The Life of a Lumberjack

Chuck Carlson, a logger in South Dakota, talks about having one of the most dangerous jobs in the country for over 30 years.

Chuck Carlson (Rebecca Clarke)

Loggers across the country harvest thousands of acres of forest a year. The work is physically demanding and can be dangerous, with logging consistently listed as the most dangerous job in America. Workers risk serious injury not only from falling out of trees, but also because they often work in locations far away from hospitals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a decline in the number of workers in the profession because of the aging workforce and physicality of the job, but the need for logging-equipment operators will remain.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Carlson about being a third-generation logger and why he enjoys his work so much. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: What do you do for work and how long have you been doing it?

Chuck Carlson: I'm a logging contractor and skidder operator. As a logging contractor, I meet the sawmill and the forest service and then set up for my crew to go into [the forest] and work. As a skidder operator, I drive the machine that drags the trees up through the landing where the trucks can load them.

I'm a third-generation logger. I was working with my dad at a very young age, cutting trees for Custer Sawmill, and I fell in love with logging. When I was 7 years old, I wanted to be a skidder operator. I’ve been doing it ever since, operating the skidder for 36 years and a logging contractor for 31 years in South Dakota and Wyoming. I like operating the equipment and being on different types of ground. It just gives you a variety of what you're doing.

Lam: How do you get your jobs as a contractor?

Carlson: I’ve been contracting for Neiman Sawmill since 2000, and they pick the jobs I go to.

Lam: What’s a typical day of work like for you?

Carlson: I get up 3:30 a.m. every morning, and leave my house at 4:30 a.m. I get to the job, skid logs from the woods to the skid landings. Then, trucks can load them and haul them up to the mill. At about noon, I maintain the machine. And then I go to the unit where I lay strips out for the cutters so they can start cutting. That's pretty much my whole day.

Chuck Carlson at work in Custer, South Dakota. (Carlson Logging)

Lam: What do you do when you're not working?

Carlson: We spend a lot of time outdoors: my daughter's basketball games, four-wheeling up in the woods, some hiking, and backpacking.

Lam: Logging is statistically one of the most dangerous jobs in America. How does that influence the way you see your job?

Carlson: I knew it was one of the most dangerous jobs, and it does influence the way I work. You have to respect the job. If you get careless, you can get hurt or get somebody else hurt. It's just something you have to stay on top of at all times. Most people in the industry know there’s danger out there: You have trees falling, and equipment can roll over down the hill. I've had friends get hurt pretty bad doing this, and killed.

I try to be as safe as I can. I'm aware of dangers, but there are some times you don't see [all the ways you could be hurt] and it's a good wake up call. That hasn't changed my desire to be a skidder operator ever.

Lam: Why didn't the safety concerns influence your decision to become a logger?

Carlson: I would say, it's very, very hard work. It's made for some people, and it's very demanding. I’ve never seen myself working in an office. I feel really good about myself after working a hard day.

Lam: What are some of the challenges in the logging industry in South Dakota?

Carlson: The logging industry is fairly strong right now, but there are always challenges. Forest service budgets cuts hurt us, and good help is very hard to find. The biggest challenge would be finding good people that are safe and want to do this job. It’s a pretty tight community; we usually find help by word of mouth.

Lam: What motivates you to go to work?

Carlson: Being outdoors is a great reward for me. I work in all kinds of weather and see all types of beautiful scenery. Another reward is providing for my family; my wife of 27 years and my daughters have lived comfortably off of logging for 36 years now.

Lam: Will any of your children become fourth-generation loggers?

Carlson: My youngest daughter might, but my other two are both in college and have pretty good jobs. She's operated a skidder before and really likes to do that, so I guess time will tell.

I'd support her if she wanted to become a skidder. I think it’s still a good opportunity for her, and she could handle it as long as she’s careful. She's got a good head on her shoulders and I think she'd be very good at it.

Lam: How does your work relate to your personal identity?

Carlson: I think it's a big part of my identity. It's all that I've ever done and it's all that I've ever wanted to do. My work impacts just about every aspect of my life. I own my own business. We have to work my life around work. If we want to do vacation or something, I have to make sure my crew is set up for a while so they can be there without me.

I've always believed that if you work hard, you will earn what you make. It’ll be better than sitting at home and taking handouts. If you put in a good day’s work, you feel better about yourself—at least I do.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a cartographer, a coal miner, and a park ranger.