Meet Chelsea’s Only Underwater Loggers
By Stephanie Regan of The News
Wakefield, Quebec — They’re underwater loggers. Sometimes they use underwater chainsaws. For Old Chelsea native Mark Cunningham and his partner Peter Bernard of Hull, underwater logging is a lucrative pursuit that takes them all over the world.
The two partners behind Indigenous Environmental Remediation (IER) specialize in salvaging sunken wood, and just about anything else they find lying on a riverbed.
The Gatineau River is rich with long-lost wood, floated downstream to sawmills and pulp and paper factories for the past 200 years. Upriver from the Chelsea Dam in Chelsea, Quebec, the old logs sit thirty meters or ninety feet down. Lying at the top are the most recently sunk, smaller logs dating from the 1950s to 1991, from the pulp and paper industry. Under those lie a mix of pulpwood logs and pine from the 1930s and 40s. At the very bottom are the treasure: old growth pine logs, up to 19 meters long and a meter-and-a-half in width.
Mark Cunningham says it’s not unusual to find stands of trees under several meters of water. In Manitoulin Bay, the deep side of the Paugan Dam on the Gatineau River at Low, Quebec, a forest of yellow birch stands, still rooted, branches stretching up eerily toward the sky. One of the IER divers discovered it by surprise, while exploring the bottom of the bay. “We could hear a lot of swearing over the communications system,” Cunningham explained. “I called down to say what’s wrong? His lines were getting caught in the branches of these ancient yellow birch trees.” Not considered valuable wood in the 1930s when the Paugan Dam flooding created Manitoulin Bay, the trees were left in place. Cunningham and his team may eventually harvest the wood.
Beautiful Manitoulin Bay, which sits above the Gatineau River’s Paugan Dam, is hiding an underwater forest of yellow birch.
Logs are located by sonar, or by sending SCUBA divers down to survey. Cut logs are salvaged by crane; uncut trees that have been flooded for hydroelectric dams are cut using hydraulic underwater chainsaws.
Once harvested, the logs are cut into lumber and stacked for drying. The wood is fully usable, and is developing a strong demand among specialty furniture builders and flooring manufacturers. The wood dries a slightly duller colour than new timber. When left to weather, it quickly takes on a gray hue, similar to aged barn wood.
One thing it doesn’t do is warp or shrink. As water leaches into the wood, tree sap is displaced.. Once it’s dry, it stays as is.
Cunningham began as a property appraiser in the banking industry. Often inspecting building sites, construction waste piqued his interest. “It became an obsession,” he says. “All that stuff was being thrown away.”
Dams catch all the debris, Cunningham explains, acting like a filter for the river. Finding ways to dispose of construction waste evolved into a contact to clean up the sunken debris around the Arnprior Hydro Electric Dam. One of the old timers on the crew pointed out that the logs they were dragging up — white pine and five meters long — were perfectly good.
Cunningham says the next project for IER is to open a sawmill. With the help of la Société générale de financement du Québec (a provincial body now called Investment Quebec) the funding is in place. The company is looking at locations along the Gatineau River to set up their mill.
Underwater logging and IER’s work along the Gatineau has attracted the interest of academics, too. The Archeology Department of Laval University is very interested in the log-ends, called “cookies.” Cookies were stamped, not unlike branding cattle, and were used to identify what logging company owned the wood. The stamps let researchers figure out where and when the logs were felled. Researchers are especially interested in old growth wood. Growth rings are examined to glean information on climate and growth conditions.
Salvaging from the river means adhering to environmental laws and being aware of the effects on ecosystems. Stirring up Mercury is a risk. A by-product of decomposing bark that has fallen away from the logs and piled up over the years, Mercury sits in the sediment at the bottom of the river. As long as it’s left undisturbed, the highly toxic heavy metal stays put. If it’s stirred up, however, it will disperse into the water and into the food chain.
Last summer a pair of biologists from the University of Ottawa worked closely with Cunningham and Bernard to study and protect fragile ecosystems, and were able to advise them where not to log.
Cunningham and Bernard have attracted global attention for their salvage work. They recently struck a deal to harvest mahogany out of the rivers of Belize, where, says Cunningham, the rivers are so choked with massive and increasingly rare red mahogany logs they’ve become a navigational hazard. Bernard recently returned from Asia, where he struck a deal for IER to clear flooded forests from around hydroelectric dams in China, Thailand and Laos. The Discovery Channel has approached them to ask to film IER working on-site in Asia.
Cunningham, 47, divorced and a father of two, seems just to enjoy finding neat stuff. “There’s a 2000-foot boom chain down there,” he says, pointing out across the river near the Chelsea Dam. “I want to bring it up.” no particular reason why, he says. “Just because it’s there.”