By Shawn Perich
Stan Nelson Jr. loves the North Shore and Grand Marais, but he likes it best when he heads into the woods.
“I prize my solitude,” he says.
Nelson goes into the woods every working day, because he’s a logger. And you could say the apple hasn’t rolled far from the tree. His father quit school at age 12 to work in the woods and was a logger all of his life.
“Dad started with a two-horse team in 1944,” he says, “working out of a camp on Dumbbell Lake.”
Today, Nelson sits in the climate-controlled cab of a cut-to-length processor. The two machines he owns represent a million dollar investment. His monthly payments run into five digits. Add to that his ongoing costs for fuel, stumpage, trucking, repairs and salaries for himself and one employee. Nelson has to cut a lot of wood just to make ends meet.
“I put up about 15,000 cords per year,” he says.
Much of the work he does is thinning in red pine plantations, although he harvests other tree species as well. When he first started working around Grand Marais 15 years ago, he often encountered anti-logging sentiment. Now he thinks the adoption of harvesting guidelines and best management practices have improved logging—and public attitudes.
“People used to voice an opinion. Now they look at a site and say “Good job,’” he says. “When you have such big investment, you take a lot of pride in what you do.”
Logging is as much a calling as it is a profession. Kent Anderson of Grand Marais got started when he was seven years old, skidding wood for his father and his uncle.
“I couldn’t use a chainsaw yet,” he says.
His father, Wayne, was a millwright for Hedstrom Lumber Mill and a member of the Hedstrom family. Anderson started working summers at the mill when he was 13 and spending winters working in the woods. When he was 15, he bought a skidder. After graduating from high school, he spent two years in college. He began logging with just a chainsaw and a skidder.
“Then I stuck my neck way out,” says and started purchasing mechanized equipment. By age 22 his operation was fully mechanized and he began to hire help.
In the late 90s, the Hedstrom mill was operating a chipper machine to supply raw material for other mills. To meet the demand, Anderson upped his annual production to 10,000 cords. When the chipper went down in 1998, he had to downsize his operation. He began to build up again during the 2000s until the housing market crashed in 2008. Currently, he has a crew of three and may add one more person this winter.
For the last 20 years Anderson has contracted with Hedstrom Lumber. He started out cutting a sale of large pine—literally at the end of an era—then began red pine thinning. These days he spends about 75 percent of his time doing final harvests of mature stands and about 25 percent thinning red pine.
Not so many years ago, the North Shore had far more logging operations than it does today. The older loggers have retired, although some continued working into their 80s. At age 53, Nelson now considers himself the oldest logger in Cook County, although statewide the average age of loggers is about 60. Young blood is hard to attract to the business. Currently, skilled equipment operators can find high-paying work in mining or in the oil fields of North Dakota. Then there are the high costs of purchasing and operating logging equipment.
“It’s hard to tell a young person to go into logging,” says Anderson. When I started, I went from non mechanized to fully mechanized in a couple of years. That was a big chunk of change.”
Loggers are dependent on the price they receive for their harvested wood from the mills. Nelson and Anderson agreed that Hedstrom Lumber is vitally important to the North Shore, because it is the closest market. The distance from “civilization” also creates a challenge.
“We’re the furthest away from everything—fuel, mills and parts—so we pay the most,” says Anderson, although the additional costs are somewhat offset by lower prices for stumpage.
In order to survive, loggers have to be smart and self-sufficient. They sort the wood they cut for different markets to ensure they get the most value out of their product. Many do nearly all of their own equipment repairs. And they are always thinking ahead.
“When you are on the ground in every season, you get to know a lot of things,” Anderson says. “You don’t want to be working in the clay country around Hovland and Grand Portage in the spring. Instead you want to be up on the gravel, such as along the Gunflint Trail.”
From just about any perspective, logging is a tough way to make a living. So why does anyone do it?
“I’ve asked myself that question hundreds, if not thousands of times over the years,” Anderson says. “Now I’ve been through the hardest part financially, I’m experienced and I know I can solve the problems that occur. “
Nelson is succinct about his motivations. “It’s not what you do, it’s who you are,” he says.