Chances are the wood Todd Morrissette is gathering off the bottom of a cold, Maine lake wasn’t growing when you—or even your parents or grandparents—were alive.
As founder of DeadHead Lumber, his job is to search lake floors for relics from the state’s historical log drives. The reclaimed wood is then used by homeowners for their living room floors and kitchen tables.
Most of the logs I recover were cut starting around mid-1830s to turn of the century and most of them were very old when cut.
Maine’s legendary logging industry was begun by English explorers in the early 1600s and continued into the 1800s, when it was estimated that as many as 3,000 ships were anchored in a South Berwick hub to transport wood to a growing United States.
A typical Maine log drive would start with harvesting logs in spring and, according to Maine History Online, would follow the same path as settlement, at first “moving eastward along the southern coast and up the primary rivers, then far exceeded it, with the major river valleys—the Saco, St. John, Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot—supplying most of the industry's timber as woodsmen ventured well inland.”
Morrissette’s sunken logs, also referred to as “deadheads,” sank during these log drives across Maine’s lakes and rivers, beginning in the early 1600s. Since the weather on northern Maine’s lakes changes so quickly and dramatically, many of the lumber was lost and abandoned during storms. “Resting undisturbed, these logs were perfectly preserved by fresh Maine water, protected from timber’s worst enemies—direct sunlight, pests, and oxygen,” says Morrissette.
Centuries later, these same logs—preserved pieces of American history—are being recovered by Morrissette from his pontoon boat, which is armed with sonar and a powerful claw.
TakePart: Some of the logs you've collected are from before Columbus sailed for the New World. Do you treat some of the found logs with more reverence because of age?
Todd Morrissette: Most of the logs I recover were cut starting around mid-1830s to turn of the century and most of them were very old when cut. The more revered—by most of my customers’ standards—logs tend to be the larger ones and those with a high degree of figure, like Flame Birch and Birdseye Maple. But after spending a lot of time personally sawing these logs and sorting the lumber, the oldest and nicest wood tends to come from the smaller logs.
The hardwoods grew in an old-growth forest canopy where the large pines and hemlocks dominated the forest and the hardwoods grew slowly in their shadows.
TakePart: I read you started out in the wood importing business. How is underwater logging different to you on a professional and personal level?
Todd Morissette: When I got into the underwater logging business it was a whole different world. I am now the person actually doing the salvaging, sawing the wood, sorting and milling it. It is all extremely hands on and has given me an entirely new education and outlook on how wood in general is processed and used. And the fact that it is reclaimed and difficult to get has also given me a whole different outlook in regards to yield, grading and down-stream recovery.
TakePart: Is there a deadhead forest under the cold waters of deep Maine lakes?
Todd Morrissette: There is a lot of material there…the difficult part is finding a body of water that has enough logs to make a salvage viable—to bring in the equipment and get the permits—and has a landing area or “take out point” that I can access in order to haul the logs out. It is much easier in northern Maine, where logging, in general, is a part of life, and there are less people.
In reality, because of the way I salvage, people really can’t tell what I am doing on the water. I have had camp owners on Moosehead watch me salvaging in front of their camps, and when their curiosity gets the best of them they will hop in their boats, come out to see me and ask what I am doing. I have to point out the logs under the boat and explain the process before they ever realize what I have been doing. From shore it just looks like an odd-looking boat spinning slowly in circles.
TakePart: How many logs do you pick up at a time/can your boat handle?
Todd Morrissette: I pick up one log at a time. Once I have the log to the boat, I tie it off to the side and go get another. Depending on the size and length of the logs I can handle anything from 10 to 20 logs in any one trip. My best salvage day was two trips for a total of 29 logs in one day—which equals about 3,500 Bft. But weather and distance from my landing area are a huge factor. If working the north end of Moosehead lake, it takes me an hour to get up there and about four to five hours to get back with a load of logs on the boat. I have had days where I spent six hours getting logs, and the weather has gotten really bad. And I have had to to cut them loose again, only to have to go back the next day and pick them up again.
TakePart: What are your customer's reactions when purchasing wood flooring or furniture? Are they into it for the story?
Todd Morrissette: Most people are mainly interested because of the story, and it really doesn’t even matter what the species of wood is. They love the history of Maine logging, and the era from when it was cut. Or they love the fact that it was salvaged from the bottom of a lake. Whatever the reason, they love the story.
TakePart: How do you feel about the current Maine logging industry?
Todd Morrissette: I like the reclaimed business of underwater, industrial and urban salvage, especially as it can take pressure off our forests. But logging (at least in this neck of the woods) today is also so different than it was in the past. With ATF and FSC certifications logging today is done in a responsible manner, especially hardwood logging.
What you don’t get from conventional logging today is the quality of wood that we get from most salvaged woods. I think my feelings on logging today are a little more complex than that answer, but in short, that just about covers it.