Written by Craig Thomas
Born in Chicago 10 March 1948, Craig was adopted by a coal miner and his wife Evelyn Thomas. Cliff Thomas was a multigenerational coal miner who set several underground production records in that state with his crew of 450 men. Craig understood work from an early age as his father was on call 24/7/365 for 42 years until retired by his second heart attack. His uncle Jim ran the Captain shovel setting several production records in strip mining also on call 24/7/365.
Cliff told Craig if he could make anything off the farm they owned; it would be his at high school graduation. So starting at age 9 they worked the Hereford herd up to 100 head by graduation. Cliff, with only 8 weeks in high school, had started shoveling coal by hand when he and his father Evan moved Cliff, as the oldest son, to Colorado to combine their wages to support the family in Illinois. During high school Cliff informed Craig that he and Jim knew enough people in mining that he would never have a job as a coal miner. He also asked Craig to get a college education as he never had that chance. Craig had saved enough for tuition, by farming, construction work, lowboy driving, and other handyman wages to pay for 4 years of college at the University of Montana Missoula.
Craig graduated, as a forester from the U of M in 1971, commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in Infantry, and married the Love of his Life Lynnet Mae Olsen, ak BOOTS, whom he met at a Forestry Club meeting the previous year. 1st jobs consisted of Hooking under a 22B and Cat skinning for Tree Farmers under Smokey Depee. After getting hit in the head by a set of 18in tongs, and a short recovery, he quit Tree Farmers and got a job as a glue stick operator (didn’t require a college degree, pilot’s license, or a CDL) in the lamination plant at the Anaconda Bonner House plant managed by Bob Lamley. That was July 26, 1971. By redesigning the glue line, one week later, he got promoted to scrambler operator in the big sawmill. Gordy Sanders started here after Craig went to the woods.
The scrambler was at the output end of the big sawmill, three 8ft double cut band saws and a small log beaver, just in front of the trimmer made for plenty of boards, and your job was to turn every board wane up so the trimmer operator could properly trim each board. This was a busy spot. A quick lunch and a short nap was the lunch break.
As forester position opened Craig took it, and Gordy got stuck with the scrambler. Off I went to mark timber and run lines for timber harvest. Most of the 871,000 acres was unroaded, and we ran lines under Joe Semintski’s license for surveying. Loren Brubaker, Dave Johnson and finally Gordy got off the scrambler to help. They ran lines and Jim Simpson ran the roads in a lot of this country. Taking the survey notes and finding the old corners and lines was a forester’s Dream. Few if anybody had been to these places! Ran 46 miles of line and remounmented over a hundred corners before US Plwood bought us out. This buyout was a surprise, and Loren, Gordy, and I had just remonumented a corner and were eating lunch in this old cornbinder 123 listening to Paul Harvey while parked on this OLD jeep trail. After Paul comes a news announcement that Anaconda Forests Products has been purchased by US Plywood. Loren our lead, who was driving, had just taken a huge bite of his sandwich, and looking over at me with this surprised look had a chunk of lettuce hanging from his lips, which he poked in his mouth with a finger, fires up 123. Turning off the radio Loren picks up the mic of the 2way and calls Ernie Corrick to ask what to do NOW! Just finish out the day, but come in a little early and we’ll talk. So we remountment the next corner as US Plywood instead of Anaconda Forest Products, and head out to the office. All of us got fired. Loren went to start a diary in the Bitterroot with Brown Swiss cows as we had discussed. Gordy and I walking out of the back of the office had to pass Joe’s desk and he asked if we could run lawnmowers. Joe hired us to mow properties US Plywood now owned around Missoula. HA. Got fired for about 40 or 50 steps and 2 minutes!!
Of course, a new big fancy company couldn’t accept the cruise of Bob Symes Anaconda’s inventory forester. So they hire this rootentootn outfit Mason, Bruce, and Gerard to cruise the holdings. Several of us spent the next 11 months in the winter of 71-72 cruising. Yep, you guessed it! It proved Symes’s cruise correct. Bob used a timber type cruise that I used on all my sales thereafter. Anyway, cruising I got teamed up with Bob Peterson the head scaler for Anaconda, and what a blessing that was! He was an absolute master of scaling and cruising. Learned a TON! He also liked my scoped 44 Ruger and the first day I brought it shot up all my ammo. He used to shoot the conks off Larch with a 38 and sell them for cash.
After cruising Ron got me trained up to be a Check Scaler, and after Bonner (highest production plywood plant in north America at the time) got the processor up and kinda running sent me there to scale logs delivered to the plywood plant, sawmill, and beaver which would allow internal payments. The processor was a mess of problems and was operating at about 40% design capacity (mid December 1974). I made several critical comments and was immediately assigned to be a processor foreman by Dale Karkenan. One minute I’m a check scaler and the next I’m a processor foreman assigned night shift. 1st shift I get to go around and introduce myself as a 25 year old college educated boss. That is a Great introduction to a bunch of old working hands and my reception was as expected. Each shift was 9hrs hours and the processor was designed to segment 175 truckloads of logs every 18 hours dividing them between plants as production required. My first night shift (9Hrs) produced 8 hours and 40 minutes of downtime!! Erine Lezot, sawmill super, sent the entire sawmill and beaver crew home early as they had no logs to saw!! Nice introduction to the processor!! Next week of night shift Corrick comes to visit me at 10pm and asked if I could fix this thing? Yes, butt it probably wasn’t going to make anybody very happy fixing this mess. Ernie said everybody was tired, and they needed some new blood. He also said he was going to get fired if we couldn’t get production up so fix it. I’ll back you and he did! We shook hands, and it was my turn to come up with something. Hell, two weeks ago I couldn’t even spell processor and now I was supposed to fix it. I had some of the oldest operators and best millwrights, 63 in total, and I begin asking for suggestions and ideas. These folks had lots of hidden abilities and knowledge so by rescheduling work hours and purchasing parts and materials they needed we fixed it. By May of 1975 the processor was operating at 100% of design capacity.
Operating the processor was a shocking discovery that our logs were poorly manufactured. I knew about log defects as a scaler, but as we segmented each log into specific mill requirements these errors became drastically apparent. As a scaler we did mill studies to determine overrun and production of each facility. I quickly learned that 34% of the logs were being cut incorrect lengths for this operation. One out of every three!! The only way to fix this was lop off huge chunks at each processor saw (8 84in 100hp bucking saws) which overloaded the chippers and waste conveyors let alone wasting large volumes of timber. No wonder mill recovery was sooo poor! Of course, my Alligator mouth got in front of my Mosquito abilities as I whined to Corrick about these pathetic logs. Over and over I complained as we had to actually push limby logs trough the debarkers (one night Bainer’s shovel pushed the number three 40in debarker off its mounts. Tore it up so bad we had to buy a new debarker). Finally, after we were at design production I realized that everybody’s paycheck, all 63, was bigger than mine, I told Corrick I was gonna quit. Enough!! Corrick’s response was Nope you have been whining about these logs, and here’s you opportunity to put your money where your mouth is at. Sawboss Spooner was hit by a tree and you can take his place. Ernie gave me a raise, I got 23 old experienced cutters (all just loved college kids), a union shop steward (who loved college kids even more), and all the jobs farthest away from the camp office, which made all my cutters super happy! Nice start kid.
1st thing I did was memorize the union handbook, even though I was sparing the bosses during their vacations and knew most of the crew, if I was going to survive this, I better be correct. It became immediately apparent that I had inherited a supremely talented crew which knew nothing about the log needs of a plant. They had forgotten more about timber falling than I would even know, but since Russ Gates and I had been going to all the logging shows, I knew more about sharp saw chains than they did. With what I had learned from check scaling, all those mill studies, and processor operation we were going to be a dynamite crew. Right off I see from the handbook that we don’t need to stay in the woods for 8 hrs, IF we beat days pay which was 10800 bd ft per day (previous 4 year camp average). We agreed to cut 15000bdft per man average for the truck and we will go home. I started passing out some competition saw chains, raced and beat a couple cutters, and shared special techniques making production skyrocket. Most bought saws like we used in competition, and since I passed out most checks to the wives on payday, checks were 50% larger than before I showed up, even they kinda liked me. Missus Mackey told me “we were sorry that we got this college kid as Maurice’s foremen, but you’re not as bad I we thought”, with a smile even!. Score one for the college kid! By accenting the positive and exchanging cutting methods, we started cutting the limbs off better and made other major log quality improvements. I’d jump on a logtruck and go scale logs in the plant to see how they looked, then grab a ride or drive truck back to my crewcab in the woods. Logs went from 34% incorrect to 98% correct lengths!! You could tell our logs from 1000 ft away going 60mph!
Corrick noticed all this as log costs also dropped. One hiccup was since my crew was working 5hrs per day instead of 8 hrs per day and vacation pay was computed per hour on 8 hrs per day, my crews’ vacation check was almost twice the years before. This caused quite a stir, and I had to explain it the union president at a personal visit. The wives sure did smile at me when I passed out those checks! The only mishaps, we had 2 small saw cuts as we instated saw chaps and other new items from Oregon Chain (Oregon provided test prototypes of bars and chains). I Love cutters as they bet their life each tree on their understanding of REAl physics! These folks determine what the mill makes cause after they cut it-you can’t fix it.
Next happening was the crew foreman has some health issues, and I get the crew as well as the saws. The saws are running like a well oiled machine, but skidding has problems, and I failed at fixing those. I got bumped over to running the brush cat crew of John Lewis. A great fellow.
Champion had bought US Plwood and now Horner Waldorf, and one day Bob Lamley asked me to haul him some horse hay. We discussed camp, and he said come to my office on Monday. You can work for me as he was now in charge of all logging operations for the RMO (Rocky Mountain Operation) including log quality. 1st assignment was look at all the Horner mills and see how the logs look. It wasn’t possible to describe the issues so I took my personal camera and took pictures. When Lamley saw those pictures of rootwads and tops, he stood up behind his desk, and after a few choice words asked what I needed to fix this? I told him a camera, an expense account, a pickup, and backing. You got it GO FIX IT!
All the time I worked for Lamley my job description was three words. GO FIX IT. I could go into any plant or on any logging job-but don’t leave till it is fixed. He wanted to see me once a week. Well, this was very different from Camp because I wasn’t really anybody’s boss, had no payment methods, 700 plus cutters are scattered over 400x600 square miles always on the move, logs going to 16 different conversions facilities which needed different type logs. Biggest year was an average of 443 loads per day. 1st item of business was ”what does each mill need”. Asking each mill manager the common answer was “you know Good Logs”, except for Arnold Jakeaboski who operated the Missoula mill. When asked this question Jake stared intently at me for the longest time. I even looked down to see if my pants were unzipped or something. Finally, he says “I have waited my entire life to hear this question”-come with me son. For the next two days we walked his plant with tape measures measuring everything. Saw kerfs of big saws, little saws, board thickness, lilly pad thickness, trim saws, and of course, logs. Wow! This guy was the Rod Peterson of mills and what an education he gave me. Turns out though there is a lot of commonality on log lengths needed but details are Critical. 16 conversion facilities and all these cutters on the USFS, State, BLM, Private, and fee ground someplace in Montana and Idaho. The pickup Lamley got me would point the speedometer straight down, and soon, trying to average 80mph, I knew every highway patrolman in western Montana by their first name. My radio could talk from 100 miles south of Salmon to the Canadian border. I was running on about 4 hrs sleep drinking a case of Dr Pepper a day, and logs were improving, but I was always the bad ass log guy. Logs were not as good as camp because I couldn’t control payment. Ernie offered me a bunch of guys to inspect more logs quicker, but I told him I wanted a method to motivate each cutter to make good logs like at camp. If I could get accounting to change some, this will be easy. So we established a log quality of 92% as the contract average. For every % above 92 the logger got that amount as a separate check which I would sign. For every % below 92 that would be deducted from the logging portion of the payment. Bingo!! Took about 2 pay periods and a handbook “Manufacturing Logs for Champion” to get all logs to camp specs are better. I did have several discussions with some accounting wives about how and why. Building Products did a year long mill study that showed for each dollar spent the return was between 20-30 dollars. Ernie decided to give away our methods to any other company, so Greg Berg and I did a lot of talks. Champion paid an incentive on log quality until they left.
In 1986 there were concerns about a forest practice act, so we’d be looking at a bunch of cops out in the woods making sure us logger types were doing good work. Gordy Sanders and others developed the BMPs (1989) and I am proud to have played a small roll in its development. It’s a educational program that loggers have taken to the same standards as log quality. The MLA has taken this to new and higher levels. Aren’t loggers an amazing bunch??
In 1989 the wife and I started a small company building vestpacks, and one of the first sales was to Charlie Decker and founder of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. CkyBer Enterprises Inc. Our company name is the first three letters of our son’s name, Ckye, and the last the letters of our daughter’s name, Ember. Ckyber sold several hundred of those things developed from marking timber and surveying carrying stuff around in the woods. Or yeah check out our website ckyber.com.
Champion leaves and I wasn’t good enough to carry on with Plum Creek or Stimson in my current position and took a job with Darby Lumber. That ended in March the following year. BW and I started a little consulting business and log buying business buy opening an old railroad siding near Stevensville, Bass Siding. When I went into MRL to get a lease on the siding. They kind of smiled and said we don’t lease sidings to individuals. But being a persistent sort, I explained that I had helped with the Thompson river landing for Champion (Russ Gates and I actually were sent up there by Rod Peterson to layout the new log lanes for breakup storage of logs to ship to Bonner). So between scaling logs, a small amount of 120 Wagner operations, and a lot of chasing lost rail cars and or tickets and such, I was not completely ignorant of a rail siding. Besides I had actually signed the MRL contract to ship several hundred railcars to Plum creek from Darby to Pablo in a log trade while resource manager with Darby (this was the first time the Bitterroot line had been opened since Champion had shipped logs to their Darby operation a couple years before-helped that deal too). Still not impressed I get a “that’s nice but NO thanks”. This has a real potential as I know the logs specifications (helped write and develop some) for every plant in the area, and I’m certain that a remanufacturing of purchased logs and sorting and delivery operation will be successful. Back at Bass Siding I walk the area to plan out my next request at MRL. 22 acres with a 5 car spur is a little small (Campion’s was three spurs holding 50 cars), but so are we, and this will be about what the Bitterroot can handle. Walking in all the weeds I start finding a bunch of really interesting stuff. This has been to local dump for 20+ years, so I start taking pictures of what is there. Old cars and a depression of car gas tanks piled maybe 10 deep (must have come from the cars they placed in the Bitterroot River to keep bank erosion down) made up a sizable area, but there were plenty of washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, other unwanted stuff, and LOTS of animal bodies sheep, a couple pigs, and a bunch of cows in various stages of decay. With this new ammunition I head back to MRL. I get a nice greeting from the receptionist, but a begrudging reception from the lease guy. I give my little talk again adding I’ll clean the landing. “Clean what?” He asks so I show him the pictures. His eyes about pop out of his head and he screams at Larry Huff (the next office over and scheduler of cars) “hey get in here!! Walked out the door with a lease! I worked with Larry Huff for years thereafter-Great Guys. Rented a D6 from John Lewis and begin cleaning and starting to level the old manufacturing plant. MRL hauled off all the really nasty stuff, and digging around I found a lot of interesting stuff-no human bodies, but lots of Stuff. Most logs Boots and I shipped from that landing was 300+ one year to several mills. MRL gave us a nice trip on the passenger train one day.
The kids, Ckye and Ember, are getting some size on them, and I get this bright idea to start a sawmill in the Bitterroot to supplement the consulting. Things actually worked very well as we cut oversized cedar for the Pablo mill. Plum creek sent us the logs by rail and we cut and then shipped cants and boards back by truck. Several folks asked about Plum Creek cheating us on scale. My reply was I think they’re honest and besides being a big company they have these audits both internal and external like Champion. After going through several of these I was certain that they couldn’t cheat-too many inspectors!
Bought an electric Mighty Mite rig because I knew the logs would come from yard decks after being sorted and handled several times. That put as lot of debris in the bark-especially cedar! Boy was I correct on that! We had to have special blades made to deal with all the runway gravel that the bark picked up like Velcro. Many of the logs were big enough two of us could crawl in the rotted out center, but all the rines were Clear cedar. Our mill specs were one inch boards or cants 23x12 or less. These old logs just fell apart and collapsed when we cut one side of the rine off and that blasted bark got into all the conveyor chains. A real mess, Ember’s arms got Buff because she was pulling bark, handling each board and peeving the cants around some. Dragging out the bark developed a special friendship with the local osprey family as they liked that for nests. We found that a strip of bark 1x48 inches was about all daddy osprey could cart off for momma osprey to put in the nest. He could pick those up on the fly. That is purity cool when he’s only about 15 feet away!
Ckye got tired of messing with the bark and started splitting the logs with the frontend loader forks into chunks. The bark just fell off those and production really picked up. Ckye our son and Scott Allen helped build the second sawmill and that increased our production. All this time Boots did accounting and other critical support. The successful operation of the sawmill ended when Plum creek sold the cedar holdings in Idaho. Almost went broke after Plum Creek stopped cutting cedar.
During the sawmill years, after the fires of 2000 and Protous(see Regurgitations of a Montana Woodsman), we purchase a Timbco 820 forwarder, and Ckye and Kevin Cotton converted it to a combination harvesting machine. It was the first of its kind which the factory was quite interested in and ending up developing such for themselves. Lonnie had designed the quick change attachment which Ckye could change from Log Max to grapple in about 7 minutes. Craig Rawlings Montana community Development corporation worked with us to do several grinding projects and got some good press on forest restoration projects developed by Steve Arno and Carl Fiedler. Dave Akins got us the first IDIQ contract with the USFS whereby we could work in several different campsites and leases. This period I was also working as a forester for Johnson Brothers Contracting and completed many inwoods grinding operations. We protyped 2 large grinders a Bandit Beast and a Vemeer and drug those all over western Montana grinding and hauling hog fuel to Stone container.
A couple of jobs we completed with particular pride was Hepton Lake, the Redlodge campgrounds near Yellowstone park and the first restoration project for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation the Creeck ranch in the Bitterroot (this job really got restoration forestry off the ground). The Bugle article by Stalling (may-june 03) attracted about a hundred elk for the photo shoot. The elk and a couple of goshawks had followed us around for about the entire year of work. The elk were eating the moss off the felled timber, and the goshawks eating the squirrels jumping out of the fresh cut timber. Chuck Seeley coordinated that job with Stone, and it was where I introduced to the USFS timber harvest by designation instead of timber marking. That works like the log quality or BMP deal it mostly education and communication. Your experienced operator selects which trees to harvest. Besides experienced operators actually have a better view of the timber than a timber marker.
Rawlings and Atkins got us setup with a roll-off system for the forwarder and in conjunction with the combination machine really has some special abilities: however, it was years ahead of it’s time and was not profitable for logging then. Ckye and I hauled it all over the states on special projects Louisiana, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Kansas, California, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Minnesota, Nevada, and others. We spent several years on the pipeline circuit until that was shutdown for contractors, but living in a camper 8 months at a time from home is just a lot of work. When set up with our fire tank it’s a superskidgen hauling up to 3500 gallons of water and fillable by helicopter, which is quite exciting by the way. Check out Website ckyber.com
In' 06 I got bucked off a horse going elk hunting and got a crushed pelvis, several broken ribs, and the back broke in three places near the tailbone. It was a tough time and without my wife Boots I would not have made it. She survived the 8 month ordeal because the MLA and SAF got together and helped us through it all. Without the help we’d be gonners. 8 Months is a long time to set in a chair for a guy used to running on 4 hrs of sleep a day. Read Regurgitations of a Montana Woodsman for details.
We gave the logging back to you tough guys and gals. I tried working on fires, but could never achieve the success of 2000 at Lost Trail, so I’m not going to do it anymore. Nobody will listen to me. I’m working on a hunting camp in Alaska, haying around the valley, and Ckye has developed the Ckyepod, OBi link system (Google those too), and other neat stuff. Boots is helping friends in need, quilting and sewing.
I shall pass this way but once. Therefore any Good that I can do, anything that I can share, let me do so for I shall not pas this way again.
Craig E. Thomas
An Old Forester/Logger 13 August 2023