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Business and Economy

Resurrecting the Debris of Bygone Maine Log Drives for a New Generation of Consumers

MILLINOCKET, Maine - Before there was a road system, timber cut in the North Woods of Maine was transported by river. Millions of logs were simply pitched into the cold currents of the Penobscot and other rivers and floated some 200 miles to sawmills downstream.

But not all of the logs arrived at their final destination - a portion sank to the bottom of a lake used as a temporary holding pool. They've rested there undisturbed for decades. But efforts are underway to resurrect those lost logs and grant them new life with a young generation of green consumers.

Bumping down the long, rutted trail in a four-wheel drive truck, the giant mounds looming ahead don't look like much. But there are the remains of maple, pine, oak and birch trees that were cut from the Maine woods a century or more ago.

"The wood comes out and it looks like that in those piles of mud and it looks like construction debris, kind of," says Tom Shafer, co-founder of Maine Heritage Timber. In these piles, Shafer sees tables, walls, doors, bars and floors in rustic, trendy restaurants and hotels in Boston and New York.

And a major selling point is that there isn't any wood quite like it anywhere else in the world. "This wood was all cut by hand in the woods going back as far as 1790," Shafer says. "It's really, the wood that we saw is a lot different than today's wood, because it's all virgin first growth timber. As soon as you look at it you know this is different."

Shafer has been working on a timber resurrection project for almost five years now. Started in 2010, the small company of about 15 employees has had to pioneer the process from start to finish:  The wood must be retrieved, transported, tumbled clean, and milled.

The logs are pulled up from the silty bottom of nearby Quakish Lake - the same lake where, 150 years ago, naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote notes for his journal as he paddled across. "This wood was cut before the civil war!" Shafer says.

Initially, no one thought that soggy logs could be good for anything but pulp wood or biomass. But when the area's paper industry folded in 2011, Shafer started looking at the logs with new eyes.

The lake's unique chemistry had gone to work on the wood in unusual ways. Cutting open the sunken trees revealed hidden charms - unexpected hues of pink and rust, delicate pitted textures like the shell of an almond. And then they discovered the crown jewel: a purplish wood - what Shafer calls "Blue Oak."

"Wow," I say, rubbing my hand over it.

"When we first found this, we thought we had found a new species of oak," Shafer says.

"This is the natural color of the wood that came up?" I ask.

"That's the natural color of the wood that came up. Pretty wild isn't it?"

"How much of that do you have?"

"Not enough," he says, laughing.

An estimated 1 million cords of wood lie beneath 1,000 acres of water, enough for perhaps 50 years of steady business.

"To a certain extent, yes, I think it would be more valuable because of the finite nature of the product," says Boston-based interior designer Brian Khoo. Khoo chose Quakish pine to create a warm, woody look for a new sushi restaurant in the city.

The wood has never been treated, and it's from a pristine lake near the area's drinking water supply. He says that's a big selling point for some of his clients at the moment.

"There's definitely the green movement, sustainable movement, that makes using anything recycled, reclaimed, more desirable just for the clientele," Khoo says, "especially now with doing a lot of interior design work, catering to the millennial population, and it seems to be an aesthetic that they're very familiar with and that they favor."

But Maine Heritage Timber isn't out of the woods yet. The lumber is not the cheapest option on the market. It sells for about $11 per square foot. And the company, which costs about $1 million a year to run, has yet to turn a profit.

Still, Shafer remains optimistic. He predicts that this is the year he'll break even.

"The thing that empowers me the most is when I look at this wood," he says. "I think about men toiling in the woods for a dollar a day and what a really tough life it was. So I don't know - to me, those are the things that, when I'm freaking out because we have bills to pay, it makes me know that this is a worthwhile cause. It makes me know that this is a worthwhile cause."

To get there, Shafer says he'd like to be in a position to hire 30 more workers in the next five years. The point is to preserve what, as he puts it, "made Maine," and to honor a legacy of hard work and sacrifice.