The Beginning of the End - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 2. The Beginning of the End

Fancy cutting down all those beautiful trees…to make pulp for those bloody newspapers, and calling it civilization.

—Winston Churchill, remarking to his son during a visit to Canada in 1929

LOGGERS AND TIMBER CRUISERS were lured to the Yakoun Valley by the same hunger for opportunity and adventure that drew Grant Hadwin’s grandparents across the Prairies during World War I. On the West Coast in those days, Big Timber was king, and these great, untrammeled forests must have felt to them like a new beginning.

It is hard, even now, to imagine the magnitude of the timber coming out of these woods throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Photographs taken anywhere along the coast, from southeast Alaska to Northern California, show sturdy men in heavy clothing dwarfed against backdrops of monolithic cylinders so large that they are scarcely recognizable as trees. They look, instead, like oddly symmetrical boulders, or the fallen columns of gargantuan temples, which may be closer to the truth. An elderly Haida man who spent much of his life in the Yakoun Valley felling trees for a southern lumber company indicated the breadth of the logs he dealt with every day by glancing at his ceiling. “You’d gouge into the ground that deep, too,” he explained. “You’d be covered in mud from head to toe.”

The work of removing rainforest timber is not only wet to the point of amphibiousness, it is also hazardous in the extreme. Even today, despite the advent of elaborate safety regulations and state-of-the-art equipment, the odds that a logger will be killed on the job are approximately thirty times greater than those of the average North American worker. Cutting the tree down is only one high step in a long and arduous journey that begins with gaining access—for man, beast, or machine—to an often trackless wilderness, and ends with delivery to the marketplace that may lie a continent away. The act of felling a tree is, relatively speaking, the briefest of events; it is to the timber business what the act of conception is to raising a family: a beginning that really happens somewhere in the middle. And both acts capture the imagination for similarly cataclysmic reasons; they are thunderous and defining moments, after which nothing is certain except the knowledge that the hardest labour lies ahead. A single large log, bucked to nine metres and limbed for transport, could still weigh fifty tons, as much as a loaded semi; an entire tree might weigh five times that. Somehow this massive object—half steamroller, half battering ram, and slippery as an eel—has to be moved out of the forest, which may be growing on a mountainside with a 45-degree slope. In some places, like the Yakoun Valley, they had to resort to methods normally reserved for quarrying stone: many logs were so big that they had to be riven—split lengthwise—with “dynamite wedges” in order to be moved at all.

IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, a single logger, equipped with a government hand-logging licence, an axe, a saw, and a Gilchrist jack, could roam the coast more or less at will and ply his trade by dropping favourably positioned trees directly into the salt-chuck—the sea. Gordon Gibson, who is legendary among old-time West Coast loggers, started out as a hand logger before becoming a major operator and politician on the coast of British Columbia. In 1933, while searching the now-famous Clayoquot Sound area of Vancouver Island for promising trees, he found a particularly memorable one three hundred metres up a mountainside. It was a Douglas fir—to this day, the preeminent commercial species on the Northwest Coast—and it was a textbook specimen: four metres in diameter and seventy metres tall, its perfectly cylindrical trunk ascending for nearly half its height before the first branch broke the symmetry. Gibson and his men started into it with a crosscut saw, the theory being that if they felled the tree downhill, it would make the three-hundred-metre journey to the water under its own terrific momentum.

However, before any cutting could begin on a tree like this, a series of steps would have to be built into the trunk in order to get above the tree’s broad base, or butt-swell, where the roots began to fan out. Since a big tree’s butt-swell might begin well above a man’s head, a faller would cut a series of notches into the side of the tree, about fifteen centimetres deep and the size of a mail slot. Once the cuts were made, a sturdy plank, called a springboard, would be inserted endwise into each notch. This crude portable scaffolding is what the fallers would stand on as they chopped and sawed their way through big West Coast trees. A metal “shoe” with a sharp lip kept the springboards from slipping out as they bounced up and down with the rhythm of the men’s work. Neil McKay, an old-timer from Vancouver Island who came into the business when horses were still a common feature in the woods, recalls springboards reaching five and six levels high. They are still used on occasion today.

Despite changes in equipment, the technique of bringing a tree down has changed little over time. The goal has always been to bring a vertical shaft into the horizontal in as controlled a fashion as possible—and with minimal damage to the tree. (Some fallers would make beds of branches in order to prevent the trunk from shattering on impact, but this is almost impossible to do on a mountainside.) A controlled fall is accomplished by creating a hinge at the point of cutting. After determining the optimal falling direction—usually a three-way compromise between personal preference, the tree’s natural lean, and the lay of the land—a “wedge” is cut facing in the desired direction of fall. If a saw is available, a horizontal “undercut” is made about a third of the way into the trunk—a serious undertaking, in the case of a big West Coast tree. Prior to the chainsaw, this would have been accomplished in stages—a cut would be made and then the wood above would be chopped out with an axe to make more room and reduce the friction imposed on the saw blade. Then another cut would be made, followed by more chopping, and in this way the fallers would cut and hack their way into the tree. Many early photos show a whiskey bottle hanging from a tree within arm’s reach of the fallers; these bottles were filled not with whiskey to lubricate the men, but with oil to lubricate the saws as they worked their way into the wet, often sappy trunks. Gibson’s crosscut saws—broad ribbons of toothed steel with a broom-style handle at each end—were two and three metres long, and his double-bitted axes were more than thirty centimetres wide from blade edge to blade edge. With two men working steadily, perched on opposing springboards, Gibson’s four-metre, eight-hundred-year-old “Doug” fir would have taken all day to bring down. At dusk, when the heartwood finally gave way with a sternum-shuddering groan, the men dropped their tools, jumped from their perches, and fled uphill into the thick salal that covered the steeply angled forest floor. From there, they watched as the fruit of their labours—weighing about as much as a jumbo jet—came crashing down to earth. Wrote Gibson:

It seemed to pause in the air for a moment like an eagle in slow motion before starting down the mountainside, cart-wheeling, end over end and disappearing into the water at a 45-degree angle. After what seemed to be a five-minute lapse, it suddenly emerged on the surface like a giant whale breaching from the depths. It was completely devoid of branches and most of its bark had been stripped away by the 1000-foot [300-metre] passage over rocks and windfalls.

In his memoir Bull of the Woods, Gibson neglects to describe the sound a tree that size would have made as it tumbled down the mountain; it would have been absolutely thunderous—an echoing, earthshaking avalanche of one. Old-growth West Coast trees are the heaviest objects routinely dropped anywhere in the world.

For reasons like this, West Coast logging, especially in its early twentieth-century heyday, was not so much tree-cutting as it was a kind of terrestrial whaling: determined, poorly paid men working in remote areas were using temperamental machinery and simple hand tools to subdue enormous, often unpredictable creatures that could squash them like bugs—and did. One county on the Washington coast lost more than a hundred men to logging accidents in a single year (1925), and there are—still—lots of ways to die.

In terms of fatalities per capita, commercial bush pilots have the most dangerous job in North America, but theirs is a small niche profession. The number two position is shared by the far larger populations of commercial fishermen and loggers, but comparing the two is misleading. Fishermen are frequently killed en masse when their boats go down, while loggers are almost always killed one at a time. Thus, in terms of the sheer number of accidents, loggers have much more in common with bush pilots. When one considers the fact that loggers work on land during daylight hours, often with winters off—as opposed to at sea or in the air around the clock and in all kinds of weather—it becomes clearer just how treacherous logging can be. And loggers have everyone beat when it comes to variety: pilots generally crash and fishermen generally drown, but loggers are killed and maimed in a chilling assortment of ways that combine aspects of industrial accidents, warfare, and torture.

Frank Garnett was a turn-of-the-century settler and ox team logger who had made a name for himself by felling some of the biggest timber on Vancouver Island, a place well known for its enormous trees. When gravity wasn’t available to carry trees to the water, oxen and, later, horses were the alternative. After a tree had been bucked up (sawn) into lengths, the log ends would be “sniped”—tapered with an axe so they would slide more easily across the rough ground; they were then linked together with heavy hooks and chain. Often the train of logs would be taken out over “corduroy” roads, also known as skid roads, made of smaller logs laid crosswise across the path (the latter is the origin of “skid row”). To ease their passage, the causeway would be lubricated with water, crude oil, whale oil, or even dogfish oil, which was rendered from a kind of shark once plentiful along the coast. Once the logs were in line, the ox team, consisting of perhaps a dozen animals, would be harnessed to the lead log; in order to keep from slipping on the oiled roadway, oxen and horses would be shod like their human counterparts: with spiked shoes. When all was ready, the bull whacker, using that astonishing combination of tender endearment and paint-peeling invective unique to drivers of animals and machines, would cajole his team into motion.

Garnett was driving his heavily laden ox team out of a stand he’d been working in Maple Bay when one of the logs shifted, pinning him between another similarly massive log. The log rolled in such a way that neither man nor beast could move it, leaving Garnett trapped but very much alive. His mother happened to be on hand, and while attempting to comfort him, she found herself in a bind nearly as hideous as her son’s. Garnett—in agony and knowing he was doomed—begged his mother repeatedly to put him out of his misery with a nearby sledgehammer. Unable to kill her own child, even in an act of mercy, she endured his pleas for two hours until he finally bled to death.

A contemporary of Garnett’s was Freeman Tingley, an American who was one of the first pioneers to homestead on the Queen Charlottes. Tingley helped to settle the future logging town of Port Clements, not far from the golden spruce, and he was one of the few early arrivals who wasn’t starved out after a year or two. In addition to hand-logging with oxen well into his seventies, Tingley was known for growing enormous vegetables which he sold to Natives and settlers alike. Successful on other fronts as well, he was nicknamed “Stud” in recognition of his multiple wives and copious offspring. One of Tingley’s many grandsons, Harry, was born on the islands in 1928; at that time, the sound of Haida drumming could still be heard at night, sometimes pulsing across Masset Inlet, near the terminus of the Yakoun River. Harry Tingley began a lifetime in the logging industry at the age of fourteen. He was entering a world that is hard to imagine today, a place where a boy’s first day on the job might begin in a mud-filled ditch with a knee on his chest and a filthy hand scraping the peach fuzz off his face with a hunting knife. “How’dya like that?” his new friend might say as he stumped off. “Now yer a man.”

Harry Tingley retired in 1993 at age sixty-five, but, statistically speaking, he should probably have died long before that. Tingley lost one brother and two half brothers to logging accidents, and that was just the beginning. Like veteran bush pilots, career loggers can rattle off the names of dead and crippled comrades in numbers whose only comparison can be found among professional soldiers. One friend of Tingley’s named Vaillancourt was scalped by a flying cable; another named Judd McMann got dragged through an edger—a machine used for squaring up the edges of rough boards. “Mighty” Joe Young broke his back when he was thrown from a skidder after losing control while hauling logs off a mountainside. Carl Larsen was hit so hard by a cable that the impact tore the aorta out of his heart; another Swede Tingley knew was killed when the tree he was felling kicked back, striking him from behind as he ran. Still another managed to make it safely back to Vancouver only to lose his life when he stepped out of a Granville Street bar and was shot through the head by a drunk firing at random from a block away. For years, Vancouver’s News Herald maintained a loggers’ death count box, just as the New York Times does for American soldiers during wartime.

Tingley, who has logged Queen Charlottes spruce up to five metres in diameter, seems to have survived on luck and a cat’s reflexes (another half brother fought three rounds with Jack Dempsey), but raw optimism may have played a role as well. Describing one incident in which he dove into a shallow ditch to soften the blow of a runaway log, he said, “You know, the body will compress a little when a log rolls over it.” But sometimes Tingley was too quick for his own good. Once, while on a drunken tear, he made the mistake of insulting a big Italian named Furdano. The man took exception, knocked Tingley to the ground, and proceeded to kick his head in; if another logger named Bear hadn’t intervened, Furdano probably would have succeeded. Tingley was carried, unconscious, to his bunkhouse and put to bed, where he was awakened the next morning by the foreman—the “push”—coming in to fire him. Tingley could only hear the man’s voice because he was blind; he had been kicked so hard that his eyes had filled with blood. When the push saw Tingley’s face he gasped and rushed out of the room; Tingley overheard him in the hallway telling the first-aid man, “His eyes are gone; he’s lost his eyes.”

Tingley recovered, but it was beatings like this that spawned the term “logger’s smallpox”—a reference to the scars left behind after a stomping with calk boots. Pronounced “corks,” these boots resemble high-top industrial golf shoes: their soles have three-inch heels and are studded with half-inch spikes; the uppers are made of heavy, tasselled leather and they lace up to the calf—sometimes to the knee. In a forest of slippery wood and loose, moss-covered rock, they are as necessary as crampons are for an alpinist.

Sometimes the forest would simply swallow a man whole. In the early 1960s, at a camp outside Jeune Landing on Vancouver Island, a crew was working a patch of blowdown—forest that had been knocked over by a windstorm. Many of the trees had come up by the roots and the men were cutting the fallen trees off at the base, leaving the stump and root ball—some of which were six metres across—standing up on edge. At midday the crew broke for lunch, but when they reconvened, two men were missing. Search parties were brought in, but to no avail; it was as if the men had simply vanished off the face of the earth. It was only when all other possibilities had been exhausted that it occurred to someone to look underneath the stumps, and that is where they found the missing men. They had made the mistake of using the shady underside of one of the upended root balls as a backrest, and while they ate, the stump had fallen back into place, closing over them like a great earthen jaw.

Accidents were so common in the early days that if a man was killed on the job his body would simply be laid to the side and work would continue until quitting time, when a boat, plane, or runner might be sent to notify the police. In remote areas, this practice continued at least into the 1980s. Even now, loggers must sometimes carry their dead partners out of the woods like sacks of flour. Many camp foremen saw their workers as expendable, interchangeable units to be hired and fired at will; there were camps that were known for having three crews: one on the job, one that had just been fired, and another coming in on the next boat. Panicky Bell was a notorious foreman on the Charlottes, and Harry Tingley recalled an incident in which two men had been fired. Bell called for a plane to take the men out, and when the pilot balked at coming all that way for just two men, he fired several more on the spot, just to round out the load.

A foreman’s reputation (and pay) was enhanced or diminished based on the productivity of his crews, and the result was a practice known as highballing. Highballing entailed hauling logs out of the woods as fast as humanly and mechanically possible—no matter what. Harry Tingley calls it “working like Billy Be-Damned.” Once horse and oxen were replaced by steam donkeys—steam-powered winches that would haul logs out of the woods with cable and pulleys—the pace accelerated exponentially. When donkey engines first came on the scene at the turn of the century, they were a simple, relatively small apparatus not much bigger than a Dumpster. They rode on sleds made from logs and they would move themselves through the bush by being cabled up to a distant tree and then reeling themselves in. The first donkeys were designed to drag the logs out along the ground, but as technology improved, the high lead and skyline were introduced. A high-lead cable was run from the donkey to a tall stout tree (the spar tree) high on the mountainside, while skylines ran between two spar trees. Secondary cables called chokers were suspended from the high lead and attached, one apiece, to the end of a log; this enabled loggers to haul clusters of logs out in a partially airborne state, thus avoiding all the hang-ups on rocks and windfalls that ground lines ran into. Where an ox team would move a load at a slow walk, a steam donkey with a high-lead cable could haul a cluster, or “turn,” of logs out of the woods at fifty kilometres per hour. A turn of nine-metre logs bouncing at that speed over rough ground takes on the characteristics of what one eyewitness described as a crazed fifty-ton kangaroo. When accidents happened they tended toward the catastrophic.

It is always amazing to consider the things a man will risk his life for, and the promise of a case of beer on Friday could mean the difference between an average week of log production and a record-setting one; it could also mean the difference between life and death. But as the machines got bigger, more powerful, and more expensive to own and operate, the expectations only rose. Neil McKay remembers an enormous machine from the 1920s called the Washington Flyer; it was a steam donkey five metres long by three metres wide; it rode on a twenty-five-metre sled made from logs that were over a metre in diameter, and it could work over a kilometre of five-centimetre skyline cable. “It was a monstrous goddamn thing,” recalls McKay; “you could clear a whole mountainside with it.” And so they did, the gear running so hard that pulleys and cables sometimes glowed red hot and set fire to the surrounding woods.

Since the donkey puncher (the man operating the donkey) might be a kilometre or more away from the chokermen who were “setting” the chokers around the logs ready to be yarded (hauled) out of the bush, a code of whistles was used to communicate what was needed down the line: haul back; ease forward; stop, etc. There was even a special death signal: seven long blasts. The man in charge of passing this information back and forth was known as the whistlepunk and he would be stationed on a tree stump or some other piece of high ground where he could see the big picture. Below him, looking like so many squirrels in the face of these huge trees, mountains, and machines, the fallers and chokermen spent their often rainy days beset by swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies as they scrambled over giant logs, rocks, and the sharpened points of broken branches, struggling to meet or surpass their foreman’s quota. It was an environment that seemed scientifically designed to crush limbs and puncture bodies, and it is no wonder that men were frequently injured or killed, or that they often quit, or that they might eat three T-bone steaks, a plate full of potatoes, and a serving bowl full of ice cream for dinner. It was into this headlong and perilous netherworld that Grant Hadwin’s Uncle Angus descended while still a boy.