The return to nature through improved forest management has renewed interest in the original workhorse of the woods. Log hauling by horse has been practised for hundreds of years. Their giant presence and muffled hoof beats through dense forestation, is a welcome sight once again. These horses know the meaning of tolerance, fortitude and obedience. It is dangerous and calculating hard work.
Tree Roots of the Past
During the late 1800’s and the beginning of the 20th century, the heavy horse in the logging camps and on the slick stone riverbeds, was considered king of the timberlands. A team of draft once hauled a titanic load of 306 logs on a skid weighing 30 tons. Once the load was started, the team dug deep and low and pushed into their collars along a polished road of glare ice. Although not the norm, the sure power of these great beasts, dwarfed only by the enormous mountain of logs, was recorded and captured on celluloid that day at a lumber camp in Webbwood, Ontario in the winter of 1916.
Not only were draft horses required to haul logs from the dense brush, others were asked to swim and wade through rivers and fast flowing streams. Behind the common sight of a trio of draft in harness, lay a seventy-foot scow loaded with five to seven tons of timber. Horses selected for this dangerous job were chosen for their courage and swimming ability. Drownings were not uncommon if the horse was not suitable or up to the challenge. Vigorous training at a young age made the difference for survival of the water log horse.
The average logging camp of the past meant portaging supplies over very rough and difficult terrain. A typical camp of 100 men and 20 horses would consume 1,700 pounds of food and fodder every single day. The hard work meant large appetites for both man and beast alike.
The Modern Day Teamster
Not much has changed over the years for the draft horse in the woods. Today, only 100 or so loggers practise these logging techniques across the vast Canadian wilderness. One of these rare breeds of naturalist loggers is Cec Andrus who works in harmony with his Belgium-cross Gelding, Jack. He and his seven year old partner are employed twelve months of the year. It’s a solitary life in the bush that both seem to enjoy. Cec, a transplanted Nova Scotian, speaks with ease in the friendly down-home persona of “the coaster”, as he gives a little history lesson on the region he is skidding logs out of.
In one Haliburton region of northern Ontario, known as Old Kenesis Lake Saw Mill, 150,000,000 boards were taken from that forest over a period of 25 years. (A board measures 1’Wx1’Lx1” thick.) That translates into an enormous amount of timber for a relatively small mill. With the advent of larger mills and modern heavy equipment in the 1970s, cuttings of the forests were well in excess of 50 million feet annually. Today, better forest management is aimed at controlling some of the past systematic raping of forest. Since some variety of hardwood trees have a 75-year growing rate to maturity, replenishing the forest may take a whole generation to accomplish.
Prior to hauling timber from the bush, determining the size of the area for prospective culling is undertaken using a prism or measuring tool. With the help of the prism, an area is mapped out and the trees for cutting are marked with fluorescent paint. Old, dying and diseased trees are chosen first, followed by a select group of more healthy and mature trees. The horse and teamster can manage terminally cankerous or expired trees that are not accessible with modern logging equipment from soft shorelines and frozen lake frontage, both economically and skilfully. By limiting the harvest of these trees, it aids in the prevention of soil erosion, while allowing for more natural light to filter into the forest seedbeds, creating room for future trees to grow.
Unlike the destructive forces brought on by modern automated skidders and heavy logging equipment, the horse and teamster minimize the disturbance to the forest. The sacrificial scarring of healthy trees left in the wake of machinery activity is eliminated. Two years after a horse has logged an area, there is virtually no evidence of its presence. The forestlands remain in tact and are rejuvenated with new growth.
Hazards of the Forest
With the last fitting of the trace to the stout whiffletree, Cec readies his hardhat and ear protectors for the trip into the forest. The work harness is not fancy. It is durable and simple with the open bridle fitted over the halter, as a loose ring snaffle hangs in Jack’s mouth awaiting direction. Jack is turned towards the crude path leading to the cutting site as the chainsaw swings loosely from the metal hames that guide the lines on his work collar.
Jack steps carefully over the protruding rock and underbrush slow and methodical as he makes his way. He lowers his massive head as he travels under an overhanging limb. Cec keeps a constant vigil surveying the woods for “silent killers”. This is the term given to broken branches that hang perilously from treetops during cutting. Serious injury to horse and handler, even death, awaits them with these dismembered tree limbs. The slight shake of a tree or sudden gust of wind can dislodge these branches from their resting place, sending them hurling to the ground, sometimes hitting their target with deadly accuracy.
Jack scrapes his hind cannon bone on a sharp twig that snaps in protest under his hoof. Unperturbed by the sudden sting and superficial scrape to his leg, Jack pushes deeper into the forest and ever-advancing brush.
Beautiful landscapes, but at times treacherous, Jack has to manoeuvre the steep inclines making switchbacks to accomplish the laborious journey as he works towards the pinnacle of the hill moving from side to side. Precise, defining steps, Jack drags the whiffletree as it reluctantly snags its way along. Loose rock falls away beneath his flat wide hooves. The toe grabs and heel calks dig deep into the soil to give Jack added stability. He reaches the clearing, barely breaking a sweat. The huge hulk of his body suffers from the endless onslaught of deer flies and mosquitoes, leaving huge quarter-size welts along his neck and shoulders. Unlike the draft horses used in farming, the logging horse is spared from the procedure of tail docking (removing the tail). Here in the wild country, the horse needs every measure of protection against the elements. Its fly swatting tail, long flowing mane and nose-touching forelock are a necessity.
In early spring, black flies tore relentlessly at his flesh during the long days in the bush. Sprays and repellents provided little protection in the bug battle zone of the woods. Jack shakes his enormous head in defiance. Still he stands patiently waiting to begin his daily task.
Because some areas are not conducive for long-lining, the logging horse must often work without the direction of lines. It solely depends on guidance delivered by the teamster through voice commands: “Gee” for right; “Haw” for left. The integrate manoeuvres the horse makes while hauling a log to the landing site is truly amazing. Not only do these compact, low set horses work from voice, they often work at speed, trotting or cantering down a hill without hooking the log on an unmoveable rock or tree along its often self-determining route. These equine journeymen of the forest are remarkable athletes on to themselves.
The roar and hum of the chainsaw breaks the silence of the forest as the tree is felled and prepared for hauling as the last wrap of the chain is fitted to the log. After eight hours of hard work with a dozen trees hauled from the thick underbrush, it is time to call it a day.
The horses are corralled in a makeshift paddock, protected by the resonating tick of a portable shock box that pulses an electrical charge on the string of wire surrounding the horses. It is their only protection against the stalking night predators of bear, wolf and coyote packs, mountain lion, and lynx. Still the horses herd together and continue to feed contently into the restful night. The reassuring “tick – tick” from the box stands guard to sting any uninvited guests.
The medicinal smell of liniment permeates the sharp crisp air. Fuelling their depleted energy reserves, the horse drops his head into his large filled grain bucket. Two gallons of a molasses oat and corn ration, ten gallons of clear spring water and a round bale of sweet hay, slowly restore the horses’ vigour. The soft chomping sound of the horse at rest is a welcoming sound as dusk approaches and the sun fades into darkness.
Horse logging in winter carries an added burden of risk with the slippery footing and hidden rocks to navigate. Soft cavernous snow now strains every sinew and fibre of muscle as the teamster and his horse are hampered and delayed with the slow progress.
The teamster must be cautious when it pioneers an uncharted slope. It is here that the horse is tested for obedience and strength. The horse must be focused on the voice commands it is given. “Whoa” is perhaps the single most important word the horse must respond to in its limited dictionary of words it has come to know. The teamster must watch with intensity, every step that horse takes as a log weighing hundreds of pounds slides along. One misstep in judgment on the part of the teamster could spell disaster and serious injury.
When harvesting hardwoods, such as oak, maple and hemlock from the forest, a team of horses is most often required. This timber is extremely heavy and difficult to haul. Matching a team of horses that will work in unison is essential.
Life as a logger brings one back to the roots of this land. The precious eco system we have all come to enjoy, can only be enhanced and preserved by the use of the horse. The masterful teamster is one of compassion for his horse. He harbours a great passion for the stewardship of the forest. The teamster is a conservationist, naturalist and loyal partner with his horse. It is a life that is filled with the simple pleasures and beauty of the land that is shared equally with the horse. We owe a debt of gratitude to these heavy haulers that guard and manage our timberlands for generations to come.