A Yankee Notebook

January 11, 2016


MONTPELIER – A pretty heavy snow squall is at the moment dusting the glare ice of the back yard with a thin coat of traction. Hallelujah! The crossing to the barn earlier this morning was a death-defying feat. Now the roaring diesel engines of the loggers are at it again out there, working happily on newly frozen ground.

They’ve been at it for about a month now, letting the daylight into our swamp, expanding our horizons, and opening the yard to the constellations and northern lights. What started out as a trimming operation to remove large white pine threats to the house – Mother never slept easy on windy nights – has morphed into a general removal of pines that will, I hope, be an open invitation to hardwoods and browsing deer in the near future. Meanwhile, I’ve been fascinated by the machinery that enables three operators and a chopper with a chain saw to cut, process, load, and take away huge piles of logs and pulp.

There’s a skidder, of course, replacing the twitching horses that for generations were the silent, powerful helpers of winter loggers. But this skidder doesn’t use a cable to haul logs, as I remember; it has a pair of hydraulic tongs that can grip sometimes three logs at once to drag them out. At its other end it’s got a blade for plowing snow, smoothing the road, or pushing suggestively against a tree that has to fall in a certain direction.

Setting the loop of cable or chain around the logs years ago was quite hazardous to the digits. A horse or a skidder operator, impatient to get going, might easily over-anticipate the signal from the setter that he was done, and catch his hand in the suddenly tightening loop. I have a friend who was thus reduced from the decimal system to a base-nine.

The skidder out back delivers the tree-length logs to a loader-slasher, which picks them up bodily, runs them through a steel collar to remove the branches, sets them in a cradle, where a large-diameter circular saw cuts them into the desired lengths, and finally adds them to designated piles. When the piles are big enough, they bring in the 22-wheel Kenworth, load it up, strap the load down, and they’re off to the mill in New Hampshire – while I in my office, like an old-fashioned logging camp clerk perched where he could watch operations, record the dates and loads for the eventual settling-up at the end of the job.

The last log drive on the Connecticut took place just over 100 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1915. That was twenty years before I was born, so I missed it. But when I worked at the Lake Placid Bobsled Run at the end of the 50s, a lot of the men in the crew, then near retirement age, were alumni of the logging camps. They’d broken into the labor force at the beginning of the engine age, and knew all the vanishing tricks and techniques of the horse- and human-powered age: how to move improbably heavy objects with levers, rollers, and block-and-tackle; how to keep water from turning to ice before you wanted it to; how to stay cheerful all day working in weather below zero. They wore the uniform of their former profession – pull-on rubber boots over lots of socks, heavy wool Malone pants originally made in that city, suspenders, long johns, two wool shirts with the tail of the outer one dangling, cowhide “choppers,” and hunting hats with ear flaps. I still have my duds, except for the almost weightless Ball-Band rubbers, which haven’t been made for ages. I can find them now only by googling “vintage 1950s rubber boots.”

My nostalgia for those times is more than matched by what those old-timers felt then for the vanished days of the camps and river drives of their youth. They spoke often of great bosses, and camp cooks who made cookies the size of cart wheels, of men crushed by falling trees, and of beloved teams of horses that worked without reins by voice commands only. One of them described to me – and I have no cause to doubt it – saving a fellow river driver who’d fallen into Roaring Brook in early spring spate and was headed for certain doom downstream. His friend reached out with his long, sharp pick pole – a point on the end with a curved hook sticking out a few inches beneath it – jammed it into his back just beneath his shoulder blade, and pulled him to shore. On-the-job injuries got short shrift in the woods. The man was back on the job next day.

The Connecticut River Valley, 255 miles of it, all the way from Third Lake in the far north, to the mill at Mount Tom, Massachusetts, was the classic river drive. After a winter in the camps, the men rolled the logs into the swollen rivers and prodded and poked them downstream. Side streams along the way were dammed to produce squirts of extra water when needed. Log jams, on shallow bars, against bridge abutments, and in rocky spots, provided entertainment, if any were needed, and took a toll of lives. There’s a grave, enclosed by a chain, on the Vermont side of Sumner Falls in Hartland, of 19-year-old Charlie Barber, who drowned there in 1895. His father, informed of his death, drove from Cherryfield, Maine, to Hartland, picked up his son’s stuff and the $300 due him, and drove home without him. Charlie’s pals buried him there beside the falls.

There’s little I’ve done in my life that’s been as purely pleasurable as working with crews of men. With a good, fair boss who knows his business, a job worth doing for enough money to make a living, and some old guys to reminisce about their lives, it’s as good as it gets. There’s little real romance in those days now gone – for every moment of feeding a gray jay from your hand or inhaling a slice of hot, fresh apple pie, there are the other well-remembered episodes of trying to heal bleeding finger cracks or getting the truck stuck miles from help – but I’d go back to them in a minute...if I knew they wouldn’t last any longer than they did.

Photo by Willem lange