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Day 17: Dryden, Ont. Paper boom breathes new life into self-proclaimed forest capital


Thursday, August 24, 2000

The logging trucks roll slowly into Dryden as they have for nearly a century, carrying great loads of cut trees and wood chips from the forests around the pungent mill town, the ones that seem to stretch right from its edges to the ends of the Earth.

The arrival every few minutes of another logging truck seems so programmed, so time-honoured, that one might wonder which century Dryden was entering. Until one sees the licence plates of the trucks leaving.

From Weyerhaueser Canada's pulp and paper mill, which rises over Dryden like a castle over a prince's fiefdom, trucks loaded with paper rolls the size of trees and crates of computer paper drive out as fast as the trees go in, heading east and west, and then mostly south to an insatiable U.S. market that has Canada's mill towns humming.

The same picture -- scenes from a pulp and paper boom -- can be seen along Quebec's north shore or in pockets of British Columbia, but nowhere is the boom louder than in Northwestern Ontario, a region that calls itself Canada's forest capital.

In Dryden, the Weyerhaueser plant and its forestry operation now employ about 1,300 people, up from less than 800 a decade ago when a $600-million expansion was launched, including the purchase of two Finnish-made paper machines the size of small ships.

A typical semi-skilled worker now earns more than $20 an hour. Pipe fitters can make more than $30 an hour, and often much more in overtime when the mill runs through the night and weekends to feed a U.S. economy that refuses to go paperless.

Workers pouring out of the mill know an economic downturn would reverse much of this, and fast. They also know most of the mill's profits flow to the United States. Outside the town, area woodsmen also complain about pressure from the mill to adopt newer forest-clearing machines that would allow them to cut more trees with fewer men.

But few of those complaints are voiced in Dryden, where the near north's new prosperity can be seen at the end of every Weyerhaueser shift. Where the mill's parking lot pours on to Government Road, a parade of new Dodge Rams, Ford F-250s and Pontiac Montanas -- some of them pulling powerboats -- speak more than numbers of the economic surge.

The paper boom has also meant new hotels, two golf courses, three car dealerships, a branch of the investment firm Nesbitt Burns, and the growth of Bill's Newfie Shop. Located across the river from the mill, the corner store caters to 200 or so Newfoundland families who have moved to Dryden for work. It sells live lobster at $14 a pound, frozen shrimp and crab, Newfoundland CDs, Celtic tapes, videos, Newfie joke books, screech plaques and yellow fishermen's hats.

Except for the food, most of Bill's stock is offered as souvenirs, perhaps because few of the Newfoundlanders in Dryden plan to go back East soon.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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