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December 2003 January 2004

CONTRACTOR PROFILE

Keeping it flexible

Contractor Louken Logging keeps its operations flexible, doing both tree-length and cut-to-length harvesting in north-central Ontario with a combination of Tigercat, Rottne and John Deere equipment.

By Ray Ford

Louken Logging’s Ken Caron on its current business approach: “We try to follow the flow, but it’s hard to guess what the future’s going to be like. Right now, there’s a lot of work if we can take advantage of it, so we’re considering expansion.”

The best surprise in the bush is no surprise, but given the unpredictable ways of trees and terrain, markets and mills, stuff happens. And as Louis Caron says, a contractor’s got to be prepared when it does. “We try to be flexible,” says Louis, 54, who operates Timmins-based Louken Logging Inc with his son, Ken, 32, and six other employees. Take a particular day this past fall, for example. On a beautiful September morning in Northern Ontario, the feller buncher is bumping among the rocks and boulders, its 28-tooth Gilbert head pruning and piling jack pines and white birch.

But as the mackerel-coloured sky gives way to unclouded blue, the day takes one of those unexpected twists. Somehow the blade on the Gilbert becomes warped, binding in its housing, changing everyone’s plans for the day. ” Ken hops off the forwarder, grabbing a collection of ratchets, sockets, and wrenches to help feller buncher operator Moïse Sauvé remove the blade. Mean-while, Louis has done a U-turn and is heading back to Timmins for a spare blade. At Louken Logging, the boss can become a go-fer, mechanic, or machinery operator, all at a moment’s notice. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can,” Ken says. “We’re training people to be able to drive more than one machine, so if something breaks down, they can switch and avoid as much down time as possible.”

Louken Logging researched the move to cut-to-length equipment with a road trip to Rocan Canada’s New Brunswick base to see the Rottne forwarder (above) in action, and to talk to local contractors. “We went to see people working with the machine and make sure they were happy with it, and we haven’t been disappointed,” says Ken Caron.

That roll-with-the-punches philosophy has helped the firm go from a father-and-son team running a skidder and feller buncher to a family-run corporation operating both in cut-to-length and tree-length, with most of their wood destined for Tembec’s Timmins mill. Now the Carons are considering a further expansion, but they’re also trying to leave their options open. “We try to follow the flow, but it’s hard to guess what the future’s going to be like,” says Ken. “Right now there’s a lot of work if we can take advantage of it, so we’re considering expansion.” Louken takes a two-pronged approach to cutting.

High-quality wood in more accessible areas is reserved for cut-to-length, maximizing the efficiency of the processor. The feller buncher tackles smaller diameters in rocky or difficult terrain. Operating as a sub-contractor for Millson Timber Inc, (see Millson story on page 46) Louken Logging usually works within 90 kilometres of Timmins, cutting a mix of pine, spruce, hemlock and white birch for lumber or pulp. Last year the firm’s output averaged about 500 cubic metres of wood per day.

Two years ago, with Tembec leaning towards cut-to-length, Louis and Ken invested in a forwarder and processor to harvest short wood. But with the Timmins mill still accepting tree-length timber, Louken is able to harvest both tree-lengthand cut-to-length. “Things change so much, you’ve got to be able to adapt,” Ken says. For tree-length cutting, the firm uses the Tigercat 845B feller buncher with the Gilbert head. The trees are fetched by a John Deere 748G grapple skidder, and handled by a John Deere 200LC with a Denharco DT3500 delimber . On the cut-to-length side, the muscle work is done by a Tigercat 853 with a LogMax 750 head.

 Louis (left) and son Ken Caron of Louken Logging. The two share duties and swap responsibilities, each responding to the challenges that make bush work so demanding—and rewarding. “It helps that we like the job,” says Louis.

The processor is backed by a Rottne forwarder with a 16-tonne capacity and a Rottne RK90 boom. Additional logs can also be processed by the Millson-owned unit, a Hitachi 270 equipped with a Waratah 620H head. Expansion plans include an additional feller buncher, delimber, and skidder, as the Carons plan an operation that’s both larger and more flexible at the same time. Louken used to run 24 hours a day with workers on two 12-hour shifts. But with two or three hours of commuting time thrown in, the long days became too onerous.

Now the day shift runs from 6 am to 4 pm, with the night workers operating 4 pm to 2 am. Winter is prime time for double shifting, not only because the snow on the ground improves nighttime visibility, but it’s easier on the machinery. Around-the-clock operation avoids cold starts when the mercury gets cold enough to make a diesel engine’s teeth chatter.

On the other hand, night work requires some extra set-up by the day shift, and experienced, reliable operators. “Usually I’ll cut around an area on a day shift so the night guy knows where he is. If there are boundary lines to cut, we cut them during the day, because we don’t want the night guy to get lost,” Ken says. Even aided by high-powered halogen lights (Ken says sealed beams seem to last longer than bulb-types), the night shift faces the challenge of separating species in the dark. “You have to find good operators,” Ken adds, for night work. “We know we can work the day shift and be OK, so night work is a bonus. Right now we’re working two shifts, but if it slows up we can just work everybody during the day.”

Veteran operators form the core of the Louken workforce, but Ken’s also trying to train a couple of younger workers. “Almost all the operators are my dad’s age, so 10 years down the line I don’t know where we’re going to get guys.” Given the need for training and safety certification, coupled with the expense and complexity of modern machinery, “you just can’t hire anybody off the street.” Along with bringing in a couple of novice operators in their 20s, the firm is also broadening the know-how of the veterans by encouraging them to become familiar with two or three different machines. “Our productivity isn’t as high as we’d like it to be right now, because of the learning curve. But we’ll get there.”

Louis and Ken do as much on-site mechanical work as they can, calling in Timmins-based contractors for bigger jobs. Usually either father or son act as supervisor, dealing with Millson foreman Mark Joron, looking after maintenance, and overseeing the operation while the other works in a machine. Louis prefers the feller buncher. Ken likes the forwarder or the grapple skidder. Back in Timmins, Louis’ wife Colette looks after the paperwork.

On some days—like this one—it means changing plans to deal with the latest maintenance or repair issue, jumping off the forwarder or feller buncher to raid the tool trailer. “The only other way around that would be to have someone here to fix things. We’re not big enough to do that.” When the Carons shop for equipment, they want strong dealer support and a chance to see the implement in action. They researched the move to cut-to-length with a road trip to Rocan Canada’s New Brunswick home base to see the Rottne and the LogMax in action, and to talk to local contractors.

They followed that up with a look at other cut-to-length operations in the Kapuskasing area of Northern Ontario. “At the time, that equipment was fairly new around here, and we wanted to make sure it was backed up with a large inventory of parts. We went to see people working with the machine and make sure they were happy with it, and we haven’t been disappointed,” Ken says, adding he orders parts from Kapuskasing-based Rocan Ontario. Another plus for the combination of forwarder and processor is the ability to work around standing trees, leaving the 26 trees per hectare foresters use as a guide to regeneration. Because they work for a contractor that not only harvests the site, but prepares and plants it, the Carons try to leave the bush in good shape for silvicuture.

 As they consider their next expansion, the Carons are looking at a couple of contenders for a new skidder, including a wide-tired Tigercat 630B, and a six-wheeled Morgan with a swing boom. “We’re looking at whatever’s around, but it’s nice to stay with the same companies,” Ken says. “It makes parts and maintenance easier.” Whatever the company is equipped with, the Carons reckon their approach will be the same: father and son sharing duties and swapping responsibilities, each responding to the constant series of challenges that make bush work so demanding—and rewarding. “It helps that we like the job,” Louis says.

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