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Steep slope specialist
Logging contractor Blair Schiller is a veteran of steep slope logging, working in the Monashee Mountain Range around Revelstoke, B.C. using a variety of equipment including a used Washington 88 grapple yarder which—after a bit of work in Schiller’s shop—is earning its keep.
By Paul MacDonald
Logging contractor Blair Schiller knows all about going the distance—and then some.
Very early on a winter morning, in addition to managing the overall logging activities of Schiller Contracting, he climbs into the cab of an International logging truck to keep logs moving from their logging show about an hour outside of Revelstoke, in southeastern B.C.
But Schiller knows the drill of early—and long—hours. Even though he is only 41, he has been logging for more than 25 years, starting out cutting slash for his Dad’s logging operation when he was a teenager.
Blair bought his Dad, Gary’s, logging business back in 2008. Unfortunately, it was just as the industry was going into the downturn, so he had to be very resourceful over the next few years to keep his equipment busy.
“We do a lot of roadbuilding, so I kept one side busy doing road development,” he says. They also bid on timber sales, but the competition was fierce, as the downturn had everybody looking for work. He was seeing contractors from other parts of B.C. bidding for work with equipment that clearly would not work in the steep ground of the Monashee Mountain Range, around Revelstoke.
“We had people coming in with equipment like flat-bottomed bunchers—this isn’t the country for that.”
Thankfully, Schiller Contracting had steady work from Stella-Jones, which has a forest licence in the region and two pole peeling facilities in Revelstoke. Stella-Jones harvests a variety of timber from its licence, and trades wood to obtain pole timber for its operations.
Blair Schiller takes a great deal of pride in having taken over his Dad’s logging company, and continuing the family name in the industry, and in Revelstoke. “My Dad did a lot of work building the company, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that,” he says. “He took a lot of pride in what he did, and so do I.”
A small example: Schiller talks about going into a supplier for some parts recently for their yarder; they had not dealt with the company for about a dozen years. But their account record was still there, and their credit was good—no questions needed to be asked. He has benefited from the goodwill his Dad built up over many years. “My Dad built a reputation, and has a good name, and I’ve tried to stay in those boots,” he says.
Along the way, prior to purchasing the operation, he ran skidder in other parts of B.C., drove truck, and ran a sort yard.
“I took every opportunity I could get,” says Schiller. “If someone gave me the chance to learn on a piece of equipment, I grabbed it.”
One of the newer pieces of equipment at Schiller Contracting is a Cat 325D carrier with a Log Max 10000 head, which has worked well for them, even in large wood, he says. “The head has a 40” bar and is 33” between the wheels, but we’ve processed five foot spruce, as long as the snipe is off it. When you see what the Log Max picks up and runs through, it’s impressive.”
And the Cat 325D/Log Max combo works in some steep ground, too, he notes. “It’s a matter of knowing how to do it,” says Schiller.
And if their Cat 330C loader is elsewhere, the 325D/Log Max combo will do some loading, too. Last year, it did about 50 loads. “Sometimes it makes a lot of sense, depending on where the loader is,” he says. “The loader may be out hoe chucking, and it could take 50 minutes for it to get to the landing. But it only takes the Cat/Log Max a bit longer than the loader to load a few trucks.”
And the service he gets from the Log Max folks, says Schiller, is very high. “Out of all the equipment people I’ve dealt with, the Log Max people are the best.”
B.C. Cat dealer Finning also gets praise from Schiller. “They treat us pretty darn good. You pay your bills, you keep a good name, and people will help you out and get you through the tough times.”
Their equipment line-up includes a total of three Cat 330 loaders, the Cat 325D/Log Max, and two Cat 525C skidders.
This kind of service from reputable dealers is critical, says Schiller. He admits that it’s sometimes tempting to buy parts elsewhere. “Sometimes the price is tempting, but then you know if something goes south with what you bought, there is no one to stand behind it—you’re on your own.”
Schiller has a 60’ by 40’ shop that they work out of for equipment maintenance. They use Finning for some repair and maintenance work, but also use a couple of heavy duty mechanics in Revelstoke. “We had a mechanic for a while, but there was not quite enough to keep him busy. We’re kind of an in-between size—there’s not quite enough to keep a full time mechanic busy.”
For a while, Schiller got out of high lead logging. But he recently picked up a used Washington 88 grapple yarder and, so far, it is working out. “I had gotten out of high lead, and decided to go conventional, and run a smaller crew,” says Schiller. “There’s a lot less to worry about, equipment-wise.”
But then the opportunity came up to pick up the Washington yarder in, conveniently, Washington State. Schiller worked with Stu Wheeler, of Wheeler Equipment, of Surrey, B.C. to go over the yarder, to make sure it was up to snuff. “It was a good deal,” he says.
But, as with most used equipment, it still required work. The yarder spent about a month in Schiller’s shop in Revelstoke. “That’s just the way it is,” he says. “If you buy older equipment, and think that it’s going to come off the truck and start yarding for you, you’re dreaming.” And Schiller should know about yarders, since he and his father have worked with five yarders, used and new, over the years.
The cab was pretty small on the Washington, so they added to it. Schiller went to the boneyard, and picked up a skylight out of Prentice 630 buncher, found a forestry door off a Cat 220 dozer, and some guarding. “We got it all painted up and it looks pretty good,” he says.
One of the big advantages with the Washington yarder is its relative portability vs. previous yarders Schiller has worked with. They recently did a small business sale for North Enderby Timber, about 100 kilometres from Revelstoke, with the Washington 88. “It’s a lot easier to move,” says Schiller. “It’s a one-piece move.”
Sourcing parts for equipment such as older yarders can be a bit of a challenge. Schiller says you really need to know where to look. The Washington actually has a M32 Sherman tank underbody whose design dates back to the 1940s. “But the engine is an old 871 Detroit, and lots of tugboats on the Coast have one of those. And the transmission is simple, a four-speed Clark.” Much of the smaller parts, he says, can be sourced at the local NAPA outlet.
Eventually, Schiller would like to replace the M32 underbody with a hydraulic underbody, and re-power it.
Schiller’s resourcefulness towards his equipment extends to the entire operation, and his attitude. “I never take ‘No’ for an answer,” he says. “I’m always looking to what is going to make things work. You have to think quick and if you don’t, you are not going to make it in this industry now.”
Schiller has a solid crew that includes his brother, Travis, who runs loader and skidder, and a cousin, Brant Watson, who also runs skidder. But when they need people, Schiller looks for operators who will take care of their equipment, and who can figure out how to handle logging situations on a day-to-day basis.
“People will say that someone will be good on a processor because he plays X-Box,” he says. Having good hand-eye dexterity is important, he says. “But you need to know more than how to blow stuff up. I don’t want someone smashing up stuff with a piece of my equipment.”
Schiller’s attention to detail extends to the logging site, where there is minimal debris. “Some other operations will come back multiple times, trying to clean up brush piles. As much as possible, we do it as we go along. Being organized like that doesn’t cost you any more money—in fact, it costs you less.
“We’ve got things together. No one we work for needs to worry about things like that—no one has to tell me that we need the clean the ditches out. We’ve always taken that extra step and I take pride in that. It’s got to be done right.”
In addition to making sure they meet evolving standards in the bush, the equipment they work with continues to evolve, he notes. Fuel efficiency has improved and Schiller is looking forward to the new logging and road layout programs that are coming out. “This country is so broken up, with a lot of ridges and breaks, and that has a big impact on what we do and how we do it. The new layout programs will allow us to pinpoint things a lot better.”
Recently, with the industry in the upswing, more logging work has been available. But Schiller has been careful about adding additional work. “You can take on more work, but you want to make sure the compensation is there to do the work.” That, of course, includes some profit at the end of the day.
Good operators, of course, are key to the whole operation, Schiller added. For the logging industry as a whole, getting good people is all about the money, he says. And it’s hard to compete with big money in the Alberta oil patch. “The money needs to come around in logging. And you can do what you want, but until that happens, it is going to be hard to find people to do the work.”
He believes the mills and the forest companies are starting to recognize that. “They are starting to learn, that everything can’t be their way—it needs to be more of a partnership.”
Schiller added that there have been equipment operators who have been to the oil patch, and been happy to return home to B.C. “They’ve been there and done that—but they want to be home with their family. And they can do that with logging.”
And the scenery is a lot different at the top of a mountain than it is in Fort McMurray, he says. “This scenery is unreal,” he says, pointing to a mountain in the distance. “What more can you ask for?”
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