Recovered wood with a story to tell

By Francie Healy

So this is how you end up with some of the most beautiful wood floors you’ve ever seen.

First, you go back to the early 1800s into the forests along the Ottawa River. You cut down all the trees with an axe. You load the trees onto sleighs pulled by horses. You send the logs down the river.

Timber on the Ottawa River 1872 (Public Domain)

And then you wait for more than 100 years until a smart young man by the name of Gord Black is born and grows up on the Ottawa River. You watch him become an avid amateur diver who goes after all the logs that didn’t finish their journey all those years ago – the ones now at the bottom of the river. You wait until he rescues them, forms a company called Log’s End, and turns them into floors as exquisite as jewels.

 

“At first it was a hobby for Gord,” says Steve McCord, Log’s End VP of Sales and Marketing. “He loved diving, and when he was a kid his father would bring him down to the river and let him run the log booms.”

JR Booth with squared timber (public domain)

The hobby of diving for logs “snowballed” into a successful and innovative business, says Steve. Log’s End, begun in 1997, sells unique, solid, wide-plank, river-recovered flooring all across Ontario and Quebec. It has a huge sawmill operation in Bristol, Que., near Shawville, and a showroom in the east end of Ottawa.

Trees grew slowly back in the days when Ontario was blanketed by forests. It was an entrepreneur’s dream: a fast-moving river in the midst of forest. By the time lumber barons like J.R. Booth and Philemon Wright began, trees were massive, dense, and mighty. They’d be cut in winter with axes and later with cross-cut saws by teams of tough lumberjacks. The huge logs, stamped with the year and the name of the logging company, would be piled many feet high on sleighs pulled by horses or oxen, then by trucks and railway, to the edge of the river.

Raftmen_on_the_Ottawa_River

As soon as the ice went out of the Ottawa River, it was time for action. The drivers would release the logs into the fast-moving waters. The logs often jammed, and the drivers had to dance from log to log with poles and try to break the jam. Sometimes they had to use dynamite. And this is where so many deaths occurred. If the booms that held the logs broke, drivers could be lost in an instant.  Lumber barons might have made their fortunes, but river drivers continuously lost their lives in the river’s swirling, dark depths.

Despite the outrageous danger of it all, the river and the logs must have attracted a particular kind of man. They must have been ruthless, fearless, wild daredevils. It’s no wonder they inspired stories, folklore and songs. Most of them couldn’t swim. They travelled on the water with the logs. They built huge rafts out of squared timber; and on the rafts they built small homes, with cabins for living and sleeping. They cooked over open fires, on the rafts, on a base of sand. The mosquitoes must have been monstrous, the storms terrifying.

Timber raft Library and Archives Canada (public domain)

They devised clever ways to control the logs. They corralled them into cribs and booms. They created timber slides, wooden shutes that directed the logs around deathly falls and rapids. They tied hardwoods into rafts with pine to keep the heavier wood from sinking.

Hundreds of thousands of trees were cut and moved along the river every year. And every year a percentage of them, like the drivers themselves, would slip under the water and disappear. From the 1830s until the end of river-logging, about 14 billion logs went down the Ottawa River, headed for export.

P1190126

Steve McCord says two to five per cent of those sank. He estimates there are between 500 and 700 million left at the bottom of the Ottawa River and its tributaries. Will they ever be completely recovered?

“Not in my lifetime,” he says. Or many other lifetimes. Log’s End has recovered, in 11 years, between 100,000 and 150,000 logs.

First they locate the logs with historical logging maps and sonar equipment, and then get them in two ways: with divers and recovery boats. The divers go in first, explains Steve. They rope each log – usually between 25 and 30 in one dive. Then boat crews lift the logs from the water. The logs are not ever dragged. They are securely tied to the boats, and so cause no environmental disturbance.

P1190237

The recovery is actually an environmental gift, improving and restoring the river back to its original state. Log’s End recovered wood is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified. (FSC is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. See www.fsc.org)

Steve McCord knows this business well. He began as a student, diving and working on the recovery boats. When he finished university, he moved into sales and marketing.

“I have a good handle on all of it,” he admits. He also loves the work, and speaks enthusiastically about all stages of the operation.

The logs, recovered between April/May and Sept./Oct. by students from the area, are allowed to air-dry for months; then they are cut into lumber, air-dried again for another six months; and then go into a kiln to be dried to industry standard moisture levels. Finally, they are made into tongue-and-groove flooring. It’s a slow process: From beginning to end, river to floor, it takes a full year.

Select Birch - Early American Stain - 6

Most of the historic wood is pine, but there are other species as well: Yellow Birch, Red Oak and White Oak, for instance. There is also Cherry and Walnut.

Log’s End will do custom finishing as well as random lengths (using a carefully devised formula to prevent waste) and full installation, or sell the planks to renovators and contractors for their own installation.

The floors are especially beautiful because of their long journey.

“There’s a lot of mineral streaking or variations where the sap has leached out,” says Steve. “They’re 30 per cent more dense than other wood, and they have a much longer life. There are smaller, tighter knots and a tighter grain.”

He says the flooring is not much more expensive than any quality solid-wood product. “It depends,” he says, “on whether you want it finished or unfinished.” It also depends on the grade of the wood. A higher grade means a more consistent, smooth look. A lower grade has interesting imperfections with unique grain patterns for a more rustic look.

Log’s End supplies engineered flooring (not to be confused with laminate). It is a base of premium plywood with a layer of river-recovered pine. It has specific uses. For instance, it can be installed in basements or condominiums. It can also be glued on concrete or over radiant heat.

Owners of Log’s End floors receive an actual certificate of authenticity, showing where the floor originated – where the original tree was cut down, the approximate year it was harvested, and the name of the original lumber company. The information was once recorded on each piece of timber, in the stamp on the end of each log, from its earliest beginnings.

How’s that for history at your feet?