How I felled trees and logged family time

Once I decided to be a logger. It was great fun. Two buddies and I bought a bunch of run-down logging equipment and went to work. This was shortly after my second daughter came along and about the time I decided that spending time with my family was as important as working.

Fairbanks, Alaska, is a pretty casual place, but not so casual that guys with chain saws can just go out and do their thing. The first step was to go to the auction. We filled out forms, scraped up some cash, and bid on timber. The State of Alaska surveys tracts according to their plan, and logging outfits bid on the right to harvest the timber.

The tract we ended up with suited us perfectly. All three of us loved to play with big machines in the woods, but we were pretty sensitive to the environmental impact of what we were doing, too. So we were happy to get the timber rights to Whiskey Island, a speck in the Tanana River that was going to be pretty much eroded away in a couple of years.

The first part was road building. Cool! One of the guys had a little bulldozer, but his brother had a big one. We cut and pushed our way to the river, harvesting every scrap along the way. Then we waited for the river to freeze so we could get to the island.

But you don't just take logging trucks across a frozen river; you need to build an ice bridge. It's pretty simple. We cleared a path on the snowy, frozen river with the little 'dozer, and piled the snow along the edges to form a trench wide enough to drive through. Then we used a gas-powered auger to drill a foot-wide hole through the ice. Then, believe it or not, you pump water out of the river into the trench. After a day or so that water will freeze. You pump more water out, let it freeze, and so on until the ice reaches the desired thickness.

The ice doesn't fill up the trench, as you might suppose. The ice road isn't higher than the surrounding ice. River ice is flexible over a wide span, and the ice bridge sinks as you build it, growing wider and wider. An ice road needs to be about five feet thick to support a fully loaded semi tractor-trailer.

How did we know this? Trial and error! But not our trial or error: The United States military published a pocket guide for doing business, or combat, in cold weather. On the cover was a photo of a line of guys all roped together walking on thin ice. When a guy fell through, they hauled him out and measured. I don't know if that's how they did it for trucks, but we trusted their book nonetheless.

Earlier that winter I had decided to start taking Sundays off. Raising children is serious business, and I wanted to be there for it. For years I had worked seven days a week, when there was work. It's a little scary, being self-employed. It was especially scary during those years when I was just figuring things out, having kids, and making costly errors that came right out of the bottom line. Any day I could make a buck seemed like a good day to work.

But when Robin was old enough to say "Where are you going, Daddy?" it seemed like a good idea to go a little less often.

It's hard to get a lot done in a subarctic winter. We did our best contending with little daylight and bitter cold. We would be ready to go when the sun came up on the days it was warm enough to work, and we made the best of the six hours or so of usable sunlight.

Winter logging pans out in the spring. By late February the days are noticeably longer, and it's still cold enough to keep the ground frozen. By early March things were hitting a great rhythm, and we started to see that maybe there'd be a profit at the end.

I was in charge of loading and hauling. In the depth of winter we were grateful for three loads a week. I commuted to work in the log truck, driving there empty and stopping by the rail yard at night to deliver a load on my way home. By spring we were getting two loads a day.

In late March, things start to go to pieces in the far north. The days are warm enough to make the roads a muddy mess. But at night it freezes again. I could still haul. We really needed the last few loads of the season to make it, and we weren't quite there when the roads fell apart. We hadn't cleared a profit yet and the season looked as though it was about done. We hoped for another cold spell.

And it came! Log by day, haul by night, and I'll never be poor again. I went hard all week. And then it was Sunday, the day I was supposed to take off. It wasn't as though I'd made a commitment to anyone else, just to me. I always made it to church, but the prospect of hauling another load before the end of the season was a huge temptation. A load of logs, after the year's expenses have been paid, is worth two weeks' wages. Two weeks' wages for half a day's work. Half a day's work to save a nice load of timber from washing down the river.

So we went on a picnic! I piled the family in the log truck after church with some toys and a beach blanket, and we went for a Sunday drive over hill and dale. The weather was great, the scenery like a postcard. This was Alaska, after all, at the most spectacular time of year.

When we got to the woods it was everything we'd hoped for. We had a nice lunch, took a walk, watched Daddy load the truck, and got on our hands and knees and played like a dog fetching a stick. I love taking Sundays off!

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