Preserving the Old Ways
Winter logging by horse is obsolete, but a North Country native is keeping it alive
Rick Alger lives away from things. His house sits perched on a hill at the end of a dirt road, the only bald spot in a sea of trees. He lives in Milan, a North Country town deep in the Northern Forest. His front window looks out on a sweeping panorama of the Presidential Range, with a view of the Mount Washington Auto Road snaking its way to the summit.
“There are certain days,” he says, when the weather is clear, you can watch the cars drive up. “And you can just about imagine what kind of car it is.”
The cars aren’t running today, however. It’s winter, the mountains are locked in ice. Alger’s hill is windswept and cold. So we sit inside, talking about horse logging before we commit to facing the elements.
“I don’t cut commercially anymore,” he says. “It’s an indulgence now. There’s plenty of reasons to do it, but not economic reasons. I’m 76 years old. I don’t put in 14 hour days anymore. But if you’re young and strong and stupid, it’s a lot of fun. You put a lot of muscle into it. It’s amazing what you can do with a single horse in a day sometimes.”
Wearing a quilted flannel shirt and tan work pants, Alger is almost what you would expect from a horse logger. He lacks the beard, but his face is fittingly weatherworn. The blue of his eyes and his salt-and-pepper, short-cropped hair belie his age, as does his agility. He moves like a man with strength left in his shoulders, a little stooped, someone who’s worked hard his whole life, but with a persistence that says it’s a weight he has no trouble bearing. He’s not slow, and he goes into the woods alone without hesitation.
“When I was logging seriously, I could work most every month from July to February,” he says. “I always enjoyed it. I did it way back in the 1970s, and I got the virus back then.”
The “virus,” as he calls it, is working alongside a 2,000-pound horse, felling trees and then using the horse to drag the logs to the road.
“I really just thrived on it,” he says. “I loved it. I never got out of it exactly. I don’t know why.”
It could be that it was in his blood. Alger’s father was a logger before him, in the forests of Oregon. “He had some stories,” says Alger.
But that was a different time in earlier days, back when horses were a regular feature of the forest industry. That was when logging, paper and other wood products created an industrial powerhouse. Back then, the nearby city of Berlin, known as “The City That Trees Built,” was the economic engine of the North Country. Berlin’s mills, along with others in Gorham, Groveton and across the region, sustained thousands of jobs.
Back then loggers would set up rough, hard-hewn winter camps where they would spend the frozen season cutting and limbing trees. The rock-hard ground and a canvas of snow facilitated easy transport, and frozen rivers and bogs simplified the awkward terrain. Horses were part of the team, paired with drivers who used them to drag the logs to the nearest riverbank. There they would be piled up until spring arrived. The warm weather closed the forests, but it also brought the thaw. Freed of the winter’s topcoat and amplified by meltwater spring rains, the rivers offered easy transport for millions of logs. They rode to the mills, which sat positioned on the river’s edge for both hydropower and easy access to the wood, and fueled an industrial boom in Coös County.
But that boom was fading by the time it was Alger’s turn in the woods, and the age of horses had passed. His first season, 1970, was all engines and diesel power.
“Nothing but noise and nothing but speed, that’s all that mattered,” he says.
That didn’t appeal to him. And somehow, despite the absence of equines in the forest at the time, he found his way into something else.
“The partnership with horses, there’s a lot there. It’s much more textured, much more life enhancing.”
“When I started, I didn’t know a soul who was doing it,” he says. But the North Country was at one time full of people who logged with horses. “Ask any old Coös woodsman, they’ll tell you.”
“Horses are extremely efficient,” he says, but it’s a certain kind of efficiency. A skidder, which most loggers use to pull logs out of the forest, is faster, but it requires the logging team to cut a trail 12 feet wide anywhere the skidder has to go. A horse, meanwhile, can use a 4-foot trail. In a dense thicket, or anywhere the trees are growing tightly packed, that’s can make a big difference, he says. “With horses you can move a lot of wood without damaging the rest of the trees.”
But in logging you generally get paid by volume — the number of trees you pull out of the forest. There a horse’s delicate touch doesn’t help.
When using a skidder, “a good week was about 40 cords,” says Alger. “A horse job was 10 or 15. Economically, it’s just not going to work.”
But it worked for him. He spent his weekdays September through June working as a school teacher — “English, math, square dancing” — and his weekends and summers in the forest.
“March, April and May nobody works,” he says, because the ground is too soft. “Logging had a natural cycle to it,” a seasonality directly tied to the outside environment. But “any summer I was looking for work there were three or four jobs.”
When he had the chance to take early retirement, he jumped at it, and he invested in horses. He went to working in the woods, hiring people to work alongside him off and on, but mostly on his own. “It’s kind of like being a pirate,” he says, “real old-style, 19th-century capitalism.”“It wasn’t a rational choice,” he says. “It was an emotional choice. I’m no expert, I’m just the guy who did it.”
And in truth, he was never fully alone — he always had his horses. At one point, when his wife was alive, they had a dozen living in the barn across the driveway. Now he’s down to two: a 1,400-pound Suffolk gelding named Acer (“Because he’s an ace!” Alger says with a smile) and Emma, a 1,700-pound mare.
“A 1,700-pound horse is ideal,” he says. “For most of the work a team is overkill.”
“They’re both over 20, past their prime,” he says pulling on a jacket, intent on braving the cold.
His barn is like his house; it looks handbuilt, clean and sparsely decorated. It has the feel of a place put together by its owner, and slowly. “This is all horse-drawn wood,” he says, pointing to the beams. Five thousand feet of horse-drawn logs.
He heads into a stall and comes out leading Emma by her bridle. She is docile, slow, with giant steps that strike the wooden floor like hammers. They move together like old friends, deliberately. She may be old, but she’s retained her power.
He begins strapping her into a harness, a patched affair. “There are no harness makers in Coös County anymore,” he says. To get his horses shoed, a ferrier travels more than 100 miles. The region’s horse logging past is evaporating. “I guess you could call it a cultural thing.”
But Emma, Acer and Alger have endured. He belts her in, and then leads her to a cart riding on an axle with rubber wheels that look plucked from a car trailer. Once she’s secured, he opens the gate, climbs aboard with the reins in hand and gives her a flick.
Emma starts slow, like a locomotive. The cart behind her bounces like an afterthought, gliding through the fence and over the snowy trail. A trail of chains snake out behind, kicking up bits of white as they drag.
Alger’s property is 40 acres, plus 100 acres of woodlot in the surrounding hills. He’s already cut down a number of trees, so today is a retrieval mission. Emma easily clops her way down a narrow wooded path. Alger braces himself with a good stance in the otherwise unloaded cart. It jostles as it moves. Just standing there looks like athletic work, but he seems used to it.
The pair wind their way deeper into the forest. The chains sound like wind chimes as they accompany her hoofbeats. He is largely silent, letting her follow the well-worn path. They’ve been out here a lot, he says. Every time it snows you have to go out, he explains, to keep the trail packed down. Otherwise it becomes impassable.
Alger works quickly, wrapping lengths of chain around the butt end of logs, occasionally goading Emma to pull forward and back up, pull forward and back up to get the logs in line and ensure the chains are adequately attached.
“Up here most wood is what would have traditionally been pulpwood,” he says. “It can’t be turned into two-by-fours, but it can be ground up into paper.”
It can also be burned. These logs are eventually headed for Alger’s wood stove.
But first he has to get them out of the forest. Once they’re all secure, he climbs back onto the cart and gives Emma another flick. The locomotive lurches forward, this time with the slightest strain, and again hoofbeats begin, followed by the wind chimes.
The return is slower. The logs drag like fingers across the snow, leaving ruts in their wake, but they slide easily. After every uphill, Alger pauses. “I watch her belly to see how hard she’s breathing,” he says. “The basic pace of the day should be a walk.”
After 15 minutes they stop at a cul-de-sac carved on the edge of a thicket. There’s barely enough room for the cart to turn, so Alger gets out and walks Emma around. When she’s pointed back toward home, he makes her back up. A pile of logs sits at the lip of the thickest underbrush. This is no place for a skidder.
There are lots of pauses on the way home, but Emma still makes short work of the distance. On something like this, he says, a skid of this distance, he and a horse could do 100 logs a day.
But today there aren’t that many to take out. It’s nearing the end of the season, and he’s picking up the final stragglers.
The most striking thing as they go are the sounds — the clink of the loose ends of the chains and the crunch of the snow under the cart’s wheels, the clomp of Emma’s hooves and the skittering of hardpack that follows every step. It’s subtle, muted. It would be easy to imagine another horse one hill over doing the same work. We’d never know. Alger and Emma wind through the trees like welcome visitors, part of the landscape rather than in opposition to it.
“I romanticized it a while back,” Alger had said earlier, but the reality is logging, even with horses, is risky. Every North Country family has stories of members killed or limbs lost.
But watching the two of them carve their way through the green and white hills, there’s no denying the nostalgia of it. It looks like something from a postcard.
Back at the top of the hill, Emma pulls Alger, the cart and the logs in a long loop until they’re in front of the woodpile, stacked just to the side of the house. Alger climbs down and begins unhooking the chains that hold each log. Emma holds still, steadfast as a statue. She knows the routine. Alger grabs each log, all either 12 or 16 feet long, by an end and drags it to a pair of notched logs. The notches serve as ladder steps. He levers the freshly cut logs up, one side then the other, until they’re on top of the woodpile. His movements are slow but deliberate and powerful. Like Emma’s. He too makes short work of the task.
The two seem a matched pair, both past their prime perhaps, and in no hurry, but willing to pull more than their weight. Once the logs are stacked, Alger leads Emma back to the barn. The season is coming to a close. One more year of horse logging is over.
But next year, after the snow melts and the ground dries, Alger and Emma will be back. You can count on it. Or just ask any old Coös woodsman.
About the Author
Erik Eisele is a writer, outdoor athlete and international travel guide based in North Conway and Portland, Maine. He has spent the last decade working for newspapers and other media outlets as both a staff writer/editor and freelancer. He’s worked with NPR, had stories in the Boston Globe and written columns cited by The New York Times editorial board. Learn more about him here.
About the Photographer
Frequent New Hampshire Magazine contributor Joe Klementovich specializes in environmental photography, and he’s photographed everywhere from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington to the Florida Everglades. His work has been central to large national ad campaigns for Mission Athlete, Voltaic Systems and Sterling Rope, and he’s also worked with The New York Times, Boy’s Life Magazine and Fly Fisherman. Additionally, his love for the outdoors led him to video and photographic projects with the New Hampshire PBS “Windows to the Wild” television series and The Nature Conservancy and Adventurer Scientists. Lean more about him here. January 2018’s “Snow Bond” also featured his photos, and back in June 2017 he shot our story on the Randolph Mountain Club.