aleksandra

Aleksandra Bulczac hauling oversized timber in Germany

In 1987, I spent several months in Germany driving a Foden 4×4 tractor unit with an articulated trailer and a front mounted Loglift loader, helping to clear up some of the millions of tonnes of timber that had been damaged following the devastating windstorm in 1986. I was loading near the Nuremberg racetrack and unloading at a stacking area near Koblenz. The experience was unlike anything I had ever done as the timber was in such long lengths; the majority of the poles were up to 20m in length and quite a few m³. The longest lengths I had worked with beforehand were 7.4m sawlogs, and this was from the cabin of an old Kockums 850 forwarder. Trying to keep these long lengths under control from such a height was eye opening. I have to admit it was a challenge as the lengths could be unpredictable and it took absolute concentration, which left me exhausted at the end of my shift.

The German trucks were much better suited to the long timber as they had a three axle truck and a two or three axle self-steering trailer. When empty, the trailer was carried on the back of the truck and lifted off by the loader prior to loading. This type of setup is ideal for long lengths as the only connection between the truck and trailer is the airlines and electric cables, with the timber being the chassis. This solution is ideal for such projects as the trailer is set out for the length of timber you are carrying.

To this day, when travelling on the Autobahns in Germany, I still get a thrill when I spot one of these trucks; it’s probably because it is entirely different to what we see every day in the UK.

Aleksandra Bulczac currently drives an oversized timber logging truck in Northern Germany. Her logging journey started as a youngster, and like most forestry roads it wasn’t always a smooth ride., and like most forestry roads it wasn’t always a smooth ride.

Aleksandra waiting to load up

My adventures in logging started when I was eight years old. My dad has his own small trucking company in Poland. He ran a cargo truck for hauling dairy products from a small farm and a logging truck. His first logging truck was a Star 266 which he had saved up for; his father was a forest ranger and was a great help in getting him established. Work went well and it wasn’t long before another Star was purchased. He stopped hauling the dairy products to concentrate on the timber haulage. It wasn’t long before a 6×6 Steyr – the best truck ever – arrived, but as time went on he eventually ended up with a fleet of MAN F200s.

I grew up spending all of my free time with my dad in his logging truck; I was a proper daddy’s girl. Every trip to the forest was a new adventure for me as he worked long hours and I was so happy when I was with him. I have so many happy memories of this period in my life; I loved watching the beautiful sunrises in the forest from the passenger seat of his truck. I had no idea that this period of my life would shape my future.

Servicing the truck in Poland

After leaving school I went to university and studied accounting from which I graduated, and during my time at university I helped with the family business but was involved in accounting and logistics. After graduating I started work in a bank where I was quite successful. Although I had a very good salary by Polish standards, I felt as if I was suffocating behind the desk. In 2012 I was pregnant with my daughter and my dad was diagnosed with cancer.

The following year my dad’s condition deteriorated, but he was still working hard. I couldn’t even think about what the future would hold and decided to do everything I could to help him. While helping to run the business from the office I decided to gain the licenses needed for operating a truck hauling timber. These included the C+E certificate for crane operations and the certificate of vocational competence.

My dad, although he didn’t show it openly, was very proud of what I was doing. My mum complained about my new interests, but dad said that ‘it won’t hurt her to have them.’ Even before I received all my certificates he sent me out with the other drivers so I could get some hands on experience and see the job for what it really is as opposed to a tourist on vacation.

After my dad passed away, I ran the family business with my brother for five years. I had been spending a lot of time learning to drive the trucks in the forest and using the crane. Like everyone learning a new trade I made some mistakes, but I was constantly learning and improving. The business was growing well and we were looking for more drivers to keep up with the demand. We soon realised that finding good, honest workers was not so easy. Some of our equipment was also past its best and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it working.

Unloading at the sawmill

A big problem we faced was that the forestry haulage could be spread over a big area and the majority of the forest roads we travelled were in poor condition, so forest driving required good skills. Our staff turnover was huge and it was a real drama to keep up with it all. At this time the labour market in Poland was changing and with a shortage of drivers the ones available constantly demanded higher salaries. The reality was that we were not getting any more from our clients to compensate for this. Although we were fighting for it, it felt like we were fighting the wind.

Most weeks I was sacrificing my own salary just to pay our drivers, yet this made no difference and they still left. I felt they had no love for this hard and demanding job; just having an HGV license is not enough as you have to be a driver and be mechanically minded to work for us.

Our dad was the brains of the operation and with him gone we had to learn all the ins and outs. While dad had prepared my brother in the mechanical side of the business, for me things were different as I was out driving and loading trucks. Many of my dad’s friends became my teachers. It was a fantastic learning curve and journey of self-discovery, and I just wished that some of our drivers had shown the same dedication and love for the job. This job has turned me into a very confident person and has made me understand exactly what a company should be looking for in a good, experienced logging driver.

Unfortunately, the wide range of issues we faced eventually took their toll on my relationship with my brother; we couldn’t agree on many things and it was difficult to find a middle ground to share our responsibilities equally. We pretty much stopped communicating except for business matters, and I found that nothing was motivating me. Our competitors were dropping their prices while we were trying to increase ours. Finally, having been pretty much working around the clock as a driver, mechanic and a boss, I decided to resign. Every week I was working more hours for less money, and with the amount of stress it was creating I just didn’t enjoy it anymore.

Looking back, it was the correct decision as my relationship with my brother has improved and we still communicate regarding the business but on a different and much better level.

Parked up for the evening

n 2019 I decided to move to Germany to find work. I spoke no German and the only other language I speak is English which I learned in school, but it was of little use. I knew I had a trade that was in demand and it wasn’t long before I received an offer to drive a tipper truck for a construction company. However, it was hard work and rather dull and boring compared to hauling timber. I looked forward to getting back to a job doing what I love. One day in June last year, when I was delivering construction sand in a large town, I noticed several logging trucks parked up, so the following Saturday I drove there with my friend (who is fluent in German) to talk to them. The manager wasn’t there but one of the workers took my phone number and that evening I got a call from the boss to attend an interview. I was hired on the spot and I was so happy that I would be back doing my dream job.

Once I started, I realised there were a lot of differences to the way we worked in Poland; for example, the longest lengths we hauled in Poland were 14m and in Germany they were 21m. All the loads I carry are over dimensional and we need a special permit to haul them. In Poland the forest rangers assisted us with loading and here I usually work alone and find the harvesting sites using GPS coordinates and maps. We also carry a chainsaw as any trimming or cutting over lengths is done by me. My working week is usually about 65 hours and I am home every night. I usually drive around 500km each day.

In Poland, I did a lot of my own repairs and maintenance; here, however, I try and fix something if it happens in the forest but otherwise all the repairs and servicing is done by the company mechanics. This is a much better system as they work on a Saturday, which means I have weekends off to relax. On the downside I do miss the buzz and good fun we had in the mechanics’ workshop in the old days.

Clearing up storm damage

We have a lot of spruce trees infected with a beetle disease which we call the Kornik Plague, and this is having a bad effect on our forests. I have been working to clear up storm damaged timber, which is loaded onto rail carts to be transported further afield. In Poland I was the only woman working in oversize timber haulage, but I believe there are two other women driving here in Germany. However, I have never met them and I don’t think there will be a significant change in the future.

The guys harvesting the timber can make our job easy or very difficult. If the long lengths are well presented with the butts the right way it is straightforward, but if they are stacked the wrong way we have to turn each one and this is time consuming. Due to the long truck length when loaded, we don’t have the option to load on the way in and turn around like other trucks and therefore the timber has to be the right way round.

Back when I was first starting this job in Poland, a ranger met me to show me the place I was loading from and all the timber was stacked parallel to the road but behind a standing tree. The ranger told me that if I damaged the standing tree my career in timber haulage would be end. I was almost crying with rage that the idiotic company who had harvested the forest could have screwed up the job so badly. I did succeed eventually, but it took me a long time . Unfortunately, difficult situations like this still happen but I have learned to approach each problem with patience and understanding. I now realise that when I turn up to load wood and see that someone has made a huge error which will make my job difficult, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I sit on my loader and deal with the problem by doing my job; the more I do, the more experience I get and this helps me to make the correct decisions. This is true for operating the loader and forestry driving in difficult terrain as there have been days when I have wanted to say “f**k it all” and quit there and then, but I realise there is no one to do it for me. I take a deep breath and get on with it; this job can be a real test of your character.

View out of the mirror

This job is not for weaklings, believe me; it is one tough job. The weather is a significant factor as light rain is fine but heavy rain isn’t good – you know you have to keep going to finish the load despite being soaking wet. Snow isn’t too bad but the cold can be a bitch. I wear good waterproofs but the rain still gets through so I always have spare clothes with me just in case. Some days I finish work soaked through and covered from head to toe in mud, though this isn’t much of a problem – did I mention I really like mud?!

Another problem we face is the difficulty in estimating the weight of our loads as most weigh links, etc. are not accurate with the longer lengths. The main highways are in good repair but forest roads are sometimes neglected and need repairing, which can cause damage to the trucks. The police also know this as they target timber hauliers; it’s like a red rag to a bull as they know they will almost always find a fault with a logging truck. We also get pulled into a lot of checkpoints on the highways and this takes up time which could be better spent working.

I load a lot of different tree species; a good proportion of the spruce and fir is taken directly into the sawmills. Most mills are working around the clock so they turn over a lot of timber, and we never have to wait long to get unloaded at the mills. Other timber is loaded onto rail carts for mills further away and we load some of the more valuable species like oak into containers for shipping abroad.

I love my work and cannot think of anything better – the views I see every day are fantastic and there is no other job where I would get this. I have been in the job for over six years now and if I was to change in the future it would probably be to operate a harvester. My time off is spent hiking with my dog or offroad driving with my Jeep XL, so even my free time is pretty much spent in the forest. I don’t think I will be in forestry until I retire but I love hauling timber and want to have more of it – hopefully there is still plenty of time for serious trucking ahead of me!”

Nice straight logpoles

Aleksandra is active on Instagram and posts great photos of herself at work. If you would like to keep up with what she is doing, her Instagram account is: ja_ja_jakbanany

Forest Machine Magazine is written and edited by a forest professional with over 40 years hands on experience. We are dedicated to keeping you informed with all the latest news, views and reviews from our industry.

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