When the "Big One" rumbles by on the Golden Road, other motorists usually just pull over and gawk. Half the length of a football field when fitted with a triple-trailer rig, this is the new King Kong of logging trucks.
From the driver's seat 10 feet above the road, other vehicles look like toys, be they dump trucks hauling asphalt, converted school buses filled with white-water rafters or cars with motorboats and campers in tow.
As for the occasional Honda or Renault, "We call them roller skates," said Neil Chadbourne, who has been driving the gleaming new logging truck since its debut in northern Maine last summer.
Like supertankers transporting oil at sea, these behemoths of the forest haul tree-length logs from woods to mill over a 3,000-mile network of private roads built and operated by the Great Northern Paper Co.
The crown jewel of that network is the Golden Road, a 97-mile wilderness highway that runs from the giant mill at Millinocket west to St. Zacharie, Quebec, at the Canadian border. The first 32 miles--from the mill to just above Ripogenus Dam--are paved; the rest, like most of the company's other roads, are stone and gravel.
The Golden Road, the most frequently used of the Great Northern roads, supplanted the West Branch of the Penobscot River as the main thoroughfare for pulpwood cut on more than half of the company's 2.1 million acres of forest in Maine.
As a side effect, the new roads have opened thousands of square miles of the largest wilderness area in the Northeast to an ever-growing number of hunters, fishermen, canoeists, campers and sightseers.
Rivers had been the cheapest way to transport saw logs and pulpwood since the mythical Paul Bunyan logged the Maine woods. But stringent environmental laws put an end to the great river drives a decade ago. By 1972, having recognized that it was only a matter of time before river transport was outlawed, Great Northern had already built the Golden Road.
More New Roads Built
Even now, Great Northern builds 100 miles of new roads each year and at the same time abandons roughly the same amount of road that is no longer needed. Without the Golden Road and its spur routes, the Big One and dozens of similar but smaller rigs would have no place to roam. Far too big for legal passage on public roads, the tractors must be put on flatbeds and issued special permits before they can be moved on public highways.
The Big One is pulled by a 525-horsepower engine that can haul up to 450,000 pounds. Although it can pull three trailers, in its more common double-trailer configuration the truck has 11 axles and 42 wheels.
But it is no truck to take on a Sunday drive. Because it gets only 1 1/2 miles to a gallon of fuel, it has a 300-gallon tank.
"We can burn it in one day, no problem," said Harold Bouchard, an independent contractor who is gambling that his new rig--designed to his own specifications--will haul enough wood to justify its $300,000 price tag.
The silver-haired Bouchard recalls how he met for three days in Seattle with engineers from the Kenworth truck, Clark components and Cummins engine firms to come up with the right design. It features a new type of differential, known as a planetary, and other rear-end components that enhance the engine's braking power on the critical downhill runs while maximizing pulling power on the upgrades.
"A 3% grade looks like a mountain when you start pulling 350,000 pounds," Bouchard said.
He said his dark red truck is the biggest and most powerful in the Maine woods, and in fact may be unequaled anywhere in pulling power and size. It reaches a maximum speed of 38 m.p.h.--far too slow for the interstate but perfectly adequate along the Golden Road, where the speed limit is 45 m.p.h.
Although Great Northern has seldom restricted access to its highways, this year it barred the public from weekday use of the 10 miles of the Golden Road nearest the mill. The company said this is a safety precaution to avoid unnecessary interference with the giant cranes that unload logging trucks at the "piledown"--the place where logs are stacked 20 feet high for three miles along the roadsides.
Trucks Get Right of Way
Logging contractors boast that no one has been seriously injured in an accident involving any of their trucks, although a Great Northern official was killed on the Golden Road when he swerved his car to avoid a moose. Logging trucks have the right of way, a rule that few if any motorists seem eager to dispute.
Even so, many veteran drivers can recall instances of thoughtless tourists leaving their cars parked in the middle of the road. "They'll stop on curves with the door wide open, watching moose or taking pictures," Chadbourne said.
Great Northern said the annual growth in recreational use of its lands has risen from 7% or 8% to 20% in the last year. A series of North Woods checkpoints keep tabs on the flow of visitors.
Gets Early Start
For Chadbourne, a typical day can begin as early as 1 a.m. when he climbs aboard his big truck at the H. O. Bouchard Inc. garage and drives it empty to the logging operation at Comstock Mountain, 80 miles to the west. A crane operator loads the double-trailer rig with 55 cords of spruce and fir logs, and by daybreak Chadbourne is off and rolling on the four-hour return trip.
From his air-conditioned cab, Chadbourne, 31, operates his rig with quiet assurance, drawing on his seven years' experience as he shifts smoothly through the 15 forward gears on hills and curves, keeps tabs on a multitude of gauges and studies the road ahead for oncoming traffic, ever mindful of the huge payload directly behind him.
Names like Powerhouse Hill and Dangerous Curve mark some of the trickier sections of the Golden. Some landmarks, like the Pumpkin Patch, earned their names as the result of trucker accidents. "The guy who left the road, his handle was 'Pumpkin,' " Chadbourne recalled.