Field Work: At Work Mining Timber with Tom Shafer

Field Work: At Work Mining Timber with Tom Shafer

An excavator outfitted with a log-loader grapple pulls wood from the lake bottom. Logs are stacked up and smaller pieces placed into a container. Maine Heritage Timber operates 11 barges like this on Quakish Lake.

Photos courtesy of Maine Heritage Timber.

Tom Shafer’s business is mining trees. It’s not really harvesting; maybe re-harvesting. “Recovering a forgotten forest” is his company motto. He likes to think of it as mining. And Shafer’s not just selling lumber to panel offices and bars. He’s selling history. He’s selling green.

Shafer, a former stock trader, and his business partner, Steve Sanders, founded Maine Heritage Timber in 2010 to exploit a vast trove of sunken logs in Quakish Lake in the economically ailing North Woods town of Millinocket.

It is a long way from Wall Street, but it’s apparent talking to Shafer that the man has a passion for his product. And, in a sense, he’s still selling, just not stocks.

Quakish Lake covers 1,000 acres. For over a century, it served as a vast holding pond for the Great Northern Paper Company’s huge mill. Millions of logs were floated into it to await the pulping process, and many of them sank. Bathymetric surveys show the lake holds an estimated 750,000 to 1,000,000 cords of wood, both hardwood and softwood, said Shaffer.

While many of Maine’s lakes have a wooden legacy of the great river drives lying in the mud of their bottoms, there are no others like this, Shafer said. “It’s the honey hole of honey holes.”

Shafer and Sanders began by getting a raft of permits and permissions from the owners of the mill, from the state, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and from Katahdin Forest Management, which owns the right-of-way. “It was an extensive process,” Shafer said.

The original business plan called for selling most of the logs for paper pulp, with a small milling operation to turn the best of the best into lumber. But with the closing of the local Great Northern Paper Company pulp mill right around the time Maine Heritage Timber was getting started, the partners had to retool their business plan and became a producer of “heritage” lumber for use as paneling and flooring, with scraps and low quality offcuts sold as biomass.

Field Work: At Work Mining Timber with Tom Shafer Image

Quakish Lake was dammed up and grew to about 1,000 acres in 1899. Log drives used the lake to move millions of logs during this era, but many of those logs sank and never made it to the mill.

The lake’s timber is a product of the log drives of the 1800s and 1900s. Much of it is virgin timber, with tests showing that some of the trees began growing as early as 1500. Most of the softwood is spruce and fir in four-foot pulp lengths. The hardwood is mainly tree-length stuff that was felled and left to be covered by water when a dam was put in and Quakish Lake was expanded from 400 acres to 1,000 acres in 1899, Shafer said.

“The thing I find most interesting is it was basically a natural resource that is coming out in log form. You have this lost product that has been underwater, in some cases for 150 years. And the only thing that’s happened to it is time and water have transformed the patinas in the wood into something that others try to duplicate with chemicals, but find it difficult to do,” said Shafer.

Instead of feller-bunchers and forwarders, Maine Heritage Timber has a fleet of 11 (10-by-40-foot) barges, 15 industrial sized waste containers, a tugboat, and an excavator with a log loader-type grapple. The excavator and containers are parked on the barges and towed into the lake. The excavator fishes the logs from the water and puts them into the containers. Then they’re towed to shore and loaded onto trucks for the mile-and-a-half trip to the company’s sawmill.

Once there, the logs are loaded onto a shaker screen to scrub off the worst of the mud and rocks and put through a debarker. “It’s a process that’s extremely labor intensive. It takes five men to run that,” said Shafer. Logs smaller than five inches are set aside for chipping. The good stuff is sawn 1.375 inches thick. It then goes to Pride Manufacturing in Burnham, Maine, for drying.

While the retrieval and milling are unconventional, it’s in the drying that things get especially tricky.

Robert Rice, a professor of wood science and technology at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, worked with Shafer to develop drying schedules for the lumber. Compared to freshly cut green wood, submerged wood isn’t supersaturated with water, Rice said. The tree’s cells, after all, can only hold so much.

“But, depending on the depth to which they’ve been sunk, some of them are subject to decay over time,” Rice said. Deeper, colder water inhibits decay; wood from shallower, warmer waters will still see some decay. Quakish is a relatively shallow lake and much of the wood shows some deterioration. But it’s the decay that makes it unique, and it can be a challenge to preserve its integrity in the drying process.

“We approach the drying fairly carefully so that any defects, or character as Tom would call it, within the log is preserved,” said Rice. Tests showed that the lumber needed extra time in the dryer to avoid what Rice describes as a “pressure cooker” effect, where evaporating water simply destroys the fibers.

“We go slowly and dry the wood more carefully,” said Rice. “The final temperature is about the same, the ramp rate to get there will take us an extra day or two compared to normal spruce-fir dimension lumber we would dry in a kiln.”

The resulting product is not structural by any means, but a unique decorative lumber, said Rice.

Maine Heritage Timber offers two types of product: wall paneling and a line of flooring created by resawing the lumber and then bonding the thinner stock to half-inch structural plywood at a flooring mill in West Virginia.

So far, the main customers have been restaurants, offices, and bars. “We’ve found our sweet spot is the commercial side of things,” said Shafer. “We even offer a line of conference tables just rolled out last spring.” Their products have been installed in restaurants in Bangor, Bar Harbor, and the Sugarloaf and Sunday River ski resorts in Maine, and they’ve filled orders from California to Boston and Fargo, North Dakota, to Jacksonville, Florida. “We’re a nationwide supplier of millwork and customized heritage wood,” Shafer said.

The wall paneling sells for $5 to $7.50 a square foot; the flooring can be $8 to $12, depending on species and width. Shafer said that’s “kind of middle of the road as far as price,” when compared with similar products.

Field Work: At Work Mining Timber with Tom Shafer Image

The wood salvaged from the lake bottom is srubbed of mud, debarked, sawn into boards 1.375 inches thick, and then slowly dried.

When he’s talking up his line of products to prospective customers, Shafer isn’t just selling them a wall covering with a nice patina, though. He’s selling them the whole Paul Bunyanesque story: the vast virgin forests, the tough lumberjacks toiling in deep snow, the daring log drivers dancing across a river of logs on calked boots, and the old growth trees resurfacing more than a century after the people who felled them died. “The story makes it so powerful. People love to tell stories, and our story is 100 percent true,” Shafer said.

He also pushes the “green” product angle. After all, he said, you can’t get any greener than bringing up logs preserved at the bottom of a lake. “We save a thousand acres of forestland from being cut every year we operate,” Shaffer said.

Another green selling point: Maine Heritage Timber is also restoring Quakish Lake, now “nothing but a landfill of wood.” And another: They sell their waste as bark mulch and biomass fuel. “As far as being sustainable and a green project, well, there is nothing greener than what we do. It really is that simple,” he said. And, by the way, they’re creating badly needed jobs in a historic paper mill town without an operational paper mill.

So far, they and their investor have sunk (no pun intended) four million dollars into the project. Annual operating costs about one million a year; last year, revenues covered about $600,000 of that, said Shaffer. They hope 2015 will be their break-even year.

Maine Heritage Timber has already removed about 25,000 cords of wood from Quakish Lake. Even accounting for increased production, Shafer figures there’s 20 years worth left in the Quakish wood bank. “It’s not going to run out soon,” he said. “But once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Joe Rankin is a forestry writer. He lives in central Maine.

Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.

 
Discussion
  1. suzi → in carlsbad, CA
    Oct 11, 2015

    My doctor read an article about mining timber from lakes (he thinks in New England)...he mentioned something about blue wood. He wants to build his own house. I surf the web and offered to look for him since he FORGOT where he read the article! (Maybe he’s thinking of the colorful decay..I’ve seen that in my nephew’s cafe. Can you help?
    Suzi

  2. dave → in corinth
    Oct 15, 2015

    Some entrepreneurial lumber dealers around here sell blue-stained pine, which has a blueish hue. We did a column on the fungus: http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/blue_stain_fungi 

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