This is my true story of learning what happens when you become aware and listen to nature.
Some many decades ago, the early 70’s, when I first moved into the wilds of Canada I worked one winter on snowshoes as a lumberjack more specifically as a ‘faller’ the guy with chainsaw in hand who cuts down trees. I was a young mountain man and my regular passion of mountaineering the high peaks of the near-by Canadian Rockies was a bit tough in the depths of winter.
I had learned from a guy I met in the bar in Banff, where I was working as a ski shop ski tech and cross-country ski guide, of good money to be made as a logger way north in the town of Valemount near Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. He was heading back there soon and invited me to tag along, he was sure we’d find work.
Working for Swampy
Sure enough a week or so later Clare (my new buddy’s name) and I headed up in my old VW to Valemount BC. It was February and it was the depth of the cold Canadian Rocky Mountain winter. Upon arriving in Valemount there was only one place anyone could go who didn’t live there, the Valemount Hotel & Pub. We checked in and hit the bar which from opening time at 10am in the morning to closing time around 2am was always filled with loggers, aka ‘lumberjacks’.
Shortly we ran into a guy who knew a guy who turned out to be named ‘Swampy.’ Swampy is a name out of the old days of logging and it refers generically to a guy who does just about everything at a logging ‘show.’ Our ‘Swampy’ was a guy who at the time seemed old to me, now I know he was younger than I am today and I don’t think of myself as old, or most days not. Swampy was bent and broken and worn down by decades of being tossed around in a lifetime of logging shows.
He bought us a couple of beers and said if we had our ‘fallers’ gear and showed up at his bush camp some 40 miles south in two days we had jobs falling. He had contracts to cut down as much timber as possible in the valley that would soon be a giant reservoir that would flood hundreds of square miles of forest.
OK I thought this is great only one hitch I had never cut a tree down in my life and did not own the requisite big powerful chainsaws the work needed. The trees were old growth in that region many not less than 6 feet in diameter some twice that. Anyway Clare had the gear and said there was nothing to it, he even knew a guy who had a collection of used chainsaws and assorted fallers gear I would need to buy.
I had a few hundred bucks in my jeans and was soon outfitted with a pair of used but working Stihl O50 chain saws, the most desired big saws of the time, along with a complete assortment of all the fallers paraphernalia, I might not have been a ‘faller’ but I looked the part. Clare spent a few hours showing me how to run the saw and we found a spot where some logging was going on where I could practice felling a few big trees. I didn’t get killed doing so and was good to go. We headed to Swampy’s camp.
Fortunately being big guy and very fit and as a mountaineer and coming with all the right fallers kit and winter working gear Swampy liked what he saw. But he also saw right through me as a total ‘greenhorn’ faller. Never-the-less he hired us both and sent us to the combo cook house/bunk house which was a wood frame cabin built on top of two gigantic 50 foot long logs that were shaped like giant skis. This was one of the last remaining old style logging camps, more typical of camps of 1930 than 1970. It was snow country and there was at least 5 feet of snow on the ground. It looked like the stuff of a novel and the one that had nourished my fantasies of life in the woods was the book by the Ken Kesey novel ‘Sometimes A Great Notion‘, I was living it.
Under the wing of Jack Cardinal
That night in the great common cook house/bunk house we were introduced all around to the crew of about 20 men and I was stuck with the appropriate name ‘greenhorn.’ I sampled my first taste of real woods grub, moose stew in prodigious quantities. After dinner there was coffee from a 2 or 3 gallon enameled steel coffee pot that was in a permanent simmering state on a cornor ‘airtight’ wood stove. The cook explained that it was especially “good coffee” and I was lucky arriving at the camp late in the week as it took a few days of boiling and adding ever more and more coffee grounds each day to that pot before the coffee was “good.” He started a new pot of coffee only on Mondays of each week. One learned quickly to not slosh the pot and stir up the sunken grounds too much while pouring oneself a ‘cup of mud’.
Swampy put me into the care of a Native Indian faller by the name of Jack Cardinal with whom I would become his falling partner and understudy. Jack was a good-hearted man and happy to take on the job of teaching and bossing the new greenhorn around. He was as it turned out a legendary faller and learning from the best is the way to learn the quickest. Under his tutelage I very quickly learned how to be a good faller and we became friends as we talked on the long snowshoe hike to and from our work area each day. He and I shared a love and wonder for nature and aside from the havoc we were wreaking it was a very wild part of the world.
Jack and I worked as a team heading out from the bunk house every morning on snowshoes trudging about a mile through very deep snow in the giant forest to a hillside where our falling area was. While working, falling, we stayed about 300 yards apart and worked from daylight to dark stopping to meet up at the bottom of the slope to eat our bagged lunches that we stashed at a pre-agreed location half way through the day. Our job was crazy cut down those majestic giants then ‘buck’ the fallen tree into as several 50 foot logs. In coming years, which turned into decades, the 50 foot ‘logs’ would be salvaged from the new reservoir.
Jack let me learn the hard way why it was very important to very carefully, even surreptitiously, hide one’s lunch at the lunch spot. I soon learned we were always under the watchful eye of ravens who would stay carefully hidden until we started our chainsaws high up on the slopes. They would then swoop in making a pass over my head loudly squawking in mocking delight before landing at our lunch spot to gleefully eat my ‘greenhorn lunch.’
As partners Jack and I had to listen for the each others saws running and watch to see if ones partner stopped working for any length of time. That would be a sign of something going wrong, and amongst those giant trees and with those most powerful chainsaws anything going wrong was either a breakdown or a mangling accident. At the end of each day we would trudge back together in the dark across the snowy landscape covered in fallen giant old growth trees to the welcoming glow of the cook house.
Few but precious comforts
There were very few comforts in that camp, but that makes the few all the more precious. While there was a generator it was rarely used except when machinery needed to be run to fix something, this led to a blessing of winters magical quiet nights. A silent it was save for an hour after sunset when first the coyotes would start singing soon to be silenced by the deep howls of the great northern timber wolves. After an hour of wolf song all would be quiet save for the occasional hooting of an owl. Frequently the nights were ablaze with Northern Lights, the aurora borealis would be on display, sometimes you could even hear them ‘crackling.’
All the cooking was done on wood fired cook stoves and the cook house/bunk house was heated with wood burning ‘airtight’ heaters. Kerosene lamps were our lights, dim but more than adequate lending flickering drama to the available reading material. There were no forms of electronic entertainment unless one sat outside in a freezing truck to listen to static filled AM radio.
What entertainment there was were perpetual games of cribbage and a shoe boxes full of dime store paperback novels mostly westerns, Louie L’Amour and Zane Grey! Everyone was an avid reader and crib player. Of course the art of story-telling was still very much alive and practiced as a required art form. Our electronic age sadly seems to have nearly erased the art of story-telling and the joy of listening to those tales both short and tall.
After a couple months of living and working there I was needing something more than re-reading Louie L’Amour and I dug into my kit and found a book of poetry by Gary Snyder. Definitely not the reading material of Canadian north woods logging camp denizens. I kept it a bit hidden and enjoyed the respite it offered from that man-cave world. One night I was hunkered down on my bunk reading the poems and Jack noticed the unfamiliar book. Hey Russ he hollered you’re holding out on us what’s that book you’re reading? I am sure he thought it might be better than re-reading Louie L’Amour or Zane Grey, perhaps it was sizzler!
The Power of Poetry
I said to him, oh it’s ‘beatnik poetry’ stuff, you wouldn’t like it. Sure I would he declared loudly, we’d all like to hear some hippy poetry, to which the crew some nearly 20 men all joined in unison “read us some poems hippy.”
OK I was trapped so I opened the book and read a couple poems. Not getting much in the way of response I fanned through the pages to find the short one I liked about logging. It was short but powerful. Snyder had written.
“I once knew an Indian logger who had to quit when he could no longer bear hearing the trees scream as he cut them down.”
I read a few more selections from the book before making the excuse that I needed to turn in for the night, that amounted to simple turning over on my bunk to face away from the great common room we all shared and was how we literally ‘turned in’ to go to sleep.
The next day Jack and I worked as usual and the day after that which was a Friday. That Friday night in the cook house/bunk house Jack said to the boss, Swampy. ” I quit Swampy pay me what I am owed and I am out of here tomorrow. ” There was no discussion that was the way things worked, men in winter camps just ran out of endurance for the camp life when they did, and everyone eventually did from time to time, they quit to go to town for a ‘spree’. Mostly after a few days drinking up their wages they would return to camp.
The next morning as I was preparing to go back out to the falling site working with a couple other of the fallers I turned to Jack who was packing his kit and asked him if there was a reason he had quit.
He looked at me as if he was surprised to hear me ask him the question and said, “because of you.. asshole.. and your hippy poetry, for two days now I have heard nothing but the screams of the trees as I cut them down, and I just can’t kill another tree.” Then he walked over to me and gave me a great bear hug and said “I guess it was bound to happen some of the old people in my village had warned me that one day the forest spirits would not allow me to continue as a faller. I just never thought some young white hippy guy would be one of those forest spirits.” We never saw each other again but I have never forgotten Jack.
I kept at the job falling trees for a few more months but over the entire time Jack’s absence and his words haunted me and I too began to begin to hear the trees scream. My life in the woods and wilds has ever since involved planting trees and restoring nature, especially the ocean pastures. So thanks Jack, I guess we were fated to learn from each other.
Now some nearly 50 years later as a result of posting this story on the net I have heard from one of Jack’s grandkids. I am sorry to hear he’s passed, but happy to hear that his grandchildren have enjoyed reading my story about their grandfather which they confirmed sure sounded a lot like their beloved Grandfather.