Lumberjacks Ponder Life After Logging
PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND, ALASKA
Far up the steep hillside, two small dots of red and yellow stand out against the rough, brown soil and fallen trees of a clearcut. These are the hardhats and rain gear of two loggers attaching thick-as-your-wrist cables to logs soon to become pulp.
Below, Robert Rowland sits in the cab of a giant machine called a "yarder." Hands on levers, ears plugged against the screech and roar, he peers up the hill for the signal to snatch the logs into the air and bring them down to where another pair of loggers will fire up their chainsaws for a final trimming.
Mr. Rowland began working in the woods the day after he graduated from high school 15 years ago, starting out as a choker-setter attaching cables to logs (one of the most dangerous jobs). "Now, I pretty much do everything," he says. Like the others on this crew, he works 10 days for 10 or 11 hours a day, sleeping and eating in a logging camp with about 30 other men, then gets four days off.
Whether his employer - the Ketchikan Pulp Company - continues its operations here, Rowland expects logging in southeast Alaska will decline. "We're just enjoying the last little bit here, and then we'll have to change jobs," he says with a note of irony and touch of resignation. "I could see it coming."
His plan is to design and build homes here on Prince of Wales Island using a computer-assisted design program. He's already working on several projects. "You've got to be versatile these days," he says.
Back at the KPC mill in Ketchikan, Loyal Grace takes a break from running quality control checks on giant rolls of the pulp fiber his company produces. Mr. Grace (his parents were logging camp missionaries when they named him) ticks off the relatives tied to the economy here: His mother also works at the mill, his brother is an aircraft mechanic, his brother-in-law works for the school district, and his wife works for a native American corporation.
"If this place goes down, everybody in town will have to downsize," he says. "We'd get by. But I'd be shooting a lot more deer and catching a lot more fish to fill up the freezer."
At the KPC sawmill in Ketchikan, the number of employees has dropped from 115 to 45 since 1992.
One of those remaining is Darrell Larsen, a middle-aged former miner and jack-of-all-trades. If KPC pulls out of Ketchikan, he says, "we'd survive."
"The house is all paid for, and my wife has a job [as a teaching-assistant in the public school]," he says. Their son is on full scholarship studying music composition at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"I'd probably find another job," he adds, "but nothing like the $17 an hour I'm making now."
While many here would make it in another line of work, for some it could be particularly tough.
Looking down at the veteran loggers below, years of woods work on their faces and hands, Rowland says from his high machine perch: "A lot of people - this is all they know."