Chaos at Kelly Point

March 1981: Late in the day and dark, wind from the southeast at twenty-five to thirty-five knots. I’m happy as always to be home, warm and comfy, with Aus and the girls. As always, the VHF radio is on in the background, a spatter of chatter from the Seafoam V, nosing into the swells with fifty-five sections of logs under tow. It is making its way down Malaspina Strait from Grief Point towards Scotch Fir and the entrance to Jervis Inlet. Not great log-towing weather but survivable with well made booms and bundles.

Still, the salvors working out of Saltery Bay are likely already planning to check out the shoreline along that stretch as soon as the weather goes down. The steel straps around a bundle or two are more than likely to ease off or let go completely with the swell rolling through the tow, the logs from them working their way out of it and away to the beaches.

Maybe the skipper was starting to ease over towards the mainland shore , thinking he might slip into Frolander Bay or Stillwater, short of the turn into the inlet; maybe the tide was generating some undetectable onshore eddy; perhaps the wind shifted so as to come more from the south. I heard nothing of that in the aftermath.

What is known is that the Sea Foam’s quarter-mile-long log tow shied sideways, like a pony at the rattle of a snake, and careened onto boulders four to six feet in diameter, rooted like oaks in the sandy shallows at Kelly Point.

The swells would have lifted the bundles on to them and then over and behind them, locking the tow to the shore. The tug would have swung out into Malaspina Strait but been unable to pull it free.

Even before the skipper put out the call for help I was on my way, anticipating an opportunity to put my new-built jetboat, the ‘Stranger’, to a test likely to be taylor-made for it. Other salvage boats would arrive on scdene scene around the time I did and more would would arrive the next day, like sharks to a carcasse, including a few I’d never seen at a spill before. Danny Crosby and Glen Wheeler would find their way there ‘though they usually worked well down coast, out of Howe Sound. Carl Viitanen and Walter Ibey would have a trailer driven up from Pender Harbour and parked by the shore to house them over what looked to be a few days of work. Ted Johnson was there out of nearby Saltery Bay. The legendary John Staad would be dispatched by B.C. Log Spill to administer a recovery process sure to be several days and night in extent. All the ingredients were there for a regular ‘B’ movie.

Few salvors took kindly to the ‘administration’ of B.C. Log Spill and it’s sister service Gulf Log Salvage. Our endeavors played a miniscule part in the coastal forestry scene and, predictably, the organizational structure mandated by the provincial government and overseen by a self-interested Council of Forest Industries was an overflow lot for mediocre bureaucrats or worse.

Once it became clear that the tow was not coming off the beach I radioed the skipper of the Seafoam to get the O.K. to cut the thirty-six starboard sections of logs still afloat free of the eighteen sections hung up on the shore so he could tow them away to shelter.

I’d put a good number of log tows together on sorting grounds in Agamemnon Channel and Howe Sound. Separating the two outside strings of booms from the one aground on the rocks was a matter of reversing the final part of the process. That done, the Sea Foam could tow the intact sections away and find a place to hole up until the wind blew itself out.

It would first have to idle down so I had some slack to work with, but not so far that it couldn’t hold position.

With the swells running through it, there were bundles breaking throughout the tow and logs leaking out of it. Most of them were smallish, a bit of a typical yellow-cedar twist in them. They were inclined to roll in a nasty, uneven kind of way. Once free of the tow they were quickly driven onto a wide sandy beach above Kelly Point far too shallow to work over in those sea conditions. Long strings of bark half-beaten off them and trailing in their wake added a risk of a fouled propeller to any attempt to pick them up while they were floating.

Against a black night, under dense cloud-cover, spotlights flashed over the tow and off the white foam riding in atop the swells. The brightest reached out through the night back on to the tow from high over the floodlit stern-deck of the Seafoam V. Red and green blips of running lights showed up here and there where a salvage boat rose and fell in the swells. There was light too from the odd house along the shore.

At the tail-end of the log tow and a hundred feet in from where the swells broke on the seaward side of it there was only a remnant of motion. I had simply to lay to starboard against the tailsticks, nose to shore, and undo the connecting chains between the shoremost boom and the one in the middle of the tow. There was need for care to avoid getting fingers crushed. With that connection undone I could spin the Stranger around, nose it between the two booms and apply enough throttle to pressure them apart. Once in seven meters or so I would idle down enough for the pressure from the booms on each side to squeeze the boat to a stop. I could then step out onto a sidestick, walk to the next connection, wait for some slack to develop or pry a little out of the chains with the end of a pike pole and disconnect the boomchains. Another two sections of logboom would slowly separate as the stranger pushed forward on its own while I made my way ahead of it to the next connection. The boomsticks, bark long gone, would be slick from the rain and salt-water slop. There’d be a slight, tense curl in the bottom of my feet that, even through the soles of the light yachting boots favored by a lot of us salvors, would exchange ongoing semaphore messages with the balancing centres of my brain.

Bundles of logs heaved and groaned, rubbed and moaned, rising and falling on the swells, like buffalo aching to stampede but unable to quite get under way, rocks clacking against one another at their feet. The gusting wind blew away all but remnant rumbles of the Seafoam V’s diesel engines a quarter of a mile off at the end of its towline. I’d long since ceased to notice the scent of salt water having lived beside it for so long, but if it was there it was overwhelmed by that of the resinous yellow cedar that comprised most of the stranded booms.

You might think a twenty-two-foot long aluminum boat, even one heavily built, would be squeezed and crushed by that buoyant mass, but at any time, in the shifting and jostling there was always space. It would appear then vanish amid the jostling bundles. The Stranger, willfull as a terrier, pressed ahead to claim what it needed of it.

I seem to recall having to go back to her once or twice, choke a sidestick and give it a little pull to generate some slack. But without a whole lot of trouble I progressed up the full eighteen or so sections of length until the two outside strings of booms were free. With that done, the Seafoam swung out into the Strait, thirty-six sections of bundles bundles behind her, eighteen left on shore to be dealt with over the next few days by my colleagues and I.

There was little that could be done that night. It was still blowing, the swell running three to four feet high and capped with white. The fast-dropping tide would expose an ever-widening kilometer-long strip of sand beach, loose logs and bundles piled up along the high-water mark. The tides would cycle in and out twice every twenty-four hours or so and at that time of year the highs of the day were lower than those of the night. Yarding even individual logs down such beaches was always slow going, their tops plowing sand all the way. To have a hope of getting any bundles intact off that beach we were going to need calm conditions and the highest tides available to us.

So we would all head home and undoubtedly spent some time loading rope and doglines onto our boats as well as provisions enough for aseveral days, before bedding down for a few hours of shut-eye. By the early afternoon of the next day there was quite a gathering of salvage boats sheltering at Stillwater, a couple of kilometres down the Strait from the stranded booms. In additon to those already mentioned were a thirty-foot tugboat and a gillneter/salvage vessel from up Egmont way. It was going to be a mixed bag, unavoidably to be worked on a share basis and with a few guys coming out of it with money they wouldn’t come close to earning. And it was going to last a while.

Enter B.C. Log Spill, inevitably, given the extent of the spill, the number of salvors involved and the anticipated complexity of the log recovery process. Generally I managed to keep BCLS out of my dealings with companies whose spilled logs I recovered. I had no love or respect for any of the three managers of it that I dealt with over eighteen years. As did many salvors, I saw them as consistently using their positions to create a cabal of ‘loyal’ underlings to whom they would feed the opportunities that came through their office. There were more than a few rumors as to the quid pro quo for that and it sure didn’t lead to the optimal recovery of logs.

So when Frank Scott, BCLS manager of the day finally hauled himself out of bed late on the morning after the Sea Foam’s tow hit Kelly Point and got on the VHF radio to say there was no place for me in the ongoing recovery, I told him I fully intended to work it and, having had a highly profitable year, would sue him ’til he squeaked if he tried to stop me doing so or gave me less than a full share. With half the towboats on the coast and their dispatchers listening, he backed down, with the reservation that I would get a share for only one boat, not for both the Stranger and the Stray. Well, I hadn’t anticipated operating them both, like some rodeo stunt-rider standing astride a matched pair of hard-running horses.

I did bring both boats, the Stray to camp out in, the Stranger to yard logs with.

But before we got around to dragging logs from the beach, the morning after the night before as it were, Mac and Blo sent one of their yarding tugs down from the Powell River Pulp Mill and a dozer boat up from Stillwater. Between them and the salvage boats working close to shore it proved possible to get a good many intact bundles, some still still in the roughed-up form of booms, off the shore and towed down to Stillwater to be reassembled into a proper tow.

With the tide up in the evening it was time to go after the logs on the beach. It was not pretty. Crosby’s boat was a jet, like mine, and both of us found their internal impellors repeatedly fouled by yellow cedar bark. We’d yard some, stop to go through the inspection ports and clear the blades and then go back to yarding. We got better at avoiding bark, mostly by jumping into the water in our chest-waders well short of the drifting bark and pulling our tow-lines, heavy yarding chains over our shoulders, up the beach to the logs. We were managing to make decent headway, half-hitching a number of logs in sequence and pulling them all off in one go to where the larger wheel-boats could string them out on tow lines. They’d made an attempt at pulling off the few intact bundles with no success at all. Mired in sand they were, and immovable.

Which was why, the next day, BC Log Spill arranged to get a big log-skidder down on the beach while the tide was out to try to roll them to where they’d float on the next rise. It looked like a triceratops with an oversized grapple on its head. But even the skidder couldn’t budge the bundles and the residents along the beach got on the phones to Fisheries, who came down and put a stop to that initiative. There was, after all, a pretty decent population of clams dwelling in that sand.

It was a catch 22. There was going to be a skidder working for the most part above the clam beds or there were going to be jet boats and wheel boats stirring up the sand beneath which the clams sheltered. It was a lot of logs to contemplate abandoning, any or most of which could drift off the beach on a high tide and become hazards to navigation., not to mention eventually littering some other beach . And then of course there was the possible effect of all that yellow-cedar sap and bark fibre to wonder about. I say ‘wonder’ because there have been no studies I am aware of attempting to determine what negative effect those or other wood-chemical by-products might have on beaches and their denizens. The Ministry of Forests was and is not in the business of outing the negative effects of logging industry activity on other resources or interests. Respect for their own resource, let alone anyone else’s, is not something the MoF has a reputation for. Certainly it made no effort to enforce the regulations requiring that salvaged logs get the best price possible, which could have only had a salutory effect on their getting removed from the beaches.

In the end we got all the spilled logs off the beach, gathering most of them in the log pond that can be seen just below Kelly point, to the right of it on the google chart. And I have to confess that BC Log Spill was somewhat useful in this instance: recruiting the boats via Mac and Blo, finding a destination for the loose logs and divying up the recovery fee, ‘though I don’t recall seeing the details of how that was done. Even the skidder idea, much as it fell apart, wasn’t a bad thought. And while sending ‘Machine-Gun’ John Staad up from North Vancouver made no appreciable contribution to log recovery, I appreciated meeting him. He and his boat the Tornado, with its five-hundred horsepower V8, were legendary among log salvors.

He was said to have been a tank commander in the Second World War and was also known to carry a machine gun stashed under the bunk in the Tornado. I’d worked some years earlier salvaging deadheads for Archie Haleta from the log-sorting grounds in Howe Sound, where at one time he’d purchased wood from salvors. He told me that Staad let off a burst into the water as he departed Archie’s after what you can only suppose he considered to have been an unsatisfactory negotiation over logs. It certainly made an impression on Archie and made fact of rumor.

As far as I could tell Staad knew right away he wasn’t needed at the Kelly Point Spill and left us to it. I had a chat with him some years later when I was poking around the Mosquito Creek Marina and ran into him at a log spill in the Fraser River. An interesting little spill that, worth an aside.

It happened just as I and my sister’s brother-in-law Greg Ritchie were exiting the gap at Gibsons after delivering a string of logs to Howe Sound. A boom had lost a few bundles at Spanish Banks. We zipped over there and got our share of them off the beach. I’d towed deadheads out of the Fraser during my Archie period and so had some idea of what I’d be dealing with. Indeed the tide was driving so hard upriver that, for my part, I had to lead each of each of the each of the bundles I recovered with a ninety-foot-long three-quarter-inch-thick connecter line. That much lead let me curl the Stranger around a piling like a quarter horse around a barrel, run over my own line (which I could do because of the jet’s internalized impeller) and get a wrap around the piling so as to bring each bundle to a stop against the current. I was pretty sure I’d have found myself being dragged backwards up river if I’d tried to stop them with engine power alone.

It was a dramatic little spill in its way, ‘though probably not quite to my mind worthy of its own page. Coming out of the Fraser the next morning we were turned back by westerly swells running in against a hard-falling tide and so steep and tall that I felt there was a real risk of the Stranger going right up the face of one and over backwards. It was the only occasion I recall being forced back to shelter in any of my boats.


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