In an era when fast-moving, sophisticated cutting equipment dominates the logging industry, Randy Blakeman of Marengo and his crew are content to tackle timber sales with the old-school dependability of gas-powered chain saws. For Blakeman, a successful tree harvest is as much about time well-spent in the northern Wisconsin forestlands as profit margins.
“It’s enjoyable work,” Blakeman said. On a sunny Saturday in February, Blakeman hand-cut white spruce and ash pulpwood, a job typically done by a track-mounted log processor. Wearing hard hats and heavy leather boots, his son Dean and nephew Cory Bush wrestled downed logs nearby. “If we weren’t logging, we’d be trapping beaver somewhere.”
During much of the year, Blakeman works on and around earth-moving equipment in Ashland and Bayfield counties. In recent years, job sites have centered on areas hit hard by historic flooding, including the Morgan Falls St. Peter’s Dome recreation area in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
For his part, Dean manages commercial plumbing and HVAC projects. But it’s the lure of staying active in the outdoors during the Wisconsin winter that has them both keeping their saw blades sharp. And quality timber tends to be more gainful than quality beaver pelts.
Timber harvests and the forest products industry touch virtually every corner of the state, generating revenues around $23 billion annually, supporting some 59,000 jobs, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Trees hand-felled by the Blakeman crew range from narrow-diameter pulpwood to larger-diameter bolt-logs and ultimately, thickset sawlogs, which are milled into lumber. The best logs — large, straight and relatively free of defects — are machined into veneer. Hardwoods like sugar maple and black ash are typically in demand for veneer.
Since first working in the logging woods for Mellen’s North Country Lumber in 1976, Blakeman has honed his skill in operating heavy equipment like log skidders, along with setting up timber sales — the preharvest process of defining boundaries, cruising timber, marking trees and lining up buyers.
“I’d go to school in morning in that second half of my senior year of high school. In the afternoon, I’d be in the woods on a sale,” Blakeman said of his inaugural season during the U.S. Bicentennial. “Now, I start out by cutting three or four hours a day until my body gets conditioned. Then I’m ready for full days, cutting and skidding.”
Blakeman said that for hand-cutters, fatigue is one of the most significant concerns. The work is physically demanding, and each hour lifting, bending and running a 12-pound saw takes a toll on the body.
“If you get overworked, get fatigued, you not only move slower but take shortcuts,” he said. “If I’m tired, I’m not as quick to move away from the tree when it’s coming down. That’s when it begins to get more dangerous.”
In the prime of his early 20s, Dean Blakeman spent five years in Washington State harvesting towering Douglas fir and other species with long-bar chain saws — up to 36 inches. Supervisors wouldn’t allow cutters to work more than seven hours on a saw, no matter one’s physical conditioning, Dean said.
“They say injuries are most likely after that seventh hour,” he said. “Working conditions are different out west, too. The terrain is mountainous, the trees are 200 to 300 feet tall, and you have to be careful how you drop them. A huge Doug fir or cedar is a very valuable tree, and sometimes a sale means taking a handful of them from someone’s yard.”
Back in Wisconsin, the Blakemans and an alternating cast of family members are right where they want to be, spending quality time on sales in the region’s mixed evergreen-hardwood forests. Randy hand-cuts alone for much of the week, but on weekends, helping hands join to make short work of felling, skidding and stacking timber.
“It’s like they say, once you get logging in your blood, you just want to do it,” Dean Blakeman said.