Log Spills I Have Loved
Without flying over it, traveling along it by boat, actually seeing it, it’s hard to comprehend the extent of the west coast of Canada. Seven thousand kilometres of shoreline meanders in and out of numerous inlets on the mainland side over a linear distance of nine hundred kilometres. The shores of Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlottes and numerous other, smaller islands are estimated to add nearly another nineteen thousand kilometres to that inventory.
All of it was once covered with forest. The vast majority of it remains so, if degraded over time by a greedy and negligent harvest. Blame the loggers and the logging companies if you will, but at its roots the damage is due to the failure of governments, regardless of stripe, to police them, to act as effective managers of this vast public asset. They, and we who have elected them, have allowed contractors and corporations to effectively oust us from our role as collective owners of the land and its resources.
Still, for all that there are many who make their living from the forest who love it and are awed by the resilience, vitality and beauty of it and of the coastal waters that fringe and embrace it. I am among them.
The tools of my trade were not the chainsaw or the skidder. There were not vast numbers of us plying it. Our interests were not protected or promoted by any union or by bosses for that matter. We had neither.
Our machinery consisted of boats, their size and power dictated by the dangers and demands of the particular waters in which we operated. Our tools were rope and chain, axe and dogline. We worked not in the woods but on the water and in that treacherous zone where it meets the land.
We were, as some are today, the log salvors of Canada’s west coast. There have seldom been more than a couple of hundred of us at any given time. We are unique in the world, I believe, known popularly if superficially and confusingly as beachcombers; our image spread around the world by a widely popular CBC television program which, whatever its perceived virtues, did little to tell a real story.
It was my story for nearly two decades. In my case most of it took place between Scotch Fir Point at the mouth of Jervis Inlet and Roberts Creek on the Sechelt Peninsula and across Malaspina Straits, where every so often I would circumnavigate Texada and Lasqueti Islands. For roughly half of those years I lived and worked from a cabin on Agamemnon Channel just outside Green Bay on Nelson Island. I was otherwise based on North Trail Island, a kilometre off the shore of West Sechelt. There were forays into the Fraser River and to as far away as Squamish to the southeast and Port Hardy to the northwest.
My weapons of choice, so to speak, once I was able to afford them and had the experience to know I needed them..and to operate them effectively, were thick-skinned aluminum boats twenty-two and twenty-seven feet in length; the ‘Stranger’ and the ‘Stray.’ The former was powered by a three-hundred-thirty horsepower Chevy 454 driving a ten-inch Hamilton jet. The Stray spun a twenty-two by eighteen inch, overbuilt stainless-steel propeller through a v-drive. It could sleep one under the bow and one on the bunk. A small diesel stove provided heat and a cooking surface. There were places that would hold some home preserves secure in rough weather and a minimum of pots. If a trip was planned we’d load up a cardboard box with vittles. Heading out into rough weather you’d want as little on board as possible. Odds were it would get thrown around and broken.
With either the Stranger or the Stray I was able to get into pretty well any beach in all but the most extreme sea conditions and pull distressed vessels, logs and bundles of logs from rock-infested shallows and wide sand beaches. They were equipped with VHF radios that steadily scanned the towboat channels, as was our home. We knew where the tugs were, from Port Hardy to Vancouver, and the sea and weather conditions they were dealing with or anticipating changes in. There was an ongoing exchange of information and it wasn’t unusual for tugs to call on us for an update from the areas in which we lived and worked. The convoluted mass of Vancouver Island over which our inbound weather systems flowed made forecasting as much an art as a science. There were times when the forecasts were just plain wrong.
I loved my boats: quarter-inch bottoms; three-eights inch thick sides; heavy internal bracing beam to beam and stem to stern; power to weight ratios that could drive them at good speed and stop them in an instant; the jet boat so maneuverable that you could make it go sideways and fully reverse its direction at full power within its own length.
In the beautiful, dangerous and highly competitive environment I lived and worked in, they allowed me to be something of an apex predator, or to perceive myself as such. What could be better for someone who, as a boy, so idolized the big cats. There was one year, I was told (although I didn’t check it out) that I was the top-earning salvor on the coast, and salvaging logs was not the only way to generate income with those tough little vessels: I did some barge assists, some towing, took the odd imperiled or grounded vessel to safety.
But best, wildest, most challenging, most lucrative and in their way perhaps most beautiful of the challenges my boats and I met were the log spills. This was log salvage of a kind, but of a particularly intense form, frequently conducted in rough conditions and often under the pressure of intense competition.
I have no photographic record of the real action. I worked alone and my focus was entirely on the job at hand, and the chances of a camera remaining intact or even aboard a relatively small boat being regularly heaved and tossed about and slammed into logs and the occasional rock were slight to none. For the same reason I kept no log book. It would have ended up on the floor, soaked by horizontal rain coming through an open cabin door, stepped on and coming apart. My dates for these events, when I have them, come from copies of the invoices sent out in their aftermath.
Vancouver Island, untitled but marked with Nanaimo and Victoria on the Google map at the top of this page, extends from the U.S. border four-hundred and sixty kilometres up the southern half of Canada’s west coast. Between it and the mainland lies an inland sea twenty-five kilometres across at its widest, open to the influence of the outer Pacific Ocean only at either end.
Logs taken from forests along its outer coast and from the mainland shores exposed to the open ocean above it are for the most part barged to sawmills located closer to civilization. There is no more practical way to transport them through such waters and there are occasions when even a massive self-loading log-barge will dump its load into a heaving sea with no possibility of anything resembling organized recovery . There are salvors who work those exposed shores, often using a retired tug of some size as a base and on occasion, when the log market justifies the cost, using a small helicopter to carry their yarding lines to shore.
Logs harvested from sidehills and valleys on Vancouver Island’s east coast and from the inlets running into the coastal mountains on the adjacent mainland are generally brought by the truckload to the closest shore, wrapped and cinched up with cable and slid into the water as bundles. They can be comprised of as few as six big logs and as many as sixty smaller ones.
Once in the water the bundles are lined up side-by side and end-to-end in ‘booms’ twenty-one metres wide by one-hundred-thirty long Three-quarter-inch cable is laid across the tiers 0f bundles and wrapped around ‘boomsticks’ chained end-to-end, six down each side, one across each end. To facilitate their inspection prior to sale, larger and more valuable logs may be assembled unbundled as ‘flat-booms’ within a framework of the same dimensions, ‘though that is ever rarer, as are logs with those characteristics.
The booms are then chained side by side, three or four wide, and most often three long, into a ‘log tow’. A towboat, generally around twenty metres long, powered by a diesel engine of five-hundred to eight-hundred horsepower will idle into camp, short-couple itself at the stern to a ‘bridle’ spanning the front of the ‘tow’ and ease the long array into open water. There it lets out a kilometre or so of heavy cable, the belly of it down in the water as much as five metres, a functioning shock absorber between tug and tow, and begins its journey down the gauntlet coast to the saws.
If you now have a sense of the mass of this accumulation of hundreds and sometimes thousands of logs, then perhaps you can imagine those tows and their bundles coming apart in the rolling and breaking seas of a surprise storm or against a rocky shore adjacent to open water or salt-water rapids, or twisted and wrenched apart, almost contemptuously, by a relentless tide. Any of these, alone or in concert, can do that, no matter how big or sound the boomsticks, cables or chains.