Reality TV Lumberjacks
How the Pelletiers Became America's Most Famous Loggers
- By: Beth Brosnan
Rudy Pelletier, co-owner of Pelletier Brothers Inc., a Millinocket timber-harvesting company, is behind the wheel of his white Chevy pickup when the bad news comes in over the CB. About a hundred miles up the Golden Road — the spectacularly rugged logging road that runs from Millinocket, past Mount Katahdin, and through the Maine North Woods to Canada — a log-hauling truck has overturned, spilling a hundred tons of freshly cut timber onto the side of the road.
Pelletier knows this setback will probably mean shutting down operations for the day, at a cost of more than fifty thousand dollars. But his immediate concern isn’t his ledger; it’s the man behind the wheel of that overturned truck. “First off, how’s the driver?” he asks. “Do we need to make a  call?”
Word comes back that driver Michel LaRochelle, while banged up, is already on his feet, examining the broken suspension that caused the crash. A relieved Pelletier dispatches his longtime crane operator, Andrew Morin, to lift the eighteen-wheeler back onto its “feet” and transfer the timber to another truck, which will complete the trip to the Daaquam mill in Canada.
Morin, who’s been up since well before dawn loading logging trucks, long ago learned to expect the unexpected. “It’s just one of those things that happens up here in the woods,” he says. “La vie bois: Sometimes she’s nice, and sometimes she’s rough. Today she’s rough.”
“The main thing,” adds Pelletier, later that night, “is no one got hurt. All in all, for a bad day, it was a good day.”
In short, it’s a pretty typical day-in-the-life of the Pelletiers, seven brothers who, together with their crews, harvest close to two hundred thousand cords of wood every year from a 1,200-square mile section of privately owned land in the Maine North Woods. It’s also one of the opening scenes of American Loggers, a
riveting new reality show that debuted on the Discovery Channel in February and quickly became one of the cable station’s highest-rated programs. The Discovery Channel has already ordered a second season, which begins filming this summer.
Like the History Channel’s popular Ice Road Trucker series, American Loggers features plenty of really big trucks — feller-bunchers! grapple skidders! delimbers! — and larger-than-life men who operate them.
But what American Loggers also does, over the course of ten episodes, is demonstrate just how complex the logging business has become, and the myriad skills it takes to run one well. When he’s not driving a double trailer, co-owner Eldon Pelletier, 54, might be reviewing a forest management plan to make sure Pelletier harvesting operations comply with the latest environmental regulations. Rudy, 53, could be reviewing that week’s payroll for his seventy-plus employees with accountant Reggie Beaulieu, or meeting with his banker to arrange for the purchase of a new piece of logging equipment. Loggers, it turns out, spend a lot of time with bankers. “To buy a setup to go cut wood today,” says Rudy, “you’re looking at over a million dollars before you even cut the first tree.”
Or they could both be trying to predict when the economy will start to improve, and with it the housing market and the demand for lumber. “Every day’s a risk in this business,” says Rudy.
There are, in fact, as many jobs as there are Pelletiers, all of them demanding and some of them dangerous. Danny, 55, and Wayne, 40, both drive logging trucks. Larry, 51, is foreman of one of the Pelletier’s two logging camps; Jason, 29, Rudy’s son, oversees the other. Gary, 50, supervises maintenance on two hundred miles of private roads and bridges the Pelletiers use in their logging operations, while Jeff, 41, is parts manager and shop foreman, charged with keeping a fleet of more than a hundred trucks in running order.
“I think that’s what makes us successful — we’ve all been at it for so long,” says Rudy. The Pelletiers were literally born into the logging business: their late father, Gerald, who grew up on a farm in Fort Kent, began hauling logs in the 1950s. He gradually built up his trucking business, Gerald Pelletier Inc., teaching his sons to drive trucks on private logging roads while they were still in their mid-teens. This was before CBs or cell phones, recalls Rudy, “so you couldn’t communicate with anybody. Of course, being fourteen or fifteen years old, I was always making mistakes. The truck’d break down, and you were on your own to figure out a way to get going again. I think a lot of times my father would probably be worried sick, because he was expecting me at a certain time and I wouldn’t show up. You really learned the trade.”
Gerald Pelletier’s strength of character, not to mention his tremendous work ethic, are like the DNA of the family business: work hard; do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get the job done; and “never give a guy a dirty job if you wouldn’t do it yourself,” says Eldon.
“The Pelletiers are a great family,” marvels Sean Gallagher, the executive producer of American Loggers, “and that’s what makes the show work.” Gallagher, who grew up in Maine and graduated from Bangor High School in 1985, is a former program-development executive with both TLC and the Discovery Channel who now runs his own production company, Half Yard Productions, in Bethesda, Maryland.
He got the idea for American Loggers while watching the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers, which follows a group of truckers driving across three hundred miles of frozen lakes to a mining outpost in northern Canada. Gallagher, who had spent time camping along the Golden Road when he was growing up, thought to himself, “This is a good show, but I know a road that’s even more dangerous. The Ice Road is flat, and the drivers never turn. The Golden Road is a hundred miles of ups and downs and turns. I can remember how scary it was as a kid, watching these logging trucks screaming by you, fully loaded.”
Gallagher sent a cameraman to Maine to meet with different logging companies and shoot some test footage. When he learned about the Pelletiers, Gallagher realized his initial wild-ride premise could be something much richer. “This is more than just a couple of guys driving fast on an icy road,” he says. “This is a family, and they’re sort of on the line all the time, trying to keep their father’s company going. If they don’t make this business work, it affects not just their family, but the region where they live. Their story speaks volumes, especially for the times we live in now.”
But if Gallagher was convinced he had the makings of a great show, the Pelletiers were not so sure. “They thought we were crazy,” Gallagher says with a laugh. “They couldn’t see it the way we do: that their work is really interesting, it’s really dangerous, and they have this great family legacy. You just get it. And I thought a lot of people in Maine and around the country would think the same thing.”
The Discovery Channel certainly got it, and hired Gallagher to make the series. The Pelletiers, understandably, wanted some time to weigh the pros and cons of having a fourteen-person film crew trailing them around for nine months. “You wonder: ‘Is this going to be good? Are we putting our occupation on the line?’ ”
recalls Rudy. “On the other hand, if they did it right and we did it right,” Rudy adds, “we thought it could be good for the whole industry. It could teach people exactly how we do this work, really try to show it the right way. That was our goal.”
Filming began in July 2008 and continued, in two-week intervals, until March. “The first few days were chaos,” Gallagher admits. “The Pelletiers and their crew show up for work at 4 a.m. and do their thing, and we had to figure out how to keep up with them” — sometimes literally. “Some of our workers would run away from the camera and hide,” says Eldon.
Nor could the Pelletiers afford to stand around while Gallagher’s team set up their cameras and lighting equipment. “It was just as much of an adjustment for them as it was for us,” Rudy says. “But we got better at it, and so did they.”
“We had to figure out where to be,” explains Gallagher. “At first, we weren’t even planning to have a crew at their Millinocket headquarters. Thank God we decided to do that, because that’s the heart and soul of the show — especially the shop, where Jeff works on the trucks. It’s like their base camp. Every situation is reflected on there.”
They also had to figure out “who to follow and where, because those are long days,” Gallagher adds. “If you commit to one driver and it turns out to be not such a good story, well, you’re still going all the way to Quebec and back.” The film crew never staged any scenes, but they did film a few reenactments, including a truck rollover, to illustrate stories the Pelletiers and their crew shared with them. (All the reenactments are clearly labeled in the finished show.)
In the end, there was no shortage of good stories and memorable characters, including crane operator Andrew Morin, whom Gallagher calls “a poet of the woods.” And then there’s driver Brian Nutting, better know as “Bonecrusher,” who sports a gallery of tattoos, a quick sense of humor, and a near-total rapport with the camera.
Today, there’s a burger named after “Bonecrusher” on the menu at Dysart’s Truck Stop in Hermon. The Millinocket Town Council passed a resolution recognizing the Pelletiers for shining a positive light on the region and the timber industry. And the Pelletiers are trying to get used to some unexpected new jobs — like signing autographs.
“It’s just nice to hear people say how good the show is,” says Rudy. “They always say they didn’t realize what really happened up in the woods. It’s good that people are learning from it.”
“Not that anything’s changed, in terms of our personalities or what we have to do every day,” adds Eldon. “If we don’t get out and do the work, there’s no show.”
- By: Beth Brosnan