Nathan Yoder fastened a chain around a 10-foot section of a log from a tree that had just been felled. With a tug on the leather reins, he spurred the team of Belgian draft horses into motion, dragging the heavy wood several hundred feet until it came to rest beside dozens of other logs.
It is a scene that would not be surprising in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, where modern conveniences such as heavy machinery are frowned upon. But Mr. Yoder was working in suburban Baltimore County for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., helping to clear logs felled near Loch Raven Reservoir.
Mr. Yoder, his father Paul and Michael Wheatley were hired by the utility to use their horses for hauling in environmentally sensitive areas that might be damaged by heavy machinery. The company is leveling 9,600 trees near the reservoir to make room for a new transmission line.
The sensitive areas include wetlands, stream valleys and stream buffers, said Paul M. Phelps, supervisor of forestry management for BG&E.
"Horses can negotiate around shrubs and some of the things we want to preserve, where a machine might knock them down," he said. The log skidders and bulldozers that will be used to clear trees in other parts of the 7-mile-long stretch would tear up marshes and wetlands. The draft-horse teams will be used to clear 10 to 15 percent of the felled trees.
The logging operation started a month ago and will continue for five more months. Use of the horses, which started Wednesday, will continue for about a month, Mr. Phelps said.
Mr. Wheatley, who recently left the Evening Sun after 25 years as a reporter and editor, approached Mr. Phelps with the idea of using the horses, and the suggestion was taken to BG&E management. "And they thought, 'It's a good idea, let's give it a try,' " Mr. Phelps said.
Mr. Wheatley brings his horse in a trailer from his home just south of Bel Air in Harford County. He joined forces with the Yoders, who bring four draft horses each day from their farm in Peachbottom, Pa., 40 miles away.
The Belgians are solidly built, thick and muscular with short legs, and weigh 2,000 to 2,200 pounds. They are descended from horses used in battle during the Middle Ages and were commonly used in farming and pulling heavy carts before tractors came into use. The first Belgian draft horses were imported to the United States in the 1860s.
For the log pulling, two horse teams are alternated, one working in the morning and another in the afternoon. The logs they haul sometimes weigh more than a ton. "We try to give them a break after a hard pull, let them get their wind back," Nathan Yoder said.
Four of the horses, two geldings and two mares, work in two teams, and one gelding works by itself. Belgians are known for their calm disposition, which has served them well with chain saws whining nearby.
"They adapted relatively well to all the noises," Mr. Yoder said. "The chain saws don't bother them."
But he decided not to take any chances on a tree chipper, steeringthem away from the machine that grinds up the smaller branches. "Whenever you take a horse into a strange area, no matter how well broke they are, you never know how they'll react," he said.
Mr. Wheatley admitted that his new vocation was specialized and that it might be hard to find steady employment. But for the three men, working the draft horses is much more than a job.
"For us," Mr. Wheatley said, "it's a reason to play with our pets."