True Horse Power
Ontario's Gerald Cook has found a harvesting niche working on small woodlots with his horse logging operation.
By Ray Ford
The driving force behind Gerald Cook's logging operation doesn't burn diesel, never needs an oil change and starts without glow plugs on frosty mornings. Unlike the heavy equipment of most loggers, Cook's horsepower is the real thing-the kind that comes complete with four legs and a fondness for oats.
"They're cheaper than diesel fuel," the 64-year-old says as he guides his team of red sorrel-coloured Belgians through a snowy hardwood bush near Bracebridge, Ontario. "And they smell better, too." Cook's preference for horse sweat over diesel fumes is influenced as much by sound business considerations as by a love of working with horses.
For Cook and son Mark, of Gerald Cook & Sons Logging and Firewood, the team of Belgians are the key to low-cost, environmentally sound forestry on small lots-a niche market that earns premiums from log buyers, wins the support of private landowners and keeps overhead costs in line by avoiding huge capital investments.
"There are many who've tried horse logging, but there are very few that have stayed in the business. Gerald Cook is an exception," says Gerald Kroes, sawmill/forestry manager of Tembec Industries' Huntsville operation and a buyer of Cook's logs. "We've seen other horse loggers struggle financially, but Gerald has been able to find these sensitive areas where access is good and the distances he has to skid aren't as far, and that's what makes it work."
Cook is probably one of a small number of commercial-scale horse loggers in Ontario. Most specialize in high-value hardwoods in the southern half of the province, using a combination of logging know-how and equine sense and often working smaller, privately-owned lots. "We get access to a little better site that yields a higher quality product and that's what makes horse logging financially viable," says Art Shannon, a veteran horse logger who works throughout south-central Ontario. "At the same time we still have to compete, dollar for dollar, with the boys in the skidders when they buy wood on the stump."
A sign of growing interest in horse logging is the month-long course Shannon offers at Sir Sandford Fleming College, where he's taught 23 students during the past three years. "We're trying to build the profile of the industry, and ensure there are people to take over when guys like Gerald and I retire," he says. "We tell the students this can be more than a hobby or a sideline.
It's a real logging operation. It's something to be taken seriously." The Cooks have steady work through a mix of private contracts and jobs for Tembec and, as a shareholder in Westwind Forest Stewardship Inc, the Cooks-like Shannon-also receive an annual allocation of timber on Crown land. Much of their logging is selective hardwood cuts in the midst of Ontario's most prestigious cottage country, but they also do shelterwood cutting and plantation thinning in areas where landowners are worried about the compaction, noise and the width of the trails required for heavy equipment.
The Cooks cut, skid and forward the logs along narrow trails to the landing, where the buyer handles the trucking. On a good day they produce the equivalent of 6,500 to 7,000 board feet, drawing a premium of up to 40 per cent for high-quality logs. The combination of horses and a forwarding wagon "allows us to do a good job in the forest. A year from now you won't know it's ever been touched," Cook says. "We get more dollars per tonne (of wood) than you would if there was a skidder running around. What they're paying for is a bonus to get a better job done."
Although Tembec is committed to conventional mechanized harvesting for the vast majority of its wood, "there are areas that are very sensitive, where noise might be a concern and the sound of a skidder may cause a negative reaction," Kroes says. Horse logging seems to make the most sense on small, two- or five-hectare parcels, where access is good, skidding distances are short and the cost of bringing in a skidder is prohibitive, he adds. Cook has been working in the bush long enough to see his career come almost full circle.
At 15, the kid from a farm near Gravenhurst closed his schoolbooks and headed for the National Lumber Company's camps near Algonquin Park. "Of course, it was all horse logging in those days," he recalls. "I came off the farm, so I could drive horses the odd day when someone was away." When the industry mechanized, Cook followed suit. He cleared right-of-ways for Ontario Hydro and eventually became a bush foreman and log buyer for Nelson Wood Products of Gravenhurst, and then Bass Lake Lumber of Orillia. All the while he kept a team of draft horses on his own Bracebridge-area farm, skidding firewood out of his own 250-acre parcel of land.
As he began dealing with woodlot owners worried about the impact of heavy equipment, he saw the potential for a revival in commercial horse logging. During the early 1980s, he dealt with one landowner's noise concerns by using his horses to skid logs from a logging site near a cottage area. That job led to a contract working on provincially-managed Crown land and Gerald eventually turned to horse logging full-time.
Two generations of the family got involved in the business, with sons Mark and Brian joining the firm. Brian later left to cut and skid timber in northwestern Ontario, but Mark, now 37, stayed with the company. These days Mark and Gerald share felling and bucking duties and Gerald uses the team to skid the logs up to 45 metres along narrow trails. Mark picks up the wood and forwards it to the landing with a Zetor four-wheel-drive tractor and a Farmi knuckleboom forestry trailer.
The tractor, rated at 70 hp at the power take off, was purchased for $36,000 four years ago, and is fitted with a heavy Allied loader equipped with a six-foot bush blade. An industrial welder by trade, Mark has fitted steel guards to the underbelly of the tractor's engine compartment and added a PTO-driven hydraulic pump to power the trailer. The control levers for the trailer's knuckleboom loader are installed behind the seat, so the operator has to twist sideways on the tractor seat to load logs. "If you had to do that for a half an hour, it would be uncomfortable.
But for our operation it's fine, because you're not in the seat for very long," he says. Together the real horsepower, the Belgians, weigh about 3,300 pounds-a fairly light team in the business, but Gerald likes the nimbleness and agility of the lighter horses. They wear shoes with sharp cleats on the toe to keep their footing in the snow and ice. Their nylon harnesses are hitched to a set of skidding tongs Gerald made on his own forge at home. With one son trained as a welder, a brother who's a blacksmith and the family lumber trade, " it runs in the Cook family to be hewers of wood and shapers of iron," he says.
He estimates it costs about $5,000 to buy and equip a team for the bush - including the time and fuel required to scout promising horses. Cook says he's got no plans for retirement-he enjoys his work too much. By using a mix of old and new, he's helping ensure a productive forest will be around for another generation and he's making a comfortable living in the process.
"We try to do a good, neat job in the bush, because 20 years from now-well, I might I be stretching it to say I'll be back to work in this bush again-but I might be." "You never become a rich man when you're working for a living," he adds. "The satisfaction at the end of the day is if you've taken pride in your work. At the end of the day I can look back at what I've done and feel that satisfaction. That's something not everybody gets."
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