Underwater salvaging reclaims wood from another era.
This joke refers to the newest boom in logging - salvaging timber cut long, long ago from the bottoms of rivers and lakes where it sank en route to area mills. The logs, the prime of the old-growth forests, didn't make it to the sawmills the first time around, but thanks to the pioneering work of scuba divers like Scott Mitchen and George Goodwin, the logs are being reclaimed and painstakingly dried and sold at premium prices - in some cases 10 times what species of logs milled today are fetching.
Underwater salvaging of old-growth species no longer available or in very limited supply is an exciting proposition that has the world wood market in a tizzy and a host of would-be salvagers jumping on the bandwagon, or, in this case, the barge.
The species being reclaimed from the river and lake beds where the logs have sat undisturbed for 100 or more years include prime examples of pine, cypress, maple, birch, cherry, hemlock and red oak. In the Northeast, underwater loggers are finding elms untouched by disease. In Lake Superior, among the many woods being found is the extremely rare flaming red birch, a wood that never regenerated after being cut. In Georgia, divers bring up longleaf pines, dubbed heart pine because the logs are all heartwood and of a quality that has not been available for decades.
Old growth is defined as timber "in or from a mature, naturally established forest." When the trees have grown during most or all of their lives in active competition for sunlight and moisture, the timber is usually straight and relatively free of knots. Once upon a time, the virgin timber grew plentifully all over North America. In southern forests of the United States, longleaf pine covered some 70 million acres. Today, there are only 1,000 acres of old growth longleaf pine. The logs that are being recovered sank on the way to saw mills or fell into the water when stacked in piles by the sides of waterways.
Mitchen, founder of Superior Water-Logged Lumber in Ashland, WI, is one of the more visible and vocal members of the underwater logging world. He explained the allure of the underwater treasure. "These logs come from forests that no longer exist or if they do, are protected. Through side-scan sonars we have been able to image. the lake bottom down to 70 feet. There are thousands and thousands of logs down there, an underwater old-growth forest, where there are no spotted owls and no need for clear cutting.
"What loggers thought was an endless resource 100 years ago has become precious and limited today," said Mitchen. "In the United States less than 5 percent of the virgin forest remains standing. This is all that is left and it is protected - as it rightfully should be. But fortunately for all of us, what they left behind in Lake Superior has become very special."
Underwater Salvaging Not New
Salvaging logs from rivers and lakes is nothing new, explained Carol Goodwin, who with her husband, George, owns Goodwin Heart Pine Co. in Miconapy, FL. "From my research, underwater logging dates back to the (Great) Depression. Men would find logs from shallow parts of the river, usually around logging camps, recover the ones in not too deep water, and live on the sale of the trees to sawmills."
Carol, who handles marketing for the company, has researched the history of the area's virgin timber, longleaf pine and cypress. "With the advent of scuba diving, salvagers were able to go deeper and, in the process, discovered a wealth of beautiful old-growth timber virtually unaffected by long stays at the bottom of rivers and lakes," she said.
Goodwin saw the potential for use of this high-quality timber and quit work as an antique furniture dealer some 22 years ago. He purchased an old sawmill for $5,500. It was a steady process of education, learning about the best way to dry the extremely wet wood. Goodwin and his wife are divers but they purchase the majority of what they use from other divers who find logs from rivers in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. Logging divers are notoriously secretive about the locations of their diving sites, especially now that publicity has attracted a flurry of interest in underwater logging. Mill owners are low key about the exact process of drying the water soaked wood, which can have moisture contents of 200 percent after spending 50 to 100 plus years in the water.
The Goodwins' specialty is river-recovered longleaf heart pine and cypress. Sixty to 70 percent of what they purchase annually is turned into flooring, the company's primary market. The firm also makes paneling, stair parts, moulding and trim. Prices for this wood exceed what regular pine fetches, ranging from $5 to $13 per board foot for kiln-dried wood. Goodwin also makes furniture from the reclaimed wood. In addition to the river-reclaimed wood, the couple sells wood they salvage from old buildings.
An Exasperating Business
Mitchen has found that underwater logging can at times be an exasperating business.
His company is a subsidiary of Enviro-Recovery Inc. (ERI), a publicly-traded corporation. Its specialty is recovering and processing the century-old logs that sank to the depths of Lake Superior in the heyday of the Midwest's logging era from 18501930 but retained their original beauty because of the low temperatures and low oxygen content of the lake. The company dubs itself "green" or environmentally friendly because no new trees are logged in the process. Mitchen estimated that every log he recovers saves two to three live trees. The wood the company sells is marketed under the trademark, Timeless Timber, and can be up to 500 years old. "The virgin forests grew very slowly due to the combination of hard, rocky soils, an extremely short growing season, and the dense pine canopy which filtered the sun's light from shorter hardwoods," Mitchen said. "Growth rings are found in concentrations of up to 50 rings per inch as compared to current timber supplies which may have as few as 6 to 8 rings per inch."
Mitchen's company was founded in 1992 but he began diving in the area in 1976 looking for shipwrecks. In searching for ships, Mitchen would often bump into the logs and considered them a nuisance. He brought up his first log with an inner tube. Today his equipment is a great deal more sophisticated and refined. Mitchen, a native of Milwaukee, had ties to the area where his company is located because his grandparents lived near Chequamegon Bay. Mitchen heard stories of a wealth of old-growth timber at the bottom of Lake Superior, logs felled in the heyday of logging from the 1890s through the turn of the century.
Mitchen found that he could bring up logs - called "sinkers" by old timers - using an inner tube and inflatable bags. His latest innovation in extricating the logs involves the use of a winch and barge which allows divers to pull the logs gently up to the surface. His long-range plans involve the addition of a robotic, camera-operated barge. "Some of these logs are so huge you can't get your arm around them," he said. Mitchen has used sonar equipment to find the logs. Based on sonar tracking he estimates that Lake Superior holds enough old-growth timber to last a lifetime and that lakes and rivers in Canada have enough old-growth timber to last three lifetimes.
Red Tape Frustrates Wisconsin-Based Company
Mitchen is so frustrated by the permit process in Wisconsin that he said people heading Superior WaterLogged Lumber are considering moving operations to another state if things don't improve. Mitchen said he is so incensed with the delays he encountered this logging season that he is telling Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson that he will move his sawmill operation to Michigan or Minnesota if he has to go through another year of red tape that he says hindered his efforts to find prime old-growth timber.
As underwater logging has gained in popularity, the number of people opposed to it also has grown. Environmentalists fear that salvage operations will upset fish habitats and add to pollution in Lake Superior by stirring up sediment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the impact of underwater logging and found that the process does not harm fish or cause pollution. Native Americans from the area are protesting underwater logging near their reservations. The St. Paul office of the Army Corps of Engineers has put underwater logging on hold near the reservations. "Some members of the tribes feel that there is cultural and spiritual value in the logs and should be left alone. Others feel that the logs should be the property of the local tribes."
Mitchen said that the problem is aggravated by worldwide publicity and a host of competitors "jumping on the bandwagon," trying to find the valuable old-growth timber in Lake Superior.
"We had our hands tied by the slow process of getting permits," explained Mitchen. Part of the problem has been that the record number of applications has stressed out the agency.
Mitchen's company, like others around the United States, also must answer to the Department of Natural Resources and the State Historical Society. The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands gets compensation - approximately 30 percent of the estimated value of a log - from any companies who recover the logs, which are considered unclaimed property. The money goes into a Common School Trust Fund. Permit filing fees are $50 each.
Marco Theriault deals with a variety of provincial agencies while doing business on the Saint John River in New Brunswick. He must pay a duty for any logs he recovers that do not bear the mark of a timber company plus such additional fees as the worker's compensation for any provincial government workers who accompany him while he is out on his barge diving for logs. "It is the price you pay to do business," he laughed.
Canadian Salvager Finds Valuable Logs in New Brunswick River
Theriault, trained as a chemical engineer, read about underwater salvaging and hoped it would offer him a chance to start a business and use some of his engineering expertise.
"Basically we are a brand new company," said Theriault, who just started the actual salvaging in the fall of 1997. He estimated that working through myriad regulations in his area cost him three months of valuable salvaging time. He expected to be able to dive for a few more weeks in late October before stopping to process the logs he had found. "We have had snow flurries already and the lake is too cold for diving. You just can't stay down in these temperatures for very long."
Finding logs has not been a problem, Theriault said. "The Saint John River had many logging mills during the logging heyday. It is estimated that some 10 to 15 percent of the trees felled were lost in the Saint John River in transport. The area has a little of everything, according to Theriault. Spruce and eastern white pine are among the softwoods and in figured woods he has salvaged maple, birch, beech and elm untouched by disease. "Red oak is in there, too, but we haven't come across it yet," he said. "You pull these trees out of the water where some of them have been for 100 or more years and they don't look good at all. Some look totally rotted and others have dark mineral stains. But you cut a fourth of an inch off the surface and what is left is a beautiful log," he said.
Theriault had experience buying and selling bird's-eye maple. He read an article about Superior Water-Logged Lumber Co.'s work and researched the feasibility of working in New Brunswick. "I have $2,000 worth of long distance calls invested in researching the business," he said. He began by buying a barge and fixing it up to his specifications and obtaining all the necessary diving equipment.
Theriault said most of his dives are in the 30- to 40-foot depth range, though some are in shallower and some deeper water. The really hard part, he said, came in dealing with Canadian and provincial authorities. For one, Theriault had to work with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans who are in charge of all navigable waterways including the Saint John River. Theriault said that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans required extensive fish habitat studies to make sure that salvaging operations would not upset the ecology of the river. His endeavor had a lot of public and private support because taking the logs out of the Saint John River in a responsible fashion helps fish habitats. "The trees can sometimes give off toxins that are harmful to the fish. Beech, for example, gives off a harmful toxin," he said.
Theriault now has the go-ahead to do underwater logging. "Part of the problem is that this is a relatively new industry and a whole new idea. The government and provincial agencies are concerned about who these guys are who want to dive for logs," he said.
Theriault has four employees working with him. In his first few weeks of actual logging he brought up 600 logs from the river and procured another 400 from a construction company that had set aside logs pulled from the river when it was clearing the area to build a marina. The load included bird's-eye maple, blistered birch and regular maple. "These are logs that were hauled out by cranes. These workers were not looking for logs to use. They were clearing the river area. I found out about the logs and saved them from a trip to the dump," he said.
Theriault plans to sell some of his logs to people like Superior Water-Logged Lumber to build capital and with that money he hopes to buy a lumber dry kiln.
Dating the Logs
Several things help to date felled trees and tell their particular story. Albert Constantine in his book, "Know Your Woods," writes that the life of a tree can be read with a surprising degree of accuracy by examining a cross section. "By counting the growth rings and inspecting their condition, experts can pinpoint the year of a forest fire, the years of invasion by insects, a change of lean times," he wrote.
Another way to date a log and also estimate how long it was in a river or lake is by how the tree was felled. Until the 1880s almost all trees were cut by axes and will have axe marks and V-shaped ends. After the 1880s, axes were replaced by saws until the early 1940s when loggers switched to chain saws. Logs will frequently bear the "brand" or mark of the logging company which cut them. These brands can be important in some areas. In New Brunswick, for example, logs bearing the brand of a logging company will not be taxed by the provincial government. Those without it are charged a duty just like new timber.
Pricey, Valuable Treasure Finds Willing Customers
Who is using the old-growth timber? Musical instrument makers, fine furniture manufacturers, heartpine flooring makers - just about anyone undaunted by the price. Leick Furniture of Sheboygan, WI, has debuted its Echoes of Chequamegon Bay collection with a red oak curio cabinet shown at the April 1997 International Furniture Market in High Point, NC. The wood used is virgin red oak salvaged from Lake Superior and has a fine grain. Leick had the logs quarter-sawn and insisted on using the same furniture-making techniques used at the turn of the century. The joinery on exposed pieces features wood pegs and pinned mortise and tenons. The design features reproduction antique leaded glass and solid brass hardware. Pieces in the red oak Arts and Crafts series include curio cabinets, consoles and accent clocks, which are numbered and available in limited editions. Leick is also including a birch piece.
Leick is playing up on the mystique and history of the pieces including the full story of logging then and now in point-of-purchase materials. Sandra Ellegard, advertising manager of Porters of Racine, a furniture retailer in Racine, WI, since 1857, said customers have been enchanted with the Echoes of Chequamegon Bay curio cabinet that the upscale furniture store has featured. "We have sold seven of the curios priced at $2,500, and they have generated a lot of interest. It is more than the sheer beauty of the piece with its incredibly tight grain pattern and rich color - people are captivated by the romance of owning something from another era," she said.
Other users of the wood, dubbed "Timeless Timber," include high-end architectural projects such as the executive offices of the Boeing Corporation in Seattle and the President's Club in the NHL Calgary Flames' Saddledome in Canada.
Musical instrument makers are particularly interested in the old-growth timber based on studies done by Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at Texas A&M University. Nagyvary did independent studies of the wood to see if it equaled the sought-after properties of wood used in such famous instruments as those made by the Halian violin maker Stradivari who used water-soaked wood to achieve high-quality tones. Nagyvary compared a water-logged sample with control samples: one 10-year-old air-dried maple (sapwood) from Northern Minnesota and one sample from the back of a Stradivarius 1731 cello. His findings were that the waterlogged wood would produce a major improvement in violins if it were available in a large enough size.
The wood from maples he tested is similar to the wood used by Antonio Stradivari to make violins 400 years ago. Two acoustical instruments have already been made for famous clients with the wood - a guitar made from red birch was made for country singer Johnny Cash and a dulcimer. Chris Hinton, an instrument maker who works at Superior Water-Logged Lumber, said maple is particularly good to work with. The high-quality sound, he explained, is due to the bacterial removal of gums and resins in the cells of the wood due to its long time under water.
Makers of reproduction pieces are interested in the old-growth timber. The Goodwins point to the historic preservation movement and its impact on the market. "It is definitely from another era," said Goodwin. "The last time heart pine standards were written for wood was in 1923. The floors made from heart pine hold up. Take a look at the interior of George Washington's house - the floors are still gorgeous." The Goodwin's flooring of heart pine is a dark, warm red, all heartwood with loads of character. The public television show, "This Old House," has the Goodwin heart pine flooring in its New York City headquarters in the conference room and reception area.
Charles Radtke, a fine furniture maker from Cedarburg, WI, has seen samples of the wood and says it has great characteristics. "You resaw this wood and six months later it is ready to work," he said. "Logs cut more recently need years of drying before they are ready. The wood is incredibly stable and it won't cup. It has a very tight grain and it looks great." Despite all its pluses, Radtke has not used the wood himself. "This wood is very interesting and especially appealing to instrument makers who need wood that gives a specific sound and those doing reproduction work who are interested in a particular look, but you pay a price for the wood and the mystique," he said.
Mitchen, who has opened his mill and workshop to tourists interested in seeing a piece of history firsthand, says the real appeal is the sense of recapturing something we all thought was long gone.