The Fatal Flaw - 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 7. The Fatal Flaw

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found that I was in a dusky wood;

For the right path, whence I had strayed,

was lost.

—Dante, DIVINE COMEDY, opening lines

MACMILLAN BLOEDEL’S INFLUENCE over the global timber industry was cresting at the same time that Grant Hadwin began having serious second thoughts—not just about the logging business, but about the role he wanted to play in it.

The seventies had been banner years for the industry and Hadwin had ridden the wave; it was a good time to have a forest technician’s degree, a two-year ticket he had earned in 1973. In many ways, Hadwin’s mandate wasn’t all that different from Mackenzie’s or Lewis and Clark’s: go into the wilderness, find out what is of value, and come back with a plan for extracting it. In addition to an understanding of forests and their relative commercial values, the job requires a great sensitivity to the lay of the land. Through a dense and sheer mountain wilderness, one has to be able to visualize and engineer a gentle pathway—in effect, wheelchair access—for heavy equipment. The catch, in Hadwin’s case, was that if he did his job correctly, it would mean that the same wilderness he took such pleasure in exploring would soon be accessible to off-road logging trucks capable of carrying one-hundred-ton loads (twice what’s allowed on the highway) and men with orders to level the designated cutblocks as rapidly as possible. Hadwin wasn’t just good at this, he had moments of true brilliance.

Wilderness road layout has become an increasingly tricky business in the past thirty years; for one, you have to “think” like a gigantic piece of heavy equipment which needs gradual inclines, strong shoulders, and a minimum of hairpin turns. But more relevant is the fact that by 1980 much of the easily accessible coastal timber was gone; left for last were the places that were hardest, and most expensive, to get to—places like Seton Ridge. “He had a sixth sense when it came to layout,” recalled a field partner named Dewey Jones. “He laid out one road up this steep mountain face south of Lillooet—it was really a challenge: you’d look at the side of that mountain and say, ‘There’s no way you can put a road in there.’ But he did; it was sort of an engineering marvel.”

This is the Seton Ridge road, a twisting intestine of crushed rock and dirt that so closely follows the terrain’s precipitous contours as to be all but invisible from below. A lot of timber was hauled out on it, and more than twenty years later the scars are still visible from miles away. Even under the most favourable circumstances, it takes nature a long time to recover from a clear-cut. Known as “harvests” in the timber industry, they are shocking things to behold: traumatized landscapes of harrowed earth and blasted timber. The devastation is often so violent and so complete that if a person didn’t know loggers had been through, he might wonder what sort of terrible calamity had just transpired: an earthquake? A tornado? After a few years the stumps tend to bleach out, giving the impression of headstones in a vast, neglected graveyard. Such scenes can be found throughout the Pacific Northwest, though today many of them are artfully hidden from public view by thin screens—“beauty strips”—of spared forest.

When the Hadwin family first showed up in Gold Bridge in the late 1950s, the surrounding valleys were thick with virgin, high-altitude timber. Today, as in much of British Columbia, vast clear-cuts push outward in every direction, giving the mountains the appearance of enormous animals unevenly shorn of their coats. It was Grant, in his most successful incarnation as a forest technician, who laid out many of the roads that gave loggers access to the remote forest around Gold Bridge. While doing the work he loved he helped to raze the site of many of his happiest memories. In a sense, this was a family tradition; as with many older West Coast families, the Monks and the Hadwins had played an active role in opening up the country. Hadwin’s father oversaw the massive hydroelectric dam complex that would power much of Vancouver, and his grandfather had come west to cash in on the timber boom, homesteading in West Vancouver and retiring as the proprietor of a successful logging supply company.

What is eerie is that, despite the logging industry’s profound impact on our lives and on this continent, few people outside the industry have actually witnessed a logging operation. While some of the mystery can be traced to the industry’s skittish attitude toward spectators, it also owes much to the average consumer’s lack of interest in the origins or true costs of the resources we take for granted. Most people don’t handle wood except in a finished state, and even those within the industry tend to be aware only of their particular link in the chain. If you were to ask a logger where his trees go, or a carpenter where his lumber comes from, there is a good chance that neither one would be able to tell you, and once that wood has been transformed into a chair or a paper towel, its provenance is anybody’s guess. In the course of its refinement, a tree’s identity devolves from a living appendage of the planet, to a dead and uniform commodity bought and sold by the cubic metre, to a still more rarified product purchased by the linear foot, and from there to a safe and familiar feature on our own domestic landscape that is valued less for its raw materials than for its utility and style. By then any connection to the tree it once was is as remote and abstract as a cheeseburger is to an Alberta steer.

There is another reason we are so far removed from this process, though, and that is because, in most cases, the process is so far removed from us. Old-growth loggers are latter-day frontiersmen letting the light into the last dark corners of the country; we don’t see them because they are pushing deep into places where the bulk of the population wouldn’t last twenty-four hours. This is one reason the woodsman’s lifestyle appealed so strongly to Hadwin, but problems arise if one stops to look down. In the timber industry, awareness causes pain. The evaluation of success involves a strange and subjective calculus: at what point does the brown cloud over an industrial city become a “problem” as opposed to a sky-high banner proclaiming good times? When does the ratio of clear-cuts and Christmas tree farms to healthy, intact forest begin to cause aesthetic and moral discomfort, or real environmental damage? How does one gauge this in a place as big as British Columbia, or North America? Hadwin, as with a lot of people in ethically ambiguous occupations, found his success progressively harder to live with. He was the first in his family to see the end coming, and over time he grew to believe that it had fallen to him, personally, to redress the imbalance.

Hadwin’s colleague and friend, Paul Bernier, described him as “a considerate logger and a careful road builder” who believed in taking the good with the bad, the best with the bug-ridden—when it was standard practice to just skim the cream and move on. Even his house was an effort to put his money where his mouth was. In a town—and in an industry—where people, resources, and even homes are exploited and abandoned, the Hadwin house stands alone as a kind of monument to permanence.

But as it turned out, Hadwin’s timing couldn’t have been worse; he was advocating restraint and moderation at a time when the logging industry was entering one of its most aggressive phases ever. The eighties were the era of the infamous Bowron Clear-cut; initiated in an effort to control an explosive pine beetle infestation, there is an ongoing debate about where containment ended and unbridled opportunism took over. In any case, the result was a starfish-shaped swath of shaved planet spreading for more than five hundred square kilometres across British Columbia’s central interior.*7 Local foresters described it proudly as the only man-made object besides the Great Wall of China that was visible from space. It wasn’t long after this, and similar events, that British Columbia was given the derogatory nickname “Brazil of the North.” Since it was replanted and renamed a “New Forest,” the Bowron no longer stands out quite so starkly, but it lives on as an infamous symbol of the ambiguous and codependent relationship between the provincial government and the huge multinationals that now control most of the timber industry.

By this time environmental groups had already been fighting to save big coastal trees for years, but as far as the less photogenic alpine timber around Gold Bridge was concerned, Hadwin’s was a lone voice in the wilderness. “He was out of time,” recalled Brian Tremblay, who has known Hadwin since they were teenagers. “He was on his own trajectory; he was talking environment and proper forest management before anybody.”

One of Hadwin’s duties was to prepare detailed reports on the areas where he had done reconnaissance. These documents are traditionally dry, utilitarian, and pro forma, but Hadwin began using them as a platform for critiques of logging methods and recommendations for areas he thought should be set aside. However, Evans Wood Products had hired Hadwin for his stamina and layout skills, not for his personal opinions, and his sometimes strident challenges to the status quo were not appreciated at the home office. Office politics were never Hadwin’s strong suit and he could hardly be called a team player; despite their respect for his work, friction developed between him and his supervisors. His independence and isolation worked against him here, and as ranks closed in Lillooet, Hadwin found himself outside the circle. “I was one of the last people to see these areas before they were logged,” he would later tell a reporter. “At various times I stuck my oar in to try to save this piece or that piece without any success. So I guess I started to get pretty cynical.”

It could be said that Hadwin’s misgivings were an occupational hazard. Timber cruisers and surveyors are avatars of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: woods-wise and tree-friendly as they may be, their observations are destined to have a dramatic, if not catastrophic, impact on the landscape. They are the last people to see the forest intact. And yet, to try to alter this course, or even to question it within the industry, was out of step—not just within the culture but with the current era. Paul Harris-Jones was one of the lucky few who got to see Vancouver Island’s legendary Nimpkish Valley in all its glory. The Nimpkish represented one of the largest stands of big timber in the province: kilometre after kilometre of hemlock, fir, and cedar trees two to four metres in diameter and growing as thick as corn-stalks. Harris-Jones spent an entire summer cruising the valley for Canadian Forest Products in the early 1950s. “I was astounded by these forests,” he recalled. “It was very exciting: you’d fly into the camp on a floatplane, take a log train to the end of the line, and then hike off into the wilderness. The forest was so dense that our skin was paler when we came out than when we’d gone in; for three months we never saw the sun. The mosquitoes were god-awful; there were floods; we fought fires. We were always trying to find a way across the Nimpkish [River], fighting our way through this terrific jungle.”

Today, the Nimpkish Valley is unrecognizable. “It was so dark and dense and gorgeous,” remembered Harris-Jones. “I came back, and it was all gone. I couldn’t believe that they had logged all but forty-four acres—acres!—of the Nimpkish Valley.” (Harris-Jones is now an environmental activist and writer; in addition to finding the first marbled murrelet nests*8 in British Columbia, he is credited with spearheading the preservation of the Caren Range old-growth forest outside of Vancouver that includes Canada’s oldest known trees.)

Suzanne Simard is currently a professor in the Forestry Department at the University of British Columbia, but when she was a student she spent her summers in the mountains around Lillooet, occasionally assisting Hadwin with road layout. Her experience was similar to many others who worked with him over the years: she found him to be quiet, thoughtful, and extremely good at what he did; she was particularly struck by his almost atavistic comfort in the bush. “We’d be stumbling along, and he’d just be gone, like a coyote,” she recalled. But Simard also saw what Hadwin found so upsetting. In addition to general despoliation of the landscape, landslides and the fouling of streams are among the most common side effects of mountain logging, and in an environment like coastal British Columbia, where the topsoil is thin and the rains are heavy, these problems are compounded. Evans Wood Products had a poor record in this department; in the words of one veteran forester, they were “a bottom-tier company; they gave the industry a bad reputation.” In the early eighties, when Simard was assisting Hadwin, Evans took a “Bowron” approach to the forests around Gold Bridge. “It was like this big machine moved in,” recalls Simard, “and began mowing it down. I can’t bear to go back there now.”

“We basically gutted the place,” explained Al Wanderer, a second-generation logger who worked with Hadwin. “I’ve made a good living,” he added, “but sometimes you wonder if it’s all worth it.”

In 1983, shortly before Evans was bought out by another company, Hadwin quit on bitter terms and went to work on his own, struggling to find a way to remain gainfully employed in the woods without “gutting” them. For three years after leaving Evans, he ran his own logging operation outside Gold Bridge where he made railroad ties by salvaging trees that had been killed by a beetle infestation that had also damaged much of the surrounding forest. “That guy worked hard,” his neighbour Tom Illidge said. “It would have taken three normal men to do what he did up there.” But the late eighties were a terrible time for the West Coast timber industry; the Japanese market—crucial to British Columbia—collapsed, and prices fell through the floor. Despite his superhuman efforts, Hadwin couldn’t make his business pay, so he started doing freelance reconnaissance work, cruising timber and laying out roads in various places around the province. Things went fairly well until late in the summer of 1987, when, shortly before his thirty-eighth birthday, his life took a disturbing turn.

Hadwin had been doing contract work for a timber company up in McBride, near the Alberta border; he had come highly recommended and Gene Runtz, the company’s woodlands manager, was impressed. “He’d been doing exceptional work,” remembers Runtz. “Then he left for about ten days between jobs, and when he came back it was like he was a different person—like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The eyes looked like they weren’t there anymore. It’s one of the most shocking things that’s happened to me in the forest industry. He talked to us and put this religious bent on the fact that what we were doing was wrong. He said he didn’t want to work for us anymore. I thought the world of the guy, but when I looked at those weird eyes peering at me—staring at me—I thought, ‘Holy crappo, if this guy wants to leave—fine.’”

What Runtz didn’t know was that while he had been away, Hadwin had had a vision. Like the monks and anchorites who once roamed from the deserts of the Middle East to the remotest outposts of the British Isles, Hadwin had ventured into the wilderness and received a message that he could not ignore. As the theologian Benedicta Ward wrote, “The essence of the spirituality of the desert is that it was not taught but caught.” Hadwin was not searching for such an experience, it came up from behind and clubbed him over the head. The episode passed as mysteriously as it had come and Hadwin went back to freelancing, where he continued to receive excellent work reviews, but his supervisors could see there was something different about him. “The amount of work he could do on his own was incredible, and his plans would be great, but at times you’d think he was sort of obsessed,” recalled Grant Clark, who supervised Hadwin a year later outside of Kamloops, a three-hour drive east of Gold Bridge. “He would stay out there; he wouldn’t come back to town. He was always at arm’s length: you could say he was doing great work, but it didn’t mean anything to him.” To Clark, it seemed as if Hadwin was operating at a different level. “He seemed to be in tune with actual nature; he always knew exactly where he was. Animals would stay close by; he wouldn’t spook them.”

But as competent and in tune as Hadwin may have been, the implications of the incident at McBride were ominous; it appeared that after a twenty-year hiatus, the family ghost that had killed his brother had set its sights on him. It was hard to imagine the impervious Grant being vulnerable to anything his brother had been because, in every other way, the two couldn’t have been more different. Where Grant was always lean and wiry, Donald, who was twelve years older, was almost pretty, with full red lips, round cheeks, and wavy blond hair. He had been an altar boy while Grant had been a hellion. Grant’s first day of kindergarten ended early when he was sent home in a cab with a note pinned to his sweater that said, “Do not send this boy back.” “He was like twelve kids,” recalled a cousin, “and smart as a whip.” But he would never be the white-collar professional his father had hoped for. Donald, on the other hand, appeared to make the grade. He was more submissive, toeing the same line that Grant would continually push against, and with his father’s stern encouragement, he tried to follow Tom Hadwin’s tough act, entering the University of British Columbia’s electrical engineering program. He did well enough, but the satisfaction was short-lived; Donald left home as soon as he could, seldom returning for visits.

Then, a year before Grant went logging, Donald resurfaced. He had no friends and no job, only a diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenic. Despite his family’s best efforts, he refused treatment of any kind. There is little doubt that this horrific undoing of his formerly successful brother helped to drive Grant away from the professional mainstream and into the woods. Indeed, subsequent events may have made the forest seem like a far safer—and saner—place to be. In February of 1971, the same year Hadwin went back to school for his forest technician’s degree, Donald had a final dinner with his parents in their West Vancouver home. Afterward, he headed back downtown across the Lions Gate Bridge. Halfway across the span, practically within sight of his parents’ house, Donald paused. Surrounded by hulking mountains and shimmering water, he climbed over the railing and jumped. He was thirty-four years old.

When Hadwin quit his job at Evans, he was in his mid-thirties, too. He was opinionated and eccentric, but he was also a strenuous provider, a helpful neighbour, and “a hell of a nice guy.” He was the kind of father who remembered his children’s birthdays when he was away; when he was home, he would take his kids fishing and snow-mobiling and help them with their math homework. As Tom Illidge, put it, “He wasn’t lazy and he wasn’t crazy.” Illidge is one of Gold Bridge’s oldest and most successful residents, one of the few who stayed put, stayed sober, and prospered there. He sympathized with Hadwin’s growing disdain for the company men who wield so much power over the forest without knowing their way around in it: “Half of those assholes have never been four feet from a parking meter in their lives,” he said.

But while Illidge, Al Wanderer, and Hadwin’s other colleagues were able to swallow their irritation and press on, Hadwin eventually found it intolerable. Late in 1989 his mill was vandalized and this exacerbated an emerging tendency toward paranoia. Sensing that his neighbours were turning against him, he moved his family out of Gold Bridge; shortly afterward, his freelancing contracts dried up. The Hadwin family relocated to Kamloops in the high, dry ranch country of south central British Columbia. With eighty thousand people Kamloops was barely a city, but compared to Gold Bridge, it was a teeming metropolis. While it had better schools for the children and more job opportunities, it was a terrible place for Grant; as his former assistant, Suzanne Simard, put it, “Moving [him] to Kamloops would be like taking a bear and putting it in a zoo.” Out of his element, Hadwin struggled to find meaningful work, sending out letters and résumés, and advocating on behalf of friends and neighbours he thought were being ill used by the system. Unemployed except for sporadic volunteer work at a local retirement home, he had a lot of time on his hands, and he began writing letters on a wide range of issues to political figures all over Canada and the world. In a letter to a provincial supreme court judge he wrote:

The Forest industry in british columbia, appears to be one example, of economic remote controlled TERRORISM, on this planet, with professionals leading the way, in “severe symptoms of denial, that there is any problem.”

Later, in a widely distributed two-page memo entitled “A Few Thoughts About University Trained Professionals and Their Equivalents,” Hadwin enumerated his observations about the professional class, including the following:

3. Professionals appear to “DENY” or ignore “The Negative,” particularly about themselves or their projects.

4. Professionals appear to create and positively reinforce facades and perceptions until these facades and perceptions are “perceived” to be fact (media do this all the time).

7. “NORMAL” today appears to be “professional values” rather than say “Spiritual Values” or a reverence for life.

In 1991 Grant and Margaret separated, and she got custody of the children. In early 1993, increasingly frustrated and unable to handle the pressures he felt in Kamloops, Hadwin headed north on a rambling hegira through the Yukon and Alaska, where in early June he sought refuge on a remote island. A month later Hadwin was stopped at the United States border with three thousand hypodermic needles in the trunk of his car. He talked his way through customs and proceeded to Washington, D.C.; once there, he presented himself as an advocate of needle exchange and safe sex, distributing needles and condoms to anyone who wanted them; he also donated thousands of dollars to a local food bank and homeless shelter. In July, with two thousand needles remaining, he proceeded to Miami, where he caught a plane to Moscow; from there he continued eastward, donating needles to children’s hospitals as he went. He was arrested by the police in Irkutsk, Siberia, but apparently finessed the interview and parted on good terms. Hadwin, however, wasn’t simply on a goodwill mission, he was also looking for work; Siberia is one of the few places in the Northern Hemisphere whose forests rival British Columbia’s.

When Hadwin returned to Kamloops, people who knew him were alarmed by what they saw. The guerrilla-theatre dress he sported on his travels (running shorts, riding crop, boots with spurs, and a baseball cap festooned with needles and condoms) raised some questions about his mental state. His apparently stress-induced paranoia had also begun to blur with reality as he found himself in situations in which people really were out to get him. That October, on the same day he was served with papers limiting his visitation rights to his children, Hadwin got into a running altercation with the driver of a semi on the Trans-Canada Highway. It degenerated into an almost comic scene with the mammoth Peterbilt tractor chasing after Hadwin in his little Honda Civic. The truck driver refused to give up and rode Hadwin’s bumper all the way back to his wife’s home, at which point both men jumped out of their vehicles and got into a violent argument. The truck driver was four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Hadwin; his hands were balled into fists and a fight seemed imminent. Hadwin ran up the driveway, snatched up a two-by-four, and shouted at the driver to “get the fuck out of here!” Then he clubbed him once in the head. The man collapsed, at which point Hadwin proceeded, immediately, to help him back to his feet. When the truck driver and his wife waved him away, Hadwin drove to the police station and turned himself in. It was his first-ever brush with Canadian police.

Hadwin was sent to a forensic hospital for a month-long psychiatric evaluation where he was interviewed extensively by several doctors. Although all of them found evidence of what one psychiatrist termed “paranoid reaction,” the only diagnosis they could agree on was that he was mentally competent and fit to stand trial. He was given a prescription for a low dose of antipsychotic medication and his condition improved dramatically. It is hard to say whether it was the medication or Hadwin’s internal cycle that was responsible for the improvement because it is unknown how often he took the medication, if at all. Within a couple of months he had secured a job at a local lumber mill, working as a veneer peeler (for plywood), and he turned in a twenty-page report for a proposed logging road. Hadwin worked on the project alone, and when his boss, Pat McAfee, asked him if he had an emergency contact person in case of an accident, Hadwin replied, “If I can’t get out of the bush on my own, I don’t want to come out.”

“He was very proud of his work,” recalled McAfee. “He was one of the best layout contractors I’ve seen.”

That September, just short of his forty-fifth birthday, Hadwin placed second in a fifty-kilometre cross-country “ultra-run.” When his trial date came up, he was offered a plea bargain; he pled guilty to assault and was placed on a year’s probation, during which he mananged to regain custody of his two oldest children. He took the two teenagers to visit Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, where they posed for pictures in front of giant cedar trees. It was during this period that Grant Clark, Hadwin’s former supervisor, had a harrowing encounter. “I saw him downtown around 1995,” Clark recalled. “The eyes looked hollow, like they were looking through you. He didn’t know who I was. It was eerie to see a guy with so much bloody talent sunk to those depths.”

By now Hadwin had been riding a neurochemical roller coaster for at least seven years. In spite of this, he managed to honour the terms of his probation, but being kept on such a short leash put enormous strain on him. As with a lot of men who feel their freedom and purpose have been somehow denied, Hadwin began casting about for other ways to manifest his competence and make an impact. He stayed up-to-date on local and international news and became increasingly involved in environmental and Native issues, both of which are highly contentious topics in British Columbia. During an armed standoff between First Nations activists and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that took place during the summer of 1995 at Gustafsen Lake, 150 kilometres north of Kamloops, Hadwin went so far as to travel there and offer his services as an intermediary. Not surprisingly, his offer was declined. The Gustafsen Lake standoff, during which two RCMP officers were shot in the back, was one of a number of such skirmishes occurring throughout the country at this time, and it received national news coverage. The impasse, which ended in a surrender after three weeks, made a deep impression on Hadwin, and he sent dozens of faxes and certified letters to Native groups, politicians, and the media. To CNN, he wrote:

Your focus appears to be Bosnia and O. J. Simpson. Your Native American problem, however, parallels our own and yet your coverage, appears to be nonexistent…. You would apparently go to any lengths to deflect the focus from the real issues, which discredit yourselves or your professional institutions.

Hadwin’s letter-writing campaign continued to intensify, and within this raft of correspondence is what appears to be a final attempt to find meaningful employment. On January 12, 1996, in response to an ad for a Forest Renewal Project coordinator, Hadwin sent his still-formidable résumé, along with the following cover letter:

I do not like clear cutting and my philosophical differences, with the Forest Industry, run deep. If you are prepared to try a “gentler approach,” to forestry, with less “short term profit,” I may be able to help. I am not familiar with the new “buzz-words,” such as Forest Renewal. All of Forestry and most of the Forests, appear to need “Renewing,” in some form or another.

Hadwin didn’t get the job. His only consolation, it seemed, would be a woman named Cora Gray. One of Hadwin’s neighbours in the apartment complex where he was living was Matilda Wale, an elder from the Gitxsan tribe whose homeland borders Tsimshian territory, due east of the Queen Charlottes. The Gitxsan are inlanders; as a result, they remained insulated from Europeans for much longer than the coastal tribes. Even as recently as the 1920s it was considered unsafe for government officials to travel there. Hadwin looked after “Tilly” Wale, helping her out when she needed it and occasionally buying her groceries. In July of 1996, Tilly Wale’s half-sister, Cora Gray, came through town on her way to a powwow, and Hadwin put her up in his apartment. Gray was in her mid-seventies and she had lost her husband and her mother within the year; she was lonely and had a kindly, forgiving manner. She reminded Hadwin of a favourite aunt and he took a liking to her right away. Gray had a camper van and in it the two travelled as far as the Salmon Glacier, an enormous ice-blue tongue that laps the headwaters of Portland Canal, a 150-kilometre-long fjord on the B.C.-Alaskan border. Considering their radically different backgrounds, they had a lot in common; both had been separated from their families at an early age and sent away to schools they hated—Gray to a residential Aboriginal school in Alberta, and Hadwin to a British-style boarding school in Vancouver; physical abuse was commonplace in both institutions. The wounds left by these early banishments gave each an understanding of the other that was rare to find in such an incongruous match. On their trips together, Hadwin would often take time out to go running and swimming; then, in the evenings, he would cook for the two of them. They played cribbage and rummy, and laughed a lot; before long Gray had become Hadwin’s closest friend and confessor. Gray was with Hadwin when he made his first trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

THE QUEEN CHARLOTTES, all but forgotten since the collapse of the otter trade, had been rediscovered during World War I. This time it wasn’t furs, fish, or gold the outsiders had come for, but airplanes. In places such as Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound, and in the Yakoun Valley, they literally grew on trees, specifically, big old Sitka spruce. Prior to the war, Sitka spruce was a low-value tree, frequently passed over in favour of two other Northwest species: Douglas fir (also known as the “money tree”), which had become the builder’s choice for framing, flooring, and trim, and western red cedar, whose water-resistant properties were much sought after for shingles, siding, and fence posts. The only reason for cutting a Sitka spruce down was because it stood in the way of a cedar; once on the ground, it would often be left to rot or, if convenient, maybe pulped for paper.

But when early airplane designers discovered the tree, all that changed; the lowly—but huge—Sitka spruce became an aristocrat overnight. Light in weight, Sitka spruce wood possesses a rare combination of strength and flexibility that is ideal for making airplane wings and fuselages; cut into strips and laminated, it also makes excellent propellers. It has an added benefit in that it doesn’t splinter when hit by bullets—an unusual quality for any harder wood. For these reasons, the highest grade of Sitka spruce became known as “airplane spruce,” and the Charlottes had one of the highest densities of it anywhere on the coast. During the war years these trees were so sought after that they became the object of an extraordinary mobilization of military forces. Starting in 1917, more than thirty thousand American soldiers from the hastily formed Spruce Production Division, along with thousands of Canadian loggers contracted by Britain’s Imperial Munitions Board, were sent into the coastal forests to cut and mill trees for the war effort. Much of the wood harvested by these “spruce soldiers” went to build French, English, and Italian warplanes.*9 By the time the Germans surrendered, less than two years later, enough spruce had been harvested to girdle the earth one and a half times (about 200 million board feet). However, buried in the Commission on Conservation’s Tenth Annual Report from 1919 is a sobering glimpse of the future of West Coast logging:

The supply of Sitka spruce suitable for aeroplane construction is extremely limited…. [and the] continuance of cutting on a war basis for another year would have practically exhausted the spruce which should be secured at a reasonable expense of money and effort…. Only the large trees contain the clear, fine-grained lumber required, and these cannot be replaced in centuries. Most of the aeroplane material was cut from trees 500 to 800 years old, and it is doubtful if the succeeding stands will ever attain the same quality as these virgin stands.

While concerns like this were raised periodically over the ensuing decades, it would be more than fifty years before any meaningful action was taken. By then many of the islands and much of the coast would be reduced to moonscapes.

The spruce soldiers’ highly organized assault on the coastal forests helped to usher in the modern age of logging when the technology for dismantling forests began outstripping the imaginations of those who wielded it. It also led to phenomenal waste: with less desirable species such as hemlock and balsam being abandoned in favour of their more profitable neighbours, it has been estimated that, on average, nearly 30 percent of a cutblock’s usable wood was left to rot—or burn—among the slash. Despite having grown up in the forest, many West Coast loggers seem surprised at how fast their trees have fallen, and some of this can be attributed to a kind of magical thinking that was at work in the woods. Many in the industry were operating under the untested assumption that by the time the old growth was gone, the next generation of trees would be ready to harvest. This might have been true in the hand-logging—or even the steam-logging—days, but no longer. By now the industry had become blazingly efficient, and yet the majority of cutover forests were still left to reseed themselves once the loggers had gone.

Following a local catastrophe such as a fire, windstorm, or clear-cut, a forest will rebuild itself through a natural process called “succession.” On the coast, a series of species, beginning with berry bushes and low scrub and progressing through fast-growing alders to such shade-tolerant “climax” species as spruce, cedar, and hemlock, will follow one another in a predictable pattern that can take centuries to unfold. In the Charlottes, the seemingly commonsense practice of actively replanting cutover areas was not institutionalized until the 1960s; for interior and mountain forests like those around Gold Bridge, replanting wasn’t introduced until the 1980s.

“They bullshitted us,” a retired Haida logger named Wesley Pearson said of the logging companies he used to work for back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. “They said when we finished logging [the Queen Charlottes] we could start over. Well, we logged it a hell of lot faster than anybody thought we’d log it. A lot of mistakes were made; the government didn’t keep an eye on the big companies.”

But lies are easier to swallow when the money is good, and for fallers and high riggers like Pearson, it was. Another Haida faller named Bill Stevens could have been speaking for the entire logging industry when he said, “When you have that job, you forget about everything else for awhile.”

To get an idea of the scale of logging taking place in the Charlottes during the last thirty years, one need only look as far as the Haida Monarch and the Haida Brave. At the time of their launching in the mid-seventies, they were the world’s largest floating log carriers, and both were built to serve the islands; the Monarch (the larger of the two) is capable of carrying nearly four million board feet of timber (about four hundred truckloads) at a time. When one of these vessels dumps its load at the booming grounds in Vancouver, it can generate a spontaneous wave three metres high.

MacMillan Bloedel, Canada’s biggest logging company at the time, operated the Haida Monarch and Haida Brave, and both vessels would routinely travel through Masset Sound on their way to Juskatla Inlet and the “log sort” where much of the Yakoun Valley’s trees were taken for transport. Whereas the nineteenth-century otter ships had appeared to be in plausible proportion to the houses and canoes that lined the village beaches, these modern vessels dwarf everything in sight. Both ships are approximately one hundred and twenty metres long, and they seem a tight fit in the slender gut of Masset Sound. From beach-or boat-level, a log carrier looks less like a ship than a floating wall of steel; more than thirty metres above the water loom fifty-ton cranes for loading the literal forests of cargo. In addition to their tactless choice of names, their colour scheme exudes a sinister otherworldliness: the vessels are matte black, like Stealth bombers, as if they were designed to evade detection. But the opposite effect is achieved: as they emerge from the fog, moving inexorably across the celadon-grey North Pacific, they bring their concentrated darkness with them. Watching them approach, one has the feeling that no good can possibly come of this. And yet, laden with a suburb’s worth of cedar decking, these seagoing resource removers are as much a part of the modern Haida legacy as the Nor’westmen. For decades, sometimes as much as twice a week, the residents of Masset have watched their patrimony get loaded up and carried off. Although 80 percent of the logging jobs are given to people from off-island and 95 percent of the wood is sent south, some of them have profited from it. As Wesley Pearson put it, “If you’re born in the Charlottes, you’re either a fisherman or a logger.” These are, after all, virtually the only jobs available out here, and so many Haida find themselves in a strangely familiar double bind: aid and abet the plundering of their historic homeland, or get left behind.

“I liked logging as a young man,” recalled Pearson. “I’d never have made anywhere near the money I made in logging ’cause I didn’t have any schooling. I can’t say anything against it ’cause too many people depend on it. But how do you control it? The big companies always get the wood they want.”

This question had been bothering Hadwin, too, and he carried it with him everywhere he went. In September 1996, shortly after what came to be known as the Haida Brave blockade, Hadwin visited Haida Gwaii for the first time. In doing so, he stumbled into a vortex of conflicting hopes, dreams, and ambitions. The golden spruce and its environs embody the collision between the ideal of “Haida Gwaii”: a true rainforest paradise complete with gigantic trees and genuine Natives, and its industrial alter ego, “the Charlottes,” an offshore timber warehouse employing vertical storage. British Columbia has been described as a banana republic, only with bigger bananas, and nowhere else in the province is this more blatantly the case than here. As such, the islands are an internationally recognized poster child for loggers, environmentalists, and Native rights activists alike. The golden spruce was caught in the middle.

A month earlier, on August 1, while staging a protest against MacMillan Bloedel’s continued logging of the coastal rainforest, Greenpeace activists had been fire-hosed off the deck of the Haida Brave while it lay at the dock in Juskatla Inlet. Later that afternoon, as it made its way down Masset Sound with a full load of logs, the barge was intercepted and forced to turn around by approximately fifty Haida in war canoes and motorboats. This wasn’t the first time: with the assistance of environmental groups, the Haida had staged several highly successful anti-logging campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s; not only did they establish the archipelago as a key battleground in the coastal forest wars, but they marked it as the site of one of the earliest—and greatest—victories for forest preservationists. The creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in 1987 saved the southern third of the archipelago from logging but also resulted in the loss of more than a hundred forestry jobs. What distinguished this latest event was that it moved the conflict “offshore” it was the first time in nearly a hundred and fifty years that the Haida had taken action against a foreign vessel.

With the point having been made, the Haida Brave was allowed to pass the following day, but Greenpeace continued to harass the barge as it made its way south, and just outside Vancouver some activists successfully boarded, chaining themselves to logs and loading cranes. The islands are a small place and the Haida and Greenpeace actions were big news there. For six weeks afterward, the Greenpeace boarding and its legal aftermath received steady coverage in B.C. newspapers. It is highly likely that Hadwin would have been following this story, just as he had followed the standoff at Gustafsen Lake.

Hadwin had been at home in Kamloops when he made the decision to go to the islands, but because Hazelton, Cora Gray’s hometown, was on the way, he took Matilda Wale and her boyfriend with him for a visit. Once in Hazelton, Grant invited Cora, along with her sister Martha and her husband, to join them in the islands, and he paid their way across. They would have made an odd party: five elders and Grant, still rippling with muscle, still casting about for a task that was consistent with his principles and equal to his stamina.

Hadwin and his entourage spent a week in the islands, and during this time he visited the golden spruce. The tree’s location couldn’t have been less auspicious: over the years it had been surrounded by a maze of logging roads, and all of them terminated at Juskatla, the base of modern logging operations in Haida Gwaii. Lying only a few kilometres west of the golden spruce, Juskatla is a chilly, desolate parallel universe of scoured earth, heavy machinery, and dozens of white Ford 250 pickups—the official vehicle of the logging industry. Equipment is stored and repaired there in a cavernous building, and off-road logging trucks rumble in and out like clockwork. On one typical day, a large sign proclaimed 9 DAYS WITHOUT AN INJURY. Nearby is the dock and log sort where the barges are loaded. Evans Wood Products had a yard like this on the outskirts of Lillooet, and once you’ve seen one, it’s not hard to understand why a person like Hadwin would avoid it at all costs.

The golden spruce grew equidistant between Juskatla and Port Clements, the pioneer settlement that has since evolved into a bedroom community for loggers; today, about 530 people live there. Located halfway up Graham Island, on the eastern shore of Masset Inlet, the village’s welcome sign is made from an uprooted cedar stump, and once past it, the first thing to greet visitors is a clear-cut littered with slash piles and rusting logging equipment. It is so wet here that any object capable of casting a shadow is also a breeding ground for algae; if left alone, the green slime will give way to mosses and ferns; eventually seedlings will take root and, in less time than just about anywhere else outside the tropics, an abandoned truck, or a mobile home roof, will become an ecosystem unto itself. It could be argued that the golden spruce owes its preservation to the village’s loggers and foresters. Over the years, locals had grown fond of the curious tree; Harry Tingley had picnicked by it with his father in the 1930s, and it had always been a place where islanders would take friends and family who were visiting from the mainland. For Haida and Anglo alike, the tree was like an old friend, a benign and reassuring constant for all who knew it.

To this day, come October, Tsiij git’anee clan members gather on the Yakoun River, downstream from the golden spruce, in order to catch salmon as they make their annual trip up the Yakoun River in order to spawn and die. There is every reason to suppose that this seasonal harvest has been performed in roughly the same place, using roughly the same technique, for millennia. It’s almost dizzying to imagine the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of generations who have participated in this unbroken cycle of food gathering. Today the entire Tsiij git’anee clan could fit inside a two-car garage, but at one time the clan controlled a significant portion of the Yakoun River watershed, including the spot where the golden spruce stood.

Before European settlers and miners arrived in the 1860s, the Queen Charlotte Islands were exclusively Haida territory, and fishing, hunting, berry picking, or water rights to a particular area were held by one clan or another. For this reason among others, intratribal warfare and territorial disputes were a fact of life in the archipelago. Thus, the land the Tsiij git’anee claim now may not always have been theirs and its ownership is still in question. Their claim has been contested by a Tsiij git’anee offshoot called the Masset Inlet Eagle clan, but this claim has had to take a number behind several other claims: that of the Haida Nation, the Canadian government, and MacMillan Bloedel, Ltd.

Until recently, MacBlo had major holdings in Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and the United States. Its Canadian properties included an enormous lease in British Columbia called Tree Farm License (TFL) 39, which is composed of timberlands on the mainland, Vancouver Island, and the Queen Charlottes. MacMillan died in 1976, and in 1999 the company was taken over by Weyerhaeuser, the world’s largest wood products company, based in Tacoma, Washington. Weyerhaeuser, which has been a dominant force in the timber industry for well over a century, controls timberlands throughout the world. The Charlottes’ portion of TFL 39 is called Block 6, or the Haida Tree Farm License; it encompasses many of the archipelago’s northern islands and much of the Yakoun Valley, including the golden spruce. In 2005, Block 6 was sold again to Brascan.

By the time Hadwin showed up, most of Block 6 had been levelled at some point during the previous eighty years; entire islands had been shaved bald, in some cases out of spite born of intraisland rivalries. Much of the landscape has been permanently scarred by the landslides that follow poorly managed clear-cut operations. It is hard to appreciate the scale of the logging until you see it from the air. “When you fly over the northern islands now and see all that’s been taken,” said a Haida artist named Hazel Simeon, “you can’t speak for a few days afterward.” As a result of all this activity, the golden spruce was one of the few mature Sitka spruce trees still standing at the north end of the Yakoun River, and as such it had become even more of an anomaly than it already was. Most of the other survivors, including some big cedar and hemlock, were clustered around it; together, they composed a tiny island of old-growth forest in what is, effectively, a huge clear-cut in various stages of recovery.

In the late 1960s, MacMillan Bloedel began reserving small patches of forest that were considered particularly beautiful or environmentally sensitive. These “set-asides” were generally minuscule, seldom amounting to more than three or four hectares—nowhere near big enough to serve a significant conservation function for the ecosystem. Their primary purposes were recreational and symbolic—the briefest of nods to the great forests that had once stood there. One drawback to these pocket parks is that with no other tall trees to protect them, they are extremely vulnerable to “windthrow” (getting blown down). Even today, these little reserves are begrudged by some in the industry; in 2003, during a stroll through an old-growth set-aside on Vancouver Island, a local forester confided, “If this was mine, I’d cut it all down and plant it in fir.” The park covers just over three hectares. A hundred metres away, loaded logging trucks were passing at a rate of one every twenty minutes.

Recreational possibilities were seen for the golden spruce in the mid-1970s and at the urging of the local logging and forestry community, MacMillan Bloedel planned to set aside five hectares of old-growth forest around the tree. However, the tree’s protection became a moot point when recent environmental regulations declared riverbanks and other sensitive riparian zones off-limits to logging. The Haida were not formally consulted on the matter because, apparently, there was no awareness among the white community that the tree had any special meaning for them. But the same could be said for the Haida themselves; even within the tribe, only a handful of people knew the story associated with it, and at that time they had more pressing concerns. Native people did not get the right to vote in Canada until 1960,*10 and the Haida’s resurgence was still in its infancy. For them as for many other North American tribes, a period of dramatic rediscovery was just beginning.

Meanwhile, MacMillan Bloedel ran a proper trail in to the golden spruce, and a bench was built there so that visitors could view the tree, which stood across the river on the west bank. The tree itself was inaccessible unless one had a boat, or walked several kilometres up to the nearest bridge and then back downriver on the other side, a detour that takes several hours due to heavy brush and windfalls. In 1984 tour buses began making regular stops at the tree, benefiting local businesses, including the Golden Spruce Motel. In 1997 the town’s growing ecotourist trade got an additional boost when an albino raven showed up. Usually killed or ostracized by their black counterparts, the white raven was the only one of its kind in the province. Between it and the golden spruce, Port Clements had cornered the freak-of-nature market in western Canada.

Both creatures had a startling, supernatural quality to them, and on a sunny day the golden spruce’s luminescence never failed to impress—or to mystify. D’Arcy Davis-Case, a forestry expert who lived in Haida Gwaii for years before becoming a consultant to the United Nations on forestry issues, recalled that, “botanists and dendrologists were always trying to explain the tree’s golden colour.” When asked what they had concluded, Davis-Case smiled and rolled her eyes. “Magic!” she said.

To those who were lucky enough to see the golden spruce in bright sunshine, Davis-Case’s explanation sounds plausible enough. Many spoke of its peculiar radiance, as if it were actually generating light from deep within its branches. Ruth Jones, a Vancouver-based artist, visited the golden spruce late one sunny afternoon in 1994. “It looked as if it were made of glowing gold,” she said. “It was like a fairy tale: how can this be?” After seeing it on a sunny day in 1995, a journalist named Ben Parfitt came away feeling that it was “somehow closer and more alive than all of the other trees around it.” Marilyn Baldwin, the owner of a sporting goods store across Hecate Strait, in Prince Rupert, visited the tree on a grey foggy day in the early 1990s. “A few minutes after we got there,” she recalled, “the sun burned the fog off, and suddenly there it was in its golden brilliance. We called it the Ooh-Aah tree, because that’s what it made us all say.” A senior engineer for MacMillan Bloedel who saw the tree under similar circumstances compared its sudden illumination to a religious experience.

But Hadwin saw something different, and it was the same thing that many of his more pragmatic colleagues saw: a “sick tree.” More so than most people, he would have been struck by the contrast between the vestigial grove containing the town mascot and the free-range saw log farm that surrounded it. To a person who knew the woods as well as Hadwin, it would have been as insulting and ludicrous as an albino buffalo on a putting green. Where were all its healthy counterparts? Headed south on the Haida Brave.