The Salt Series: Tina Pelletier, the Lumberjack Cook in the North Maine Woods

By Natalie Rose
February 24, 2014

These pieces were produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine

Too many late nights and early mornings. Too many cigarettes and red beers. Tina can see them in her puffy eyes when she glances in the mirror, and in the fine, lacy wrinkles that seem to multiply with each long day.
 
Today, she washes her face and quickly dresses. Larry is still snoring, warm in his bed. Cheyenne, their jet-black German retriever, lies on the couch, watching Tina as she stuffs Larry’s uniforms into a black garbage bag then tosses the bag by the door to be washed at home. Tina can see the cold, frigid air creeping through the cracks of the doorway. She hesitates, not yet ready to brave the cold. She can see the camp is crystallized in frost; the weather gauge hovers at 20 degrees.
 
Cheyenne jumps off the couch as Tina steels herself then opens the door, and the pair cut through the tar-pit dark and green glow cast by cabin lights, making the short walk to the cookroom.
 
Tina Pelletier is the cook at Telos, a logging camp near Chamberlain Lake in the North Maine Woods. Today is her last day at camp before she heads home for the weekend. She is all business with her guys, the loggers, and breakfast for the few still at camp is slapdash. Heels of IGA bread, a fried egg, maybe a stale muffin, washed down with the last of the piping hot coffee. This morning, once the last of the stragglers exit her kitchen, she’ll run through her mental checklist of final tasks: wash the dishes, crack the window by the freezer, make sure all the knobs on the stove are in the ‘off’ position, bag up the garbage, sweep the floor.
 
Mid-mop stroke, Tina stills as the lights flicker out in the cookroom. The generator has been shut off, cutting power to the whole camp. Once its drone is gone, it leaves nothing in its void but wind rustling through the firs outside and the natural morning light from the rising sun streaming through the windows. It is an unspoken signal: that Larry is ready to go.
 
Mopping finished hastily, she clocks out quickly. Halfway out the cookroom door she calls to Cheyenne: “Come on, baby girl. We’re going home today.”
 
*
 
52-year-old Tina had just been laid off from her job as a dental scheduler when her husband, Larry, insisted she come work in the woods. Debbie, the regular cook, had fallen from a ladder and broken her pelvis. Since Larry is the foreman at Telos, it’s his job to make sure day-to-day operations like eating happen without incident. As Larry’s wife, Tina was the obvious choice as a replacement. She’d been feeding him for the past 30 years, why not feed the other guys, too?
 
Logging camps like Telos used to be common in Maine during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Maine lumber was used for everything from houses to railroads to ships. Trees seemed inexhaustible, but the best raw product was found deep in the woods, far away from towns and cities. Trekking daily to these sites was impossible, but the pay was good, so lumberjacks lived in the woods. This presented problems. Where would they sleep to take refuge from winter? They lived in camps, where large, weatherproof tents and eventually log cabins were built. How and what would they eat? Camps enlisted cooks, who fed lumberjacks three squares a day, whipping up staples like biscuits and boiled beans as well as more luxurious treats like fried eggs and bacon. But by the twilight of the twentieth century, demand for lumber plummeted. Composite wood was developed. Green-conscious consumers looked for more sustainable materials. “Recycled” became a buzzword. The industry dwindled, and camps closed. Today, Telos is an anomaly – one of the last camps that remain.
 
For weeks, Tina had been looking for work without success, collecting unemployment. Still, she was hesitant to start at Telos. Camp life is tough. The guys now sleep in triple wide trailers, ten men to each one. Larry has a private cabin, so Tina could sleep there. But other modern-day amenities are iffy at best. A loud generator powers the whole camp, and if it goes out, lights, heat, refrigerators and anything else needing electricity go with it. Cell phone reception, even with the signal booster, is spotty at best. And you can forget about a reliable Internet connection. The nearest grocery store is two hours away. And Tina would be the lone woman in camp. So there was that.
 
Then there was this – Tina is not a professional cook. She didn’t go to cooking school. She hasn’t worked in restaurants for years. But she worried if she didn’t go, Larry wouldn’t be able to find a replacement in time and the loggers would have to “bach it”, meaning they’d be left to fend for themselves in the kitchen. No one wants this, least of all the loggers, who come back to camp frozen, sodden and brain dead after working 14-hour days cutting wood. Facing a stove after all that is as desirable as lying down in the mud to fix a laid up rig in a downpour. It’s easier to have a cook, everyone agrees. Everyone, except Tina.
 
*
 
Monday comes too soon for Tina. She rises early to make Larry breakfast. He heads up before her, making the two-hour drive northwest to Telos from their home in Millinocket so he can kick on the generator before anyone arrives. He takes Cheyenne for company. With Larry gone, Tina gets ready. She throws on a long sleeve Harley Davidson t-shirt and jeans; the clothes hang loosely from her small frame. She has dropped 25 pounds in her time at Telos, partly because she is running around camp all day, and partly because she doesn’t have time to eat. At night, she might sit down to a tepid plate of something while Larry eats. It’s more likely that she won’t. She subsists off cigarettes, diet cranberry ginger ale, a red beer (Bud Light and V8) or two in the evenings and slices of deli ham. She often shares it with Cheyenne.
 
Tina, petite yet sturdy with shoulder length blond hair rippling past her cheeks, throws her overnight bag in her truck and heads to the IGA, where she proceeds to drop over 1300 bucks on groceries. She parks in her special spot right outside the store and whistles to the staff that she’s arrived. A clerk with graying blond hair rushes out to greet her. He collects the empty plastic crates from her truck bed and whisks them inside. They’ll be stocked up with Tina’s pre-ordered items. She enters the grocery store staring down at her list, a white sheet of paper with five perfectly spaced columns written in Tina’s fancy cursive script. Fruits / Veggies. Dairy. Meat / Cheese. Dry. Misc. She pummels through the aisles, piling up small mountains into creaking carts and depositing full ones at her personal checkout lane. Empty ones wait. The clerks are anxious to please her. She is anxious to get on the road.
 
She knows everyone by name – the butcher, the guy who stocks the dairy section, the mousey woman replacing brown, squished vegetables with fresh ones, and every other employee and customer in the IGA on this gray Monday morning. At checkout, a membership and credit card is swiped, and the clerk prints a receipt measuring his wingspan. Tina takes it in her hands –polish free nails, scraggly cuticles, chapped skin– and folds it once, twice, five times until it’s small enough to fit into the pocket of her jeans.
 
Outside, the clerk meticulously arranges the crates in the truck bed, making sure they all fit snuggly for the ride. The cases are weighty, and Tina jokes that Larry is chopped up inside the cooler. Tina knows every minute she jabbers on she’s that much closer to delaying dinner and being bitched at by a horde of burly men with bear-like hunger. As quick as she pulled in, she’s out, on the Golden Road, headed away from Millinocket, toward Telos.
 
*
 
Tina Pelletier grew up Tina Daigle in the town of Daigle, three hours north of Millinocket. The town, named for her great great great grandfather, Vital Daigle, the original Acadian settler, lies about eight miles outside of Fort Kent, Maine. Potato Country. In the Daigle family, digging potatoes wasn’t a choice. It was life. So Tina and her six siblings started when they were young, around five or six. They went into the fields with their mother, kneeled on the cold ground and dug their hands into the chicory dirt, hunting for tubers. They tried to make it fun, competing with one another to see who could haul in the heaviest baskets.
 
They were on their knees for hours, but Tina says they felt no pain. Their mother took care to sew patches into the lining of her children’s jeans, using foam or bits of soft material to pad their knees. Because she wanted to protect their young joints. Because she didn’t want them to catch cold from the icy soil. Because she loved them.
 
Both her parents needed to work (Tina’s father was a prop-plane pilot), so when one of the other Daigle children stayed home sick, young Tina cooked for them. She learned watching her mother in the kitchen, mimicking her moves with knife and ladle and copying her use of spice and herb, until she could hold her own.
 
Throughout childhood, the Daigle children played with another big family who lived close by, the Pelletiers, when the Pelletier boys weren’t busy helping their dad. Whenever Gerald thought one of his boys was ready (sometimes as young as 14) he put them behind the wheel of a truck shuttling wood to mills in Maine and Canada. Instead of joining the family business right after high school like his brothers did, Larry Pelletier enlisted with the 82nd Airborne and was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Tina took a job waitressing at a private club in Fort Kent, and later at a nursing home. During his time away, he sent letters to Tina, hoping she would get the hint – he liked her. She didn’t. When Larry left the army three years later, he went back to work for his dad at Pelletier’s main office in Millinocket. But he would come home to Daigle on weekends, and Tina remembers starting to feel flutters in her stomach at the thought of seeing him. In 1982, they were married.
 
When they were newlyweds, Larry would tease her, “Bet you can’t make this like my mother…” Lena Pelletier, Larry’s mother, is an outstanding cook, specializing in meat and potatoes. Comfort foods. Crocks of things meant to warm freezing hands and fill empty bellies. So Tina set about learning Lena’s pot roast and lasagna, her casseroles and cakes, to prove Larry wrong. Most of the dishes she now serves at Telos are Lena’s.
 
*
 
On the road, Tina drives straight down the center of a dusty dirt lane, swerving from side to side. While it may not look it, Tina is in complete control. She’s avoiding obstacles – potholes the size of hubcaps or jagged rocks – that could cripple her pickup. This is not the terrain for a flat. Her seatbelt hangs by her left shoulder. Unbuckled, she can bail much easier if something happens, like a moose coming through her windshield.
 
Tina has spent years learning the laws of the road that leads to Telos. She’s traveled it many times, but since she’s been coming to Telos weekly, she’s memorized it. Still, she’s not cocky. Mack trucks, giant metal crocodiles pulling lengthy wooden tails, frequent the road. When they move slow, they are menacing and unpredictable. When they move fast, they are terrifying and unpredictable. They carry raw, unprocessed lumber – sometimes over 200,000 pounds worth – and when they get going, they can’t stop short for anything. One wrong maneuver, the driver can’t wrangle the rig, the cab turns over, cargo weighing more than a Boeing 747 spills uncontrolled into the dusty lane and boom – someone’s dead. Then who’d get dinner on the table?
 
Dust whips up in violent, swirling clouds as her tires grip at the dry dirt and gravel and Telos comes into view. Telos, where she’ll spend another four nights. This marks her eighth week. Her cargo rattles as she drives through the gate – 30 pounds of stew beef, 30 USDA steaks, 10 pounds of sliced deli meat, 8 loaves of bread, 2 packages of English muffins, a flat of biscuits, 6 cartons of eggs, 25 pounds of fruits and vegetables, 4 boxes of store-brand strawberry cupcake mix with matching pink frosting and 72 cans of beer – Bud and Bud Light. She is carrying enough to feed a lumberjack. Twenty-five lumberjacks, actually. When she makes the return trip on Friday, it will all have been devoured, and Tina will return with empty crates.
 
She parks, hoping Larry is inside to help her unload. A spray of fall colors hangs like banners in the woods surrounding Telos today, and the air is crisp but not biting. The camp, the size of about two city blocks, consists of the cookroom, three one-person cabins, an office, three trailers for the guys, a mechanic shop and a garage. It’s owned by Gerald Pelletier, Inc., the company Larry’s father incorporated in 1976. Pelletier, Inc. is arguably the most successful logging outfit in Maine. Loggers dispatched from Telos or Pelletier’s two other camps harvest fir, spruce, cedar and hemlock, among other quality lumber in the North Maine Woods. The timber is still used for wood flooring and construction, as well as raw material for high heat pellets for warming houses in winter.
 
The company, now owned by Larry and six of his brothers, also looks for fresh if slightly unorthodox ways to bring in cash. Like opening the Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant, now up for sale with a 1.6 million dollar price tag, or becoming the subject of a popular reality television show, American Loggers, which ran for three seasons on The Discovery Channel. The show followed Tina and Larry along with a number of other Pelletier family members through their daily lives as modern lumbermen, adding a flare of over-dramatization to daily activities, a signature of American reality television. But Tina and Larry never got used to being filmed 24/7, waking up and going to bed with camera crews in their faces. Plus, a logging life is dangerous enough without dramatization.
 
*
 
Tina flicks on the master switch and bathes the cookroom in fluorescent light. The long room is divided in half by an island. One side for lumbermen, the other for Tina. On the lumbermen side, there is a serving station and five long, wooden picnic tables with fold up benches. A corkboard pinned with necessary announcements – Worker’s Comp and Sexual Harassment Policy – is hung next to a plaque of a recently passed camp statesman, smiling down on the room. An old box television blares the local news. The camp’s CB and two-way radios sit to its right, crackling. The radios – one specifically for Pelletier, and the other catching any signals within a mile radius – alert Telos when things go wrong out in the field. This side is empty now. Tina mutters about the amount of mud and dust already on the floor, deposited by careless work boots with clueless owners.
 
Tina’s side of the cookroom is too big for one. The kitchen looks more suited to having a team moving comfortably back and forth. Camps past had a cook and at least one assistant, the cookee, sometimes more. Tina’s kitchen companions, Cheyenne and Eddie, a yellow lab who belongs to Larry’s right hand man, are already waiting for her. Tina is happy to see them, and they her. She bends over to pet them, promising slices of lunch meat, pork chops and whatever else she might be tossing from the fridge to make way for her new purchases.
 
Tina slides open the cargo door to find her parked truck. Larry’s out at a jobsite, she guesses, and no one else is around, so she lifts one, two, ten crates out of the truck and pulls them inside to be unpacked. She jogs back and forth for an hour, tossing items here and there. Running the marathon, she calls it. There’s no lack of space. She has three refrigerators plus a walk in, a freestanding freezer, two ceiling-high utility shelves and unlimited cabinet space to store her purchases. She looks at the clock. 11:38 in the morning. She has time for a cigarette before she starts dinner. Puffing her Marlboro Light on the loading dock, she closes her eyes and listens to the drone of the generator, the heart of Telos, pumping power to the whole camp. This is the first moment she’s stood still since waking.
 
Larry wants to keep Tina at camp. He wants to close down their house in Millinocket so the couple can live full time at Telos for the winter. Mud season starts in April, when the snow melts and turns most of the woods into a mucky pit of quicksand that sucks up skimmers, processors and de-limbers like Tonka Trucks. Almost all Pelletier lumbermen are laid off until the ground hardens again, when harvesting and hauling can resume. The regular cook should be ready to work after that. Until then, Larry wants Tina to fill in, and won’t be swayed by Tina’s protests. It’s not so much an idea the couple discusses, but a plan Larry spouts off to some of the guys while drinking his midday coffee in the cookroom, or after a few whiskey and Pepsis.
 
*
 
Tina wishes it were steak night. If it were steak night, Larry would don a chef’s hat and take command of the grill. All Tina would have to do is season the steaks with a dry rub in the morning and prep the sides – noodles, a vegetable or two, rolls and a salad. It seems like quite a lot, but Tina is used to baking and cooking for all her normal meals, as well as cleaning all of the camp buildings, in the course of a day. Plus dishes. Steak night is on a Wednesday this week, and it provides her a chance to have some time to herself. Maybe she’ll take a leisurely shower or take a moment to email her kids.
 
But today is not Wednesday, and before she starts in on tonight’s dinner – pot roast – she skims a large lint roller over her clothes. Tina hates pulling her hair back, and she hates the idea of hairnets even more. To guarantee her dishes remain hair free, she performs this ritual several times daily. She even lint rolls her blond locks. She’s had no complaints of hair in food, so she figures it’s working. Every choice Tina is faced with in the kitchen is followed with a nearly split second decision. She doesn’t have time to weigh options. Instead, she recites aloud what she’s mulling over in her head – how long the rice needs to cook for… how to keep the rolls warm for every man coming through the line… She bites her thumb. Eyebrows knitted together on her forehead, she silently nods at nothing and no one. There is never a “right” solution, there’s just the one that requires the least amount of effort. Not because Tina wants it that way. Not because she’s lazy. It’s just how it is. Once she locks on something, she snaps out of her trance and executes. She’s still running the marathon.
She distributes 30 pounds of stew meat between two industrial crock-pots, along with 20 pounds of potatoes, peeled and chopped, and two bags of baby carrots. The pots are set to braise for six hours. The potatoes are from Daigle.
 
Tina pauses briefly to inspect the contents of a yam can she just upturned into a pot. She was unfamiliar with yams until today. Back at IGA, she had a long discussion about the virtues of fresh vs. canned with the vegetable clerk. Neither could identify a fresh yam, and Tina, stumped and in a hurry, forgot about it. But she found yams in the canned section, and her dilemma renewed. How could she fix it? Who would eat it? She was about to move on, when at the last minute, she grabbed a few cans. One of the guys requested them, and she likes to fill these requests. She wants them to feel at home, and she figures she can make anything taste good with a little butter.
 
*
 
Though Tina may be ambivalent about working at Telos, her reasoning for being there is very clear: she wants to make sure the lumbermen are taken care of. When Tina and Larry were first together, Larry used to drive triple trailers loaded with 200,000 pounds of lumber to Canada, navigating his payload through the dark and unforgiving woods. When he stopped at camp, she always hoped someone made sure he had something warm to fill his belly and shake the cold. She always hoped someone was taking care of him.
 
Today, loggers at Telos range in age from early twenties to late fifties, and a few are older than Tina even, but when they walk through the cookroom door, she treats them all like her kids. She knows who prefers rice to pasta, who won’t touch cabbage, and who likes to fill his thermos with leftovers for the next day. During her weekends, which Tina spends at home with Larry, she scours the Internet for recipes so she doesn’t repeat foods. She wants every guy to feel like he’s eating something he’d eat at home. Most of the guys started logging because they watched their fathers do it, back when there was good money and a stable future in it. Now, only the former is true.
 
The guys begin streaming through the cookroom door at exactly 6:30. Everyone stops just outside the entryway to punch the clock, teased by smells of savory stewed beef, tender potatoes and au jus wafting out of the kitchen.
 
“Hi my boys, how you doing?” Tina asks as she pulls the lids off large trays of pot roast, crocks of pasta and rice and green beans and yams arranged in a row. They steam dramatically. The loggers, eyes alight and bellies rumbling, reach for forks and knives and plates set in gray plastic bins next to the serving station. During her first week at Telos, Tina took care to learn every guy’s name, but in the food line, she keeps her conversations short so the line moves at a steady clip.
 
“How you doing, Tiner?” asks the Red Baron, a balding, pot-bellied truck driver known by his CB handle.
 
“Not too bad, and you?” responds Tina.
 
“You behave yourself this weekend?” inquires the Baron.
 
“Heck no!”
 
They both break out into laughter, the Baron’s big and boisterous, Tina’s quick like a comet.
 
“How much longer Larry got you up here?”
 
“I don’t know, but much longer and he’s gonna have me shovelin’.”
 
Tina freezes then, like it has just occurred to her she could still be at Telos when there’s snow on the ground. But there’s no time to think long on this. The line’s moving, and she’s on to greeting the next guy.
 
Once all the lumbermen have their plates and are happily eating, watching TV and chatting, Tina slips away to Larry’s cabin for a few quiet moments to herself, taking Cheyenne with her. She’ll check Facebook and see if she’s had messages from her kids.
 
*
 
Older lumbermen talk about how there’s still a need for the next generation to keep logging in Maine alive. They work with local schools to get the message out that lumbering is no longer strapping an ax to one’s back and trudging into the woods. With their own kids, though, most guys work hard to steer them away from logging, emphasizing college, trade school, and a life outside the woods.
 
While almost every son of a Pelletier can find a job within the company, Tina and Larry’s children will not be following Larry into the family business. Tina doesn’t want it for their kids. The future of lumber is too uncertain.
 
Trees are always growing, and logging outfits that wish to continue chopping down trees and making money realize the importance of sustainable harvesting. But it takes a long time for a tree to grow. Sometimes plots need twenty-five to thirty years to cultivate lucrative lumber. There are hundreds of areas Larry will see culled only once in his career. There is a small handful he may see culled twice. Most of the older guys, like Larry, hope they can ride the job out until retirement. Younger ones now sit in Tina’s kitchen, telling her about their backup plans, their life beyond the woods. Fire fighter. Police officer. Forest ranger.
 
She doesn’t want that uncertainty for her kids. At first, her son was disappointed. He wanted to contribute to the Pelletier legacy by working next to his father, uncles and cousins. But Tina pushed him to attend the Maine Maritime Academy, where he received a degree in engineering. He now works on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico. Her daughter is a nurse in Bangor, and Tina is happy both her kids have jobs in industries with futures. Larry isn’t so pleased. He, too, wanted his son in the woods with him.
 
*
 
Dinner has ended, and just as quickly as they filed in, the guys file out, heading back to their units, cheeks warm and bellies full. When Tina and Cheyenne return with Larry in tow, the cookroom is empty. Larry likes to eat after the guys leave, so he doesn’t have to be the boss at dinner. Tina microwaves a plate and delivers it to him in front of the television set in the corner of the cookroom. He tucks into his food, mesmerized by the Red Sox playing in a World Series game, but he prods her to sit down. The couple shares a quiet meal together, Larry talking to the players at bat in between bites and sips of beer. “Strike!” “He’s got something serious in his eyes there.” “It’s all mind over matter.” Tina rolls her eyes at Larry’s slightly tipsy high opinion of himself and his baseball expertise. She feeds Cheyenne from her plate, finishes quickly and leaves Larry at the table so she might tackle some dishes.
 
After eating, Larry retires back to his cabin, and Tina is left with Cheyenne. Only half the cookroom is lit now, the fluorescents from Tina’s side casting diagonal rays of light onto the picnic tables, benches folded. After Larry leaves, Tina switches the television to a popular singing competition, but it’s only on for noise. She pushes and pulls the long head of a broom across the linoleum floor. Cheyenne sees it less for its functionality and more as a toy, nipping and snapping at the broom as it passes her, impeding Tina’s progress. Tina is not angry or frustrated. It’s 9:27. She’s been moving since 5 o’clock in the morning. If the dog wants to scatter her pile of dust, let her. When she returns tomorrow morning at 5:30, there will already be muddy bootprints tracked across the cookroom floor.

_______________________________________________________

NRose_bioPhotoNatalie Rose is a freelance writer, media producer and avid cook. She produces work about travel and culture, fascinating people she encounters on her travels and anything to do with food. She studied storytelling at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine and film at New York University. Her work has appeared on The Latin Kitchen, Honest Cooking, Revue and Que Pasa. The daughter of a Mexican-American mother and a Lebanese-American father, Natalie honed her palate tied to the apron strings of family members keen to pass along strong culinary traditions from Mexico, Lebanon, and her native Arizona. She has eaten in 3-star Michelin restaurants and off of dried banana leaves on dirt floors in her beloved India. Her mother says she was always a very good eater.

 

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