Gypsies of the Coast
Mark and Nancy Ponting follow the road less travelled
Desolation Sound is an apt name for the deep-water sound that lies between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Barren, rocky islands appear on the horizon, like mountaintops peeking out of the water, steep and menacing. It is as if a mountain range were suddenly submerged in an ocean. The area's austere beauty makes it a global destination for boating and kayaking, as well as a playground for the rich and famous. Billionaire Bill Gates owns one of the islands, and actor John Wayne's descendants own a summer retreat on Stuart Island. Actress Michelle Pfeiffer also has a place at Fawn Bluff.
"Every year, Gates brings in a barge of horses for the week that his family is there, just so his guests can go horseback riding," says Mark Ponting, owner, Ponting Contracting Ltd. "Can you imagine?"
Ponting runs a successful logging-roadbuilding business out of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. He owns several large boats to shuttle crew members to the Sound and other remote locations. Today he takes the John Deere film crew out to see his road-building operation firsthand.
Soon after the boat leaves port, a pod of killer whales joins us. They are clearly showing off, breaching and playfully exposing their pectoral fins. "We work hard," reflects Nancy Ponting, Mark's wife and business partner, as she admires the whales. "But you can't beat the view from our office. We love what we do. We really do."
PLANES, BOATS, AND AUTOMOBILES
When the boat travels out into more open water, the seas become rougher. A certified captain, Mark navigates the waves with calm confidence, as several of the islands come into view. "You see those mountains back there with roads carved out of them? We have probably built 75 percent of the roads in this area."
The first thing that immediately strikes visitors about Ponting Contracting's operation is how widespread everything is. John Deere road-building machines are transported between jobsites by barge. Crew, supplies, and parts arrive by boat or floatplane. Three- or four-hour boat trips are not uncommon.
The company even owns a fully equipped, 12-room floating camp for extended stays at the remote locations. Crews are rotated, with each employee working 14 days of 12-hour shifts, then taking seven days off. "We're the gypsies of the coast," observes Nancy.
During our visit, the floating camp is being painted, so Mark informs us we'll be staying at an old logging camp. Our film crew has visions of staying in log cabins, building a fire in a fireplace, and fetching water from a well, but the accommodations are modern and comfortable, complete with a camp cook who feeds us like kings. The night we stay, we even catch Game 7 of the World Series via satellite dish.
Still, typical jobsite conditions can be extreme. "We never get tired of the wildlife and beautiful scenery," says Nancy. "But we're constantly battling the weather and the elements. Winters are brutal, with snow and ice. We might not be able to get the crew out of camp in time and we get caught in a blizzard."
We work in the middle of nowhere. If we can’t get the service and parts we need, we can’t operate… They’ll do whatever it takes.
WELCOME TO THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Ponting Contracting builds 30 –40 kilometers of logging roads per year, mostly for International Forest Products LLC (IFP). "We have a reputation for working in the toughest places up in these inlets, through heavy rock cuts and that kind of thing," says Mark. "We've got the right people, the right equipment, and all the accommodations, so we can do the types of jobs most companies are not really set up for."
Roads are often cut through steep, rugged terrain. It's not uncommon for a crew to build road through a 18- to 21-meter-high rock face. That's a lot of drilling, controlled blasting, and excavating. In such conditions, the crew might advance only 10 meters in a single day.
Drilling machines and John Deere 3754D Swing Machines are used to build the roads. It takes years to train an excavator operator to run the swing machines. After a few months, an operator gets the basics down. "But it takes years to become proficient — to get really dialed in and turn it into an art form," says Mark. "You really need guys like that to be able to do what we do."
The company's John Deere swing machines are specially configured for road building. "These forestry excavators are purpose-built for our work," says Mark. "We use them in the most extreme conditions and push them to the limits of their capabilities. They hold up great — we have good uptime. And our operators love them because they are very ergonomically advanced and comfortable."
Over the years, Ponting Contracting has purchased 14 pieces of John Deere equipment, one each for every year it has been in business. Support from its local Deere dealer, Brandt Tractor, has been excellent, according to Mark.
We work in the middle of nowhere," says Mark. "If we can't get the service and parts we need, we can't operate. Brandt will come out in the middle of the night to make sure we have everything we need on the next crew boat, so we can get it out to the site. They'll do whatever it takes."
"When it takes a half-day to get to a jobsite, we can't afford to have crew standing around on the side of a hill with a machine down," adds Nancy. "In order to make money, we need that equipment to be working. And Brandt helps us do that."
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
Mark and Nancy met the old-fashioned way. "We met in a bar," laughs Nancy. "No computer dating for us, not like nowadays. Neither of us were regulars, but we happened to be there the same night."
Nancy is the yin to Mark's yang. "I'm not the most patient guy," Mark admits. "I'm kind of a wrecking ball, and Nancy smoothes everything over (laughs). So we work well as a team."
The two display obvious affection for each other, not without a little needling."Let's just say I'm like the chicken soup of the family company," says Nancy. "I'm the one people come to when they need comforting."
Both Mark and Nancy grew up on Vancouver Island. Their families have long been involved in the forestry industry. "It's in our blood," says Nancy. "After he was a pilot instructor in the military, my father was a chainsaw mechanic for a logging contractor for many years."
Mark's great-grandfather, grandfather, grandmother, and great-uncles all moved to Canada from Sweden during World War II. The family worked for logging companies, felling spruce which was used to build warplanes such as the de Havilland Mosquito.
"They wanted to be cowboys, so they pooled their money together to buy a ranch in Alberta," says Mark. "They raised cattle for two years. When they took the cattle to market, it wasn't even enough to cover the train freight bill. So they got back into the logging business in British Columbia. That's all they've done since."
…You can’t beat the view from our office. We love what we do. We really do.
During the 1970s and '80s, Mark and his father built logging roads for logging contractors, as well as some civil construction projects, like the highway from Sayward to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. In the mid 1980s and early '90s, Mark worked for IFP, first as an excavator operator on a road-building crew, then as a road-crew supervisor foreman, and finally as a contract supervisor, bouncing around different logging camps along the coast of British Columbia.
When IFP closed up shop and began contracting everything out, Mark partnered with a friend and started a road-building business. "With my experience in the industry, I knew all the right people," he remembers.
In 2003, he and Nancy decided to branch off on their own, starting a new business with just one other employee. The company has grown to over 20 employees today.
In the beginning, Nancy did the books, managed the safety program, and helped out in camp. "When we first met, I didn't even know how to run a computer," Nancy remembers. "So I took a few courses and did research on the safety program. I'd do whatever was needed, including cooking and cleaning at camp, ordering supplies, or transporting crew members."
Mark is extremely proud of the job Nancy has done with the safety program. "Our people are not just employees, they are our family. Nancy has worked hard to help keep everyone safe."
The company has earned a well-deserved reputation for quality work. Mark equally values his family's quality of life: "We're very fortunate to have built a company and a lifestyle we are both proud of."
Ponting Contracting Ltd. is serviced by Brandt Tractor Ltd., Campbell River, British Columbia.