Come on, jump in the truck. There’s room for a few of you. We’ll be heading up a winding mountain road, (don’t worry, we’ll be in competent hands), to a densely forested slope in the West Kootenays of British Columbia to witness something incredibly interesting. We’re hanging with the the Atco Wood Products Field (or Woods) Crew and we’re going to see how they gather trees for their mill in nearby Fruitvale.
It’s not logging in the traditional sense here, but rather modern forest management. Coordinated, efficient, highly mechanized and computerized, they harvest the trees with military precision. And dear old mother nature, bless her soul, is not forgotten about, not in the least, so it’s sustainable. Soon after all the men and machinery leave, and the dust settles, new trees are in the ground. This is nothing like the old days.
This post will be a three-parter. In the next two instalments, coming soon, we’ll look at the Atco mill where the logs seen here are processed – veneer for plywood is mainly what they make , but every last bit of wood is used – and later the firm’s little railway which takes some of their products to market.
First step is getting to where we need to be. The BIGDoer-mobile has been some mighty rough places, and this author is neither a stranger too nor the least bit scared when it comes to challenging roads but here we’ll hang with a chaperone (Pete Quinn). He’ll show us around and anyway the road up in is radio controlled meaning if you don’t have one, you don’t go. Those logging trucks move fast!
Incidentally the land being harvested here is not terribly far from Atco’s Fruitvale plant. Blocks can often be some distance away. A quick trip up a typical BC logging road, so rough, roller coaster-like, and winding, and we’re at the site. Along the way, Pete gets us up to spreed as to what’s going on. Good, because we’re perhaps a little under-educated when it comes to the art of modern logging. There’s no axes here, no chainsaws, no army of workers, just a few brutish machines operated by a skilled team of brawny men.
On arrival, we’re shown a Tigercat Harvester (this firm’s products are well represented here). It takes raw logs brought down from the hillside above, strips them clean, cuts them to a prescribed length and then stacks them nicely, for later pickup by truck. Each log is processed is under a minute.
Up on the hill, two feller-bunchers can be see working. We’ll hike up to one, which also came from the Tigercat firm, to take a good look. This monster, in one quick motion, grasps the tree, cuts it at the base, and then sets it aside for collection by the skidder (a machine we’ll look at it next). Moving about on cat tracks, it’s self levelling. The toothed-disc that does the cutting is something to see. The operator’s cab, indeed the entire machine is well armoured against falling objects. While watching it work, a snag (a dead, often rotted tree) fell onto the machine. And it bounced right off.
Pete discusses what’s being harvested. The West Kootenay forests are predominantly conifers (soft woods) and are quite diverse with a good three or four species making up the bulk of the trees here, depending on terrain, along with some lesser ones. This varied mix means a generally very healthy forest – when a single species dominates problems can arise. Google Pine Beetle to see what we mean.
All tree species are harvested with Spruce, Douglas Fir and Larch being used by the Atco Mill directly, where they’re then made into plywood sheeting. Other varietals, cedar, pine, hemlock, etc, are sold or traded to other mills in the region (generally each specializes and only uses a couple specific species). Trees here are not terribly huge, by BC standards anyway, which lends them self well to the mechanized processing done here. The slopes aren’t too steep or rocky either, which further helps. In the far west the trees are too big and the ground too precipitous for an operation like this to succeed.
The two feller-bunchers make quick work of things. Shuttling between them and the harvester is a grapple skidder (guess what, it’s a Tigercat). With huge balloon tires outfitted with chains for traction in the sometimes loose/muddy/wet conditions, and a huge claw, it grabs bundles of wood and drags them down to the processing area. In spite of the tough terrain, the machine can really move (forward or in reverse).
A second even larger skidder, again the same Tigercat brand, sits down by the road and was getting a little attention from a mechanic. In spite of the incredibly hard conditions they’re subjected to, the machines overall are said to be quite reliable. That they’re overbuilt doesn’t hurt.
We’re told this block of timber is just shy of the maximum size the Atco firm is allowed to harvest. Some wood, around streams and roads is not touched (extra care is taken in regards to the former). The limits of the block are marked with painted trees or stakes. GPS positioning is also used. It may be the second time this chunk of land was logged. Old stumps here and there suggest it was done once before, long, long ago. Chances are, given the land gets replanted, it will be again sometimes in the future.
Plots are chosen using a number of criteria: availability, mix of trees, terrain. accessibility, environmental impact and so on. It’s far more complicated than simply saying, “hey, there’s a clump of trees we can log”.
All the larger material that’s not processed is gathered up and put into piles. It’s later burned. Other smaller litter is kept in place. It stabilized the soil, provides homes for small animals and as it decays becomes valuable compost for the new trees and other plant growth.
Further down the block we come to a spot where trucks are loaded. This area was harvested the week prior and was already being reclaimed. Roads in were being removed, the terrain being “landscaped” back to its original profile.
A pile of logs await pickup at a landing. Trucks reverse, the piggybacked bunk (trailer) is picked up and connected and the loading begins. As it’s filled, the operator takes extra care making sure the loads is distributed evenly, and not overweight (they really watch that). Trees are placed in a special way so they’re less prone to shifting. In no time it’s done, the logs are chained up and the driver is on his way. Part way down the road, he’ll recheck the chains and tighten them more if needed, before hitting public roads.
Watching this dance, what struck us was just how skilled the loader operator was (heck all the operators we saw this day, truck drivers included, were no slouches). The machine seemingly was an extension of his hands. He could pick up a single log, or a whole bunch and lay them down precisely and gently. I bet he could grab a delicate vase, without so much as scratching it, as easily he does a log. The loader is the only non-Tigercat machine here (save for the trucks). It’s just a plain old Cat. Lots of kitties in the woods!
Not long after one truck leaves a new ones arrives. The parade goes on as long as the wood holds out. Each block takes many weeks or more to harvest. On our visit this one was more than half done.
Even before the last log is cut the reclamation begins. Roads are removed, slash piled up, and so on, as the company makes their retreat. Almost immediately after a planting crew is brought in. The little trees they’ll put in the ground, lots and lots of them, will quickly grow. Other native plants will join in, animals will soon call the block home and while it’ll take some time (nature’s way, is a relaxed pace after all) the block will be wild again soon enough.
Compare that to the old days, where the logging companies had little concern with anything other than the bottom line. Mother nature be damned! That’s no where the near mindset today. It’s nice to see industry that cares, not because they’re forced to (they weren’t, even given the government mandated rules in regards to this), but that they want too. I came away impressed.
The wood harvesting goes on most of the year. No doubt come winter, it’s even more exciting! Still, the men and machines seem up to it. They’re a tough bunch. The total men per block varies, but is generally no more than a handful. They include machinery operators, mechanics, supervisor types, road builders and truck drivers. At any one time, many blocks are being worked, others being elsewhere within the firm’s tree licence area (which is extensive).
The crews are not direct employees of the Atco Mill but contractors. Still, most work exclusively for the firm and many have been at it for decades. Everyone seemed happy to being doing what they were doing, even when speaking frankly and openly. That says something.
Atco Wood Products has been around forever, well decades and decades and decades, A small specialized family run operation, they have a single mill in nearby Fruitvale. We’ll visit that operation next and will touch on its history and such in greater detail then.
The Tigercat Company, Brantford Ontario, has been making forestry equipment since the 1990s and has grown to be a leader in the field (a crowded field at that). All the Tigercat machines seen in this report seems to be fairly recent models.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2016.
Location: Near Fruitvale BC.
Article references and thanks: Atco Wood Products, Pete Quinn, The rest of the Atco field (woods) Crew, Scott Weatherford. Tigercat International Inc.
An active logging operation, naturally, is off limits. BIGDoer.com was on location with permission.