Woodworking in the great white north.

A trip to a sustainable forest…

If you happen to find yourself driving around in central Ontario, in the area just south of Algonquin Park, you absolutely must make the trek to the Haliburton Forest.  I’m fortunate enough that this is about 1/2 hour drive from my parents’ cottage, so we visit from time to time.

So, what’s so great about this place?  This is a privately owned, actively logged, multi-use forest.  As a woodworker it’s pretty easy to limit my interest in the wood that I use at the point of purchase.  I can go a step further and consider whether or not the wood is local or imported, FSC certified, reclaimed and so on but it still leaves a lot out of the picture.

When was the last time you took a walk in a forest?  When was the last you visited a place where logging was taking place?  Aside from trees that came down in a storm in your neighbourhood, when did you look at a tree knowing that when the time is right that tree will be felled, milled and sold to make fine wood products?  This came as a bit of an epiphany for me when we visited the Haliburton Forest a couple of weeks ago.

I won’t go into everything that the Haliburton Forest offers, but here are a few things that they have:

  • Active forest management
  • Logging and Milling
  • Camping
  • Hunting
  • Mountain Biking
  • Hiking
  • ATVing
  • Dog Sledding
  • Maple Syrup
  • A Wolf Reserve <- this is really fascinating
  • A Canopy Tour <- this was our main reason for going this time

Our focus on this trip was to take our daughter on the canopy tour, something Gwen and I had done 8 or 9 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed.  More on this in a bit.

Until this year I had assumed that any logging done in the forest resulted in big trucks hauling full trees off to some other place where the wood was milled, dried and sold.  Earlier this year I learned that this was not the case.  There is an active mill on the premises and not only do they do all the regular things that you’d expect at a mill, they’ve been experimenting as well!  (insert mad scientist laughter)

I came across a very brief article in the local cottage country newspaper that talked about how the mill at Haliburton Forest had deep fried wood!  Yes, that’s right…deep fried!  How much better can life be for a woodworker than to get his or her wood deep fried?  My arteries are clogging at the thought of it.

I did check the date on the paper to make sure it wasn’t from April 1st, it wasn’t.  The article basically said that boiling the wood in vegetable oil results in wood with zero water content.  Why is this interesting?  No water, along with oil permeating the wood results in hydrophobic (water resistant) wood which means the wood is both rot resistant (hello outdoor furniture) and wood movement is almost eliminated!  This opens up some pretty interesting possibilities.

I was determined to find out more about this and see if I could get my hands on some of this and see what else they offer.  As it turns out, the mill is not open to public…I’m guessing some crazy concerns about safety are at the root of this.  I at least got the mill manager’s card and if I can wrangle a tour sometime, I’ll blog about it.

The next best thing was their wood shop.  They have a public store where they sell a variety of things, including antiques and newly built wood products using wood logged from the forest and milled onsite.  The varieties of maple were intriguing – nicely figured curly maple and birdseye maple in three grades – low eye, medium eye and heavy eye.  I have not seen this variation of birdseye maple in any of the mills I’ve been to before…you just got the one generic “birdseye maple”.

I spent some time wandering around the store getting more intrigued.  Eventually I stuck my head though the door into their workshop and was greeted by a young guy likely there for a summer job.  He was kind enough to give me a quick tour of the workshop and some of the lumber they had onsite.

I begged to see some of the deep fried wood, alas all he had was a small cut off of some tongue and groove flooring.  One of the byproducts of deep frying the wood is one I’ve seen in hot kiln dried wood – the wood color changes, darkens to a deep honey brown, in contrast with the original pale color it has going in.  The cutoff looked to be ash, but had the look of lightly ammonia fumed white oak.  The other interesting propery of the wood was the oily nature.  Since the wood had been bereft of water, the oil took its place and had the look and feel of an almost dry coat of tung oil.

I asked about buying lumber, particularly after seeing the rack of curly maple in the yard.  It turns out that it was spoken for, but I can order lumber direct from the mill and pick it up at their wood store.  I’m a little gun shy about having someone else choose the lumber for me, but what the heck, I’ll give it a try sometime.  The prices on some of their lumber are pretty enticing compared to what I can get locally near home.  I’ll have to order some of the deep fried wood and try it out.

Here are a few of the current prices on their price sheet (these turn out to be a good bit cheaper than my local mill):

  • Beech 6″ and wider:  $1.50/bf
  • Maple 6″ and wider: $2.50/bf
  • Curly Maple $5/bf
  • Low eye birdseye Maple $1.50/bf
  • Med eye birdseye Maple $4.50/bf
  • Heavy eye birdseye Maple $7.50/bf
  • Ironwood $4.50/bf

With my detour to the wood shop over, I met up with the rest of the family and prepared to take our canopy tour.

When we did the canopy tour the first time we were incredibly lucky to have Peter Schleifenbaum, the third generation owner of the forest as our guide.  There is nothing like listening to an empassioned person talk about what it is that drives that passion.  Peter went into great detail on how they were just over 50 years into a forest rehabilitation plan that was started when his grandfather bought the forest and began actively managing it.  He spoke at length about how each tree is assessed and individually manage, how they fell the trees and the various ways that the trees are taken out of the forest.  They still use horses, how awesome is that?  The tour then was informative beyond expectation and Peter is a very enigmatic guy who loves what he does.

This time, I got to experience the tour from two new perspectives.  First, from the eyes of my daughter, which is my favorite indulgence.  The second was to see the forest knowing what I had learned from the last tour.  The tour is about 3-4 hours in length and consists of a short drive into the forest, a brief paddle in big voyageur canoes, a hike up a rather steep incline which brings you to the start of the canopy tour.

The canopy tour is a whole new way of looking at a forest.  With climbing harnesses on and safety lines to clip into the cables, we get to walk among the trees but way up in the canopy.  At its peak, we end up about 80ft above the forest floor.  Walking on a 6″ wide 6/4 board held up by ropes and cables feels surprisingly safe, despite the bouncy nature of a suspended walkway.

Towards the end of the tour, we stop on a suspended platform surrounding a tree and have snack while we enjoy the view out over the lake.  Our guides talk about the forest and properties of individual trees, what their lumber is used for and how the forest is managed by combining certain species of trees to allow both to grow straight and in the healthiest way.  A few more spans and we’re at the end of the tour.

I look at the forest in a new way and when I got home and went back out to my shop, I take the time to look at the lumber I have and ponder where it came from.  I’m not sure how this will change my purchasing of lumber, but I have a profound respect for the people who care for the growth and production of the wood that we use.

Even if you can’t get out to a managed forest, it is worthwhile to at least take a hike and look at the magnificence of a healthy diverse forest.

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