The Last of His Kind? This Logger Does Things the Old-Fashioned Way - With a Horse

Jan 15, 2016

Like most loggers, Rick Alger of Milan says all he needs to fell a tree is a chainsaw. But where most lumberjacks use skidders, cherry pickers and other machines to haul their timber from the woods, Alger does things the old fashioned way.  As Sean Hurley found out, Alger is one of the last horse loggers in New Hampshire.

For the last 18 winters, Rick Alger has followed a similar routine. He wakes at 5 a.m. and heads out to the stables to water and feed his horse, Emma. While she eats, he checks his saws and waits for the sun to rise over French Hill.

Hitching Emma to the forecart before heading out.

Then, depending on the hardness, depth, or freshness of the snow, he'll hitch Emma either to a wooden sleigh or two wheeled forecart... "Ok Emma, up!" Alger calls and we set out into the woods.  "And then" Alger says, "depending if it's a good day you might quit at 2:30 3 o'clock.  If things weren't working out you'd try to hang on until pretty close to dark."

Riding along.
Credit Sean Hurley

Alger mostly hung on till dark.  "A harness breaks, chainsaw won't start, trees go the wrong way," he says, "I mean, any old hundred kind of things like that."

And then there's the fact that being a lumberjack is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. "Everybody cuts their knee with a chainsaw on this part of your body opposite the hand you're holding the chainsaw," he says, "that's usually where you get the cut. And then I had a tree roll off the stump and break my foot.  And I got knocked out by a falling branch one time. A widow maker kind of a thing."

Before logging, Alger worked for 30 years, injury free, as a high school teacher in Berlin and Errol. "I taught at one time or another - mostly English, occasionally math, social studies, and square dancing at one point," he says, laughing.

But he'd always logged in the summers.  And when he retired from teaching at 58 - he's 75 now - he knew how he'd spend the rest of his years. "When I was little," he recalls, "and most kids were getting read Cat in the Hat and the Three Little Pigs my dad used to put me to bed telling me about his days in the logging camps. I guess that infected me. A serious infection I never got rid of!"

Though most of Alger's paid work as a horse logger was done for bigger companies on other tracts of land, today we're heading for a stand in the 140 acre forest he owns with his daughter. "A lot of what happens in a logging job," he says, "at least up here is due to what the prescription is - what the foresters decide should be done at the job. And that prescription, like a doctor, what does this stand need?"

One of Alger's "roads".
Credit Sean Hurley

There are miles of sidewalk-wide paths - "roads" Alger calls them - that he's made with Emma and other horses over the 50 years he's lived here.  "Snow this cold doesn't pack for squat," he says, but it's not a complaint really. "Yep, she's working quite a bit. Up! This is gonna be rough here. This is gonna be bad." 

But the network of "roads" always served a second purpose.  Though his wife Lois died last year and his daughter is married now, he says, "We'd take rides like this just for the fun of it. And we did a lot of sleigh rides."

So why, I ask, use a horse for logging? "Well," he answers, "you know it's a complex thing - but it's the sustainability thing.  It's the partnership with animal thing. It's the fact that while she was alive and we were running the stable it was a nice little organic use of what we had in that the horses would clip the pastures and plow the garden and then in the winter they'd do the logging just like it was done for the last 200 years. It all clicked. It all made emotional sense even though you'd be hard-pressed to say it made economic sense."

Alger gets the chainsaw.
Credit Sean Hurley

We arrive at the work site. "Ho!" Alger calls out and Emma comes to a slow halt. "The prescription for this stand there we're looking at right now - I made it - is to take out all of the cherry. Take out all the gray birch and the white birch.  Take out the tamarack.  So that's the plan to get a decent softwood stand going here." 

Alger hitches Emma to a tree and stares up the length of the cherry he wants to drop to see which way it wants to fall. 

Then he starts his chainsaw, gets down on his knees, and begins to cut.

Cutting down this cherry is part of Alger's prescription.
Credit Sean Hurley

He stands over the tree, gazes around the forest and says, "This is gonna look a whole lot different when I get done."

"The last of the horse loggers," I say, but Alger shakes his head.  There are plenty of people using horses to log, he says, "Except that I may possibly be the last guy to take a job for a winter. Pay stumpage. Weigh off tar somewhere. Live in a camp. Hovel the horses and get paid by the piece week after week after week as the winter rolled on. That may be true."

He chains the four 6 foot logs he's made of the cherry to the back of his cart and we go back the way we came.  The forest can hardly be dented by the loss of a single tree.  And yet that's how it goes for Alger and Emma, one tree at a time, tree after tree after tree. 

Headed home.