By Paul MacDonald
Andrew Johnson of Wolf Lake Logging and A&K Timber is all about constantly improving his logging operations, located on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, with harvesting operations from Port McNeill in the north to Duncan in the south.
The status quo, as the saying goes, does not work for Johnson. “We need to keep things moving ahead or next thing you know our competitors will pass us by,” he says. That applies to everything in his business.
And it’s in part why the Wolf Lake Logging/A&K Timber operations combined are now one of the biggest logging operations on Vancouver Island, harvesting 500,000 cubic metres of mixed old growth/second growth timber a year.
The latest example of the constant improvements was recently at work about 30 minutes up logging roads from the Vancouver Island town of Courtney: the John Deere 959ML tilting hoe chucker/shovel logger.
Tilting equipment is not new to Wolf Lake—they have been working with tilting logging equipment from another manufacturer for some time. But Deere was interested in breaking into this market, hence the new 959ML machine.
And the machine was available immediately, and Deere, and Canada-wide Deere dealer Brandt Tractor, were more than happy to give Johnson’s operation a no-obligations demo—they had confidence that the 959ML would fit his needs.
“There was no commitment,” Johnson says. “It was: take the machine, put it to work and see if you like it. We put the 959ML to work and it’s doing the job.” And they like it.
There is all kinds of technical information about the new machine available from Deere and Brandt (see the sidebar story), but Johnson is more of a “the proof is in the doing” kind of guy.
“Spec sheets can be helpful with basic information like weight and horsepower. But what really helps me make the decision on a machine is if I can try it for a while, and make comparisons with other machines in the same class.”
In the case of the 959ML hoe chucker/ shovel logger, it’s all about how it does in steep slopes for Wolf Lake, chucking timber to roadside, as the equipment’s name says.
In recent years, more and more logging on the B.C. Coast has been in steep ground—for Wolf Lake, more than half of their logging is now done in steep ground conditions.
“We needed something for that type of ground and conditions—we had to have a hoe chucker that tilts, and we looked at who has that product, which dealer represents them, and what dealer is best for us,” says Johnson.
Service is a key part of the picture for Wolf Lake—and Brandt Tractor and Brandt sales rep Dave Jensen deliver, as is illustrated with this new machine. Before the 959ML even came out to be demo’ed by Wolf Lake, Brandt installed ice lugs, steel blocks of steel welded on to the tracks for extra traction.
“We call it corking up the machine,” says Johnson. “That’s one of the standard things we do with tracked machines working on steep slopes—and Brandt did that before they even brought the machine out to the bush. It was a good move on their part because the machine performed very well.”
And it fits well with the other Deere equipment the company has, including a 859M feller buncher equipped with a Deere FR22 bunching head, purchased earlier in the year. Wolf Lake also has a good deal of Deere equipment that it uses for building logging road for their operations, and other companies. And pretty much all of their processing equipment is Deere, with Waratah heads.
The hoe chucker performs well in unexpected weather conditions. At the end of September, machine operator Rob Boyes reports, they had snow falling on the site. Usually, they don’t see snow until mid or even late October.
Boyes is a third generation logger, and he’s run a lot of equipment in his 30 years in the bush, 15 of those years in the cabs of equipment. His grandfather was a faller, and his father did just about everything in logging. Boyes did his share of hooking and chasing in the bush, before moving on to being an equipment operator. On the Coast, and in the B.C. Interior, Boyes has run a fair bit of Deere machines—748G111s, 748H and 848H skidders.
Boyes has run some tilting equipment, but the 959ML is really the first tilter he’s been able to put some solid hours on. “It’s great,” he says. “It makes all the difference being self-leveling—it’s a huge difference for the swing power you have. The way it gets around in the bush is just phenomenal.”
He noted that doing hoe chucking with non-leveling machines, operators can spend so much time trying to get level, to do the hoe chucking, moving logs up a hillside. It often involves looking around the sidehill for a decent sized log to position the machine on, to be able to swing wood. “If you were to try to swing a four foot diameter hemlock uphill and you’re not level, well that is just not going to happen,” he says.
“But with the 959ML, you hit a button, and you’re level—and you start swinging wood. It takes a lot of the extra work out of hoe chucking when you don’t have to do all that leveling. I really like the machine.”
The long reach of the 959ML’s boom also stands out. “The more reach you have, the farther you hoe chuck the logs up the hill—it has more reach than other machines.” The machine features field-proven, robust booms with thick plates, and strong joints help extend durability and wear life. The 959ML also has a heel boom, which Boyes says proves helpful for getting around on sidehills.
The 959ML is equipped with the 60-inch T-Mar Industries grapple. “It works excellent—it’s T-Mar’s second largest grapple, and having that large a grapple makes a huge difference.”
Even though it is performing well, the 959ML machine being used by Wolf Lake will be getting some tweaking, to meet the challenge of local logging conditions. There’s a matter of wear on travel hoses due to the timber being swung around. “There is wood constantly swinging around you when you are hoe chucking, so you get limbs and wood chunks going up against the hoses. Basically, all that’s needed is a better protection system for the hoses,” says Boyes. An interim solution has been to wrap the hoses, but Wolf Lake, working with Brandt Tractor, will install some steel plating. “We just need to put some kind of plate over the top, where the hoses bend,” says Boyes.
Boyes says that maintenance-wise, the machine has been good. “Any hoses that need to be changed, I do that myself,” he says. “I’ve had blown travel hoses on other machines in the past, and you can spend half-a-day changing them. On the 959, it’s about a 15-minute job.”
The visibility is sometimes challenged, by the fact that they are working in very steep areas.
That said, Boyes liked the fact that the machine is dual swing-drive and multi-functional, that he could run the stick and boom, and travel, together.
And, overall, he appreciates the solidness and stability. “I personally feel a lot safer compared to working in a non-tilting machine,” he said. “It’s a very, very stable machine—it just plants itself on the hillside. And you’re lower to the ground—it’s a lot easier to see your tracks and everything that is going on around you.”
This fall, Wolf Lake was working in a mix of western red cedar/hemlock/balsam timber in old growth wood, and a hemlock/Douglas fir combination in second growth—and it is big timber, some with diameters of four feet. But Boyes is able to move them around like extremely large pick-up sticks. “It really easily maneuvers that big wood around,” says Boyes.
The areas where Wolf Lake works on Vancouver Island have a good deal of rock, and the machine has performed well in these conditions. “Some of the rocks are bigger than the machine,” reports Boyes. He said rocky conditions also play to the tilting strengths of the 959ML, as it can be extremely difficult to find a flat spot to position the machine. Especially with a non-tilting machine, they can be losing valuable time trying to get the machine leveled out, at least to some degree.
Boyes moved from another brand of hoe chucker to the 959ML, and he reports it was not a big transition. The joystick and travel controls are more sensitive on the 959ML—but Boyes said it would be similar to slightly different controls and pedals if you switched the pick-up truck you were driving.
In general, Boyes said the 959ML is easier on the operator. “You’re not sitting at an angle all day and you notice it at the end of the day in your shoulders, arms, hips and back. You don’t feel as tired at the end of the day, physically and mentally.”
In making the purchase of the new Deere machine—and any purchase of iron—Wolf Lake’s Andrew Johnson has a lot of equipment experience to draw on. He started out in the industry cutting shake blocks in the 1990s, and then moved on to operating a line skidder in his uncle’s logging business.
Johnson ran skidder all over Vancouver Island, doing select logging, mostly on private land and farmland, for eight years. He then got lots of excavator experience, working in civil construction for four years, before moving back into logging.
Johnson explained that his original goal, in high school, was to be a heavy-duty mechanic. That didn’t come to pass, but he’s got lots of hands-on experience. “Running machines as an owner-operator, you learn the machines, servicing, how to troubleshoot—I monkey-wrenched my machines and learned a lot along the way.”
He’s pretty much run every piece of equipment they have—and there is a lot of iron. They now have more than 60 pieces of equipment.
Johnson described the last 20 years in business as being kind of “surreal”, with the growth the company has seen, and all the equipment it now runs.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” he says. “There’s been a lot to learn—and changes are not easy. Our transition to steep slopes has definitely had its challenges. We’ve tried some things that that did not work, and have tried other things that have worked.
“Sometimes I wonder how we ever got here.”
The answer to that, it seems, is a lot of hard work, risk taking—and not accepting the status quo.
The John Deere 959ML self-leveling hoe chucker/shovel logger is the latest addition to the company’s 900 series of machines.
Deere says that the 959ML machine combines the power of the company’s reliable engines with its industry leading, patented leveling system that expands overall working capability, delivering machines that are ready to tackle a wide range of jobsite challenges.
Deere notes that this equipment has to deal with some very tough conditions—such as Wolf Lake Logging’s steep slope work on Vancouver Island in B.C.—and the company takes the approach of going to its toughest customers to find out what works best in the woods.
The company’s latest machines are the result of what customers told Deere what their operation can’t do without. This included long and wide undercarriages for greater stability, standard and long-reach boom options with choice of multiple attachments to match unique applications, and dual swing drives, for more productivity-boosting power. The machines feature large fuel tanks to keep running—and producing—longer, and more powerful John Deere PowerTech 9.0L diesel engines that deliver low total fluid consumption and high reliability.
An optional Rapid Cycle System (RCS) uses a single, easy-to operate joystick to quickly and simply control all boom functions. Adaptable to preferences and environments, RCS can be tailored to individual skill levels and specific harvesting conditions.
Reliable tractive effort enables maneuverable negotiation of difficult or steep terrain and in deep snow with the machine. A longer, wider undercarriage maximizes stability in all terrain conditions.
The company’s FT4/Stage IV PowerTech PSS diesels meet emission regulations without sacrificing power or torque, says Deere. Built on the company’s EPA Interim Tier 4 (IT4)/EU Stage IIIB solution, this simple technology delivers a winning combination of performance, fluid efficiency, and reliability.
John Deere FT4 engines maintain peak engine performance while minimizing total fluid consumption—diesel fuel plus diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). This exceptionally conservative DEF-use rate is up to four times lower than that of some other FT4 systems, says the company.
Fully adjustable armrests, including mounted keypads on tracked harvesters, provide fingertip control of all machine functions. The sealed touchpad keeps out dust, moisture, and debris, for longer switch life. Proven marine-grade control center eliminates rocker switches, numerous wires, and unsealed connections, and lasts up to 10 times longer than standard switches.
On the Cover:
In terms of operations and equipment, the status quo does not work for Andrew Johnson of Wolf Lake Logging and A&K Timber—he’s all about constantly improving his logging operations on B.C.’s Vancouver Island. The latest example of the constant improvements is now at work: the John Deere 959ML tilting hoe chucker/shovel logger (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald).
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