Log truckers have nothing to haul if loggers aren’t cutting wood, and the rain this past summer kept loggers out of the woods for weeks at a time. Don Moore, Jr., a log truck operator from East Peacham, Vermont, said, “We’re always at the mercy of the weather. It’s the biggest thing I’m up against. This year we didn’t get started until the middle of May, worked two or three weeks, and then it started raining. It rained until mid-July, so it was a really slow summer.”
The weather finally broke, and the four loggers he hauls for returned to the woods, so he went back to the daily juggling he does to try to keep them all happy. If each of the four is producing a load a day – 10 cords of firewood or 5,500 board feet of sawlogs – it can be hard for Moore to keep up. One of the challenges is that the hilly terrain of Orange and Caledonia counties, where he does most of his work, often doesn’t allow for much of a log yard or landing. Flat, dry ground can be a precious commodity, and a small landing can get so piled up with logs that there’s no room for either the skidder or log truck to maneuver. And he can’t haul for each logger every day – thus the juggling part.
Most days, Moore arrives at a log landing at 6:00 a.m. If he’s lucky, he can back his International tractor trailer right into the landing, load it up with logs or firewood, and drive out. Often, though, he’ll need the logger to hitch onto his truck with the skidder’s winch and pull him into position. “I’m hooked onto more in the summertime than winter. Seems there’s always a wet spot I can’t get through on my own. There’s a pin on the front bumper to pull me frontwards and there’s one on the back of the trailer if he needs to pull me backwards. Everything rolls so much easier on frozen ground,” Moore said. It will take him less than an hour to stack the logs neatly onto the trailer with his center-mounted log loader. He delivers pine and hardwood sawlogs to a handful of sawmills within 40 or 50 miles. The distance to the mill enters into what Moore charges for his services. For sawlogs, his base price is $50 per thousand board feet, to which he adds a charge of 50 cents a mile per thousand. A 6,000 board foot load of logs going to a mill 40 miles away would cost $70 per thousand, or $420.
If the cargo is firewood, the main buyer is even closer. Pulpwood, on the other hand, goes to paper companies, all of which are farther away. “The farthest I go is Jay, Maine, once or twice a week. The pine pulp goes there.” Jay is 170 miles one way, and other pulp deliveries go to the slightly closer Rumford, Maine, and Shelburne, New Hampshire mills.
After he delivers his first load, he’ll head to the second landing, planning to arrive at a prearranged time. “Most of the guys I haul for don’t have a cell phone in their pocket all of the time,” Moore said. That’s because cell phone coverage is almost nonexistent among these hills and hollows. If all is going according to schedule, the logger will be pulling a hitch of logs out of the woods when Moore arrives. That way the logger can pull the truck in if necessary.
Kevin Braman, a Chelsea logger who has worked with Moore for seven or eight years, said of his trucker, “What a super nice guy. He’s always there when he says he’s going to be. You can set your clock by him.”
A reputation for reliability means a lot to Moore, and in fact, his frustration over the lack of reliability is why he ended up switching careers as a young man. He’d grown up in a farming family, and his father owned Moore Beef, a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in St. Johnsbury. Don worked on a neighbor’s dairy farm through high school and went to Vermont Technical College to study agriculture. “When I graduated in 1987, I went back to the farm I’d worked on. The guy was going to get done, and I was going to buy it,” he said. He tried it out for a while, but when the help failed to show up one too many times, Don could see that managing employees wasn’t what he wanted to do.
He turned to trucking milk for Cabot Creamery for a few years. Then came a short stint working for his father at the slaughterhouse. “I picked up cows and other animals for my dad for a while, but it wasn’t for me,” he said. In 1993, he took a job driving a log truck, and it suited him well – so well that four years later he bought his own truck. His current truck is about 10 years old, and he averages 50,000 miles a year, but it wears its miles well. Unloaded, it weighs 43,000 pounds, which means that he can legally transport another 56,000 pounds of cargo, keeping him under Vermont and New Hampshire’s 99,000 pound weight limits.
The work is a lot more complicated than just driving. Each pickup and delivery requires using the loader, whose controls are similar to those in an excavator. His foot pedals control the rotation of the whole loader, including his perch. The two hand levers control the movement of the boom and what he refers to as its bucket, the grapple he uses to grab the logs. “I enjoy it. It’s like having an extra hand. It’s second nature by now. You don’t think about how you move all the different valves at once. But I can remember that it was a pretty slow process. I’d watched people do it, and I knew what I wanted to do but couldn’t make it do it. It took a good year to get comfortable with it, especially working around people. Luckily nobody’s gotten hurt. That’s my worst fear.”
The heaviest log he ever picked up was a 16-foot-long red oak log that scaled 600 board feet. “I could just barely lift it onto the trailer. I had to take the stakes out because I couldn’t lift it over the top of them. The loader will lift 8,000 pounds, so that log was all of that.”
As he was learning his loader, he also had to learn to identify wood in the pile by species and product, while perched 14 feet off the ground. Most of his loggers don’t do their own sorting, leaving it up to Moore. “I rotate it to look at both ends to see that it’s a log and not firewood – it could be rotten on one end. I make sure they’re sound, look at the sides, the straightness, especially in hardwood. You can normally tell a hardwood sawlog because it’s short and straight, 12 feet or shorter. Firewood is normally cut 16 feet or so, up to 20 feet.” There’s no such thing as a mixed load – everything he loads on the trailer is going to the same buyer.
Like most people in the forest products business, he’s concerned about its future. He noted that there are many fewer mills than when he started 20 years ago, which means less competition for logs. “I hope the demand and prices come up so we can offer landowners enough to make it a sustainable business. I can’t see a long future at today’s prices, considering how much it costs to operate.”
Speaking of cost, let’s start with tires. Moore’s truck has 22 of them. “I run recaps in the winter so I get the added traction, and they’re less expensive. A recap will cost you $180 to $200, and a new tire can be between $500 and $750. In the summer, I try to put on something besides recaps, because you get better mileage with them, though you don’t get the traction.” He hopes to get 50,000 miles out of his tires, a year’s worth of driving. And if you think your fuel costs are high, Moore averages 3.5 miles a gallon in the winter. The expensive new summer tires bring his yearly average up to 4 miles per gallon. That’s $50,000 in diesel fuel each year. And his truck has a life expectancy of 10 years, which means that it won’t be long before he’ll be looking for a replacement. “I bought this one used, and I haven’t priced anything recently, but a new truck will run you $150,000.”
Despite the challenges, after 20 years Moore still likes climbing up into the driver’s seat every morning. “I enjoy seeing the loggers, and I enjoy being off the beaten path. I try to take a walk on every job and look at the woods. I get to see some beautiful woods that way.”
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd. is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands' series on forest entrepreneurs.
Stephen Long edited Northern Woodlands for 17 years.