Loggers are some of the hardest working people in the country. Not only is it consistently the most dangerous job, but loggers work out exposed in the elements, rain or shine. What about snow? Do loggers work in the winter? Yes! In many cases, winter is the best time of year to harvest timber due to the frozen ground, so loggers work during the winter to utilize the increased mobility and ground protection provided. That said, working winters in the woods comes with a whole set of additional challenges, so let’s dig into the life of a logger in the snowy season.
Why Winter is Great For Loggers
In more northern climates that see consistent freezing temperatures and snow, winter is considered to be the best time for logging because the frozen ground and snow cover bring a whole host of benefits.
The biggest benefit of logging in the winter is undoubtedly the frozen ground. The machines used in modern logging are big and heavy. Under normal circumstances, they have a tendency to sink in mud and rut up ground, which can not only damage roots and the forest floor, but it can make a large amount of acreage completely inaccessible, as machines would get stuck attempting to tread it. When the ground is frozen, however, the machines can easily float on top of the otherwise-wet ground with a sturdy platform of ice. Even the wettest bogs and forested wetlands are easily logged when the ground is sufficiently frozen. This can be a particularly important consideration in low-impact logging, where operations must limit their impact to sensitive ground and ecosystems.
A solidly frozen ground isn’t just a benefit to the logging equipment, however. It benefits the trucks as well. In more northern climates with predictable winters, entire temporary roads can be built on ice. This can be amazingly useful on wetter ground where building permanent summer roads would be costly and ecologically devastating. Essentially, trees are cleared from a path, and it is bulldozed clear. After that, nature simply has to take its course, and once the ground is frozen, it is indistinguishable from any other road–until springtime. As you can imagine, the only downside to these roads is that they are entirely weather dependent. As weather becomes more unpredictable in the years ahead, winter roads will become a less reliable mainstay of logging in winter.
The other great benefit of working in the winter is that logs stay clean inside and out. Machines such as skidders often move wood by dragging logs on the ground and through the dirt, caking them with rocks and mud. The filth can not only damage their value, but also create a huge headache for sawyers at the mill whose blades can be damaged (even ruined) by the debris. In the winter, however, the snow and ice on the ground help to keep logs clean, which makes the process smoother for everyone.
It isn’t just the outside of the log that stays clean, either: The inside of the log does as well. Many logs can discolor in hot weather due to fungus that starts to invade the log as soon as it is cut. This discoloration, known as stain, can greatly reduce the value of the wood. Many species are susceptible to stain, but certain species are attacked more than others, and it is a much larger problem when logs are graded for quality. White pine in particular was a problem with blue stain when it is harvested in the summer, so loggers work in the winter to harvest it instead.
The Challenges of Working in Winter
Logging in the winter isn’t all peaches and cream, of course. It comes with serious challenges unique to the harsh, icy conditions.
Have you ever tried to start your car on a cold winter morning only to hear the engine turnover extremely slowly or not at all? That’s what can happen to logging equipment. Just like your car, logging equipment has loads of sensitive electronic equipment, fluids, and mechanical parts that can function less than desired when the mercury drops and ice starts to build up.
Unlike your car, however, these machines run on diesel, which has a tendency to gel up when temperatures drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Yikes! It’s hard to work when your fuel turns into a solid.
Difficulty on Slopes
Whether in a machine or felling trees manually on foot, loggers are extremely skilled at working the steepest and most inhospitable slopes to fell hard-to-reach timber. Add snow to the equation, however, and it becomes impossible to work some of those slopes. It can become difficult to get any grip on loose, powdery snow, and machines can easily slide if they aren’t careful. For conventional loggers working with chainsaws, working these slopes in the winter can be extremely dangerous, as it not only can lead to accidents with the chainsaw, but it limits the mobility of the logger and thus the ability to escape in the event a tree comes down uncontrolled. When loggers work in winter, they tend to stick to flat ground when possible.
Another problem with harvesting timber in winter (or at least in deep snow pack) is the high stumps. As snow covers the ground, it also conceals more of the tree, which can lead to loggers having to cut the stump several feet off the ground. This may not seem like a big deal, but the bottom half of a tree is where most of the value is. Cutting trees several feet off the ground and leaving high stumps can leave a great deal of merchantable volume in the forest and greatly reduce both the loggers’ and landowners’ financial return for harvesting the timber. It is a situation to be avoided if possible.
Let’s be honest: Who honestly wants to get out of bed when the thermometer reads zero degrees, even if you work a desk job? Now imagine going to work in that weather when you are a logger. When I worked as a forester in the woods of cold northern Maine, there were many such mornings of -25 degree weather (that’s Fahrenheit!) when I begrudgingly strapped on my snowshoes and questioned my career path. In fact, those mornings played no small part in me leaving that job, and that’s the problem.
Logging companies are having a hard time finding new people, and more people are leaving the industry all the time. The morale of your workforce is no small problem, and winter conditions make the problem worse. The fact that loggers have to work outdoors in the winter is a big problem for those looking to become a logger.
Mud Season: When Loggers Stay Home
There is, however, a season when loggers don’t work. We call that time mud season. This is the time of year in early spring when the snow melts, the frost let’s up, and the river ice breaks up. The shear volume of water that engulfs the woods leaves a lot of… mud, hence the name “mud season.” During this time period, it isn’t just unwise to operate heavy equipment in the woods, it can be impossible. Just traveling to the job site can be a challenge as thawing roads break up catastrophically, such as in the photo below.
During mud season, it is best to just stay home until the forest dries out. How long mud season lasts depends on snow fall, temperatures, and region. In some areas and on certain years, mud season may never come. Ground may stay dry enough to cut all year long. In Maine, however, we have about two to three months of down time from April to June.
Loggers Try to Optimize Where They Work for the Season
Loggers work in the winter just as well as they work in the summer, but they have a whole different set of challenges and benefits. For this reason, they don’t just go about their usual business. They have to plan strategically and work to maximize benefits while minimizing costs. This means working on ground that may be too wet to operate during the summer and saving the steep slopes for the summer months instead. It also means keeping their crew and equipment in tip-top shape to survive the harsh winter conditions. After all, loggers will be out in the woods working, rain, shine, or snow.