‘The best smell there is’

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FARMINGTON – Working outside in all kinds of weather while everyone else is sitting inside at a desk. Operating chain saws and heavy machinery in class. Learning a job you’ve dreamed of doing since you were a kid.

It’s a history-lecture-induced daydream for some high-schoolers.

But for the 16 kids in Dean Merrill and Ron Hodgdon’s forestry class at Foster Regional Applied Technical Center, it’s simply an average school day.

They take other, more traditional, classes. They sit inside for hours with Hodgdon and Merrill, learning about everything from CPR to differentiation of tree species.

But for most of the time – after a 9-week introduction period, that is – they’re outdoors, steeped in the smell of pine and fir and cedar, mucking about with big machines.

“The smell of fir and pine – that’s the best smell there is, right there,” Sam Webber, 18, said Tuesday on a break from cutting trees with a chain saw.

Webber, from New Vineyard, said he’s known that he wanted to be a logger since he was 10 years old. He enjoys every part of the class except the cold weather, and not because he can’t take it. “They try to keep us in(side),” he explained.

By the time they’re out of the program, Merrill said, his and Hodgdon’s students will be proficient with logging equipment, safety and skills – including best management practices and silviculture techniques. And many also will be certified logging professional apprentices, which makes them far more employable.

A few go to school and get degrees in forestry when they’re done, Merrill said. Three or four every year go straight into professional logging when they graduate, as Webber plans to.

For some, even if they don’t plan to go on to logging careers when they’re done, just being part of the class seems to make a huge difference in their lives. Being successful at something as real-world as logging has an impact, he said.

“Some kids completely turn around,” he said. “We don’t care where you’ve been. We care where you’re going.”

Being a member of the class is a big responsibility, 17-year-old Kateleen Roberts said. Working with big machines, you’ve got to be mature and pay attention to what you’re doing.

“Every year on the first day we tell them, ‘Everyone sitting here, before the year’s done, will have the opportunity to kill us. Please don’t,'” Merrill said. “We’re working with real trees, real gravity and reach machines.”

And that’s what many of the logging and forestry students like best. “I like running the big machines,” 16-year-old Matt Grover said. “And running the chain saw. We learn all kinds of stuff in this class.”

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