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Have wood—will move it
Logging contractor Hec Clouthier & Sons harvests a wide assortment of logs in the Sustainable Forest License (SFL) areas they work in, in eastern Ontario. Typically they sell wood to 13 mills—but after a significant blowdown, they were able to sell wood into a staggering total of 38 mills.
Willy (left) and Thomas Clouthier have shepherded Hec Clouthier & Sons from horses and chainsaws to cable skidders and chainsaws, and now to a full-blown mechanical logging operation.
By Tony Kryzanowski
It’s possible that when Wade Hemsworth penned that jewel of Canadiana music, ‘The Log Driver’s Waltz’, he was watching employees working for Hec Clouthier & Sons Inc., given the company’s long history in forestry and its connection to Ontario’s river systems.
The business was founded by Hec Clouthier in 1938, and his sons, Thomas, Willy, Hector Jr., and Jimmy, joined the company in 1977. Thomas and Willy stuck with the business and have nurtured the Pembroke-based company from hand fallers and horses, to mechanical cable skidders, and now into a full mechanical harvesting operation.
Willy and Thomas are preparing to one day pass the family business on to the next generation, as Thomas’ son, Shannon, and Willy’s son, Clyde are also part owners in the business. Another of Willy’s sons, Brett, is working with the company and testing the waters to see if forestry is for him.
The company purchased its first feller buncher in 2000. That was later than in areas further north, because full mechanization was being discouraged by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), which felt that forest machines did too much damage.
“It took a lot of convincing that it was the way to go in this area,” says Thomas. “We had to move in that direction because we were losing our manpower and our Workman’s Compensation rates kept climbing because of the hazards.”
They bought their second feller buncher in 2004 and are now on their seventh unit. The transition from cable skidders to grapple skidders met the same MNR resistance. The company didn’t purchase its first grapple skidder till 2006.
“Since purchasing the grapple skidder, our production has close to doubled and our landings last a lot longer because we are not doing as much twisting and turning as with the cable skidders, but more lifting with the clam on the back,” says Thomas. “There is way less environmental damage because they also have wider tires, so they are floating a lot more in the soft spots.”
It also provides them with the opportunity to lay brush on soft spots to again reduce the amount of environmental damage, which they couldn’t do easily with cable skidders. They purchased their third grapple skidder this fall.
Hec Clouthier & Sons is a member of both the Nipissing Forest and Ottawa Valley Sustainable Forest License (SFL) areas, with their logging taking place where it has traditionally occurred since the early 1970s, south of the community of Deux Rivières. The company still operates from the same camp it established when the Clouthiers moved into the area.
On average, they harvest between 50,000 and 60,000 cubic metres annually during a season that spans from June until mid-March, and they market their own wood fibre, with the understanding that Ontario mills have a chance to purchase the wood first. From a marketing standpoint, the logging company is in a good location because if there are no buyers in Ontario for certain wood species and sizes at a fair price, Quebec and several mills are located just across the Ottawa River.
Hec Clouthier & Sons has gotten good uptime with their fleet of John Deere skidders. Using grapple skidders instead of cable skidders has also resulted in less environmental damage.
“It was when we got into this part of the woods when we really had to start making a lot of roads and were cutting a little more volume,” says Thomas. “So we got into the slashers instead of the guys bucking it up by hand on the landing, as well as hydraulic loaders. Right now we have four slashers and 12 skidders.”
He adds that despite investing in newer equipment to improve production over time, the company tends to hold on to some of its older pieces because they come in handy, such as using old skidders as snow plows. Snow plowing is an important task in that the area on the south side of the Ottawa River between Pembroke and North Bay is a snow belt, and it typically accumulates well over a metre of snow annually. This is where mechanical harvesting really pays off because the wood is still accessible vs. the days when it was harvested using chainsaw crews and cable skidders.
The company also places older skidders at strategic locations so that if a newer skidder breaks down, they can still maintain production.
“That way, our production is maintained at a decent level, the operator isn’t sent home and he still gets paid,” says Thomas. Maintaining good relations with their 14 employees has been a tremendous help for the company over the years, and several have been with them for around 30 years.
By their own admission, the Clouthiers say that managing the business these days both on the harvesting side and on the marketing side is a job-and-a-half, given that they deal with many shade tolerant species such as maple, oak, poplar, birch and beech and coniferous species such as white and red pine, spruce, jack pine and balsam fir in this Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest, which results in numerous sorts at roadside.
The challenge is to find a market for all this wood, which means a lot of time spent negotiating on the telephone. For example, in 2007-2008, when the area suffered a significant blowdown, Hec Clouthier & Sons delivered wood to 38 different mills. Typically, they deliver to about 13 different mills. In some cases, a log delivery requires a 14 hour round trip, with the average being about 11 hours.
It’s like a financial high wire act, with Thomas commenting that, “I have to make sure that I’m not the one sending a cheque with every load.”
Given the company’s history logging in the Deux Rivières area and the business relationships they have developed with companies on both sides of the provincial boundary, that has helped Hec Clouthier & Sons build a strong client list.
“When you build a relationship with people and you are honest with them, they appreciate that,” says Thomas. “We deliver on time unless something drastic comes up. If that happens, I’m on the phone immediately.”
Serco loaders and slashers are an important part of the equipment fleet at Hec Clouthier & Sons in their logging operations west of Pembroke, Ontario. On average, they harvest between 50,000 and 60,000 cubic metres annually during a season that spans from June until mid-March, and they market their own wood fibre.
Because they are dealing with so many species of wood to so many different clients, it’s a major challenge to deliver each required species in the proper dimensions at the best of times. The call that Thomas dreads the most is from a regular client saying that they won’t be taking wood for a couple of weeks. It’s very costly to move from one harvesting location to another.
“We are very fortunate in this neck of the woods that we do have some flexibility,” he says, in terms of where they market their wood. “You have to have that flexibility if you are going to survive because once you send your men home once they’ve started work, they aren’t going to be happy and they are going to start looking somewhere else.”
Another challenge they face is that certain species have to be harvested at specific times of the year. Hec Clouthier & Sons likes to save its white and red pine harvest for winter because in the summer, they only have about a week to deliver it to the sawmill before a stain starts to develop in this appearance grade fibre.
Then there is the newly-minted provincial Endangered Species Act, which has dropped a whole new set of guidelines on Ontario loggers in the province’s quest to protect such species as the Red-tailed Hawk and various species of turtles.
“The Endangered Species Act is not creating a climate for investment in new equipment,” says Thomas.
Faced with these extra logging costs, he adds that some loggers are opting to pack it in, rather than risk having to make equipment payments in an environment where it is getting tougher and tougher to make money.
The fleet at Hec Clouthier & Sons consists of two fairly new John Deere 753J feller bunchers, two John Deere 648H grapple skidders, a John Deere 648 GIII grapple skidder, two John Deere 540G cable skidders, five Timberjack 240 cable skidders, two Timberjack 230 cable skidders, a Serco 290 loader with a slasher, three Serco 270 slashers, three Serco 8000 loaders attached to skidders, five International log trucks with 48’ trailers, a John Deere 200 excavator, a Cat 320 excavator, two Cat 966 front end loaders, and a Terex front end loader. The fleet also consists of an assortment of Cat dozers and three Champion graders used primarily for road building.
The terrain south of Deux Rivières is within the Canadian Shield and is variable from gentle, rolling terrain to steep slopes. Potential large rock outcroppings can appear anywhere. Thomas describes the ground cover as 70 per cent reasonable and 30 percent awful. For example, they were logging in a highly challenging area this past summer where their road building costs tripled. On steep terrain, the company will employ hand falling and cable skidders to access the wood. Making business decisions on what harvesting methods to use in which areas is where their experience really pays off.
Some days, Thomas would just rather go work his registered trap line but both he and Willy are keen and motivated to pass on their knowledge and experience so that the next generation keeps the family logging tradition intact. The forest is in their blood and they are trying their best to make it work.
“I hope the next generation can make a go of it,” Thomas concludes.