Story and photos by Scott Stowell
Video by John Ratzloff
Video editing by Jerry Stenger
Logs raced across the forest floor at the Steger Center last summer like anacondas in overdrive. Will Steger was exploring again. This time it was with a type of logging new to the Center but old in its method. Machines were not part of the process. The timber was being pulled out by horses.
“I was curious to see how I could use horses to clear downed trees. It’s a different mode of working in the woods where it’s quiet,” Steger said. “For me, it was a test balloon.”
He explained that horse logging has one big advantage over modern technology. “If you’re logging in a sensitive area, you can selectively choose timber and you don’t trample the woods. Horses can get into places where machinery can’t and won’t ruin a whole area with logs and roads.”
Over the past 51 years, Steger has harvested lake ice at the Center for refrigeration. However, for the last 10 years, he’s hauled that ice with horse teams. It’s led to a partnership with horse owners Mike Berthiaume and Lisa Ringer who also provided the teams for his logging experiment. The teams consisted of shire horses, an English cousin to the Scottish Clydesdale. All of the horses have had experience at Steger’s ice harvest in past winters.
Berthiaume, 71, and Ringer, 65, have worked with horses since their childhoods. However, neither had done much horse logging. According to Berthiaume, his closest experience was having horses drag out firewood for heat and lumber on his family’s farm.
“As a kid growing up at home, we would refer to that as ‘snaking’ firewood out of the woods,” he said.
The horse logging at the Center took place over two days in July and the experience became an outdoor classroom in unexpected ways. It began with site preparation and accommodations for the horses’ welfare. When Berthiaume and Ringer assessed the proposed logging areas, they found some locations had been torn up by machinery that had cleared brush prior to logging. That operation left behind thumb-thick saplings about two or three inches tall. It wasn’t an acceptable work environment for horses.
“Horses cannot step on those things. They would go right up through the bottom of their feet,” Berthiaume said.
Steger said he appreciated the learning curve. “Originally, I thought we could haul logs out with horses way back in the woods. But the horses needed a relatively unencumbered path, something that’s easier going with good footing.”
Ringer noted that the horses had to be physically fit for the work and rest breaks were important. But she also addressed a comfort factor. Black flies were thick during the days of logging. She and Berthiaume fitted the horses with ear covers and used bug repellent.
“It’s all about making sure the horses are comfortable and competent during their work,” she said.
Come hauling time, they had developed a system. It started with Berthiaume, Ringer and a team of two horses positioned on a road at one end of a hauling chain. At the other end of the chain, 400 feet into the woods, a crew of humans cleared a path of least resistance by hand and with chainsaws.
“You need one main trail, then a feeder trail into that,” Steger said. “We also tried to haul on level ground or downhill. The first day of logging was up over a hill and it’s something we wouldn’t do again.”
He emphasized that logs ripping through the forest is a safety concern not to trifle with. All participants involved with hooking the chain to the logs followed strict safety procedures. The last step in the process was to connect the line from the horses to the line from the log. It required precise communication at both ends of the chain.
“That’s like lighting the fuse on dynamite; it’s taking the safety off the gun,” Steger said. “It’s not like a big tree falling. It’s coming at ground level.”
Ringer and Berthiaume also had safety responsibilities on their end. When one of them was driving, the other would spot, looking for obstructions and keeping the horses calm.
“[We] keep an eye out for what’s going on. If there’s a photographer in the way, we yell at him,” Ringer laughed, but acknowledged, “The horses are really dependent on us to guide them.”
Berthiaume and Ringer said the horses performed amazingly well for their first experience with logging. If a log got snagged in the woods, they had to stop and readjust, but they never balked at starting again.
“They were really patient, especially when they didn’t understand when a log was going to stop,” Ringer said. “They developed their own sense [and] became really educated about how to move in the woods and how to move logs.”
With the first day under their harness, the second day was a demonstration of smoothness and efficiency. The logging took place at a different location where skid roads were flatter, smoother and straighter. But beyond that, Berthiaume said they had special help on the second day. Ed Nelson, a retired logging instructor, came to the Center and imparted some wisdom from his wealth of experience. Years back, during Steger’s first ice harvest by horse, Nelson provided the horses.
Berthiaume said they used a logging arch, a four-wheeled device that elevated logs so only its rear tip dragged the ground when moved. Nelson also taught them to wedge the fronts of logs so they would deflect off of stumps and rocks, and avoid hang-ups when they were hauled out. “Once we did that, that was the end of the problems,” Berthiaume said.
The success of Steger’s logging experiment was also due in large part to years of training Berthiaume and Ringer had given the horses. Even conditioning to noise, like train whistles near his farm, helped prevent the horses from becoming startled.
“It would have been a little testy driving horses that weren’t use to noise,” Berthiaume explained. “But being they’re broke the way they are, something new doesn’t necessarily cause a big problem.”
Ringer lives in Long Lake, Minn., with Berthiaume’s farm west of hers in nearby Rockford. She credits him as being one of her mentors and they work well as a team.
“I learned Mike’s system and know it well, from harnessing the horses to how we drive the horses to how we speak to the horses. Consistency is so important for a horse,” she said.
Berthiaume and Ringer agreed they gained a lot from the experience and they look forward to doing more at the Center.
“You never quit learning,” Berthiaume stated. “Every day can be a new experience, if you keep an open mind and want to learn it.”