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Homer resident carves out a niche with Southeast logs

Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

The logging industry in Southeast Alaska has been on the decline for years. Timber sales are shrinking, and there are very few jobs to be had at the lone commercial sawmill still in operation, but logs from the Tongass are being milled elsewhere in Alaska. One Homer resident is trying to carve out his spot in the logging industry with what the tide brings.

“One of my favorite things about cutting cedar, the wonderful smell of cedar,” Homer resident Scott Dickerson said as he pulled the rain cover off his sawmill on a clear fall day.

The logs Dickerson is after do not grow anywhere close to home. Trees that have died or blown over into Southeast waters drift for hundreds of miles, until they wash up on remote shores around the Kenai Peninsula and finally land in Dickerson’s mill.

His interest in Southeast timber was born out of another passion, photographing surfing. He’s the founder of Surf Alaska, a surfing outfitter and guiding operation in Homer, and in the search for waves, Dickerson brings customers to those remote beaches on his boat, which are littered with driftwood.

When he has an extra pair of hands or two, Dickerson scours the beach for red and yellow cedar logs.

“When I had the opportunity to gather a few logs, I would just cut into them a tiny bit with the hatchet and look at the grain and smell them,” Dickerson explained. “They all look kind of similar on the outside with a washed gray look, but you can still see the grain a little bit, and once you break beneath that surface, you can really get a smell, which has been the most telling for me.”

At Dickerson’s shop, he’s cutting into a small piece leftover from a red cedar log. Small scraps fall to the ground, which are normally used for firewood or are just thrown away at a commercial sawmill, but to Dickerson, every piece is precious.

“To me these are the most precious parts of it and they require the most imagination to use,” he said. “That’s what is going to make them so precious is when they do find their place, they’re going to be the only piece of wood that could have done what they did.”

So far, he’s refinished the deck on his boat with red cedar boards and has made some some lawn furniture. He’s even made thin branded bookmarks, but Dickerson notes the idea of driftwood logging as a viable business is still a working concept.

Credit Aaron Bolton, KBBI News
Dickerson shows off a lawn chair made out of cedar driftwood from Southeast Alaska.

“I’ve just been toying around with it really and giving a lot of it away honestly to people that are wood workers, that know better what to do with this wood than I do,” Dickerson said.

The boards he’s milled have gone into custom saunas and other work his friends have dreamt up, but Dickerson said he would like to collaborate with someone to build custom furniture and home décor items that don’t take a lot of wood to build.

Dickerson adds if his driftwood logging business ever becomes a reality, customers would be buying more than beautiful furniture. He said they would also be buying a story.  

“You wouldn’t just be buying a cedar deck chair or coffee table. You’d be buying a coffee table that came from this beach that was milled by these people, and it was a lot of love and passion that went into it,” Dickerson said.

As less old growth timber becomes available in Southeast, small mills are finding ways to adapt. Much like Dickerson, they’re specializing in salvaged wood. It adds value to a product that would otherwise rot.

As far as Dickerson’s driftwood business, there are still plenty of kinks he needs to work out. Dragging Tongass timber out of thick logjams by hand can be a tremendous amount of work, and just getting to those remote beaches can also be very expensive.  

But, Dickerson said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

KBBI: “Has this wood made you want to move to Southeast?”

Dickerson: “When I travel and see what a real forest looks like compared to the forests around Homer, I definitely think maybe I live in the wrong place, but that’s what has also motivated me to go looking on the beaches for logs, which I really enjoy. So, I guess it’s a mixed blessing. I don’t really want to be in the sawmill lumberyard business. I’m more into the story of this whole thing.”

Dickerson said Homer is just as good a place as any to carve out that storytelling niche.

Aaron Bolton has moved on to a new position in Montana; he is no longer KBBI News Director. KBBI is currently seeking a News Director, and Kathleen Gustafson is filling in for the time being.