The Fall - 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 8. The Fall

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

—William Blake, PROVERBS OF HELL

NOT LONG AFTER his trip to Haida Gwaii with Cora Gray, Hadwin left Kamloops for good. He headed north again, alone, eventually winding up at the Yukon Inn in Whitehorse, just north of the B.C. border. Here the Yukon River drops down from its source near the Chilkoot Pass to begin its three-thousand-kilometre arc up through the vast heart of Alaska and down again into the Bering Sea. Winter lasts a long time here and it had already begun by the time Hadwin arrived. He had always taken pride in his high tolerance for frigid water, and over the years he had swum in icy rivers throughout British Columbia, Alaska, the Yukon, and Russia. While he was in Whitehorse, he began taking dips in the Yukon River. The banks were covered in snow by this time, and ice was starting to form on the surface. Besides swimming and exercising, Hadwin’s purpose for being in Whitehorse was unclear, but he stayed in regular phone contact with Cora Gray. He missed her company, and in mid-November he persuaded her to join him, going so far as to pay for her plane ticket.

She was watching as Hadwin went into the Yukon one December day when the air temperature was thirty-five below zero. By this time the only part of the river that wasn’t frozen was a particularly fast-moving section by a dam outflow. Hadwin walked out onto the ice and used a stepladder to lower himself in; he remained immersed for about fifteen minutes. Witnesses were so alarmed that the Mounties were called, and a reporter from the Yukon News showed up as well. “The water was smoking,” Gray recalled. “When he got out, there were icicles hanging off his eyebrows and hair. He ran back to the car, where I was waiting, and he said, ‘I know I’m OK when you’re there watching me.’ I asked him, ‘Why are you torturing yourself?’ and he said, ‘I’m training myself. I won’t be around here next year.’ I knew he was planning something.”

But she had no idea what. During the previous six months Grant had confided in her the most intimate and painful details of his life, but his future plans were a mystery. Cora began to get nervous; she had intended to stay in Whitehorse for only two weeks, but under pressure from Grant, she ended up staying for six. On several occasions local Natives took her aside and told her they had a bad feeling about Hadwin, that she should get away from him. “When I mentioned flying home,” she explained, “Grant cried like a baby, saying, ‘I think you’re the only one who’s ever worried about me.’” But he also told her not to answer the phone when her sisters called. “Finally, I persuaded him that I had to go home, and he offered to drive me. He said, ‘Don’t tell your sisters you’re coming home; surprise them.’”

It was at this point that Cora Gray began fearing for her life. This was also when her half-sister, Tilly Wale, had the frog dream. As with the Haida, the Gitxsan are divided into clans; Cora is a member of the Frog clan, and so is Tilly. Only days before Cora was due to leave Whitehorse, Tilly dreamed of a frog getting crushed by a car. She was so frightened that she called her half-sister and told her. Cora was frightened, too, but she was so far from home; there was nothing she could do.

Grant and Cora left Whitehorse at 4 A.M. on December 30. It was a fifteen-hour drive through extremely remote country to Cora’s home in Hazelton, and due to the high latitude and the time of year, the sun would be up for only six hours of the trip. Moose, wolf, cougar, and bobcat are common sights up here, and their disembodied eyes glinted green and orange as they stared back from the darkened roadside. At five-thirty that afternoon, two hours north of Hazelton, they reached the Nass River Bridge. Like most bridges in the north, this one is only one lane wide and Grant headed toward it at full speed. Despite the bright moonlight and clear sight lines, he failed to register that a pickup truck was crossing from the other side. Cora remembers being very calm, saying, “Grant, did you know it’s a one-lane bridge?” The road was icy at the entrance ramp, and at the last minute, Hadwin hit the brakes. His Honda skidded and went sideways, up onto the low railing. From the passenger seat, Cora continued narrating what she believed was the end of her life: “Then I said, ‘We’re going into the Nass.’ I didn’t panic; I just thought, ‘If I’m going to go, I’m going to go.’ I was kind of expecting it.”

In the end, they didn’t go into the Nass; they hit the pickup head-on. Cora’s ankles were shattered, her cheek was broken, and both hands were bruised through; Grant, meanwhile, suffered only a cut lip. Even more worrisome than Cora’s injuries, however, was the fact that it was forty below zero and they had lost their heat source. At this temperature cast iron can shatter like glass, exposed flesh will freeze in seconds, and the touch of metal will burn like fire. The nearest ambulance was two hours away. Grant jumped out of the car to assist Cora, but in his haste he forgot to put on his gloves, and when he attempted to open her door his fingers burned instantly. Meanwhile, the suitcases in back had been thrown against the passenger seat and Cora was indeed being crushed—she was choking on her seat belt—but Hadwin’s hands were so badly blistered that he was unable to free her. He called to the truck driver for help and then he put his arms around Cora. “Don’t die!” he begged. “Don’t leave me behind!”

Grant had bundled Cora into heavy clothes and a sleeping bag for the long, cold trip, and according to her doctor, if not for this padding, she almost certainly would have died—either on impact or later, of exposure. Cora’s ankles had to be repaired with screws and plates and now she must use a walker to get around. Hadwin visited her in the hospital every day until he left again for Haida Gwaii two weeks later, on January 12, 1997. “I’ve always wondered if Grant was trying to kill us both,” she said, “so he wouldn’t have to be alone.”

ONCE IN HAIDA GWAII, Hadwin gave every impression of being a man on a one-way trip. While staying in a motel at the sparsely inhabited north end of Graham Island, he gave away all his possessions, including a number of things that had once belonged to his father. “Take whatever you want,” he told Jennifer Wilson, the twenty-year-old daughter of the motel’s manager “because I’m going to burn the rest.” Hadwin went on at length about university-trained professionals, referring to them as “an incestuous breed of insidious manipulators.” According to Wilson, he advocated terrorism as the most effective means of bringing about change, and he talked a great deal about trees. “I learned a lot from him about the forest,” she recalled. “He seemed so passionate—like he wanted to do something good. I got the sense he had found his purpose.” At one point Jennifer and Grant visited the golden spruce together. To a passerby, they might have made a pleasing and romantic picture: a handsome, youthful man and his attractive blonde companion—both of them clearly at home on the wild western rim of the continent. Grant was carrying a camera, and he asked Jennifer to take a picture of him with the golden tree towering above. In his hand is a beaded eagle feather, a gift from a Native elder.

After buying a gas can, falling wedges, and a top-of-the-line Stihl chainsaw, Hadwin relocated to Port Clements, where he checked into the Golden Spruce motel. The last time Jennifer Wilson saw him, he was wearing earplugs; he had to wear them, he told her, because every word he heard felt like a direct insult. Hadwin was travelling with medication, but it is pretty clear that by this stage he had either run out or simply stopped taking it.

Hadwin had replaced his totalled Honda, and during the night of January 20, 1997, he drove to the head of MacMillan Bloedel’s Golden Spruce Trail. Having sealed his saw, wedges, gas and oil, and presumably his clothes into inflated garbage bags, he packed them down the short trail and descended the steep bank of the Yakoun. While it freezes over occasionally, the twenty-metre-wide river was open now and flowing more quickly than usual as it had been swollen by winter rains. The temperature was near zero when Hadwin slipped into the current and swam across, trailing his equipment behind him. The bank on the far side is equally steep and slippery, and it would have taken some doing to get himself and his gear up into the forest, particularly in pitch darkness. There was no one around for miles, and as usual, clouds hovered low over the islands, enveloping everything in a miasm of mist and rain. Whatever light there was, Hadwin would have had to bring with him. The tree stood just back from the riverbank as it had for the past three centuries. It would have been a looming presence in the darkness, its golden qualities invisible in the sodden gloom.

HADWIN HAD CUT DOWN hundreds of trees in his life, but he had never tackled one this big; the golden spruce was more than two metres in diameter at its base, and it is rare to find trees this size around Gold Bridge, or elsewhere in the interior. By island standards, however, it was only of average size; there are specimens of Sitka spruce still standing on the coast which are four and a half metres in diameter, but even larger ones have been reported in the Yakoun Valley. Like the redwood and red cedar, big Sitka spruce often grow “buttresses”—thick ridges that fan out from the trunk to help stabilize the tree on mountainsides and in shallow, rocky soil. In the early 1960s, a forester named Wally Pearson measured a spruce stump a short distance upriver from the golden spruce that was seven metres across—a diameter comparable to that of a giant sequoia; a tree measuring eight metres was reported farther south in Sandspit. The only way to fell huge trees like this is to “dismantle” them: first by cutting the buttresses off and then by tunnelling inward by cutting out what are called “window blocks.”

In 1987 a Vancouver Island faller named Randy felled a red cedar more than six and a half metres in diameter. Using a Husqvarna 160 chainsaw with a forty-inch bar, it took him six and a half hours. After cutting a wedge all the way around the outside of the tree, he cut window blocks and tunnelled into the centre. The noise from his saw was so loud inside the chamber he had made, and the exhaust so thick, that he didn’t know the tree was falling until daylight, let in by the lifting trunk, lit up the smoke around him. When a tree this big hits the ground, it doesn’t sound like a tree; it sounds like a building collapsing at your feet. To those experiencing it for the first time, it gives new meaning to the expression “fear of God.” When he examined the stump afterward, Randy recalled that “the [tree] rings were so tight you couldn’t fit a piece of paper between them. That thing had to be—fuck—thousands of years old.”

The response most fallers have to bringing down a massive specimen like this is similar to that of a hunter when he bags a trophy animal: it is at once beautiful, terrible—and immensely satisfying. But it is a rare occurrence nowadays. Randy’s cedar was very likely the last of the truly huge coastal trees to be cut legally in British Columbia. “But even dropping the little ones—I still get a thrill,” he added. “I’ll never get tired of it. I’ve been hurt; I’ve had guys killed right next to me. But I guess that’s why they pay us the way they do.”

In British Columbia, a typical faller works a six-and-a-half hour day, for safety reasons, and until recently, a faller working for MacMillan Bloedel could make $800 a day. But since Weyerhauser took over, company fallers have been replaced, increasingly, by contract labour, with the result that day rates have dropped about 30 percent. Even so, it’s still serious money for a job that appeals to only a tiny sliver of the general population. “Fallers are loners,” explained Bill Weber, one of the few bullbuckers (falling supervisors) to survive the Weyerhauser takeover. “You’re the master of your own destiny—you’re not at the mercy of the machines. If you get whacked, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.”

There is no question that fallers, like high riggers, or helicopter pilots, are attuned differently than other people; you can see it in the way they move their heads. A conscientious faller will keep a close eye on the tree above him for the same reason—and with the same reflexive jerks of the head—that a feeding bird will: because in the forest, death generally comes from above. The top of the tree is where much of the information is; everything happening at the base is exaggerated at the extremities, much the way the end of a fishing rod will exaggerate the smallest movements of one’s casting hand. Thus, the first indication that a tree is about to go can be seen in the quivering of the branch tips. These early vibrations can also shake loose dead branches, some of which can be the size of small trees; such deadly bolts from the blue are called “widowmakers.” Should a faller happen to be hungover, looking straight up a long, gun-barrel trunk with its tapering perspective exploding into a kaleidoscopic spray of branches ten storeys up will not only set his head spinning, it can induce nausea as well. Even when he’s sober, the experience can be disorienting, and it is exacerbated by the tremendous amount of flex evident in a long trunk on the verge of falling. Unfortunately, this effect is easiest to see when mistakes have been made.

Standard procedure for falling a tree of any size, once the direction of fall has been chosen, is to cut a deep, grin-shaped wedge into that side of the tree; on the coast, this is called a Humboldt undercut. Occasionally a faller will cut his wedge too shallow or misjudge the tree’s natural lean and, instead of falling over in the intended direction, the tree will settle back on the saw as it cuts through from the back side. This presents an extremely dangerous situation because it renders the saw useless and it means the faller is no longer in control. Now, the tree can do anything. Not only does it have 360 degrees of falling possibility, it can also kick out at the bottom, and even a glancing blow from that much mass will kill an elephant. Once a tree has settled back like this, falling wedges are the only way to persuade it to tip over in anything resembling a controlled fashion.

In addition to calk boots, many loggers today wear Kevlar pants to mitigate chainsaw accidents, held up with the logger’s trademark red suspenders. Around their waist is a heavy leather belt with holsters and pouches containing chainsaw tools, compression bandages, a cruising axe, and falling wedges made of high-impact plastic. A wedge, usually several, is inserted into the cut on the back side of a reluctant tree; some wedges are less than three centimetres thick, but in many cases, that is all it takes to shift a tree’s equilibrium. At this point, the only things keeping the tree upright are a slender strip of holding wood, the downward pull of gravity, and the tree’s own exquisitely balanced architecture. But a gust of wind or a snapping fibre can change all that in an instant, and as the wedges are driven home, a tree’s flexibility becomes alarmingly apparent. The faller’s rapid skyward glances will follow shock waves from each blow as they roll up the trunk, exiting through the topmost branches in rhythmic shivers. To some, this might seem gratuitously provocative—like kicking a giant in the shins—and they would be right. It takes a certain kind of person to bang on something wider than his front door, heavier than his whole house, and twenty storeys tall when it’s doing a snake dance.

Dennis Bendickson discovered early on that he wasn’t that kind of person. Bendickson is a third-generation logger from a family that pioneered on Hardwicke Island. Silver-haired and solidly built, with forearms that still look powerful, he is now a senior instructor and program director in the Forestry Department at the University of British Columbia. Like most loggers, Bendickson went into the woods young; in his late teens he began falling big old growth. He knew he didn’t have what it takes to keep at it when he asked himself, “Do I want to live to twenty-one?” “Cutting big trees, they usually need wedging to get them to go over,” Bendickson explained. “I’d wedge and wedge, and they’d pop their holding wood; they’d be like a ballerina, spinning around on the stump. And you’re down there running around like a squirrel trying to figure which way it’s going to go, and you don’t commit until the tree commits.”

Referring to the academic joke about being “educated beyond your level of intelligence,” Bendickson said, “There are some jobs where that’s dangerous. I tried to think too much about what would happen. I’d try to work out the physics of it rather than rely on that sixth sense that good fallers seem to have.”

This unmeasurable, nonintellectual awareness—what some call “bush sense”—is probably what keeps woodsmen like Randy, Bill Weber, and Grant Hadwin alive. Not only will a good faller have a better feel than most for how a tree will behave in a given situation, he may—like a gifted athlete—also have more “time” in the crucial moments to take in and process information and then determine the correct course of action—not by thinking, but by intuiting at a hyper-or extrasensory level (though dumb luck is a factor too). In the case of logging, the test for who has this gift, and who doesn’t, is a terminal pass-fail. As Donnie Zapp, a Vancouver Island faller with thirty-five years in, put it, “It’s not a job you want to bullshit your way into.”

But chainsaws make it look easier than it is. Of all the technological advances that have taken place in the forest, the most radical has been this one. Chainsaws have been in development since at least 1905, when a two-man prototype was successfully tested in Eureka, California. After the logging frenzy of World War I, an amazing variety of devices was tested, but most of them, including one that used a red-hot wire to burn through trees, proved impractical in the rugged coastal forests. The chainsaw as we know it today—essentially a motor-driven bicycle chain armed with sharp teeth—didn’t become a common feature in the woods until after World War II, but by the early 1950s, the last axemen had been converted. However, these early power saws weren’t much of an improvement; in addition to being mechanically cranky, the steel and magnesium machines had seven-foot bars and could weigh 140 pounds. Tree falling fifty years ago would have been kind of like climbing mountains all day while carrying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine, along with its chain and rear sprocket. By around ten in the morning, a five-pound axe must have looked pretty attractive. But the power and appeal of the chainsaw is undeniable, and it was clear they were in the woods to stay. Since then they have evolved into sleek, light, and devastatingly efficient cleavers of the forest. Today, even a big chainsaw like a Stihl 066 weighs under seventeen pounds and, with with a forty-inch bar and a chain speed of a hundred kilometres an hour, it has the same searing, attention-grabbing power as an AK-47 or a Gibson “Les Paul.” Like a machine gun or an electric guitar, a chainsaw is a handheld deus ex machina: a supercharged extension of masculine will that is impossible to ignore. They are thrilling tools to use. Some B.C. fallers, not content with stock performance, have their saw engines souped up to the point that their enlarged exhaust ports need spark arresters to prevent them from starting forest fires.

Under ideal conditions, chainsaws function like noisy butter knives: one can buck up a large tree using only the weight of the saw and the pressure of one’s trigger finger. But they will also take off a man’s limbs as fast as a tree’s. Given the right combination of opposing forces, they can behave like Ninja helicopters, and their tremendous power encourages a dangerously casual attitude toward smaller trees. A faller named Hal Beek discovered this in the worst way imaginable while working a setting on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1998. Unlike second-growth tree plantations, which are usually monocultural groves all the same age, most old-growth forests contain trees from every stage of life; in between the giants are other aspirants of various sizes, including hundreds of saplings. As he travels from one big tree to the next, a faller will often use his saw like a slow-moving machete, swinging it back and forth in front of him—motor by the hip, blade angled toward the ground—to clear a path for himself. However, by cutting these smaller trees on a bevel rather than flat, the faller leaves a trail of “pig’s ears”—pointed stumplets—behind him. Beek had cut a trail through a stand in order to get at a windfall cedar about two metres in diameter, and while standing atop the fallen trunk, he reached over and cut off another nearby sapling, leaving behind a pig’s ear about a metre and a half high. It was raining (as usual) and while Beek was bucking up the cedar, he slipped backward on some moss and impaled himself on this living spear; it entered through his rectum and didn’t stop until it reached his spine. At that point, his toes were just touching the ground.

Fallers who have lost limbs to saws and shearing trees generally describe the experience as feeling like a “bump” the real pain tends to come later. But an injury such as Beek’s is different; the pain he felt was instantaneous and indescribable. Every motion, even his attempts to call for help, would have been an agony unto itself—the kind that would make most people pass out. Making matters worse was the fact that his legs were already fully extended: there was no way to free himself, and every movement risked driving the stake in further. Fallers generally work in pairs for safety reasons, and it is now customary for partners to call out to each other if they don’t hear the other one’s saw running, but Beek’s partner was of the old school and he was oblivious; he heard neither Beek’s shouts nor his emergency whistle. Beek realized that if he couldn’t save himself, and quickly, he was going to bleed to death. Somehow he found it in himself to restart his saw, manoeuvre its thirty-six inch bar behind him, and cut himself free—without amputating his feet, or collapsing back on the sapling or the saw. Then, with the metre-long stave still inside him, Beek crawled a hundred metres up an embankment, through heavy brush to a logging road. By the time the helicopter came, his friends were calling him Fudgsicle. After three months spent attached to a colostomy bag, and another three in rehab, he went back falling. This is not a unique occurrence; Beek’s bullbucker, Matt Mooney, witnessed a similar situation in the Queen Charlottes when his partner fell on a broken branch; it entered by the same path and exited through the man’s belly.


DESPITE HIS PROPENSITY for envelope-pushing, Hadwin was injured badly in the bush only once—when the pawl on a jack he was using slipped under load, causing the handle to flip up and shatter his jaw. The alarming frequency of accidents in the woods puts Hadwin’s preference for working alone in a different light. Most responsible companies wouldn’t allow it now. Cutting down big trees in total darkness is also frowned on.

The forest at night, in winter, is a very quiet place, and Hadwin’s saw would have sounded unbelievably loud in that peaceful setting. It roared for hours, unheard, apparently, by all but Hadwin. The bull-bucker for MacMillan Bloedel who later performed what can only be described as chainsaw forensics on the tree, noted that Hadwin knew what he was doing. He employed a Humboldt undercut and then cut a series of “cookies”—small window blocks—to allow his sixty-five-centimetre bar access to the heart of the tree. He had clearly studied his target carefully because he made his cuts and employed falling wedges in such a way that the tree would not fall with its natural lean but rather in line with the prevailing winds and toward the river. Sitka spruce is so strong that two nine-metre logs connected by only ten centimetres of heartwood can be dragged through the forest without breaking, and Hadwin took advantage of this by leaving just enough holding wood so that the golden spruce would remain standing until the next storm blew in.

But as Hadwin was making his cuts, he was—like every logger—also carving his way into the past. Tree rings that had been hidden since Harry Tingley picnicked there with his father, since the last smallpox epidemic emptied the surrounding villages, since Captain Kendrick was riddled with grapeshot, since a time before Captain Pérez and Chief Koyah were born—all this fled by, unnoticed, in a flickering comet’s tail of sawdust. Hadwin didn’t stop cutting until about 1710, when his own ancestors were still living a near-tribal existence in the British Isles and the masts of the first Nor’westman had yet to puncture the southern horizon. Then Hadwin shut down the saw, packed up his gear, and floated it back across the Yakoun, leaving behind an audible silence and a tree so unstable that it would have shivered with every breath.

THE NEXT DAY, Hadwin gave the saw away to an acquaintance in Old Masset and caught a plane back to Prince Rupert. While he was there, he stayed in the Moby Dick Inn, a high-rise motel three blocks from the water, and it was from here that he sent his final blast fax, copies of which were received by Greenpeace, Prince Rupert’s Daily News, the Vancouver Sun, members of the Haida Nation, and even Cora Gray. But it was clear that the message was intended for another recipient: MacMillan Bloedel. It read, in part:

RE: The Falling of Your “Pet Plant”
Dear Sir or Madam:

…I didn’t enjoy butchering, this magnificent old plant, but you apparently need a message and wake-up call, that even a university trained professional, should be able to understand…. I meant no disrespect, to most of The Haida People, by my actions or to the natural environment, of Haida Gwaii. I do, however, mean this action, to be an expression, of my rage and hatred, towards university trained professionals and their extremist supporters, whose ideas, ethics, denials, part truths, attitudes, etc., appear to be responsible, for most of the abominations, towards amateur life on this planet.

A day later, the golden spruce came crashing down.

Locally, the reaction was overwhelming, particularly within the Haida community. “It was like a drive-by shooting in a small town,” John Broadhead, a longtime resident of the islands explained. “People were crying; they were in shock; they felt enormous guilt for not protecting the tree better.” Broadhead paused for a moment, trying to express the true impact in language someone who wasn’t Haida would understand. “It was as if someone had done a drive-by on the Little Prince,” he said at last. According to Haida legend, the golden spruce represented a good but defiant young boy who had been transformed, and because of this, some among the Haida saw the crime not as an act of vandalism, or protest, but as a kind of murder. “At a certain level it was real hurtful in the same way that New York [9/11] was,” explained a Haida elder named Diane Brown. “A piece of our community was rubbed out.”

As soon as they received the news, the Council of the Haida Nation issued the following press release:

The Haida people are saddened and angered by the destruction of K’iid K’iyaas, also known as the “Golden Spruce,” in the Yakoun River Valley on Haida Gwaii. The loss of K’iid K’iyaas is a deliberate violation of our cultural history. Our oral traditions about K’iid K’iyaas predate written history.

We declare to the world that the Haida Nation takes full ownership of the remains of K’iid K’iyaas, and that it is declared off limits to everyone. The Haida will conduct a private ceremony at the site to reconcile the loss.

The Haida expect that justice will prevail, and that the person responsible for the act of destruction will be punished. The Haida people will be watching every detail and if there is no apparent justice, the Haida will take appropriate action.

…The Haida have long regarded K’iid K’iyaas as a sentinel of the Yakoun Valley, and now that it has been destroyed, the Haidas will escalate protectionist measures for our land.

For several days after leaving the islands, Hadwin remained in Prince Rupert at the Moby Dick Inn, where he stood out from the usual clientele, but not for the reasons one would have suspected. “There was a big difference between him and the fishermen and divers who come in here,” recalled Pat Campbell, who worked the front desk. “He was more of an educated person, dressed sporty, neat and tidy.”

Prince Rupert is literally the end of the line; it marks the mainland terminus of the transcontinental Yellowhead Highway, and once you are here, there is nowhere to go but out to sea, or back where you came from. The nearest town is 130 kilometres inland. Long the centre of Canada’s North Pacific fishing industry, Prince Rupert earned a reputation for speed-and cocaine-driven crews who would send tidal waves of cash washing through the bars, restaurants, and motels every time they hit town. It rains so much here that locals often don’t bother wearing raincoats, and like most northern fishing communities, it has fallen on hard times. This is where one catches the ferries to Ketchikan and Haida Gwaii, and it was here that the Mounties caught up with Hadwin.

But they weren’t the only people looking for him. Guujaaw, the future president of the Council of the Haida Nation, wanted a few words with him as well. Guujaaw, a singer, carver, activist, and politician, is one of the most powerful and charismatic figures in Haida Gwaii—a latter-day warrior. Descended from the legendary carver, boatbuilder, and storyteller Charles Edenshaw, he has about him the aristocratic air of a Balinese artist-priest, exuding the bone-deep confidence of one who is “to the manor born.” Guujaaw managed to track Hadwin down before any deadline-bound journalist did, and the two men spoke on the phone. “He didn’t seem crazy,” Guujaaw recalled. “He sounded normal—neither excited, nor scared, nor regretful—as if what he’d done was no more than throwing a rock through a window. I asked him why he did it, and then I told him the story of the golden spruce and he said, ‘I didn’t know that.’ He gave the impression that he probably wouldn’t have cut it down if he’d known.”

Philosophically, the two men weren’t all that far apart; Guujaaw had been battling logging companies for twenty years, and as a result, he was sympathetic toward Hadwin’s frustration. “He could have taken out a few [logging] machines; then he would have been respected,” he said. In the end, though, Guujaaw compared Hadwin to John Lennon’s killer: “a little man with, otherwise, nothing.”

The Mounties visited Hadwin in person. After arresting him, charging him and ordering him to appear at the courthouse in Masset on April 22 (Earth Day), they released him on $500 bail. Already known to—and suspicious of—the police, he was offered no protection and did not request it. He was considered by some to be a flight risk, but there was so far no legal justification for keeping him in custody. Hadwin soon relocated to Cora Gray’s home in Hazelton, 280 kilometres up the Skeena River, but his presence there caused other members of the Gitxsan tribe to fear that they would be seen as complicit in the crime, and they tried to distance themselves from the strange but generous white man in their midst.

Shortly after his arrest and release, the entire text of Hadwin’s letter was published in the local papers, and for the next couple of weeks he carried on a dialogue with infuriated locals through newspapers on both sides of Hecate Strait. In an article entitled “Upset about the Golden Spruce? Re-examine your perspective, says Hadwin,” he told a reporter for the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer that “we tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered.” He then compared corporate set-asides like this and Vancouver Island’s Cathedral Grove to circus sideshows. “Everybody’s supposed to focus on that and forget all the damage behind it. When someone attacks one of these freaks you’d think it was a holocaust, but the real holocaust is somewhere else. Right now, people are focusing all their anger on me when they should focus it on the destruction going on around them.”

While Hadwin did acknowledge his insult to the Haida, he fell short of a full apology. “There was no intent on my part to offend the Native people in any way,” he explained. “They should see a person who is normally very respectful of life and has done a very disrespectful thing and ask why.”

But this was asking too much. Hadwin had cut down what may have been the only tree on the continent capable of uniting Natives, loggers, and environmentalists, not to mention scientists, foresters, and ordinary citizens, in sorrow and outrage. Meanwhile, newspaper and television reporters from across Canada were flocking to the islands to cover the story, which also found its way into the New York Times and National Geographic and onto the Discovery Channel. Scott Alexander, a spokesman for MacMillan Bloedel, was surprised by the flood of media attention: “This seems to have opened some kind of wound,” he told one reporter. “I’m not sure why, but it’s taking off more and more with each passing day.” Cartoonists, poets, songwriters, and visual artists were also horrified and captivated by the death of the tree, and attempts to honour its memory were rendered in a variety of media that ran the gamut from doggerel verse to an exquisite Aubusson-style tapestry that would take a master weaver and her apprentice a full year to complete. In a few instances, these paeans veered off into uncharted territory: “Can there be another Golden Spruce?” lamented a columnist in Victoria’s Times-Colonist. “Can there be another Gandhi or Martin Luther King?”

“When society places so much value on one mutant tree and ignores what happens to the rest of the forest, it’s not the person who points this out who should be labelled,” Hadwin told a Prince Rupert reporter who questioned his sanity. In the short term at least, the collective reaction to the loss of the golden spruce ended up proving his point: that people fail to see the forest for the tree.

No one openly supported Hadwin, but there were those who sympathized with him. “I considered him misguided,” explained one local logger, “but I could relate to his rationale—his hatred for M&B. Sometimes I’d just like to throw a bomb in their office.” In an effort to explain how he was able to remain inside the industry under these circumstances, he said, “You don’t allow yourself to think—if you start looking at it too hard, you’re going to go crazy.”

A young Haida man from Skidegate thought that what Hadwin had done was “a great idea. It was M&B’s pet tree,” he said, “but it’s no more special than the thousands of others being cut down.” In the past, he had worked as a logger when jobs were available. “You have the attitude,” he explained, “that ‘If I don’t do it, somebody else will.’” Any of this man’s ancestors hunting for sea otter pelts would have been driven toward the same logic and by exactly the same market forces.

HADWIN HAD BEEN CHARGED with indictable criminal mischief—damage in excess of $5,000, and the illegal cutting of timber on Crown land. Ordinarily crimes like this draw a fine and/or minor jail time, but this was not an ordinary case and both the provincial authorities and the Ministry of Forests intended to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. “He was going to get hammered in court,” opined an RCMP officer from Masset named Blake Walkinshaw. “The courts are very lackadaisical in B.C.—from my point of view—but I think this one here was going to be an example.” As an afterthought he added, “A person like that would have a hard time surviving in jail.”

But this was a strange case. The law knew how to deal with timber poachers who cut down protected old-growth cedar, and it knew how to deal with arsonists who destroyed beloved cultural and historic sites, but how would it punish someone for cutting down a unique and sacred tree as an act of protest when most of the surrounding forest had already been felled for profit? On paper, Hadwin was facing years in jail and a heavy fine, but there was no precedent in Canada for how a local judge and jury might compute the far less tangible losses to the Haida, to the residents and economy of Port Clements, or to science.

There was, however, a precedent in Texas. It was set around the state capital’s famed Treaty Oak, one of a group of trees known as the Council Oaks. Local Comanche Indians had once performed ceremonies within this sacred grove, and it was under the sole survivor that Stephen F. Austin, the founder of the state, allegedly signed the first border agreement between Natives and settlers. Once declared the most perfect specimen of a North American tree by the Forestry Association Hall of Fame for Trees, the five-hundred-year-old live oak was poisoned in 1989 by a man named Paul Cullen; his motive, he claimed, was unrequited love. After extensive rescue efforts (financed with a blank cheque by the billionaire industrialist Ross Perot), a third of the tree was saved. Cullen was charged with a felony and sentenced to nine years in prison. Given that he tried to kill the Lone Star State’s most venerable symbol, some might say that Cullen got off easy, and relatively speaking, he did: a life sentence had been seriously considered. No doubt alternative punishments had been contemplated as well, just as they were for Grant Hadwin, a man who some suspected wouldn’t survive to see his court date. It was believed by the Mounties, as well as by local employees of the Ministry of Forests, that the Masset Haida might deal with Hadwin themselves. “A lot of problems are taken care of by the locals,” explained Constable Walkinshaw. “That’s why we don’t have much trouble here. He might have been right [to fear for his life].”

One senior member of the Tsiij git’anee clan chose his words carefully, but did acknowledge that “unofficially, something could happen to him.”

Masset is divided into two distinct communities: New Masset (population 950), the primarily Anglo village which includes the main shopping district as well as the federal dock and the courthouse; and Old Masset (population 700), the Haida reserve, which is, with the exception of non-Haida spouses, almost completely Native. In addition to his more obvious crimes, Hadwin had disrupted the flow of life in this segregated community. “There’s a rhythm to a small town,” observed Constable Walkinshaw. “Old Masset, New Masset—everybody gets along quite well. Even Fran, the court stenographer, goes to the potlatches. Outsiders—people like Hadwin—put the rhythm out of sync. Somebody’s going to get to him.”

“Almost everyone in this community was ready to string that man up because of the hurt that was done to us,” recalled Robin Brown, an elder from the Tsiij git’anee clan. “It was as if one of us had died.” Ron Tranter, the Anglo resident of Old Masset to whom Hadwin had given his saw, was, briefly, a suspect in the crime, and he was furious. “If I see him,” vowed Tranter, “I’ll kill him.” But there was, it seemed, a waiting list for this honour. “The consensus,” claimed Eunice Sandberg, a bartender at Port Clements’ Yakoun Inn, “is this guy should be done away with.” A local logger named Morris Campbell suggested that they “nail his balls to the stump.” One Haida leader also suggested that Hadwin be nailed to the tree; others were wondering “whether we should cut a part off the person who did this, to see how they like it.” Talk is cheap, of course, but there is actually a kind of precedent for punishments of this kind. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s classic exploration of magic and religion, he wrote:

How serious the worship of trees was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree he had peeled, and he was driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound around its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.

While the Native residents of the islands have always been oriented toward the coast and the water, European settlers here have been inlanders—forest people—as much as they have been fishermen. Even today, the relationship many loggers have with the forest goes beyond simply cutting down trees. In this sense, not much has changed for a long, long time. It is hard for people outside this life to understand the logger’s appreciation for his environment, but Jack Miller, who has spent sixty years in and around the logging industry, tried to demonstrate it with the following story.

Miller and his supervisor were cruising timber on Nootka Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, back in the fifties when his supervisor found an uncommon orchid and pointed it out. Miller soon found another one some distance away and said, “Here, I’ll pick it for you.”

But his supervisor told him to leave it where it was.

“Why?” asked Miller. “It’s all going to be logged anyway.”

“Leave it there,” his supervisor ordered.

The individual’s love of the woods exists in tandem with a collective industrial “rape and run” mentality that over time has left scoured valleys and fouled streams littered with machinery, fuel drums, old tires, and thousands of metres of rusting cable. Loggers, as with most people who work for a living, see what they do as necessary. “It’s a resource and it should be used” is a rationale one hears over and over again. But for most of the residents of Port Clements, what Hadwin did had little to do with resource use or environmental protest; like the Haida, they saw his act as the wanton destruction of a treasured symbol, a kind of sacrilege. Port Clements’ mayor, Glen Beachy, echoed many of the Haida, when he told a reporter that “it makes me sick. It’s like losing an old friend.” But he had other things on his mind as well: “Why would a tour bus even come through here now?”

Mayor Beachy then declared a Random Acts of Kindness Week in Port Clements.

In an editorial, the managing editor of Prince Rupert’s Daily News compared Hadwin’s logic to that of the pro-life activist who would kill a doctor for performing abortions. By the end of January, feelings were running so high that the RCMP, under pressure to resolve the case as quickly as possible, moved Hadwin’s court date ahead by more than two months. He was now to appear in Masset on February 18, just three weeks away. “They’re making it as nasty as they possibly can,” Hadwin told a reporter at the time. “They’ll want me over there so the Natives will have a shot. It would probably be suicide to go over there real quick.”

And it may have been.

Photo Insert


A battle between the U.S. fur trading vessel Columbia and Kwakwa ka’wakw warriors in Queen Charlotte Sound, 1792.


Nuxalk canoes from the central B.C. coast, 1914 (from a dramatization by photographer Edward S. Curtis).


The full outfit of a north coast warrior.


Haida war dagger with an eagle crest on the pommel. Collected at Masset by A. Mackenzie, 1884.


This dance mask represents a gagiid, a person trapped between the human and spirit worlds by the experience of nearly drowning at sea in winter. Collected in Haida Gwaii by Israel W. Powell, 1879.


Ox team hauling logs on a “skid road” through what is now downtown Vancouver, c. 1900.


Loggers on a “railroad show” with a freshly loaded fifty-ton log, c. 1935.


Haida fallers c. 1925, posing on a springboard with one of the thousands of huge Sitka spruce that once stood in Haida Gwaii.


A high rigger topping a spar tree (a) and taking five (b), c. 1925.


Faller watching for widowmakers in winter rain.


A feller buncher represents the future of logging: smaller trees and bigger machines.


Clearcut with logging road and subsequent erosion, Haida Gwaii.


Grant Hadwin returning from a swim at Rushbrook Floats, Prince Rupert, January 6, 1997.


Grant Hadwin embarking from Prince Rupert by kayak, February 12, 1997.


Border crossing, Hyder, Alaska, a place Grant Hadwin visited several times.


Leo Gagnon, Tsiij git’anee chief-in-waiting (right), and his son, with the stump of the golden spruce, October 2001.


Mortuary poles at Nan Sdins, UNESCO site, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Haida Gwaii.


Memorial pole for Ernie Collison (Skilay), spokesperson for the golden spruce. The pole was carved by Chief Jim Hart and assistants, and erected by the community in 2003.