A New Breed of Lumberjack

At Logs End, divers are replacing axes with scuba gear.

Written by Judy Penz Sheluk
Photos by Andrew Van Beek

In 1799, Philemon Wright left Massachusetts in search of land that could provide a self-sufficient community. He found that location on the north bank of the Ottawa River, and established the agricultural settlement of Wrightsville (now Hull). By the end of the first year, enough land had been cleared to harvest a crop of potatoes.
Wright never intended to become a timber tycoon, but winters in the area were long, and cash was short. White and red pine, indigenous to the area, was in great demand, especially in England, where it was used in shipbuilding. In 1805, with the promise of a contract from a lumber merchant in Quebec City, Wright’s workers began cutting down trees.

The first raft of logs was floated down the Ottawa River on June 11, 1806. The 1,300 kilometre journey to Quebec City took two months, and marked the beginning of what would become a thriving industry; by 1823, 300 rafts were making the trip. But it was the ‘Squared Lumber Trade,’ established in the Ottawa Valley around 1830, that transformed the rapidly flowing waterway into a timber-filled highway.

In the 1880s, the ‘Squared Lumber Trade’ was replaced with the ‘Saw Log Trade,’ the result of new technology, and, more likely, a desire to reduce the 25 to 30 per cent waste factor inherent in the squaring process. By the turn of the 20th century, lumberjacks were dumping millions of cut logs, destined for their owner’s sawmills, directly into the rivers. ‘Drivers’ would jump from timber to timber, deftly breaking up any log jams.

As a method of control, the Federal Government launched boats designed to tow large log booms, scavenge for stray logs, and ferry log drivers up and down the Ottawa River. These practices were followed until 1990, at which time the log drive was closed down. By this time, some 14 billion logs had been harvested and floated down the Ottawa River.

“Every drive, two to five percent of the logs would be lost. Today, these logs lie at the bottom of the Ottawa River,” said Gord Black, President, Logs End Inc., a Canadian owned and operated company involved in the retrieval, processing and distribution of ‘lost’ timber from the heyday of 19th century Ottawa Valley logging operations. The company started in 1997, and Black, who grew up in Shawville Quebec, remembers swimming around logs during his youth.

Not that starting Logs End was easy. Turning the salvaged timbers into wide plank flooring took considerable trial and error. “We discovered early on that we couldn’t cut, dry or mill this in the same way as traditional lumber,” said Black. “We definitely made some costly errors.”

Logs End is quick to point out it recovers logs for a very short time each year (June to Labour Day) and is committed to using only the most environmentally friendly methods of log salvage available. In fact, each ‘buried treasure’ is discovered by a team of scuba divers, and each log is individually surfaced by hand.

“This system is a much slower recovery operation than dredging, but virtually eliminates any negative side-effects experienced by the water body, its fish and the ecological habitat,” explained Black. “Once surfaced, the logs are tied to the salvage boats and towed to shore. Again, this is preferable to dragging logs along the river bed. Logs are then towed to old dumping points, removed from the water and transported to the Logs End mill in Bristol, where they are converted into wide plank flooring.”

While a small percentage of the wood retrieved is hardwood, such as oak or birch, about 85 per cent of the wood recovered is pine. It’s not, however, the soft pine consumers see today. That’s because this is old growth lumber – the waterlogged timbers originated from thick forests that had never been harvested, affording the trees an opportunity to grow slowly and form very dense rings.

And if you think that logs being submerged underwater for a century or more would have an adverse effect, think again. The lack of sunshine and oxygen on the river’s bottom actually keeps the wood from rotting, while the water acts as a natural ‘eliminator’ of the gum or resin typically found in pine.

Currently, Logs End employs 10 people and sells about 300,000 square feet of wide plank flooring a year, with the average order being about 1,000 square feet. But for Black it’s not just about sales. “We like to think the lumberjacks are looking down at us and smiling,” said Black. “After all these years, their hard work has finally paid off.”