Trucks loaded with timber felled by Canadian loggers barrel past Hilton Hafford's unfinished log home along the St. John River.

In northern Maine, the tree-covered hills on both sides of the border have been logged since the early 19th century. So when Hafford, a third-generation lumberjack, had to leave to find better pay in the woods elsewhere, the change was wrenching.

"I never planned on leaving. But when the price of labor went down, you just couldn't make a living doing it," Hafford said, scuffing slippered feet along the cabin's unfinished and bare wood floor. "Everyone has had to leave."

Throughout northern New England, once plentiful logging jobs have fallen prey to low wages, mechanization and Canadian loggers who can make low wages go farther because of the favorable exchange rate. The job losses are destroying a tradition dating to when the first lumberjacks felled mighty pines for the masts of sailing ships.

Hafford, who blockaded the U.S.-Canadian border with a dozen other loggers in 1998 to protest Canadians working in Maine, now commutes 10 hours one way to an apartment in Vermont and a job for small landowners. He returns to Allagash only when rain keeps him from working in the woods.

Once a thriving logging community, the town has dwindled from 680 inhabitants in 1950 to about 260 today. And many wonder how long loggers can go on cutting in the primitive and dark forest that fascinated Henry David Thoreau so long ago.

Like farming in the Midwest, logging has passed through generations. For some, it has been a birthright realized while clinging to their fathers' timber-worn hands and seeing the forest for the first time.

Increasingly, these men who entered the forest as children are graying, according to a University of Maine survey of about 1,200 loggers.

The average age of a logger has risen in recent years to 45.6 in New Hampshire, 45 in Vermont and 44.4 in Maine. About half of those surveyed were not optimistic about their prospects five years down the road.

The most telling statistic: More than two-thirds probably would not encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. That might surprise outsiders, but those who work in the woods understand it well.

"Loggers don't just appear at random. They come from logging families," said Mitch Lansky, an author who has written about forest issues from his home in Wytopitlock, Maine. "And parents are telling their children, 'Don't get in the business.' "

Loggers make an average of about $11 an hour, which leaves many who must provide their own liability and workers' compensation insurance struggling under high overhead. Although some have formed insurance pools to lessen the burden, the dangers of the job still keep premiums higher than many can easily afford.

Parents who grew up working in the forest know these barriers and insist there are better ways to make a living.

Troy Jackson, a logger who left the woods to become a Maine state lawmaker, refuses to take his children into the woods with him.

"Why would you want to crucify your kids by pushing them into a career where there is absolutely no benefit?" Jackson said, his voice cracking with emotion. "If they never come with me into the woods, they'll never want to do it. I don't want them to get the idea. It's no good."

Legends live in the North Woods that Thoreau wrote about 150 years ago. Even then a working forest was being born, making riches for businessmen and luring woodsmen to hardscrabble logging camps.

Rivers such as the Penobscot and Kennebec were said to have been so thick with logs in spring that you could walk across them. A 31-foot statue of Paul Bunyon stands in Bangor, Maine, which was the largest shipping port for lumber.

Over the years, peavey poles and oxen were replaced by chain saws and skidders. But in the past decade those, too, have become relics in the new economy of the forest, where expensive heavy machinery keeps timber flowing.

With a row of hydraulic levers, a single man can do the work of many loggers, grabbing, felling, removing limbs and chopping towering trees in minutes. While efficient, the expensive equipment has increased the overhead for independent contractors whose wallets are steadily shrinking.

Many contractors are caught: Either they go out of business because they cannot afford to mechanize, or they do it and then struggle to make the payments.

In Colebrook, N.H., the rainbow of rusted logging machines strewn across acres of lots at Eddie Nash & Sons is the legacy of loggers who have left the woods and sold their equipment.

Steve Hannington, president of the American Loggers Council, said mechanization has been toughest on younger loggers.

"What we've seen is an increase in the capacity to harvest timber with fewer people. And what happens is the same as on a factory floor," Hannington said. "Seniority rules."

Hannington, 43, is the son of a logger. He works mostly from an office now. His children are planning lives outside the woods, away from Hannington Bros., the family logging business in Macwahoc, Maine.

With fewer jobs and fewer young loggers, Hannington dreads the day when the current generation grows weary and gives up.

"When we all decide to get out, it's a crisis situation," he said.

Although precise counts are rare, the Maine Department of Labor estimates there are 2,500 loggers left in the Maine woods, including about 680 bonded Canadians. Estimates show about 1,000 loggers in New Hampshire and about 800 in Vermont.

It is a different landscape in New Hampshire and Vermont, where hilly terrain and harder trees make logging more difficult. At a recent training session of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, none of the loggers used modern industrial logging equipment.

The challenges have even led to a small resurgence of traditional logging -- part-timers using chain saws and horse-drawn skidders.

But many who attended the session were aging, and all admitted having seen better days in the timber trade.

"We're a dying breed," said Randy Frye of Moultonboro, N.H., whose chest and arms resemble the broad, old trees he logs.

Some say Vermont and New Hampshire demonstrate that small-scale independent timber owners can survive despite competing with industry giants that own much of the 11.8 million acres of logging land in Maine.

Although they recognize the crisis, optimists in the industry also say it can and must welcome a new young generation of loggers.

"There is some tradition here that runs very deep," said Roberta Borland, president of the Vermont Loggers Association. "Even though you may have mechanization, it's the same type of people. They have sawdust in their veins."