If the truth was known, I’ve always lived for road trips especially when wood is involved! You can imagine my excitement in September when a colleague, Kim Hoelting, told me that he was planning a trip to SE Alaska. I wasn’t shy when I asked him if this native North Dakotan could tag along and being the kind and gentle soul he is, he agreed! His mission for this trip was to touch base with all the loggers who have supplied him throughout the years with amazing pieces of wood that he offers at Live Edge Woodworks on Whidbey Island, WA.. Our destination in SE Alaska was the town of Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan, AK.. Prince of Wales Island is the 4th largest island in America (roughly the size of Delaware) and has a year round population of 6,000 people. We flew from Seattle to Ketchikan via Alaska Air and then has a 25 min. ride to Thorne Bay on a de Havilland Beaver float plane. See Image 1. I was reminded of the relative isolation of the island as we and our possessions were carefully weighed before departure so that important freight (bolts and hardware) could also be loaded to service the inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island. Once I was on the island, I was reminded that it had to be very expensive for the residents to get rid of their old cards and trucks, because I saw a lot of old Ford pickups in various forms of disassembly. This fondly reminded me of the parts of Montana and the need for parts of vehicles to keep your rig running! We also saw lots of used refrigerators being used as salmon smokers! “Waste not, want not” was drilled into me as a kid-it appears it is common practice in Alaska as well!
The Tongass National Forest covers much of SE Alaska and most of the Prince of Wales Island. Logging, fishing and mining have been the traditional industries on the island but less extractive industries such as tourism via the tour ships are bringing much needed income to many of these hardscabble towns in SE Alaska. Our trip was delayed in November because of the US government shutdown so we were assured of having nice cool rainy weather that contributes nicely to the 120 inches of precipitation yearly that makes this the largest coastal temperate rain forest in the world. Seriously, that’s like 1/3 of an inch per day! It’s no wonder that this part of Alaska can grow trees! In Bozeman where I live, we average around 20″ per year and that’s considered wet compared to most areas of Montana!
I remember reading extensively about the Tongass (America’s largest national forest with 17 million acres) in the 70′s when I was attending forestry school at the Univ. of Minnesota. It was a source of controversy then because of the old growth forests of Sitka spruce, Alaskan yellow cedar, Western red cedar and Western hemlock were being logged at phenomenal rates and those forest management practices had spawned a huge conflict with many skirmishes between competing political, industrial and environmental interests. See Image 2. The main issues have been about the use of clear cutting as the main harvesting tool because it also hurts the watersheds which are absolutely vital to salmon and the fishing industry, the selling of logs to industry at a loss by the US Forest Service thus requiring subsidies from the US taxpayer, and the exporting of whole logs overseas that eliminate processing jobs for Alaskans. The net result is that the logging industry in the Tongass has shrunk from 3500 jobs in the 1990′s to roughly 200 jobs currently. Little did I realize how much these issues would affect my experience as a potential buyer of Alaskan wood!
It just so happened that a couple of weeks before I was to leave for Alaska that BT received word that a project that we had priced in NC was going to happen. This project was significant in scope and featured a couple of semi-loads of exterior and interior logs that needed to be cedar because building codes required their rot resistance for outside use and the architects were desirous to see the butt flare characteristics of cedar being used as interior log posts. In the bidding process, we had counted on using old cedar telephone poles for the exterior work and hoped to find cedar logs with butt flare somewhere in MT or ID.. As it turns out, both of these solutions were problematic. So now my Alaska trip had a real sense of purpose because we had a real project to build!
We arrived in Thorne Bay early on Sunday afternoon and proceeded immediately to begin the search for wood by searching out Kim’s logger contacts. It didn’t take long to find Elwood the logger, who had a 10 acre clearcut (called a micro-scale) on state land that was almost finished. It was very interesting to walk the boundaries of the clearcut because there were trees over 5′ in diameter as we slogged under and around them in standing water and ankle deep moss. As we looked at the deck of logs that had been shovel logged up to the road, I noticed these beautiful weathered standing dead cedar logs that were laying sprinkled throughout the Western red and Alaskan yellow cedar logs that had been cut green. See Image 3. I learned that these gnarly logs were called snags by the locals and were considered non-merchantable because of the loose knots that fell out when sawed into lumber. I was told that these snags had been standing for up to 5o years and the less rot resistant sapwood had vanished after thousands of wet/dry cycles. See Image 4. The wheels were spinning rapidly in my head because I could see the possibilities for our project in NC!
Now I could concentrate on other needs like the butt flare posts and unique pieces of wood that might stimulate our creativity. I learned quickly from Jake, our logger contact, as we looked as his log pile that most of the western red cedar (Thuja pilcata) couldn’t be sold unless he sawed it on all 4 sides into dimensional lumber thus eliminating its potential as live edge pieces. In other works, exporting red cedar logs was extremely burdensome because of restrictions that have been imposed to counteract the past negative effects of log exportation. Jake was able to export Alaskan yellow cedar (cupressus nootkatensis) so we were able to find the 6 main interior butt flared log posts. See Image 5. The disadvantage f these posts is that they were not as dry as the standing dead snags since they had been cut green about 3 years ago. As we looked through Jake’s log pile, we found tons of old growth red cedar logs that both Kim and I wanted to buy but we couldn’t do practically because the terms of their contacts with the Forest Service contract wouldn’t allow these logs to be exported unless they were sawed into boards. See Image 6. This was extremely discouraging since everyone would benefit if the logs could be bought as logs and turned into a higher value commodity than deck lumber. So the very laws that were designed to protect the local Alaskan logger ended up hurting him from reaping the maximum value for his logs! It was pretty apparent that every logger that we ran into would be classified as “barely making it” and most told us the difficulty to find enough logs to cut and run their small sawmills and shingle mills. I never got the idea that these small operators were “cutting and running” which has often been the case in the wood products industry! I ended up buying a couple more loads of crooked Alaskan yellow cedar that again only had value as firewood in Alaska but had great potential for interesting pieces in log and timber trusses. It felt great to add some money to the loggers’ bottom line by purchasing snags, butt flares and crooked logs!
Since I’ve returned and the logs have started to arrive from Alaska, I’ve had numerous conversations about my trip. Most folks who see the logs are intrigued by the time worn patina of the old dead trees and some are interested in the process of getting logs from an island 1500 miles away via barge and flatbed truck and trailer to Montana. See Images 7 and 8. Folks who know us well understand our now familiar habit of finding things no one else wants and then making things from them that have a great story. Some folks were surprised that we would buy trees from an old growth forest that was being clearcut! One person asked if there were any trees left for wildlife and bird habitat after the clearcut!?!
If the truth was know, we’ve never had an issue with cutting live and standing dead old growth trees to build our buildings. I think our buildings are worthy of the best fine grained, dense wood because we use the wood in an honest and honorable way. But we decided long ago (1990) that basing our building business on a constant supply of old growth wood directly from the forest was not sound business. Yes, mammoth clear-cuts are destructive and ugly to look at but this 10 acre micro-scale in Alaska is minuscule in the scheme of things and it gives forest managers a tool to deal with over ripe and dying forests. It provides honest work and a sustainable living for the smaller logger that toil away in the Tongass. I think that our use of wood is appropriate and responsible. So for 24 years now, we’ve been using old growth wood that was cut up to 100 years ago and put into industrial America. The best part of this is that the wood has also been drying for up to 100 years in their respective structures. Essentially we’ve had the best of both worlds plus great stories to tell about where we found the reclaimed wood.
The snags from Alaska seems like a great story too as they stand like lone dead soldiers hoping that someone will finally notice their beauty and intrinsic value and use them in an honorable way. The cycle of life marches on as these snags are replaced with vigorous new growth that provides increased wildlife habitat and more oxygen for the planet!
“I can really relate to this snag story. Snags remind me of myself in many ways, such as: We are mostly grey on top with a little sprinkling of brown mixed in! We both have deeply furrowed faces from our many years of experience! We’ve been wet and dry countless times! We’re often overlooked or looked down upon because we’re perceived as old, weak and boring! But you just might be surprised when you polish us up!!!!!!” -Merle Adams
PS. The names of our logger suppliers have been changed to protect Live Edge Woodwork and BT’s future supply of snags and crooked logs! Guess what movie that I took the names from?