IDAHO'S FOREST FAMILIES: WES OLSON TRUCKING
Many young people don't see a future in hauling logs. But the world isn’t using less wood, so these jobs with companies like Olson Trucking will always be here for men and women who enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing a good day's work.
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A GOOD DAY’S WORK
“Back then, drivers could fix most anything on their trucks. You even learned how to reline your own brake shoes. Today, almost everything is run by computers that talk to each other…If you can’t run a laptop computer, you can’t diagnose a problem in one of them. That’s how sophisticated they’ve become since Dad started out in ’61.”
Jim Olson, Wes Olson Trucking, Sandpoint, Idaho
Wes Olson paid $22,000 for his first new logging truck in 1966. Last month, his son, Jim, ordered a new Kenworth for their company’s senior driver. He paid $160,000 for it.
“Yeah,” Jim says casually. “He’s driven for us for 25 years, and he’s always wanted a white truck, so we bought one for him. We’ll paint the hood green to match our Olson Trucking color scheme, but it’s basically a white truck, which means it will need a bath every night.”
The whole idea of it amuses the daylights out of Jim’s 85-year-old father, a handsome man who doesn’t look even close to his age.
“I come here every day because it beats watching TV,” Wes explains when I ask why, at his age, he is here and not out having fun.
“This is fun,” he declares without hesitation.
“Besides, there is nowhere else I’d rather be,” he says of the company’s modest office on Baldy Mountain Road, minutes northwest of downtown Sandpoint, Idaho.
“I also believe my wife likes it better if I’m here,” he adds with a wry smile.
The Olson’s – father and son – dispatch 26 log trucks from their shop five days a week. Jim does the actual dispatching the evening before. Most of their drivers are on the road by two or three o’clock in the morning. The drivers with the longest routes – Elk River, Idaho or Cranbrook, British Columbia – are generally gone by midnight.
“We rarely see them unless they have a problem, which isn’t often,” Jim says
The Olson’s employ 31 people: 26 drivers, three mechanics and two office administrators. Their company hauls logs for the Idaho Forest Group, Stimson Lumber Company, Potlatch, and, occasionally McFarland Cascade, which hires them to truck cedar utility poles to a treating plant in Tacoma, Washington. From the Olson’s office, you can see McFarland’s pole yard just across Baldy Mountain Road. This square mile area has been ground zero in Sandpoint’s lumber industry for more than a century.
“We’ve done a little bit of everything over the years,” Wes replies when I ask. “When the lumber market went down in 1973, we sent trucks to Alaska to work on the pipeline. I went up to Prudhoe Bay the first time in 1969, over the Ice Road. Where the ice wasn’t safe, they moved us on big hovercrafts that could carry four trucks at a time.”
Before I can ask, Jim chimes in. “Yes, we’ve watched Ice Road Truckers on TV. Let’s just say we think it’s a little overdramatic, like Ax Men. But I guess you do what you have to do to keep your audience entertained.”
Lord only knows how many million miles Wes Olson drove in the woods before he handed the company over to his son in the late 1990s. But he confesses to a fascination with big trucks that began when he was a boy growing up in a Wyoming logging camp. His mother was a camp cook and his father logged. They moved to Sandpoint in 1942. Wes was 12. He graduated Sandpoint High School in 1948, carpentered for a few years, then joined a construction crew at Albeni Falls Dam, where again the comings and goings of huge trucks fired his imagination.
“No brains,” he says of his 1961 decision to get into the log trucking business. I am again drawn to this good-humored man’s perpetual smile and gentle disposition. No wonder Wes Olson Trucking is in its fifty-fifth year.
“I didn’t have much choice,” son Jim adds to his father’s self-effacing explanation before I ask him the obvious next question: Jim, what had you wanting to follow in your father’s footsteps?
“It was child abuse,” Wes gleefully interjects before Jim can formulate his answer. “I tossed him in the cab of a truck when he was 17.”
“It just sinks in over the years,” Jim quietly replies as his father trails out of the room. “I’ve been around here doing whatever I could do to be helpful since I was a kid. Back then, drivers could fix most anything on their trucks. You even learned how to reline your own brake shoes. Today, almost everything is run by computers that talk to each other. Our trucks are no exception. If you can’t run a laptop computer, you can’t diagnose a problem in one of them. That’s how sophisticated they’ve become since Dad started out in ’61.”
Wes returns, holding an old color photograph of a loaded logging truck sitting on a ferry not much larger than the truck itself.
“That’s Jim, he says proudly, “crossing the Kootenai River on that ferry.”
“I can’t believe we actually did that, but we did,” Jim says. “One time, I nearly sank the ferry because I couldn’t get the truck out of the gear that it was in and into the gear it needed to be in before I rolled onto the deck. The ferry operator wasn’t very happy with me, but he got over it, and I’ve never made that mistake again.”
Over the years, the Olson’s have done whatever it took to keep their trucks on the road, including cannibalizing parts from wrecked trucks and building trucks from kits they assembled in their Quonset-shaped shop beside their office.
“It worked back then because the old models were pretty easily repaired, but it’s not worth the effort anymore with the cost of fuel and the air quality standards trucks have to meet” Jim says. “You reach a point where the cost of maintenance and upkeep is greater than the cost of a new truck, so you buy new trucks to ‘save’ money.”
Although new trucks are very expensive, what concerns the gray-haired Olson’s more is the fact that most of their drivers also have gray hair. Their oldest driver is 72. Most are in their forties and fifties. With a slew of retirements approaching, Jim is always on the lookout for younger drivers who are qualified.
“Finding people who want to do this work isn’t as easy as it once was,” he concedes. “Many young people don’t see a future in hauling logs. But the world isn’t using less wood, so these jobs will always be here for men and women who enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing a good day’s work. I no longer have time to drive, but I sure enjoyed a lot of mountaintop sunrises when I was driving full time.”
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The Olson’s pay their drivers well - from $250 to $300 a day, depending on the haul. Given that the company also provides health insurance and retirement benefits, they compete favorably against the more seasonal construction trades.
“You can’t raise a family on $200 a day, so when we find good drivers, we work like hell to keep them busy,” Jim says. “This year started out slow because we had lots of rain that kept us off muddy logging roads, but we’re at capacity now, and we’ll be glad when our twenty-seventh truck arrives any day now.”
Like his father, 66-year-old Jim Olson does what he does 16 hours a day, six days a week because he can’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing.
In what little time he has to himself, he enjoys fly fishing and riding motorcycles, and he is beyond delighted to have a new grandson and a second one on the way this month
“I have a wife and four grown daughters, so I have been surrounded by women for a long time,” he says. “Having grandsons that I can bring to work with me will be really wonderful.”
Wes readily agrees. “Our grandchildren and great grandchildren are our country’s future,” he says, eyes smiling.
- Jim Petersen, the Evergreen Foundation