The Lumberjacks Of Maramures
Every Monday morning a train filled with lumberjacks leaves Viseu de Sus for the high forest of the Maramures Mountains. At eight o’clock, with clear skies making for a bitterly cold morning, but holding out the promise of a beautiful day, we gather at the timber yard owned by a Swiss company, who have allowed us to ride up with them. Part of the attraction, aside from steam engines and lumberjacks, is that the 26-mile line is the only means of access to one of the most remote valleys of this border region.
Early morning at the lumber yard is anything but romantic. We stamp our feet against the cold as the sixty or seventy lumberjacks begin to gather, the majority of them arriving by foot or on horse-drawn carts. They’re far from the rugged backwoodsmen of cliché. Ranging in age from teens to mid-fifties, these are tired men with craggy faces and chesty coughs. No colourful check shirts, rucksacks or all-weather mountain gear here. Instead they wear bobble hats, thin, often threadbare woollen jackets over shirts and sweaters and carry their belongings in plastic bags. There’s a small shop and café nearby where the lumberjacks can buy supplies: sausages, slabs of lard, bread and tins of food. At the moment it is full of railway workers in oil-stained overalls, smoking as if their lives depended on it and despatching brandies at the same time. Someone makes a joke and they laugh, more out of habit than conviction.
A lady in a headscarf makes us tea, which comes in small glasses, ready-sugared like in India. Through a dusty window I can see the sunlight beginning to creep down the mountain on the far side of the valley, turning its forested flank into a pyramid of gold.
Just before 9.30 a plume of smoke erupts from inside the yard and a tank engine, Romanian-built in 1954, chugs out pulling a flat-bed wagon stacked with wood for the boiler, another wagon with seats but open at the sides, a covered coach and two or three low-loaders for timber.
Maximum speed on the line is 30 miles an hour, but we seldom reach 20 as we move out of Viseu de Sus, stopping at intervals to pick up more lumberjacks. It seems fast enough. One of the pleasures unique to the railway is the chance to have a snoop into people’s back gardens and this is no exception. The houses we pass are old-fashioned, single-storey, with wooden slatted sides, outside toilets and wood-smoke curling from the chimneys. The grass cut from around them is stacked up in the pointed hayricks that are everywhere in the mountains and corn cobs dry in sheds beside piles of fresh-harvested pumpkins. Women look up from their rakes, scythes or axes as we pass. The men, I guess, are all on the train.
A card game is already under way on the open wagon in which we’re travelling, and beer and tuica (the slightly less lethal, only once-distilled version of palinca) is already being passed around. I make a mental note to be well out of the way when this lot are chopping down trees.
Once out of the town we run alongside the River Vaser, the engine swaying, hissing and gurgling its way round the curves, following the sparkle of sunlight on the water. A pungent mossy smell rises from the gorge as the woodland closes in around us. The only stops now are for the driver and fireman to take buckets down to the river to refresh the engine. Only the increasingly acrimonious progress of the card game prevents it all from becoming stupendously idyllic.
We reach the first camps just after midday. The station buildings are dilapidated, some literally falling apart. Bellowed greetings. A few get off, one man recognising another with a fierce grab at his crutch. From somewhere two mattresses and a bedstead appear and are tossed so carelessly onto the wagon behind the engine that I assume they must be intended as fuel.
We move off again, out of the beech woods now and into thick conifer plantations. A man who’s just got on offers me a cigarette. He shows me the box.
‘Ukraine,’ he says.
I nod and smile.
‘Ukraine,’ he says again, as if I haven’t quite got it. ‘Ukraine. Chernobyl!’
And he gurgles with laughter.
At the second camp, most of the lumberjacks, including the card-school, grab their carrier bags and jump down off the train, making straight for the toilets, and by the time we reach the third camp, within three miles of the Ukrainian border, we are almost the only ones left aboard.
Compared to the two we’ve just seen, the third camp is like Mount Parnassus. Modern wood cabins stand with the dark wood behind them, and the river and a flat strip of grassy floodplain in front. Here, a meal is cooked over an open fire. Another cholesterol fest, I’m afraid, with grilled lard and pork crackling proving quite irresistible, especially washed down with the deliciously cold, clear water of the Vaser.
I learn from our host that there used to be 500 lumberjacks working up here, but environmental pressure has reduced the amount they can cut, and now there’s work for no more than 100.
The timber used to be floated down the river, a slow and costly process, but now everything depends on the railway and this eccentric Thomas the Tank Engine operation is the only reason logging can continue in these tightly enclosed mountains. Later, when we watch the lumberjacks at work, it all seems curiously casual. The weapon of choice is no longer an axe but a chainsaw, slung across the shoulder like a rifle. Once a tree is chosen and a directional cut made, the chainsaw goes through it in thirty seconds. Two men strip the trunk whilst the third brings up a spectacularly powerful all-purpose logging vehicle known as a TAF, one of which recently pulled a 27-tonne locomotive out of the river unaided. He hitches up not just the 70-footer that’s been felled but two other trees as well, a combined load of over 3 tonnes, which is hauled effortlessly up a 50-degree slope and dragged away for loading.
It doesn’t feel quite like the real world up here in the forest. When the trucks aren’t working there is almost total silence. Maramures is remote enough, but this must rank as one of the least accessible corners of Europe we’ve yet reached.