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Loggers Defy Risks : Bold Men With No Ax to Grind

December 15, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

FORKS, Wash. — It was 6 a.m. and still dark. "A rotten, miserable bitch of a day," someone observed from the back seat. The rain, as cold as ice water, swept out of the north and tore through the gulches in great wind-driven sheets, pounding on the van that carried the logging crew up Burnt Mountain and into the forests to begin another day on the nation's deadliest job.

The men sat in sleepy silence, broken only by an occasional expletive about the slumping Seattle Seahawks, who had been clobbered on TV the night before. They sipped mugs of black coffee or nursed cans of Olympia beer. They wore suspenders, with no belts, visored caps, woolen long johns, rain slickers, caulked boots and carried nose pails (lunch buckets) stuffed with sandwiches and dry pairs of gloves. They did not look young, but were.

Call of the Woods

For these Paul Bunyans of the Northwest, the call of the mountain woods is a powerful one. It provides their livelihood and their manly esteem, beckoning them to an unforgiving world where profanity and friendship are profound. Yet the forests are full of sudden danger and dark mystery (several woodsmen swear they have seen the huge half-man, half-bear creature known as Sasquach loping across far-off valleys).

And however invincible these barrel-chested loggers may seem as they wrestle cable collars around fallen trees and cut and slash with chain saws and bring 200-foot-tall Douglas firs crashing down within an inch of where they intended to lay them, theirs is a job that kills and maims as few others.

Of the 10,000 men who work in the Washington woods, 24 have been killed this year (compared to 15 in 1986), hundreds of others have been seriously injured. Logging accounts for less than 1% of Washington's work force and 30% of its occupational fatalities, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries. The risk has become so high that insurance rates for individual loggers have soared to $4.45 for every hour worked.

None More Deadly

Some occupations that men spend only a few minutes or hours a week at--such as horse racing, professional football or crop dusting--may produce more injuries on a per capita basis, but state and national figures indicate that no eight-hour-daily job is more deadly than logging. In Oregon, disabling injuries struck down five loggers a day last year, and chances are one in six that a logger's career will end with a fatal or crippling injury.

Kaye Kelso, the side rod (foreman), was already at the clearing on Burnt Mountain when the crew bus from Addleman Logging Co. pulled up in the cold rain. Though no longer called "Killer" as he was when young, he is, at age 54, still something of a local legend, an old logger who can scramble up the steep, slash-laden ridges with the best of the young. And to him the woods speak in a hundred voices, whispering warnings about "widow makers"--deadwood limbs that suddenly plunge to earth out of windless skies--and "spring poles," wood chunks the size of small boulders that are catapulted through the air when tension in a maple or elder tree is quickly released.

Twenty-three years ago, the forest crippled his brother-in-law for life, but Kelso has been luckier. Doctors patched him back together after his logging accident and gave him a plastic hip during the year he was hospitalized.

"Course, half my head's plastic, too, and this eye socket here on the left is plastic," he said, "but if the rest of me is in good a shape as the plastic, I'm in a helluva good condition."

Did he consider getting into another line of work after the accident, or getting a job operating heavy equipment in the woods, as most old loggers do when the knees and back go lame? "Nope," he said, "this is what I do."

Chain Saws Snarl

Chain saws snarled in the tall timber, and in the pit of the steep slope below, "chokers"--the lowest job in the hierarchy of logging--fought cables into place so that 40-foot logs weighing six or seven tons each could be yanked up the hill, stacked and placed by a mammoth machine with crab-like claws onto Ed Hughes' waiting truck.

Because high freight costs have made it cheaper to ship lumber to Osaka than Chicago, Hughes would drive to Port Angelus, an hour away "if I can keep the pedal to the metal." There, the fir would be piled onto trans-Pacific barges, each truckload being sufficient to build a small house in Japan.

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