Visiting an Active Cut-block

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As part of my volunteering on the Forest Public Advisory Group, I was invited to go along on a forestry audit in February. It was a beautiful day to spend in the bush, at a logging camp and in areas of active logging.

We met at some ridiculously early time of morning — before sunrise by about an hour and half — and after buying subs for lunch, we headed out to the camp. It was about a 20-minute drive from town. About half the drive was on paved and gravel roads, and the other half was on logging roads, which are snow-covered and groomed. Road construction usually involves flooding the road to create a good, level driving surface and then scoring it with a grader (dragging a toothed blade). In summer, these roads are swampy, muddy paths through the bush! We visited a well-established logging company that has a big operation and pretty good set up. They have trailers put together to form common areas, offices, a kitchen and dining area for all the people who work there. Then there are several other trailers for the electrical generators, a mechanic shop and storage of oil and other materials. They even had a hockey rink and a teepee which they’d light a bonfire in to warm up in! Some people drive in each day for their shift — they operate 24/7 — but others live in “the village,” a collection of various mobile homes that have been temporarily set up for the winter log haul season.

The buncher. You can see the shiny cutting blade behind the man. The device is parked perpendicular to how it operates.

After visiting and inspecting the office and main compound, we drove out to the active cut-block. I say “block,” but they are really amoeba-shaped areas. Only the spruce or pine are desired, since only one of our town’s two wood-producing facilities is currently operating. The spruce and pine is hauled to the sawmill, and if/when the OSB plant reopens, then the soft wood such as poplar will also be logged. OSB is oriented-strand board, which is a plywood-like sheet similar to particle board or MDF (medium-density fibreboard). Right now only the hardwood is logged to make lumber. So, the first person to work in a cut block, the man operating the feller-buncher, works to avoid the poplar and leave it standing while cutting down the pine or spruce. The buncher works by grabbing a bunch of trees with claws while simultaneously cutting the trees down using a huge rotating blade close to the ground. The claws then place the trees lying down in a bunch. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the buncher working, because the operator was already stopped, waiting to talk to us.

The skidder. I am squeezed into the cab, getting rattled around!

This particular company is very high-tech; every piece of machinery has onboard GPS, and all the cut-block details are loaded into the devices so the operators can see the perimeter on the screen. They can then make sure to stay within the boundaries and keep all the appropriate margins that are needed around riparian areas — creeks, rivers, marshes, etc. A certain percentage of trees are also required to be left as cover for deer and moose. Sticking to these standards is an important step for both the logging company and the sawmill that cuts the wood to obtain and keep their environmental certification. Most places (read: countries) will not buy wood or wood products that are not certified.

The delimber

Next, we went to an area where a skidder and delimber were working. I got to ride in the skidder, which was crazy! The skidder’s job is to grab the trees left by the buncher and drag them to the “road” and pile them up along it so that the delimber can do its job and then the trees can be loaded onto trucks later. The skidder is a huge tractor-like contraption, hinged in the middle for manoevreability, with a giant claw on the back end with which to grab the trees. It can carry huge loads, and the young guy who was operating the one I rode in was both efficient and skilled. He deftly handled the controls (a couple of joysticks and a steering wheel) to wiggle the machine around standing trees, combine smaller piles of trees into one large load, and then drag them all to the road. The machine bounced along incredibly — someone with a bad back would have been in BIG trouble! — with its huge chained tires just churning over obstacles like stumps or piles of snow/wood up to 3 feet high. I got quite shook up, but of course, I loved it!

Along the road

After clambering down from the skidder, I watched the delimber doing its work. One at a time, it picks up a tree, pulls it backward using toothed rollers, while overlapping curved arms which adjust to the diameter of the tree take the limbs off. When it’s cold as it is here, the limbs snap off pretty well. It then cuts the top off, according to the minimum size the sawmill wants, and lays the tree down in a neat pile.

A few things really amazed me. The machinery is huge and really well-designed for what it is intended to do. The people operating them seemed so young! Perhaps it is a side effect of my age (gasp!), in that men in their early 20’s look like boys, or, could it be the operators’ wholesome lifestyles (these fellows were all Mennonite)?! 🙂 I was amazed how big the working area was! We drove and drove and weren’t even at the farthest extent of the area. Companies like this, or perhaps a bit smaller than this, operate in the bush all around High Level and truck the logs in to the sawmill. Another thing that amazed me was the sheer number of logging trucks. As we were talking at the base camp, it seemed like a fully-loaded truck went by every few minutes. At that time, the log haul was somewhat slowed by not having enough truck drivers. I was told the mill receives 490 trucks per day, around the clock, which works out to about one every 3 minutes! And it’s all sustainable! We saw some areas that had been forested in the past and replanted, which was also great. It’s hard to believe that for the amount of trees we cut down in the winter logging frenzy, uh, season, we can replant and the trees will grow fast enough to be logged again in the future. That just goes to show what a huge area it is. It greatly changes the landscape and habitats for forest-dwelling critters — make no mistake — but as long as we keep wanting to build more houses and furniture out of wood, then we need those two-by-fours. Check out this Google maps link to see the wood piles at the Tolko sawmill.

Replanted area. There is about 2 feet (60 cm) of snow on the ground.
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