GRAND MARAIS, Minnesota — Imagine living in the Superior National Forest close to the boundary waters with Canada. Stan Nelson did just that.
As a child, the owner of eponymous Stan Nelson Jr. Logging lived first at Verns Camp (six houses filled with logging families) in what is now the boundary waters region, and then at Sawbill Landing (18 loggers and a one-room schoolhouse). Loggers and their families relied on generators for electricity.
Ghost towns and memories are pretty much all that remain of the small, vital logging communities that once dotted northern Minnesota, most at termini of rail lines built to carry logs inland. It’s all 21st-century logging now.
Not only is Stan’s logging operation fully mechanized, but with rails long gone, road building is a must. In 1982, two years after graduating from high school, Stan bought his first skidder, a 230 Timberjack. Felling, delimbing and bucking with a Husqvarna, he started his company.
Experience was on Stan’s side. He began running a skidder for his father in 1975. Later, when his father became ill, he began driving a truck. At every juncture, Stan has done what it takes to keep his business moving forward and on a strong foundation.
Today, Stan operates a Ponsse Scorpion King eight-wheel harvester. And he is emphatic about the significance of the Ponsse machine to his business.
“[I] had twelve pins and eight screws and one plate put in my neck,” said Stan. “And I know I would not be logging if not for the Scorpion King.”
The cab of the Ponsse Scorpion is located in the middle of the machine. The turning, 360-degree view cab gives the driver full-range of sight. Moreover, cabin-leveling provides great stability in the roughest terrain. And Stan’s team traverses plenty of rough terrain – rocky with slopes, swampy and just plain wet.
The Ponsse Scorpion King that Stan operates is one of four Ponsse machines on Stan’s equipment roster. Stan owns a second Ponsse Scorpion King, a Ponsse Buffalo forwarder and a Ponsse Elephant forwarder. All are rubber tire, eight-wheel machines. The four machines were purchased between 2014 and 2018, with the second Ponsse Scorpion King being the newest.
“My first Ponsse was a new Wisent six-wheel forwarder in 2005,” said Stan. He had tried many other brands of equipment, but friends with Ponsse equipment kept pointing to the excellent performance and service they were getting from Ponsse; and he decided to make a change.
“The Scorpion is my choice to run,” said Stan. “It is so smooth and responsive and very much the reason I’m still logging [given] I have a bad back and neck.”
Ponsse North America Inc. is headquartered in Rhinelander, Wis. Stan bought all his Ponsse machines from the Ponsse shop in Grand Rapids, Minn. He worked with Paul Estabrooks, the sales representative there.
“Paul Estabrooks has been great to work with, as well as all the guys there,” said Stan. “The shop guys there know these [machines].”
Stan cites Paul Skoe, the service foreman, as exemplary of the team at the Grand Rapids, Minn. branch. Solution-oriented, they can fix anything. “Second to nobody, these guys” is the way Stan explained it.
Paul Estabrooks said he was first introduced to Stan in 2006. He was working as a technician then.
“[I] recall working on [Stan’s] Wisent forwarder in the spring of 2007,” said Paul. “I remember it because he was thinning a pine planation that was located on prison property…Stan traded that same forwarder in on a new Buffalo forwarder in 2016.”
Ponsse machines are a good match for Stan’s company, said Paul Estabrooks. The Ponsse machines can meet the challenges of the substrate and do so in extreme cold and exceptionally wet conditions – and more.
“In some situations it can be nearly impossible to build roads or large landing areas,” said Paul. “With minimal impact [Stan] is able to efficiently harvest some of the most demanding and challenging tracts of timber.”
Paul brought a great deal of technical expertise to his position at Ponsse, having worked for a commercial airline as a technician for 16 years prior to joining the company. Putting his technical and managerial expertise together to support loggers is something he enjoys greatly.
“It is really important that we put ourselves in our customers’ shoes – realize, understand and appreciate their efforts and accomplishments, listen intently to their troubles and frustrations, and address any concerns in a timely manner,” said Paul. “The reward is being a part of their operation, knowing that I’ve made a difference…We are all in this together.”
Industriousness and logging are integrally tied together in Minnesota. Stan welcomes being a part of it all. “When asked about my logging company, I must say I still get excited to show the equipment off because it is so impressive,” he explained.
“I started with a cable skidder – to grapples and bunchers and slashers, and then to Hahn harvesters, and for 18 years cut-to-length,” explained Stan. “For me, [having] logged about every way possible, to see two machines and two people do six to 10 loads per day and not beat yourself doing it — after all the other ways of logging, [and] to be happy to still run equipment is a good thing.”
Several family members work with Stan. Daughter Roxann Nelson runs a forwarder. His wife, Jodell Nelson, does administrative work, including scheduling. “My grandson, Luke Nelson, got done with school this year and he has been running a forwarder,” said Stan.
Stan, Roxann and Luke generally run as a team at one site. A second site is under the direction of Roxann’s fiancée, Adam Oertel.
Stan likes to run two jobs simultaneously because things can change quickly and adjustments might need to be made, such as pausing on one site because of conditions.
The Grand Marais, Minn. home to Stan Nelson Jr. Logging is closer to Thunder Bay, Ontario than it is to Duluth. The town has a population of 1,339. It is part of Cook County.
Most jobs for Nelson Logging are within an hour driving distance from Grand Marais. Northeastern Minnesota is approximately 83 percent national forest land, said Stan. There is some state but very little private land. He procures jobs via sealed and oral bidding.
“We buy and cut anything from pine and maple thins to aspen [and] birch clear cuts – and black spruce swamps in winter,” explained Stan. A John Deere 850J dozer and a John Deere 690 excavator serve as roadwork machines. Hauling is done with five International trucks.
Stan said he once tried working outside the wood products industry for five months. The job was not for him.
Strong camaraderie among loggers is something that Stan relishes. Recalling his years as a youngster in a logging camp with a one-room school, he recalled how long-lasting bonds are. “The funny thing is some of these people I haven’t seen for 30-plus years, but when they see you, they hug you and talk about camp.”
Logging camps were a tight-knit community. “It was hard-working, honest, good people [to whom] a handshake meant more than a contract with a name signed,” said Stan.
Having worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at one point, Stan’s grandfather, who started logging at age 12 with a two-horse team for skidding, logged red pine on tracts, which were then replanted. Stan thinned – and later re-thinned — some of that CCC-planted red pine. And his daughter and grandson will be working some of the same tracts.
“Most of the people in logging are very honest, hard-working people,” said Stan. He reminisces about the days when businesses were not quite so large, but he recognizes that things change.
Ponsse machines are both strong performers and ergonomically designed, explained Stan. For routine maintenance, access is easy. And the team at Ponsse is always ready to help. “[The] Ponsse guys are so great,” said Stan. But the reliability of the machines means “we don’t need much” from them.
Then there’s the design. “I would be done [logging] if it wasn’t for the comfort and stability of [Ponsse],” said Stan.
At 57 and having logged for four decades, Stan is quite happy with his professional path. His philosophy is to “work every day with pride” in a job well done. Nelson Logging is a member of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers.
Good communication is essential when interacting with non-loggers. Stan recommends taking advantage of opportunities to inform the public about the way loggers work and why. “Let some young people come and see your equipment,” he said, giving one example. Let them know how professional loggers are.
Time away from the business for Stan and Jodell includes spending two to three months every year at their home in South Africa. A “highlight in life” is also spending time with three adult daughters and nine grandchildren, said Stan.
“I love my ‘office’ with a view of sunrise [and] nature – moose, wolves, bears…,” said Stan. “I wouldn’t trade a building and an eight to 4:30 [job] for this.”