, churning up “road” surfaces that are little more than mud and rock.

My guide on this trek is Bobby Gibby of Hoquiam, Wash., a former North Carolinian who’s been working the Northwest woods since getting out of the Navy 31 years ago. Gibby says he was lured by the pay.

“When I came to Washington, the average wage back home was about $4,000 per year,” he says. “Here, I could make more than $1,000 a month at that time.”

Gibby started on a loading crew, “setting chokes”: basically wrapping a steel cable around the base of cut trees so they could be dragged to an area for loading. But soon he switched to the trucking side of the job because he “realized that hands don’t get nearly so cold when they’re in a heated truck cab.”

After a while, Gibby bought his own truck and leased it to logging companies in the area. “But that went away when we discovered the spotted owl,” he says dryly. He tried long-haul for a few years but eventually came back to the woods, where he now works as a “truck boss” for Aberdeen-based Jackson Timber Enterprises, overseeing 12 company trucks and a varying number of leased operators.

Gibby’s position in the company has recently earned him a freshly minted Western Star 4900 SA, powered by a Detroit Diesel Series 60 rated at 475 hp and geared through an 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. This dark-green ride is vastly different from the truck he drove at the start of his career: a 1947 Kenworth sporting a 280 Cummins (250 with a turbo) and twin-stick 5X4 gearbox. “It was a gutless wonder,” he recalls, “but I was young and enthusiastic, learning to drive.”

We wait in the darkness, engine turned off, while another Jackson truck is being loaded “in the hole,” a location several hundred yards south of, and roughly 500 feet below, our current position. The area is quiet, save for the distant, high-winding rev of the diesel-powered loader, or “shovel,” as it’s known in the trade.

Soon, we hear the other truck’s engine stir to life and, shortly, see headlights moving toward us. It’s our turn to load. After the truck rolls past, Gibby finds a wide spot where he can turn around, then starts backing down the unlit, slimy mud trail leading to the hole. I’d guess the approach is about 10 to 12 feet wide. It’s flanked on one side (Gibby’s) by a land formation best described as a cliff. Straining to get a better look at the airy side of this precipice, I cannot see the bottom. My imagination goes into overdrive, and I thank God I’m not at the wheel.

Gibby apparently shares none of my worries. He swiftly and expertly guides us backward into position for loading, then jumps out as the shovel is lowering his piggybacked trailer to the ground. As soon as the loader starts piling logs on the truck, Gibby climbs back in the cab, grabs the CB and starts calling out onboard scale numbers as they scroll higher. The banter is unintelligible to the uninitiated:

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