A tight fit and a heavy load - delivering hemlock planks to a construction site in downtown Boston. Photos by Ross Caron.
The alarm went off at 1 a.m. I got up, dressed, and sleepily attempted to eat some breakfast. My stomach protested, as this was not a normal time to be eating. Hitting the road, I noticed there were very few other vehicles out and about. I drove along in a trance, off to meet White Mountain Lumber Company truck driver Ray Mainguay, who had invited me to ride along with him to deliver a load of lumber to a downtown Boston construction site. For Mainguay, this middle-of-the-night routine is just another day at work.
When I arrived at the sawmill at 2:02, Ray’s truck was all lit up and idling. He was ready to go, anxious to leave, because it is much better to arrive in the city (185 miles away) before the morning rush hour begins. I hopped in, greeted him, and he eased the truck onto the main road, smoothly shifting gears. We were very close to the legal load limit and, even from the passenger’s seat, I could clearly feel the weight of the trailer pulling on the flats and uphills and pushing on the downhills.
This load of hemlock planks, sawn from trees growing in the woods a week earlier, was to be delivered directly to a job site for a major bridge-repair project in Boston. Ray had never been to this particular neighborhood and had with him a map and directions. Proper navigation would be essential, as going down the wrong street or under a low overpass with a 60-foot rig could prove disastrous. There would be no easy turning around should he make a mistake. I was officially designated the navigator for this trip – no pressure!
Ray has been working at White Mountain Lumber, a sawmill located in Berlin, New Hampshire, for 41 years. He started right out of high school and began his career working in the mill at various jobs and then, for a time, as a sawyer. The road was calling, however, and he soon began driving for the mill. His first truck was a Mack R Model, early 1970s vintage. He remembers his very first delivery, also a trip to Boston, which went to Bell Steel, located across from Logan Airport. What a way to get broken in! His current truck is a 2005 Kenworth, powered by a 625-hp Cat diesel with an 18-speed transmission. The truck averages four to five miles per gallon when fully loaded. His previous truck, also a Kenworth, was just shy of a million miles when she was retired. Although he hasn’t kept track over the years, it is safe to assume that he has several million miles of driving experience under his belt.
Ray’s favorite part of his job is picking up logs from loggers and landowners to deliver to the mill. “I’ve met so many people, and they’ve all been good,” he said. He’s less fond of the early hours, especially in the winter, when it’s cold and the roads are snow-covered, though he does say it’s given him a chance to see some beautiful nights with the moon shining on the snow-covered mountains.
By 3 a.m., we were headed south on Interstate 93, and began to run into a little bit of vehicular activity, mostly other trucks. We had just passed a truck traveling north in the opposite lane, when suddenly there was a voice out of the darkness. “Good morning, Ray.” Ray reached for his CB radio and responded, “Morning, John.” A short conversation and exchange of information followed with John Reed, an independent trucker out of the Rumney, New Hampshire, area. The two often meet along this stretch at around this time. An empty chip truck rolled steadily by us in the passing lane, and the driver joined in on the conversation.
He was headed for New Ipswich to pick up a load of biomass chips. Willie Tibbets, another White Mountain Lumber driver headed for Boston, caught up with us from behind and added his input. By the time we rolled through Concord at 4:30, trucks and trailers were thick on the highway with a growing number of passenger cars added to the mix. New Hampshire was awake! I, however, was not and was beginning to have some difficulty keeping my chin from bouncing off my chest.
By 5:30, we were approaching the city, traffic was picking up, and the sky was beginning to turn gray. The city skyline was just visible in the predawn light. Ray laughed as I once again jerked my head up quickly. He said, “You better wake up. Your navigational skills will be needed pretty soon!”
We drove into the city following our map and, thankfully, clear directions. Ray skillfully changed lanes, threaded the big truck down narrow streets, and easily handled tight corners and busy intersections. Without mishap, we soon arrived at the bridge. Before we had time to congratulate ourselves, Ray calmly announced, “we’re in the wrong lane.” We hadn’t turned off at the right place and, with traffic behind us and no way to back up, we were forced to drive across the bridge and past the jobsite. There was no choice but to go around for another try. Using our map, we did our best to loop through the city, down some very narrow streets, and eventually we came back to where we had entered. This time we pulled off at the correct place. After waiting for nearly an hour, an irritated, foul-mouthed construction foreman approached and, without so much as a greeting, informed us that we would be unloaded at the opposite end of the bridge – the place where we had just mistakenly been.
With some additional maneuvering, we arrived at our new unloading point and parked in the middle of a busy three-way intersection, with traffic backed up behind us and pedestrians and bicyclists swarming around all sides of the truck and trailer. In the middle of all this, Ray was asked – shouted at – to back around a corner and down a hill, through a narrow gate, and around a tree. I would have hesitated to attempt this with my pick-up truck, but Ray smiled, if not a little grimly, and said, “I’ll give it a try.” He calmly pulled ahead, up over the curb, and shifted into reverse. After only a couple tries and with unbelievable skill, he was able to maneuver into the proper position, put on his hardhat, chock the wheels, unstrap, and get unloaded.
After leaving the site, which provided its own share of challenges, we reached the open highway and Ray reached up and gave several blasts of the air horn to celebrate a successful delivery and freedom from the city.
Our next stop was to pick up logs for the mill in Stratham, New Hampshire. This is called a backhaul in trucker parlance; transporting logs to the mill this way, since Ray is headed back anyway, is less expensive than traveling empty one way to pick them up. We pulled into the log landing at a Fort Mountain Land and Timber harvest, and Ray inserted aluminum stakes into sockets along the side of the flatbed trailer to convert it for log-hauling duty. After a short conversation with the loader operator, Ray backed up and was loaded very quickly with three tiers of hemlock logs. He strapped down, and we were once again underway. Arriving back at the mill, the trailer was unloaded, and Ray removed and stowed the stakes, swept the trailer, and headed into the office to see his “travel agent” and get his instructions for the next day’s run. He then loaded his trailer with lumber, and got ready to do it all over again.
In my job as a procurement forester, I have the opportunity to interact with many loggers and truckers. I am always impressed with the dedication of these hardworking individuals – Ray is no exception. He works long hours every day, maintains his truck and trailer impeccably, drives skillfully and safely, and has a positive attitude. He is a true trucking professional.
Ross Caron lives in northern New Hampshire and works as a procurement forester. He enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, reading, working with wood, and managing his family’s woodlots.
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.