Splashing for Dollars
Deadhead logging is an expensive business to get into, and it’s risky — both financially and physically.
There’s gold in the pitch-black waters of Northwest Florida. It’s in the form of long-forgotten timber — “deadhead” logs — lost and submerged for decades, maybe even a century.
These ancient logs can fetch a pretty penny for the enterprising entrepreneur. It’s an addicting search, but collecting them is like stepping back in time.
“I’m finishing what another logger started maybe 100 years ago. I love the history behind it,” said logger Travis French, who lives in Caryville, just west of Bonifay on the Choctawhatchee River. French worked the river for logs for 10 years as a member of another crew, but went into business himself three years ago.
Deadhead logging is an expensive business to get into, and it’s risky — both financially and physically. French pays $6,000 a year for all the necessary permits. But if you like the great outdoors, digging around underwater, and possibly tangling with snakes, alligators and even bull sharks, this is the gig for you.
Some loggers, like Coleman Mackie of Tallahassee, have only been in the business for a few short years, but are tantalized all the same by the promise of finding that one perfect log. Mackie’s North Florida Native Woods is one of several companies that searches the rivers of the Forgotten Coast and North Florida for old-growth pine and cypress, recovers them from the depths and then sells them.
The average price for cypress is $2 per board foot, and the average price for yellow pine is $3, but that can vary depending on how good the log is and how tight the wood grain is.
What makes these logs so precious and marketable? They’re sturdy and desirable. The lumber’s fine, tight grain is highly valued for its beauty and the ancient cypress logs are especially resistant to insects and rot.
“This is old-growth timber. That’s what makes it so unique,” Mackie said. “You’ll never see anything like it again. It grew up in the virgin forests of Florida. The tightness of the grain and the diameter of the heartwood is the characteristic that makes it an upper echelon material, and it’s a finite resource. Every time you take a log out, there is never another one going in.”
It’s unknown just how finite a resource these logs are.
“There’s no way of knowing how much is left,” said French. “The river bottoms change season to season. You have to keep checking the same spot over and over because the river is constantly moving and changing. But one day they’ll all be gone. And they’re going to become more valuable as demand goes up while supply goes down.”
Determining the cost of an “average” tree depends on the market. When asked how the cost of deadhead, or “sinker,” lumber compares to “normal” lumber, Luke Taunton of Taunton Sawmill in Wewahitchka said, “I’ve sold it anywhere from $1.50 (a board foot) to $5 for custom beams.”
French has sold some deadhead lumber for $8 a board foot, which in the timber business is a square section 12 inches by 12 inches and an inch thick. A board that’s one-inch thick, 12 inches wide and 8 feet long can fetch $64.
But they don’t all sell for that much, he said, explaining, “It depends on the cypress. It has various colors: gold, black, red. The minerals in the water give the wood a patina. No two are the same.”
Only a handful of entrepreneurs in North Florida are permitted by the state to remove these “deadhead” logs and sell them, according to Sara Merritt, environmental specialist at the Department of Environmental Protection and supervisor of the state’s deadhead logging program.
“Yes, this activity can get expensive and has become rather risky in such a depressed market. But since I have been in charge of the program for the past 8 years there are really only a handful of reasons people seem to get involved,” Merritt said. “I believe the main reason for their choice of this career is that it is ‘in their blood’ so to speak. Many of these loggers have historical ties to logging and are just following in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers.”
Florida law says that anything found in state waters is considered state property, so authorization for deadhead logging activities is given through state permits and use agreements. Here’s where it gets expensive: The required dredge and fill permit application fee costs between $710 and $830, and the Use Agreement annual fee is $5,500. Plus, each logger is required to have liability insurance while their Use Agreement is valid. During the application process, the applicant needs to provide GPS points for the proposed logging location, photos of the landing site and recovery vessels, landing authorization and an archeological survey if required. Plus, a permit holder is required to attend a course and receive a Master Deadhead Logger certificate.
“It’s almost like hunting for gold,” said Mackie, who dives for logs on the Forgotten Coast’s Crooked River, Carrabelle River and Ochlockonee River. “You can find hundreds of trees and they’ll be average pines, but then you’ll find one that’s all curly and you pay yourself back and more.”
It can definitely be a feast or famine business.
“Sometimes you’re doing really well because you’re finding people to buy stuff, but it’s hard right now because people aren’t doing a lot,” he said. “But we’re happy to be doing this, because the wood is absolutely beautiful and I have confidence the product itself will pay off in time because of the history and rarity of it.”
French, on the other hand, doesn’t do it for the money so much as the thrill of finding another historical object hidden away in the river. Some logs he’s found have hand-hewn pegs driven into them, proof that they were hooked together in a massive log raft. Those are logs he won’t sell because of their historical meaning.
“You think about a man with a draw knife and an axe, and that’s all he had to work with. They were handling logs that we couldn’t move today with the equipment we have,” he said. “But somehow they moved enormous logs across the swamp, down the river and sent them to the mill.”
French said that back in the day, loggers would actually brand their logs, like cattlemen branding livestock. Once a tree was felled they’d take a hammer and stamp their particular mark into the end of the log. One logging company in particular, the McCaskill Timber Company of Walton County, had 20 different logging crews working their acreage and different brands were used to identify whose logs were whose.
“I’ve got a pretty good collection of them,” said French. When he finds a log that has a stamp, he slices off that end and preserves it. There are all kinds of symbols and emblems. Sometimes a logger would just leave his initials.
“It makes you wonder who that feller was who chopped his initials in that log,” he said.
Long leaf pine and cypress forests covered more than 90 million acres of the Southeast and rivaled cotton as a product in the 18th and 19th centuries. But much of the forests were logged extensively from the late 1800s on up through the early 20th century, and it was a common sight to see rafts of logs floating along the rivers of the Florida Panhandle. Rivers were the transportation corridors of choice back then because roads in this region were poor or non-existent. If a river wasn’t handy, the loggers would make their own waterways in the form of canals. A tough breed of loggers carefully guided the logs downriver to sawmills or places where they could be pulled out and put on railroad cars for shipment to other locations.
Sometimes, if a log hadn’t been left to dry out enough or had too much sap in it, it would sink into the depths. The DEP’s Office of Submerged Lands and Environmental Resources says that about 10 percent of logs were lost before they could reach their destination.
These submerged logs are called “deadheads,” and the practice of retrieving these old logs is called “deadhead logging.”
Despite the losses from sinkage, the logging industry flourished and loggers became very efficient as technology improved harvesting. Mackie says that in the 1830s, mills were producing 70,000 board feet a week. But as technology improved and the demand for lumber increased, native longleaf pine forests and stately cypress swamps started to disappear. By the late 1800s, mills were producing 140,000 board feet a day.
“Like anything else, we became very efficient at harvesting, and by 1930 it was all over. We had totally demolished (the forests) from South Carolina to Texas,” Mackie said. Today, less than 0.01 percent of the old-growth long leaf pine forests exit. What remains of those lost ancient pine and cypress logs are at the bottom of rivers throughout the Southeast.
According to the Florida DEP, there’s no telling how long deadhead loggers will be pulling old timber from the river bottoms because there’s no way of knowing just how many deadhead logs there are. Since the program began in 1999, a total of 20,884 logs have been reported as removed from waters of the state. The majority of those logs have been yellow pine and cypress.
Deadhead logging has had an on-again, off-again history in Florida. Before 1974, the state authorized these kinds of logging activities through an agreement, lease and permit. But in 1974, a moratorium was placed on deadhead logging in Florida. In late 1998, the practice was once again permitted, but a year later was suspended again. In 2000, deadhead logging regulations were reconsidered and the state started to issue new permits.
In Northwest Florida, deadhead logging permits have been issued for the Crooked River, Carrabelle River, New River, Apalachicola River, Ochlockonee River, Chipola River and Dead Lakes, Brothers River, Black Creek, Holmes Creek, Choctawhatchee River, Alaqua Creek, Bayou Chico, Yellow River, Blackwater River, Escambia River and Perdido River.
Deadhead logging involves working underwater with heavy equipment to lift cypress logs that can be as much as four or five feet wide, and it can be fraught with dangers.
“Although there are lots of hazards with this type of work, from equipment malfunction to animal encounters, my loggers have never told me any stories of detriment. I have heard of encounters with a bull shark in the Suwannee River, and of course swimming up on top of a submerged alligator,” Merritt said. “I have had one logger tell me about getting bit by a water moccasin then having to rush off the river to get help, and another of being chased out of underwater logjams by resident beavers. But considering the amount of time and effort put into this type of activity, those stories seem like a small number considering the possibilities that could exist.”
Mackie said just finding the logs takes a lot of research before the first dive can be made. It involves going over old maps, records and studying the lay of the land for clues that a particular area was a high-density logging site.
“You start looking where the area of occupation was,” he said. “And then it’s just work. Swimming and bumping into them. A lot of luck is involved. You can swim over one area and not see it, and then with the shifting sands and tide swim back over it and run across a monster. But it is blacker than standing in a closet with the light off.”
French said he does most of the diving in his crew, and likens it to crawling rather than swimming. The current on the Choctawhatchee is too strong to fight, he said, and getting trapped by fallen tree limbs and other debris is a real possibility.
“You’ve got to have self-control in 20 feet of water and not panic,” he said. “The water is so swift you have to stay on the bottom, and be careful about not getting hung up underwater. It’s not like diving in open water. You have to crawl along the bottom … and hope you don’t feel something that moves.”