PALMYRA, Maine — It’s a cold 22 degrees at Stan Norris’ farm on Route 2. The clouds are low, holding the temperature steady for the work ahead for Norris and Kris Fraser of Plymouth.
It’s logging time and the men are hitching the harnesses and readying two teams of horses —jet black Percheron geldings Bill and Ben, and caramel-colored Belgian mares, Kate and Nell. These graceful, prancing beasts are the engines that will haul the sleds that will carry the logs that will be sold as firewood this spring and summer. Fifty cords stand drying already, and today, an additional 15 cords will be added.
Logging by traditional horsepower is a method that more and more small-woodlot owners are turning to. It’s efficient, it’s renewable, it’s much more gentle on the land than skidders and other machines.
A broken chain on his sled this afternoon will cost Fraser 15 minutes and no money to fix. “If that had been a skidder, I would have been out $1,000 and a full day’s work,” he says.
Since the sleds slide cleanly across the snow-packed trails, there will be no evidence of the logging operation come spring, aside from small brush piles and a few stumps.
“We can be so much more selective using horses,” Fraser says. “We can pick just those trees that are half dead, those that are over prime. We can leave the better stuff to grow.”
In Fraser’s hometown of Plymouth, six or seven men work the woods with skidders. Fraser is the only one using horses. In the state there are fewer than two dozen horse logging operations.
“I’m turning work away,” he says. “This just seems to be the better way to go, and many, many woodlot owners agree.”
Those who harvest mechanically will say that machinery is faster and many acres can be cleared quickly, and they can.
“But when you figure in your expenses, fuel, and the hefty cost of breakdowns and repairs, I think I make more money with the horses,” Fraser says.
For woodlot owners who are looking for a long-term investment in their land, logging with horses is a popular choice as a sustainable, responsible way to manage forest harvesting.
Peter “Andi” Vigue, president of Cianbro Corp., recently hired Fraser to selectively cut 40 acres of his land in Pittsfield.
“He did a wonderful job,” Vigue said recently. “The process is so low-impact. With mechanical harvesters, there is a long-term penalty because they run over everything. But the horses are able to go around the trees, and I didn’t want to lose the past 10 years of regeneration.”
Although horse logging is more labor intensive, takes longer, and is best-suited to low-volume production than skidders, it also allows for fully selective thinning.
On this winter morning, the Belgian teams are impatient, pawing the ground, ready to get to work. Their horse smell hangs heavy in the barns as the harnesses are buckled and the teams are hitched to the sleds — rigid frames that sit on two sets of swiveling skis — which were made last summer in Norris’ shop.
Norris and Fraser grip the reins and stand on the sleds, clicking their tongues softly to let the horses know it is time.
The ride to the woodlot in the back corner of Norris’ 150 acres is nearly a mile. Three feet of snow acts as a muffler and the only sounds are the creaking of the horses’ harnesses, the shoosh of the sled rails over the snow, and the tinkle of the bells on the teams’ collars.
“Easy girl,” Norris says softly, trying to slow Kate and Nell, who are rushing along. “Easy.”
Over a small bridge, criss-crossed with deer tracks, the teams slow. Reins are tied, leather gloves are donned.
“I always face the team into the woods,” Norris says, “so that if they get spooked, they won’t run all the way back to the barn.”
Fraser immediately cuts some small branches into braces to hold the load of logs on the sled. Norris already cut the trees a day earlier and used his team to drag them to the side of the trail, so the men begin cutting them into 4-foot lengths.
After each cut, Fraser lays his chain saw sideways and, using the saw and a bright orange stem on its back end, measures the required 48 inches. Sawdust flies. The horses stand, biting their bits, unfazed by the loudness of the saws at their backs.
It suddenly goes quiet, saws are set into the snow, and the hollow THUNK of the pulp hook rings out as it bites into the end of each log. The hook provides the leverage the men need to heft the logs onto the sleds.
Ash, beech, maple — the logs pile higher. “I’ll have all of a cord on here when I’m finished,” Fraser says.
There’s not much talking among these men. Muscles strain, logs are lifted, rolled, piled higher and higher. Chain saws are revved again, and again the logs are stacked. The load will weigh 1,500 pounds when it is full.
Fraser grew up around horses, learned farrier skills and actually used a skidder to harvest wood. But when he tried working horses, he was hooked. “I love it. How gentle on the land it is. How efficient it is. How I don’t have to deal with mechanical breakdowns. This just seems to be a better way to go. I make a decent living with very little overhead,” he said.
Norris discovered horse logging when he got depressed one winter. A busy contractor in the summer months, Norris found himself with too much time on his hands and volunteered to help Fraser one afternoon.
“I came back every day for a week, and a month later I bought a pair of horses,” he recalls. “Working the horses is my therapy. My grandfather worked these same woods 100 years ago, and now these horses have brought that traditional way of living back to me.”