Logging and Sawmilling Journal's Tony Kryzanowski gets a firsthand look at extreme logging with Dechant Logging in northern Alberta.
By Tony Kryzanowski
There's logging, and then there's extreme logging. Driving as fast as we can so we can catch enough sunlight to take photographs, we make our way to a rather remote logging show within half an hour of Wood Buffalo National Park. We come to an ice bridge on the Peace River that we must cross to get to the logging camp on the other side. Driving the first hundred metres is fine.
Now, we come to a stop and dead ahead across the ice bridge is a pool of water about 200 metres long and 50 metres wide, with no indication of just how deep it is. Dechant Logging manager Barry Gladders looks over at me as if we are about to bungee jump off a bridge and hits the gas on the half ton. "The key is not stopping," he says. As we inch our way through the water, I'm anticipating that any minute now the truck will sink to the bottom of the river. My heart is in my throat. Thankfully, we manage to make it to the opposite shore after what seems like an eternity.
All I can think about now is having to make the trip back. A few hours later, that journey is an instant replay of the first one, except this time we are driving across in the dark. I hold my breath for what seems like five minutes. As we climb up the opposite bank having successfully crossed the ice bridge a second time, Gladders looks over at me and says, "I really hate doing that." In my mind, I thanked God that I only had to make the journey once. He has to do it once a week for three months. To add insult to injury, we missed the sun by about 10 minutes.
Logging in High Level, Alberta is extreme logging, but not the type of extreme logging commonly attributed to working in steep slopes in some parts of Canada. It is driven by an intense love/hate relationship between loggers and Mother Nature as witnessed by this ice bridge crossing. Rarely do things go according to plan. For example, the ice bridge is supposed to be frozen with a thick layer of ice in January. This year has been unseasonably warm. Yet logging must continue, so the company overcomes nature's midwinter heat spell by dedicating staff to manufacture an ice bridge thick enough to transport fully loaded logging trucks across the river.
Dechant Logging is probably the only logging company in Canada that uses a snowmaking machine. Owned by another company division called Dechant Construction, it is used to maintain the ice road as well as another unique application- building snow bridges on creek crossings on logging roads. This practice is much more environmentally friendly than the conventional practice of building up creek banks with fill, then installing a temporary bridge. The machine also comes in handy building oil rig pads in environmentally sensitive areas.
For about four months a year, Dechant Logging and several other High Level area contractors work under intense pressure to deliver their contracted wood, primarily to either the Tolko sawmill in town or the new massive Footner Forest Products OSB plant eight kilometres out of town. At its peak, Footner Forest Products expects to unload 400 trucks per day during the log haul season. It's a type of psychological warfare that's not for rookies. Contractors spend all summer preparing their logging equipment, aiming for a November 15 start date.
This year, Dechant Logging, owned by Alphonse and Alvis Dechant, was forced to wait until December 6, putting them three weeks behind schedule. The winter haul weights are usually removed from area roads about March 20. An early spring break up could mean road bans by March 7. Not only is the work intense, but the workdays are extreme as well. The eastern horizon begins to brighten in this northern latitude at about 11 am in midwinter, and by 3 pm, it is dark again. So there is the added pressure of working in the dark most of the time.
What limits the logging season to such a short time frame is very limited access to timber stands. In summer, the forested area within the region turns into one large muskeg, making summer logging uneconomical. "Without cold weather, logging would be difficult here," says Gladders. He joined Dechant Logging about a year ago and manages their day to day forestry operations. Alphonse realized that having someone at the helm with plenty of experience logging in this harsh environment was extremely valuable. Given his woodlands management experience at the Tolko sawmill and having worked as a senior government forestry officer, Gladders fit the bill.
Dechant Logging harvests about 368,000 cubic metres of wood per year. That is divided among two operations-one in High Level and the other further south in Valleyview. The conifer wood goes to Tolko in High Level and Canfor in Grande Prairie, while the deciduous goes to Tolko's OSB plant in High Prairie or DMI's pulp plant in Peace River. "Access is the biggest thing that limits us," says Gladders. While frozen ground is a blessing, really cold weather is a curse. "Optimum operating temperature for us is around 20 below zero," says Gladders. "When you start getting into the minus 30s and 40s, you've got to make some decisions on whether to go now and pay the consequences later."
While this winter has been unseasonably warm, it is not uncommon for the weather in High Level to fall below minus 30 and stay there for at least two to three weeks. Gladders says cold weather puts additional stress on equipment, and it impacts each type of logging equipment differently. High Level is definitely an environment where only the strong survive. The Dechant clan has learned to not only survive, but push forward by diversifying their resources between logging, construction and the oil and gas industry. In addition to Dechant Logging and Garden River Logging, they also own Dechant Construction. It manages 120 pieces of construction equipment, most of it in high demand from the oil and gas industry.
The secret to success in High Level is learning to adapt. Alphonse Dechant began his education on the challenges and opportunities available in this remote area of the country as a skidder operator 31 years ago. Now on the verge of retirement, he hasn't forgotten the importance of having the right personnel in place, or the right equipment, for maximum production during the intense logging season. He knows how to make hay when the sun shines-and even when the sun doesn't shine in this part of the country.
To that end, they have come to depend heavily on Risley Equipment in Grande Prairie. The company operates five feller bunchers, with the most recent acquisitions being a TK923 and a larger TK1127 carrier. Both are produced by Risley Manufacturing and come equipped with Risley heads. They also operate two Timberjack 628s and a Timberjack 618. Four of their five harvesting heads are mounted on a Gilbert Tech rotator, which gives them more manoeuvreability. They can tilt forward and twist 180 degrees from side to side.
This comes in handy, particularly in blow down, recovering burned wood and for sorting. Risley also figures heavily with Dechant Logging's delimbing, as they operate six Risley manufactured Limmit delimbers on Caterpillar 330 and John Deere 270 carriers. Their skidder fleet includes three John Deere 748G machines and one 748E model, as well as a Cat 528. "They've all been dependable machines," says Gladders. "We run about 1,600 hours a year on the bunchers. We are trying to expand on that just like anybody else." When the logging season begins, however, the equipment has to deliver maximum production, running 24 hours a day, six days a week.
Herein lies another aspect of doing business in High Level. The region includes a significant Mennonite population that does not work on Sundays for religious reasons. Most farm in the summer and take on seasonal jobs the rest of the year either in the oil patch or logging. Gladders says he is seriously considering an attempt at summer logging, but he is not sure the labour pool will exist, as winter operators return to summer farming. More all season access roads will be built into remote areas as the region becomes more developed, particularly if oil and gas exploration continues at its current pace, spurred by high energy prices.
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