Veteran Ontario logger Ken Johnson has opted for tackling a tough job harvesting blowdown over retirement.
By Dave Lammers
The regional woodlands manager for Abitibi Consolidated calls him "a top logger". As for Ken Johnson, well, he has been logging long enough to know a good and productive equipment combination when he operates it. A40year veteran of the woods who has fought many a battle with blowdowns, Johnson didn't hesitate when it came to taking on his latest assignment, a 2,000hectare blowdown in the forests of the rugged and rocky Canadian Shield in Northwestern Ontario. His equipment of choice? A Timberjack 735 shovel logger equipped with a new Model 790 Unicon barsaw grapple. Things are clicking along now, with Johnson Logging harvesting the blowdown for licence holder Abitibi Consolidated, based out of Fort Frances, Ontario. The province of Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), which granted Abitibi special permission to cut a large section of blowdown following a storm last July, wants the blowdown harvested to reduce the risk of forest fire this summer as the timber dries up. Abitibi wants to salvage as much fresh wood as possible before natural rot and bug infestation destroy the timber. Johnson Logging wants the harvesting operation, expected to last two years, to be profitable. Timberjack was eager to help. In the fall of 1999, Abitibi faced the dilemma of not being able to find any loggers to work in the blowdown, which spans a large area not part of Abitibi's licence, 40,000 hectares east of Fort Frances in the Thunder Bay area.
Fire officials with the MNR are also concerned about the possibility of a forest fire starting in a massive blowdown of 250,000 hectares in Minnesota and spreading north to Ontario. With the blessing of the province, Abitibi didn't waste time building roads into the rugged region of blowdown known as the High Rock Forest. Contractors advertised for cut and skid crews but nobody would take the job out of concern it would be dangerous and unprofitable. Trees weren't just knocked over in swaths; most of the conifer species was on the ground, but much of the poplar was left leaning or had their tops broken off, while some of the birch was left standing. A feller buncher operator processed in the area for a couple of days, but found productivity was so low the crew was forced to quit. On his way into the site, Jim Krag, woodlands manager for Abitibi's east region, Fort Frances, met the operator with the buncher loaded on a trailer leaving the bush. "A month after receiving MNR approval to harvest, with winter approaching and despite the best efforts of our contractors to recruit help, we had made very little progress," says Krag. "We were getting concerned about it." Enter Johnson, whose son Brent was having a hard time finding cut and skid crews to work the blowdown. Ken, who had basically retired, was hired by son Brent and KBJ Logging to work the blowdown-a move Ken described as "bringing the old fella out of the closet." He's no novice at this kind of work. In 1984, Johnson cut 240,000 cubic metres of blowdown in northwestern Ontario over a two year period. "It's about the toughest woods job there is, picking up blowdown," says Johnson. "It's a terrible job." After experiencing low production with two cut and skid crews and after having a cut to length system catch fire and burn, Johnson was now at the point where he was eager to try something new.
He switched to the new Unicon grapple head on a Timberjack 735 shovel logger and saw production increase to 1,200 cubic metres per week. The model 790 Unicon barsaw grapple head is the first of its kind to go into production in Canada. The unit was originally manufactured in Australia and was purchased by Timberjack and modified. One unit is working in Arkansas and, early in 2000, a third unit is expected to begin harvesting blowdown from the same storm on the American side of the border, near International Falls, Minnesota. The Unicon features extra wide grapple arms that are bigger than feller buncher arms and can pull large stumps out of the ground. No matter if the tree is standing, leaning or lying down, the arms can grab it, lift it high in the air and clear of dirt and rocks, engage the barsaw to cut it off up to 33 inches, and put the stump back in the hole. It moves trees easily and makes large bunches quickly for the grapple skidder.
The long grapple arms can also be used for delimbing large branches, using the arms as pinchers to pinch off limbs. Other applications include carrying logs and loading large timber. "The best thing I like about it is the flexibility of the head," says Johnson. "The head and the power of the machine to be able to lift the stumps right out of the ground to cut them off. If you were to use a conventional feller buncher, you couldn't do it because the saw is always in the dirt. We've pretty well got that problem beat by picking the whole tree up and cutting it off. You can decide where you want to cut it off so the chain and the bar are out of the dirt." The unit is sturdy, weighing more than many harvesting heads at 5,870 pounds. Head rotation is 355 degrees non continuous for flexibility grabbing trees in tight places. The unit has a large ring gear with three hydraulic drive motors, providing high torque.
The head tilt cylinder is mounted underneath the boom, providing superior tilt up power, using the piston end of the cylinder as opposed to the rod end of the cylinder. The unit also features a 3/4inch pitch chain, automatic chain tensioning and proportional chain lubrication. Hose routing minimizes the number of exposed hoses that can get snagged in trees and branches. "It is well made," says Johnson. Timberjack's 735 shovel logger was selected as the carrier for the head because of the unit's superior reach-up to 35 feet-giving the operator a 10 foot advantage over most feller bunchers. Powered by a Cummins diesel 174 horsepower engine, the carrier has extra high clearance, 31 inches, and features a lift capacity of 27,930 pounds at 15 feet.
More than 200 of the units have already been sold, primarily for use as shovel loggers in the wetlands of the US southern coastal region. Johnson says he likes the flexibility he has cutting blowdown with the 790 Unicon head on the 735 carrier. Even in hard to negotiate, hilly areas full of rocks and downed trees the machine has proven it can get around and even work ahead, making large bundles for the grapple skidder. "If we've got nothing else to do with it we can also load wood," he says. Johnson has teamed up with his son, Chris, who is operating a Timberjack 660 grapple skidder. Working together in the blowdown, with son Brent overseeing the operation, the family of loggers has exceeded their goal of salvaging 200 cubic metres a day. Timberjack is touting the combination of head and carrier as a breakthrough in blow down harvesting. "Whatever you can imagine you'd like to do with this head, you can," says Brian Kurikka, Timberjack sales representative for Wajax Industries Ltd in Thunder Bay. "The machine is the only thing that's any good in blowdown," says Johnson. "It's just plain simple a nice machine to operate. I've got nothing but high praise for it ." Abitibi's Krag has high praise for both the logger and the company for succeeding in harvesting the blowdown. "It was a combination of Timberjack and Ken Johnson.
They came up with a solution to the problem that we had here and we're pretty happy about it. Without their combination of experience and innovation, we would have had some difficulty getting the volume cut in time." The area blowdown consists of about 115,000 cubic metres of hardwoods, 77,000 metres of mixed softwoods and 6,000 metres of red and white pine. The majority of conifer trees, if salvaged before bug infestation sets in, will go to Buchanan Forest Products' sawmill in Sapawe, near Atikokan. Conifer residual and standing timber will be sorted for Abitibi's ground wood and pulp mills in Fort Frances and the Voyageur Panel OSB mill, 40 kilometres west in Barwick. However, wood utilization is further complicated by breakage resulting in a shortage of tree length timber. "It's made for a real challenge," says Krag. It's a race against time with bug infestation expected to become a problem in June and forest fire a major hazard. Loggers will have to exercise caution and keep fire suppression equipment on site. According to Krag, most of the harvesting will have to be done by the spring of 2001, after which reduced timber quality will restrict marketing options.
Given the urgency of harvesting the blowdown and the forest fire hazard, Krag points out the advantage of the Timberjack machine possibly being able to work nonstop through the winter. In northern Ontario, cut and skid crews are usually halted when trees are buried in several feet of snow and it becomes too difficult and too dangerous to work. Snowfall up to mid January was below average, around one foot accumulation. "I'm hopeful that being able to log through most kinds of weather and later into the spring when cut and skid crews would have to stop because of snow loads that we're going to be able to get a lot of it cleaned up," says Krag. "The faster we complete the operation, the less risk of fire, the better the wood quality and the sooner Ken Johnson can resume his retirement."
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