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:

“Eighty and eight,” he says in a monotone voice. “Twenty-sixes, I’ll take only 76, then put the rest on the pup.”

The truck is fully loaded within 20 minutes. Gibby quickly throws a couple of straps – “wrappers,” as they’re called here – over the wood and pulls out of the hole to make room for another Jackson truck, which hasn’t arrived at the site yet, much to Gibby’s disappointment.

“I just hate babysitting these guys,” he mutters. “Some think the world owes ‘em a living and they should be able to come to work whenever they want. I’d love to send a few of them packing. Problem is, there’s a shortage of log haulers nowadays, so it’s pretty tough to fire someone unless he’s really screwing up.”

We park briefly near the staging area so Gibby can sling a few more wrappers, tag the load with a small green identification card and brand-stamp a few of the logs with a blunt instrument that somewhat resembles a medieval battle axe. Soon we’re underway, headed down the mountain toward a state highway below, en route to a Weyerhaeuser chipping and lumber mill in Aberdeen, roughly 40 miles away.

It’s about 6:30 a.m., and the sun, which has been in and out of the clouds countless times since dawn, is now piercing a clear blue sky, burning off the lingering mist in the treetops. We round a corner and roll into a clearing along a ridge hugging one of the peaks. The view is breathtaking: hills and forest (both standing and “harvested”) as far as human eyes can see. Gibby’s unimpressed, however. Such vistas are a regular occurrence for him.

“Five, loaded, out,” he says into his CB as we pass a large hand-painted mile marker. A few moments later the radio crackles with a response, “Two, empty, in.” Gibby recognizes the voice. It’s that of the driver he expected to see at the loading site 45 minutes earlier. “Where ya been?” he asks, dispensing with pleasantries. “Got a late start,” the driver replies. “Four, loaded, out,” Gibby says as another homemade mile marker comes into view. “Better get up there. They’re waitin’ on ya.” The radio is quiet. Then, “Three, empty, in.” We wheel around a bend and see the other truck stopped alongside the single-lane dirt path, waiting for us to pass. The men share a curt nod as we roll by.

Our slow descent toward the base of the hill is a study in unrelenting opposing forces. While gravity hurls us forward, the compression brake on Gibby’s engine toils to curb momentum. In this business, engine brakes – and they’re nearly all compression type – are as important as wheel lugs. Without them, it’s unlikely anyone would be brave (or foolish) enough to run down the side of a steep mountain hauling 25 to 30 tons of dead trees. Gibby keeps his brake switched on anytime he’s under load and, coming down the slopes, he leverages that stopping power with gear choices that keep rpm near 1,400 and truck speed below 15 mph.

The receiving side of a modern timber mill is, for the most part, a fast and efficient operation. When inbound traffic is light, the entire delivery process takes less than 30 minutes. Trucks are weighed in, then (depending on the type of logs they’re carrying) sent to various locations within the facility. As soon as a load is unwrapped, a gargantuan forklift moves in and, with a single lift, unloads the truck, depositing the wood in one of the many piles that fill these yards.

Our visit to the Weyerhaeuser mill is brief, and we’re back on the road shortly after 8 a.m. Gibby reckons this affords us the luxury of stopping for breakfast – logger style: convenience store food and drinks consumed while the truck is rolling down the highway.

Fully provisioned, we set sail for our second load, to be picked up at a site whimsically named Outcast 3. Gibby assures me this place is much higher in elevation and farther into the woods than our first load. He isn’t kidding. About 30 minutes after leaving town, he turns into a nearly unmarked opening in the forest and, for the next 12 miles, claws up the side of a mountain, so steep at times I wonder if the truck shouldn’t be fitted with an altimeter. The angle of ascent is matched in severity with the abusive road surface beneath us, which pounds and shakes the Western Star mercilessly.

“Normal highway trucks can’t take this kind of beating,” Gibby says. “People sometimes try to use them, but they don’t last.” He says logging trucks are built with thicker frames, extra cross-members, heavier differentials (rated at 46,000 lbs.) and beefy front suspensions. They also feature a locking device that forces equal power through both ends of each drive axle: a sort of dif-lock on steroids.

After what seems like an eternity of vehicle endurance testing, we finally reach the loading site near the summit and, with no other trucks ahead of us, back up to the shovel. Gibby and the crew trade some well-worn, good-natured barbs with each other, then everyone goes to work moving wood. I try to mentally prepare for our return trip down the rutted, rocky switchbacks to the highway. Kidney belts (and maybe a pillow) would be helpful.

Gibby and I run “team” on one more load before parting company mid-afternoon. He says something about getting back to the yard and finishing some work there before heading home. All I can think about is finding a nice – immobile – meal somewhere and going to bed.

“This job isn’t for everybody,” Gibby admits near the end of our time together. “Some people can adapt to the woods, but plenty more can’t.”

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