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Log-truck drivers love the solitude, sunrises

Don Crawford Jr. and Don Crawford Sr.
Don Crawford Jr. and Don Crawford Sr.

If you’re in a hurry to get your empty log truck up the road to where the timber waits, there’s a way to catch one front tire in the ditch on the inside of the curve. Get it just right, and the gutter helps pull you around the corner. Let go as you come out of the turn, and centrifugal force helps shoot you up the hill. It gets you to the landing quicker so you can load your rig, haul the logs to the mill and get home in time for supper.

“On the Wynoochee (Valley Road), we’d do 60 to 70 miles an hour on that gravel,” said Don Crawford Jr., log-truck driver for Scott Vessey Trucking in Montesano. “But you only do it on a really good, graded road — not if it’s rough or (winding). I wouldn’t do it going downhill, either — only uphill or if it’s flat. Otherwise, it’d be too easy to lose control.

“And you have to have experience,” Crawford added. “I mean, you get to know those roads because you’ve driven them hundreds of times.”

At 35, Crawford has the know-how. He’s been doing this maneuver for a dozen years. While he didn’t learn it from his dad, Don Crawford Sr. taught him plenty. The elder Crawford has been driving log trucks for 38 years, and he learned the business from his dad, whose father-in-law built logging roads for the U.S. Forest Service. Washington state logging has been the family business for nearly a century. The younger Crawford’s grandfather and great-grandfather on his mother’s side were in the business, too, and the family’s handiwork — if not their names – is embedded in the history of such Washington landmarks as Hurricane Ridge, Enchanted Valley, Lake Quinault and the now extinct Chow Chow Bridge.

Love for the job rubbed off easily from one Crawford generation to another.

“I rode (in the truck) with my dad when I was a toddler,” said the younger Crawford. “He used to put me on the steering wheel when he was crawling along. He started letting me ‘drive truck’ myself when I was 12.

“I remember getting up with him in the dark, and the truck was a beautiful site with the lights on,” he said. “And I remember the smell,” ­­— a combination of oil, diesel and smoke — and the sound.

“I used to hang my head out the window to hear it,” he said. “I’m surprised I didn’t go deaf. Those straight pipes made it loud.

“Logging is one of those things a person gets addicted to,” the younger Crawford said. “There’s a certain kind of love in it.

“My dad and I used to log in the living room for hours on end,” he said. “I had Tonka toys that he converted into logging equipment. He’d work all week and then do it with me on the weekends.”

The elder Crawford, who works for Jack Dilley Logging in Elma, drives a super-train — a short load behind a long load. He, too, fell in love with logging trucks at an early age.

“We lived at Lake Quinault,” he said. “From the time I was three, I remember my dad would wake me up to go to work with him”

From that time on, he said, he knew that’s what he wanted to do for a living.

“I would ride with him, and every summer, I went to Forks with my grandpa and I’d ride in the log trucks,” he said. “It was so stinkin’ fun.”

It’s not unusual for one generation of Washington logging men to lead to another. In fact, it’s more common than not.

“It’s a hard industry to get into if your family isn’t,” said the younger Crawford. “A lot of companies don’t want to give you a shot if you don’t have a family name.”

Tom Kolean, a truck supervisor of a small Olympia logging company, agreed that a family reputation helps. But, he said he looks more closely at the character of the driver, who will be hauling an average of 60,000 pounds of logs down steep mountain roads and negotiating that load safely through unpredictable highway traffic.

“There are a lot of good drivers out there, but many don’t meet my qualifications,” said Kolean, 69, a log-truck driver for 40 years. “You need to have respect for the machine you operate, the person you work for and yourself.”

Some giants of the Washington timber industry —Weyerhaeuser and Sierra Pacific — have their own fleet of drivers.

“It’s out of need; there aren’t enough contractors,” said Paul Gianotti, log-truck operations manager for Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s largest private timber companies.

Other companies, such as Port Blakely and Green Diamond, prefer to hire small logging or trucking companies such as the ones that employ Kolean and the Crawfords.

“Our timberlands cover several counties,” said Patty Case, public affairs manager for Green Diamond. “It’s more efficient to hire someone local.”

Court Stanley, president of Port Blakely Tree Farms, said it’s also a matter of skill.

“We know how to grow trees and get them ready, and loggers and truckers have the expertise to get them to the mills,” Stanley said. “Our logs aren’t worth anything unless they’re delivered to where we’re selling them.

“Some of these independent contractors have been with us for 25 or 30 years,” Stanley said. “It’s a long-term relationship.”

Even drivers with years of experience and good reputations get in accidents. Kolean drives a self-loader (a truck that can both load and carry logs) and has an album full of photos of wrecked rigs that he helped pull out of ditches. Like many drivers, both Crawford men have an accident on their records and plenty of stories of close calls.

“One time, I was by the Humdinger (restaurant) in Hoquiam, and this kid on a bicycle crossed the street in front of me and went to go up on the sidewalk,” said the younger Crawford. “His bike slid out from under him and I whipped the truck so that the trailer would whip around him.”

He said the truck was loaded, “and I didn’t miss him by more than a couple inches.”

While driving a log truck requires no more formal training than what it takes to earn a commercial driving license, experience and humility are also necessary to be a skilled driver, the younger Crawford said.

“One of the biggest mistakes a person can make in this industry is getting hard-headed and thinking you know everything,” he said. “There’s always more to learn out there.”

Driving a log truck is harder than driving a freighter, he and his father say, noting the narrow, steep, potholed roads they navigate and the sometimes-snowy conditions they encounter at high elevations.

“You can take a log-truck driver and put him on the road and he’ll be OK,” said the elder Crawford. “But take a freight-truck driver and put him in a log truck, and there’ll be problem until they learn. Hauling logs is totally different — off the pavement or on.”

For those born into logging culture, like the Crawfords, or those who find the profession as an adult, like Kolean, the time they spend off-pavement holds the real romance of the job. Being out in the woods — quiet and solitary — simply makes them happy.

“You get to see some beautiful country,” said the younger Crawford. “You always see the sunrise. You’re so high up most of the time, you get above the fog. And the wildlife! I’ve seen so many cougars — big ones, too — right in front of my truck. I’ve seen bear, elk, deer. Those are neat moments.”

Kolean mused, “You’re rolling down a hill and the sun is coming up. You’ve got a clean truck, a full load, your jake (compression) brake is on, it’s a beautiful morning and you feel like you’re on top of the world.”

The younger Crawford added: “A lot of people have the view that we want to destroy everything, but it’s quite the opposite. A lot of guys I know love the woods and love the animals. (The trees harvested) are on tree farms. This is just another kind of farming.”

Maybe it’s the beautiful scenery or perhaps the long hours alone, but logging and driving apparently inspire singing. Buzz Martin, an Oregon logger and country singer of the 1960s and ’70s, wrote four albums of ballads about cutting, choking (hooking fallen trees to cables) and hauling logs. The Crawfords know several by heart, and the elder one even wrote some himself — one when he was only 10 years old. The younger Crawford can and will, upon request, belt out “Whistle Punk Pete” in a beautiful baritone.

The song is famous among loggers, and it memorializes the historic role of the whistle punk —the guy down in the brush with the fallen trees, giving signals uphill to the steam-donkey engineer, who would haul the trees up and onto waiting rail cars. By the early 1960s, trucks had replaced steam donkeys, or logging trains, as the way to transport logs from the woods, according to a University of Washington study.

The younger Crawford loves to look for old railroad grades and the remains of tracks and trestles when he’s driving.

“It’s like going back in history when you ride these roads,” he said.

For Kolean and both Crawfords, the rewards of the job outweigh the disadvantages of a trade that requires long hours, is dangerous and susceptible to turns in the economy.

The current annual income for Washington truckers ranges from about $41,000 to $47,000 (depending on location), according to the state Employment Security Department. At those wages, retirement is possible. Kolean is semi-retired, but neither Crawford has it in his plans.

“Once I’m out of the truck for a few days, I’m anxious to get back in it,” said the younger Crawford. “I doubt if I’ll ever retire. I’ll just drive.”