High up the Dupont Forest Service Road, on the western flank of Mount Sproat, Blair Schiller is nimbly lifting and stacking logs along a trail carved through a steep cut block. He maneuvers the arm of the his log loader with seeming ease, grabbing the trees next to the trail and stacking them for his brother Travis to pick up with his skidder.
It was a hot July day and the wildfire danger is extreme – like it had been for the past week. As a result, the crew – down to three people – was removing what it could from the block before shutting down until the fire hazard is reduced. At the bottom of the cut block a grapple-yarder and a feller-buncher sat idle due to the fire risk, limiting what the crew could do.
I walked up the trail with Dave Dickson, a logging operations manager with Stella-Jones, the forestry company logging the area. Schiller was contracted to do the work of cutting down the trees and Dickson was there to make sure he was doing everything right.
“Schiller’s really experienced,” Dickson told me earlier that day. “They’re really good loggers so my job’s a little easier when I’m dealing with them.”
After Travis pulled a load away, Blair turned off his machine and jumped out of the cab. He was wearing an orange safety best and a dark grey Woodland ball cap, and he sported a bushy moustache.
He asked if I was in training. Nope – I’m just a journalist interested in seeing what happens out on a cut block when trees are being harvested.
I met Dave Dickson at 7:30 a.m. at Tim Horton’s for the drive south to where Blair Schiller was working. He warned me straight away that I wouldn’t be seeing too much action because of the extreme fire danger. Logging contractors were heading into shut down mode and were gathering what few logs they could before taking a few days off. I had hoped to see trees getting mowed down by feller bunchers and grapple-yarders removing them from the slope, but it was not to be.
Dickson has been with Stella-Jones for five years and has been supervising logging operations out of the company’s Salmon Arm office for most of that time. Around Revelstoke, he oversaw the work on Boulder Mountain and on the Begbie Bench (he said he couldn’t talk about the latter because of the ongoing investigation into the logging there by the Forest Practices Board).
Around Revelstoke, Stella-Jones logs along the west shore of the Columbia River from the Begbie Bench to Frisby Ridge; and on the east shore south of the Alkolkolex River. Their license is volume based, but through negotiations with other operators, those are the areas they work in.
My main goal this day was to learn about steep slope logging. In all my discussions with foresters in Revelstoke, they always talk about the challenges of steep slope logging.
As Dickson explained it, the process begins by assessing the cut block to see if it will be economical to log. Once that’s determined, they will go in to see where to put the roads, which is determined by the shape of the slope.
On a steep slope, a big issue is deflection. The timber will be removed from the cut block by grapple-yarders, so what foresters look for is slopes where they can extend a cable from top to bottom without it bumping into the ground when it’s carrying a heavy load of logs. The roads will be laid out where the slopes flatten out, that way the cables can be run straight down through the block without running into bumps or rolls along the way.
“You walk around the hillside and figure out where those convexities and bad deflections are and that usually means you need to put a road there,” Dickson told me. “Then you run profiles, or deflection lines.”
Dickson will walk the slope with a rope and clinometre to measure the length and steepness of the slope. “It gives you an accurate representation of the ground in that straight line,” he said.
In a simple situation, you can look at the look at the slopes profile, draw a line through it, and if that line doesn’t touch the ground, you’re good to go. Since it’s usually not that simple, there’s special software that will help make those determinations and let you know where the roads should go.
“Then you go and approach a logger – who probably won’t trust your work, it’s just the relationship foresters have with loggers – and they’ll decide if it will work,” said Dickson. “They might need a trail to achieve deflection.”
A trail is a temporary road put up through a cut block to help access timber and get around those obstacles that get in the way of cable-yarding.
In logging, a slope is considered steep when it reaches a grade of 45 per cent, or about 25 degrees – the steepness of an advanced ski run. Dickson called that the critical number where ground-based equipment like skidders can’t operate. At that point, loggers will cut trails up the cut block, but they’re only allowed to disturb about 10 per cent of the area, which limits the number of trails you can cut into a block.
“That’s why you use cable equipment, because it has less an effect on the ground and on the soil,” said Dickson. “The trees are the resource we’re after but the soil is what’s producing for us.”
After the 34-kilometre mark of the Crawford Forest Service Road, Dickson turned left up the Dupont FSR. Another four kilometres up he stopped and we got out to see the grapple-yarder. It wasn’t in operation because of the fire risk; the yarder features a metal cable running through a metal wheel; it produces sparks that can quickly start a fire when the ground is as dry as it has been lately.
High above we could see the backspar, which is the equipment the cable runs to a the top of the slope (sometimes the cable is attached to a tree stump). Dickson pointed out a little roll in the slope likely deflected logs being brought down.
“That little bit of a roll, they don’t like that,” he said. “It cuts into productivity because you have that concave slope. Logs will come down and start catching on the ground and on the stumps right there. You can’t bring as many logs down because it pulls your cables down further.”
He pulled out his clinometre and measured the slope at about 56 per cent, or 30 degrees. We could see signs the trees had been hand-falled at this location – the ground was too steep for a feller-buncher. The fallers would have likely worked from left to right across the block. “In a patch like this they’d want to have all the trees down first before they set up the yarder,” said Dickson.
We got back in the truck and drove further up the road. We passed by Blair Schiller’s feller-buncher that was sitting at the side of the road. The cab could tilt so that when it was being run on a steep slope, Schiller could sit level. We took a look at the blade on the feller. The teeth were massive – at least an inch thick and much wider. It didn’t need to be sharp because the blade spins with such speed and force it buzzes through trees with ease.
We drove higher up to the landing where the remainder of Schiller’s crew was working. Brett Turcotte was running a dangle head processor. He would pick up logs one by one, cut off the knob at the tail, run the log through the grapple to de-limb it and measure how long it is, and then lop off the head where the log is too small to be worth much. He would then stack the logs into a pile depending on their destination.
Stella-Jones’ specializes in utility poles, so only about 10 per cent of the logs they harvest actually get used by Stella-Jones. The rest are sold to local mills – mostly Downie Timber, but also Interfor in Castlegar, Dickson told me.
Turcotte noticed us watching and turned off his machine briefly. I walked over to have a chat. He got into his father’s logging business eight years ago as a summer job during high school. He said he’s basically self-taught as a logger.
“I’m pretty comfortable with hopping on anything that’s hydraulically driven and learning it within a day or two,” he said. “It’s something that’s been bred into me.”
Two weeks ago he was hired on by Schiller to run the processor.
“As far as all the machines go, it’s probably one of the more fun ones to run,” Turcotte said. “You have to move the wood differently and use your brain and think.”
He said the machine required a lot of technique to use, and that there was also some pressure he felt while running it because it’s the last machine to touch the logs before they’re loaded onto the trucks to the mill.
“If there’s lots of defects, you’re the last person to have touched it so I guess you carry the weight of the whole show as far as the quality of the wood that goes in and out of the mill,” he said.
Dickson and I moved onwards, up to where Blair Schiller was working. On our way up the trail, Travis Schiller came up with his skidder to grab another load, so we scrambled out of the way.
We watched as Blair lifted the logs from the cut block – sometimes one at a time, sometimes more. He would grab them with the grappled, tilt them up and then stack them on the trail for Travis to pick up. The machine seemed like an extension of his body the way he easily manipulated the logs.
With the shutdown coming up due to the fire risk, and being unable to use some equipment, they were just grabbing what they could before taking some time off.
Blair Schiller, 43, started in logging when he was still in high school. He dropped out of school after grade nine to do slashing for his father Gary. “That was the bottom of the totem pole job,” he said. “If I would have stayed in school I would have wasted my time and the teacher’s time. I was never interested in school.”
Blair worked for his father for a bit and then for a number of other contractors throughout the Southern Interior before coming back to Revelstoke. He’s run pretty much every machine there is.
“It’s nice being out here,” he told me, looking at the view across the Upper Arrow Lake to the Monashee Mountains beyond. “What’s better than this?”
Logging has made him a good living – better than most of his classmates who stayed in school, he said.
Schiller does a lot of work for Stella-Jones. They were brought onto this cut block after the previous contractor went broke partway through the job. The contractor was new and Schiller had to fix some of his mistakes. He pointed out the jumbled pile of logs he was removing from the block and stacking. When he’s falling, he tried to make sure every tree lands in the same direction.
“It doesn’t pull out nicely and it all busts up,” he said. “That’s just poor planning.”
I asked him about the challenges he faces as a logger. “Weather is probably the hugest challenge,” he replied. When it rains, the roads become hazardous for trucks. When it’s dry, they can’t work and machines and workers sit idle – the bills pile up but the money isn’t coming up. And if you’re logging in winter and it’s stormy, you have to put up with snow.
The other issue – and one I’ve heard repeated again and again by people in forestry – is finding good workers.
“There’s lots of people in town, these ski bum types – by the time you train them up, about a quarter of them may stay and they’re probably no damn good for frick all,” Schiller said.
He said he has to pay workers more than they’d make elsewhere to come to Revelstoke, and sometimes he’ll have to provide accommodation too. Then there’s a problem of finding people that can run the machines – some people are eager and can do the work, others can’t. Because of the dangers inherent with steep-slope logging, it becomes really hard to train someone properly and still provide a safe work environment.
“It’s steep ground and if something was to happen, you’re already pushing the limits as far as (WorkSafeBC) goes hugely,” Schiller said.
What’s the sign a kid might be cut out for the industry? Watch him play with his Tonka trucks and if he loves doing that, he’ll be into logging. The machinery is all big, and expensive – $600,000 for a grappler, $300,000 for a skidder, $600,000 for a processor, $600,000 for a log loader; and more than a million for a yarder, if you can find someone to make one for you.
“That’s all my knowledge. That’s all I can share with you. The rest is top, top secret,” Schiller joked.
We walked back to the landing where Travis Schiller was busy duct taping something together. He was getting help from Lloyd Foisy, a logging truck driver who was there to pick up his second load of the day. I started asking him what it was like being a driver and he offered to give me a ride down the mountain. With a bit of hesitation – most people I know say driving a logging truck is crazy – I agreed.
Blair Schiller came down to load up Foisy’s truck and I jumped in the passenger seat. Foisy has been driving trucks for 33 years. He started with his uncle, cleaning and fixing trucks, and once he was old enough he jumped in the driver’s seat. He spent some time shipping bath tubs from Armstrong, B.C., as far as Newfoundland, but he said he preferred driving logging trucks.
“Hauling logs out of the bush is actually really safe,” he said. “Being a highway trucker, you’re fearing for your life because you’re worrying about the other guy. Here I’m only worrying about myself – no big deal.”
Foisy has worked consistently as a logging truck driver. He keeps working year-round, except during spring break-up, when the ground is too wet for logging to happen. He’s been working for Schiller for the past 10 years.
“The thing I like about it is I’m my own boss on the road,” Foisy said. “My boss, he’s in the landing loading me. I see him twice a day, and then I do my thing.”
However, the hours are long – more than 12 per day – and shifts start in the middle of the night. He’s in bed when most people are sitting down for dinner.
Foisy kept the truck in a low gear and made his way slowly down the mountain, staying off the brakes. Sitting high up in the cab, the ground is much further away. At points it seemed like the ground disappeared beneath us and some of the corners looked too tight for a logging truck to navigate. The road was dry and dusty and, for Foisy, an easy drive.
“Right now it’s really good going but when it rains it will slipperier than shit,” he said. In the winter, when the snow is compacted and the snow banks are piled high, the driving can actually be easier – just strap on the chains and go.
Like forestry in general, finding capable logging truck drivers isn’t easy. Foisy is 52, and he said many of his colleagues are getting older, with few young people taking over.
“This industry is a dying breed. You don’t see too many young fellows that want to wake up at 2 a.m. anymore,” he said. “They don’t want to wake up early and work all day. There’s an easier way to make a dollar.”
Foisy gets paid hourly, so he doesn’t face the pressure of many logging truck drivers, who get paid by the load. He’s been at it since he was a teenager and while he said he likes the freedom of the job, the views and the occasional wildlife sighting, he does wish he would have stayed in school.
He drove us down through a series of switchbacks to the bottom of the mountain, where Dave Dickson was waiting. I switched vehicles for the drive back to Revelstoke.
Dickson gave up a job as a computer programmer to enter forestry. “I was working in my cubicle and thinking about my prospects about getting outside, and they were slim to none,” he told me. “In forestry I get to work outside and work with people. That’s my job every day, and that’s why I love it.”
That seemed to be the consensus, despite the challenges and variability the work entails.