Northern Exposure: Steve Tomajko of Penn Line Service brought a custom-built Bandit Model 2090 Track whole tree chipper isiting Michigan’s Peninsula.

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Penn Line Service finds what it needs to get the job done with a one-of-a kind custom Bandit Model 2090 Track whole tree chipper.


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich — Traverse City might be a place you’ve heard about. That’s because this northern Lower Michigan town consistently ranks among the top destinations in America for vacationers. Nestled on Grand Traverse Bay which opens up to Lake Michigan, Traverse City is as scenic as it is all-encompassing.

Beachgoers and boaters love the miles of sandy beaches and warm, open waters in summertime. Forests abound with hiking trails and camping spots for those who love the outdoors. Less adventurous folks enjoy touring the rolling hills outside the city, exploring small-town communities such as Leland, Suttons Bay and Northport, the latter of which is home to some notable Hollywood celebrities who enjoy the breathtaking lakeside scenery as much as living anonymously within the small community.

In winter, nearby ski resorts and hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails keep the area busy when most other Michigan snowbelt communities are virtually shut down. And when the snow gives way to Spring, cherry blossoms erupt throughout the region, ultimately producing 75% of the nation’s tart cherries.

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These are just some of the reasons why millions visit Traverse City each year, but Steve Tomajko (pronounced too-MIKE-ah) had a very different reason for venturing north in 2015. Among other things, he brought along a one-of-a-kind Bandit Model 2090 Track whole tree chipper to make the most of his trip.

Obviously he wasn’t in town for a vacation, but as far as jobs go, there are worse places to be than Traverse City in the middle of summer.

“It’s beautiful up here,” he said, surveying the woods around the power line his specialized crew from Penn Line Service was sent to clear. “This is the first time I’ve been to Michigan. When I came up here in May to look at the job there was still ice on the lake! I was fishing back home, so there’s a big difference there.”

Tomajko’s entire 23-year career in forestry has been with Penn Line Service — the well-known Pennsylvania-based clearing company that handles a wide variety of land and site clearing projects. He’s a supervisor for numerous crews, and though he typically works in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., he will take crews to wherever their services are needed. So when a call came in for a clearing crew to tackle 6,000 feet of existing power line, it didn’t matter that the worksite was a popular tourist destination. Tomajko responded as he would for any other important job.

“We actually have a crew that usually works this area under a different supervisor, but they couldn’t do it,” Tomajko explained. “I had to add all the travel, the permits, but they were happy with everything and that’s why we are here. They needed us right away because they’re upgrading the existing system, putting in high-tension power lines three weeks from our start date. We’ll be done in two.”

The Penn Line crews are working in a city park adjacent to a residential neighborhood. As such, the 14-person crew will have to manage noise while also watching out for walkers that frequent a trail near the work area. That’s in addition to the regular concerns working with trees near power lines, but it’s just the type of work Tomajko and his crews are trained to handle.

“It’s nothing special,” he said casually. But in reality, it’s a tricky job on a tight deadline — one that calls for exceptional public safety management, worker safety, and adherence to tight deadlines. Even to the casual observer, the crew’s training and experience are evident. They know what needs to be done, and they’re getting it done right.

To meet the two-week deadline, one would expect to see plenty of machinery on-hand. But that’s where Tomajko has an ace to play that literally nobody else can match.

Bandit introduced the self-propelled whole tree chipper in 1991 and builds custom machines for specific needs. With a pair of towable Model 2090 chippers outfitted with grapple loaders already in Penn Line’s fleet, Tomajko knew just how productive they could be. But he also needed the mobility of a track chipper while foregoing the usual operators cab in favor of full remote control.

“We have an equipment manager, and I told him I could probably go for a track unit,” said Tomajko. “But I wanted something with a grapple. Without a grapple, I have to carry a track hoe to each job. Our manager called Bandit, and they said they didn’t make one, but something could be designed and equipped. So they made this machine special for us, and it’s a hell of a machine! Everything is right there, in one package.”

Penn Line’s Model 2090 Track features full remote control for all chipper functions, including the built-in grapple loader. Like all 2090s, it features a large 24 1/2-inch by 26-inch throat opening with an aggressive dual-wheel feed system to process forked limbs and large diameter trees. Though it’s officially rated as a 20-inch capacity chipper, Tomajko says the 2090 will eat anything large enough to fit through the infeed.

“I can’t believe how good this smaller machine can chip,” he said. “We’ve got big chippers with cabs, including a Model 2400 disc, and this thing will chip right with them. When I started getting into road work, one of Bandit’s competitors brought a chipper out for me. They said it would take an 18-inch tree, and I put a 12-inch tree on it and it stalled. I called the shop and said they needed to do something with this, and the mechanic called back and said — just because it says 18-inch capacity doesn’t mean it will actually take an 18-inch tree. The next day that machine was gone.”

The 2090 Track rides on a CAT 312 undercarriage, and Penn Line went with the 350-horsepower John Deere diesel for power. He says they have absolutely no problem getting it from place to place, and it works especially well in wet areas. The relative light weight of the 2090 compared to larger track chippers gives it great floatation without compromising processing power.

But it’s the built-in loader on this fully remote-controlled 2090 that makes it special. It foregoes the extra weight and expense of an operator’s cab, all while still giving operators the exceptional convenience of having two machines in one. Additionally, being on tracks with its own loader means the chipper can get to the trees without having to drag them through dirt or mud. Cleaner material entering the chipper goes a long way in extending knife life, which for Tomajko and his crew can sometimes mean a few days of constant chipping before requiring a change.

And of course there’s the huge cost savings, whether you’re talking about added production on the jobsite, or lower transportation fees. The Penn Line crew at Traverse City clears well over a football field each day with just two dozen workers, a few pickups, a Bobcat and the Model 2090. It all translates to lower expenditures, which obviously helps the bottom line but also helps Tomajko bid lower on jobs.

“Because our 2090 has the loader, we don’t have to bring along a track hoe or other loader,” said Tomajko. “When you’re bidding a job, if you have to bid that extra machine in there, you’re looking at another $70 per hour for equipment. That can make a real big difference on a long job — three months at $70 per hour, 40 hours a week. It can mean the difference between losing or getting the job.”

Penn Line’s remote 2090 Track has been on the job for a year and a half, accumulating 900 hours on everything from distribution line projects through the day, to tough road right-of-way contracts at night. Tomajko says it hasn’t missed a beat, save for the occasional maintenance issue that would be expected given tough environments these machines operate in. On these rare occasions, Tomajko says Bandit has always been right there, willing to overnight parts and provide whatever assistance is needed to get them back up and running.

Tomajko said he’s happy with his custom 2090 Track. It just keeps right on working, along with its towable 2090 siblings which have around 4,000 hours each. And that’s good, because business for Penn Line is booming thanks to the oil and gas activity in the northern Appalachian states.

“Jobs will come along in bunches, then you won’t have any for a bit,” he said. “There’s a lot of highway work going on, especially with all the bridges and such. That’s why our wheeled towable 2090s have been busy. And with the gas boom, they’re putting gas wells in just about every corner back in Pennsylvania. Everything we used to do was just more or less maintenance. But clearing in the past few years had been pretty busy. Enough to where I got three of these Bandit 2090 chippers!”

Being a supervisor for multiple crews at a busy company can have its drawbacks. In addition to the team in Traverse City, Tomajko also has crews in Virginia and Eastern Pennsylvania. Each crew has a General foreman to manage the day-to-day activity, but there’s no saying when Tomajko might have to hit the road to offer his assistance.

But for a little while at least, he’s able to enjoy the splendor of one of the best summertime vacation spots you’ll ever find. Who says you can’t mix business with pleasure?

“I knew a couple guys that worked at Penn Line, and they said the company was looking to hire,” he said of his early days in the tree business. “They asked if I wanted a job and I said sure. That was right out of school, and I’ve been here ever since. And I love my job — I get to be in the woods every day.”

Traverse City has Lake Michigan to the west, Grand Traverse Bay to the north, and a whole bunch of small town culture all around. There are also plenty of trees, and with a very successful northern Lower Michigan job in the books for Penn Line, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Steve Tomajko and his crews taking another job in the Great Lake State sometime soon.