Certain endeavors truly demon strate the character and spirit of an area. For example, being a logger in the Inland Northwest requires independent thinking, hard work and a willingness to take big risks. These traits have always been prevalent in this industry, but they are especially important in a very unique logging operation that connects the past with the present.
Our story begins in the forests above the Clark Fork River, long, long ago.
With the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s, lumber mills had the means to efficiently transport their products to market. As a result, more people were employed to harvest trees. With the limited technology of the time, it was human ingenuity and abundant natural resources that made large-scale commercial logging possible.
Log flumes and waterways were essential in transporting logs to area sawmills. For example, many of the trees harvested in the Clark Fork River drainage were routed into the river to float down to various sawmills on Lake Pend Oreille. Once at the mills, large rafts of logs were staged in floating log yards. During waterway transportation and staging, some logs became waterlogged and sank into the depths of the lake, seemingly lost forever.
Few people would have thought logs on the bottom of a vast lake could be retrieved practically. However, that is what Don and Kim Cox of Pend Oreille Pines have accomplished.
The process is not easy. The State of Idaho owns the logs and sells them to the highest bidder, much like they would a timber sale on State land. Then the purchaser must use an ecologically sound method to remove the logs. In other words, the silt in which the logs rest must not be displaced enough to have a negative ecological impact on water quality. While this has been successfully done in the Great Lakes, the equipment cost is prohibitive for a small operation like Pend Oreille Pines.
The Coxes used their ingenuity to devise an economically viable, yet ecologically friendly, way to remove the logs. In the true “logging” spirit, Don, Kim and a small crew remove the logs themselves using the “Binford 2000 LEX” barge they invented. Don does the diving using heavy equipment and in very cold water. Because of visibility issues related to water runoff, retrieval can only be done in early spring and from late fall until freeze.
The first logs, retrieved in September of 1998, were shipped to a sawmill in Wisconsin that had experience working with sunken logs. Waterlogged logs are definitely not cheap to haul, so in 2001 Pend Oreille Pines contracted with a local mill to cut their logs.
Wood that has soaked in water for a hundred years develops eccentricities. First, the logs had old-growth characteristics before the whole process started. Second, a majority of the wood is ponderosa pine (roughly 75 percent of retrieved logs are ponderosa pine, 20 percent western larch, and the remainder a mixture of western hemlock and Douglas-fir). As anyone dealing with ponderosa pine knows, dead ponderosa pine attracts beetles, which carry a fungus that quickly stains the wood blue. Since many of the logs were decked for months before the water was high enough to carry them downstream, the ponderosa pine became stained. Finally, the wood in these logs is complex, like aged wine. Lake-cured wood absorbs minerals, which give hues of yellow, green, blue, gray, and pink. These qualities give the wood unique richness and texture. In addition, the lumber provides us with a special link to the past.
Because of these fascinating characteristics and the many specialty uses for the wood, cutting lumber from the logs is an art in itself. That is why Pend Oreille Pines now has the logs custom cut by Mike Bush and his Woodmizer mill at their facility in Sandpoint. They also dry the lumber and process it to meet custom specifications. Some of the products produced by Pend Oreille Pines include flooring, crown moldings, trim boards, doorjambs and beams, all of which are sold locally as well as throughout the country. With the help of two employees, the company is continuing to grow and evolve.
Through ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, the Coxes, and all those who have helped them, have become part of an industry that keeps the character and spirit of the Inland Northwest alive.
– Steve Bloedel & Carol Williams