Orange County, Vt.
Slicing through the brisk winter air, the high-pitched whine of a chainsaw echoes through the snow-laden hills of Thetford State Park here. It's morning and George deNagy is back at work.Skip to next paragraph
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For almost seven years, Mr. deNagy has worked as an independent logger in east-central Vermont. From his shaggy hair and full beard to the baggy wool pants and size 13 boots, George deNagy fills the mold of the rugged, independent backwoodsman. To him, a day in below-freezing temperature is like a walk in the park.
''I love it - the fresh air. I'm my own boss. I can work slow some days, harder on other days.''
Although the Green Mountain State is about 75 percent forested, timber has not become a major industry here. Of the 500 or 600 loggers in the state, 90 percent operate independently, says Orange County Forester Russell Barrett. And unlike other regions of the United States where companies control the operation from stump to store, in Vermont every step of the logging system is passed from one independent to another.
Like Mr. deNagy, most loggers here eke out a living by selling timber to local residents who use it for firewood, and to mills that make furniture or paper. The hours are long, the pay is low. But deNagy says he gets more satisfaction from this job than others that make 10 times the money.
The difference between deNagy and other loggers in the area is horsepower. While most use 300-h.p. skidders to pull the trees out of the woods, deNagy uses just two h.p. Their names are Gus and Baldy.
Gus is a Great Belgian; Baldy is three-quarters Belgian. No matter, both are huge and strong.
''And smart,'' deNagy adds.
Raised on New York's Long Island, deNagy earned his undergraduate degree from Linden State College in northern Vermont, then received his master's in biology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. While in the PhD program (which he jokingly calls the ''post hole diggers' program''), he bought his first horse ''from money I got as a stipend.'' Next thing he knew, he had dropped the PhD program and turned to the land for his work.
Now he and his associate, Mary Leonard (a former child-care supervisor/teacher), work the land as loggers . . . the old-fashioned way.
Is it harder to work with horses than with machines?
''When you have a good day with these guys, work is very enjoyable. But when they're acting like jerks, well, the day can really be a drag. When they get hungry at the end of the day, they pull tricks on you. But it's really nice working with Gus and Baldy as a way of making a living,'' George says.
The biggest problem, says deNagy, is not in finding work. He'll always have plenty of logging jobs, thanks to cold Vermont winters and the popularity of wood stoves. But making ends meet is a week-to-week challenge.
''Somtimes it works out to where we're making only a dollar or two a hitch,'' explains deNagy. (A hitch is one load that a horse brings from the stump to the landing. Later, he will hire a trucker to bring the lumber from the landing to the mill.) When the housing industry temporarily collapsed several years back, deNagy turned to cutting mostly firewood. So did many other loggers, as well as unemployed carpenters and plumbers in the area.
George and Mary begin their day riding Gus and Baldy to heavily forested Thetford Park. (During this job, the horses are stabled at a friend's barn a mile away). Then George starts felling trees, mostly pines. Mary, with Baldy, makes a hitch of three or four trees, and the horse hauls them about 150 yards to the landing, an open area accessible from the highway by truck. Later, a hired trucker will haul the timber to a mill.
Mary hopes Baldy will follow specific routes on his way to the landing, but Baldy has other things in mind.
''Whoa, Baldy, whoa. Stop!'' Mary shouts in exasperation. ''You can't travel in a straight line. You'll hit a snag.'' She grabs the reins and leads Baldy to the landing.
''Sometimes they think they're smarter than you,'' she says later. ''Sometimes they are, but usually they're just playing games.''
An hour later, after George has dropped about a dozen trees, he and Gus join in. ''The younger horses may be stronger - but the older ones are better'' he says. ''They know how wide to swing around a stump, where the trail is, and they know the commands better.''