"Land of the Lost"
Monday morning I make it to the hotel lobby just in time to toast a bagel for the road. Haggard faces, familiar from the day before, haunt the breakfast tables. No one is talking.
Paul, the Production Assistant shipped in from LA, distributes our walkies. I fumble with a tangle of cords for a minute, then turn to Ryan and admit that I have no idea how to wear this thing. I've worked with Ryan before, and I know he won't mock me for my ignorance. In a sea of strangers he is a welcome buoy of familiarity.
We load up the vans with cameras, audio equipment, grip supplies, lenses, tripods, coolers, food, beverages, and first aid kits. David gives everything the once over and mumbles some instructions to the logging site. I hop in Ryan's car with Rick, the other Wilmington PA, and we follow the LA crew to the highway.
Upon arrival, we set up home base. A couple of pop-up tents and fold out tables do the trick. A quick survey of the site reveals some important information: the bugs are evil, the logging track is hot and humid, and there are no bathrooms. We are not too far from a corner market, but if nature calls we'll most likely be shitting in the woods.
Nate calls a safety meeting. This is hard hat country, and Paul hands out our required protective gear. My helmet fits OK, but my fluorescent orange vest is two sizes too big. I feel ridiculous, until Nate informs us that two workers were killed here last week. They were run over buy the skidder drivers, who typically look behind them as they drag out the lumber. Apparently a couple guys got stuck on the pull path and couldn't get out of the way of the eight foot tires. Nate says he himself almost got run over on a scouting trip just a few days ago. None of this is comforting, though I suspect the tale about the workers' deaths was made up to scare us into caution. In either case, it works.
We leave the base and head down the trail into the loading deck. It's not at all what I expected. First of all, there's no swamp in sight. Just a barren arena of dirt and wood chips surrounded by trees. In the middle of the deck sit two Tiger Cat cranes, both of them busy lifting timber and dropping it onto the back of a truck. Their huge claws swing down to pick up logs from a pile of fallen trees, drag them under a giant chainsaw to trip off the stumps, and neatly deposit them onto the truck. Despite the size of these beasts, the process is surprisingly dexterous. The drivers display incredible control over the claws, using them to rearrange the logs on the back of the truck like an oversized game of Tetris. At one point, one of them actually pick up the trailer from the truck and moves it over a foot or two to a better position.
"Now he's just showing off," says Paul. It doesn't matter. We're totally impressed. This group of guys from LA and a coastal college town have never seen anything like this, and our jaws drop immediately to the sawdust covered earth. No one says it out loud, but there's a palpable feeling that we're all out of our element. The roar of the engines and the size of the machines puts me square in the danger zone of Jurassic Park
. As the saws tear through the timber sending wood chips flying through the air, and the monstrous claws heave sixty foot logs around like toothpicks, I have only one thought - hold onto your butts.
The rest of the day is an exhausting, but awe-inspiring tour of the logging track. The process is explained to us in the simplest terms possible by Billy, the owner of the company contracted to harvest the land. First the cutter machine (a larger version of the Tiger Cat loaders, equipped with a three foot saw blade) comes in and clears a path, laying down a road of timber so the other, smaller machines can follow without sinking into the mud. The cutter, Billy says, can make or break the entire operation. Choosing the right trees to cut, the right road to lay down, is like a giant puzzle. If he doesn't make the right decisions, Billy explains, these guys could sink. But apparently it's not much of a worry. "Mauricio has been cutting for twenty years. He don't make many mistakes. I dunno...that guy just loves killin' trees."
After the cutter lays out the game plan, the skidders come in and pick up the lumber to cart back to the loaders, which trim the logs and put them on the trucks. No one gets a dime until the trucks make it to the pulp mills, so these guys work hard and fast to get the logs on the road. "They don't stop for much," says Billy," and they ain't used to folks walkin' around down on the track. So watch yourselves."
Despite the incessant warnings, the day runs pretty smoothly. It's hot, and we're all carrying heavy equipment, but watching the process is so exhilarating we hardly notice the effort. Half the team goes out into the swamp, the uncut portion of the 98 acres of land that makes up the logging track. Billy's men will tackle this portion after the harvest the section their working on now. He warns the cameramen that the woods are thick with thorns and mud. He tells them to expect, as a matter of course, to getting soaking wet and bitten by chiggers. The LA crew has never heard of chiggers. I haven't dealt with them since I was traipsing around the woods as a kid. More of a concern are the snakes. "Water moccasins," says Billy. I ask him if they bother him. "Naw...they'll bite at you, but you just flick 'em off."
I spend most of the day spotting Ken, a young cameraman who teaches me a few things about operating the $50,000 camera. A few hours later the swamp crew comes back, soaked but alive and well. We're in high spirits as we wrap up the day with a few interviews and closing shots of the fully loaded trucks turning onto the highway. Nate thanks us all and we head back to the hotel, sweaty and tired. I can't help but feel a small sense of accomplishment, like I've just stood face to face with a dinosaur and lived to tell the tale.
Before bed I take a long bath and finish a book of Billy Collins poems. I enjoy the solitude of the hotel room, the quiet calm of the dark room after a long day in the field. I get a text from David saying that call time is now 6:15 tomorrow morning. I won't catch up on the sleep I'm lost last night, which worries me a little because I'm going to need all the energy I can get for the remainder of the shoot. things went well today, but something in my gut tells me that things could easily take a turn for the worse out there. I turn out the lights and remember again Nate's story about the workers who died. As I drift off to sleep I conjure images of the yellow dinosaurs we met on the edges of the swamp, their razor teeth slicing through trees like stalks of asparagus, their mammoth wheels crushing the timber road beneath them. Maybe Nate was telling the truth after all.