Serendipity’s Son

Wild Moyeha Bay
The Beasts of Moyeha Bay (slideshow)
The Birthing Years
The Booming Years
Fine, Mel, Fine (recording)
Megin & Brillig (slideshow)
The Archie Days
Beachcombers

I’m averse to religion, for all the sins of its practitioners and hypocrisy, but have nevertheless often sought and found, asked and received.

Take, for instance, the unfolding events that pretty-well severed the umbilical ties of my lady and I to our middle-class upbringings and affirmed for us that it was possible to construct a life outside the norms of the day. Yes, I referred to Anne Marie St. Leger, at that time fresh to Canada from Australia, ‘my lady.’ Still do. Without whom none of the wonderful things you are to read about would have happened.

The forming of the ‘we’ was itself magical, I’d go so far as to say mystical. But private. The fellow human who would catalyze so much that became possible for me literally walked into my life with a luminosity so striking as to revive will and spirit and sense of possibility lost in the wreckage of an earlier failure at love.

In the aftermath of that oh so fortunate moment Aus and I traveled across Canada and back and then set our sights on the town of Sooke, on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We imagined ourselves putting together a vessel of some kind and making our way with it to an uninhabited somewhere on the west coast of Vancouver Island….where we would live off the land. I called Anne Marie ‘Australia’. Her friends, fellow nurses, called her Saint. I preferred something earthier. She liked it because she was proud of her birthland in that matter-of-fact way Australians can be.

As I had liked being called ‘Canada’ when I’d finished up a round-the world sojourn in Sydney. Nineteen years old when I debarked from the Oriana, of the Cunard Line of liners on the shore of Vancouver. Just passing through, boat to train and on to Saskatoon and registration for first year Arts at the University of Saskatchewan. I don’t know that I was proud of it, doing the circumnavigation…….but I was definitely delighted….for the chance taken to step away from the known and towards independence…..of movement yes…….but of spirit more importantly.  I was absolutely struck by the realization, on the train to Montreal eight months earlier, that nobody I was talking to as we cruised along in comfort had the slightest preconception about me. Oh my, I thought….this is a kind of freedom. It felt like a whole lot of unneeded responsibility…..to play my part….had been left in my departing breeze. I seemed to expand and become more fully myself as I thought about it. Ah….sweet memory.

Sooke was a seaside town with a tiny business  area at the time, the first sign of which, driving in, was a small real-estate office in a Panabode modular cabin., wide front windows almost entirely covered in ads. That’s where, having hitched a ride from Victoria, we got dropped off. And walked out five minutes later with keys to a cabin in the woods on two acres (bit for pasture, bit for garden) that was tangled up in a legal dispute likely to go on a while. Twenty-five dollars a month, nominal rent in those days.

Sis and Mom,  sister Siamese, clung and mewled atop our backpacks, as we  pretty much cake-walked our way out of town along tree-lined, shady Otter Point Road. Insert Link to Cakewalk Video Opposite a newish rancher, sparsely screened, fronted by tall, young evergreens trees we found the entrance to the long driveway that rose for sixty yards or so through the trees to where there emerged a clearing in the forest, a cabin immediate right and a small aluminum-clad trailer house straight ahead.

The cabin was reasonably new, of Panabode logs too, not yet faded by the sun, about four meters by five. It was clean, contained a bed, wood stove, sink, counter. a few shelves.  It smelled wonderfully of cedar spiced by stray smoke from the tall, narrow cast iron wood-heater, cooktop and all.. Made to order for us. There was no garden in, but plenty of room for one. I don’t recall it being hard digging there.

The cats took off exploring. We’d no fear of them disappearing…..of their own volition at least. We four had been across the country and back in an entirely cohesive fashion. We were well bonded. They would establish territory for themselves beneath the bunk. Each would birth a litter of kittens and take turns nursing the whole lot while the other went hunting.

Soon settled in and tickled with our good fortune we walked down to the road and into ‘town’ for supplies. At the checkout counter of the small supermarket we chanced to ask the cashier if she knew of someone with a horse in need of  training, that we could offer for the loan of it.

It so happened (I am tempted to say ‘verily’) that there was a family with perhaps just that need raising sheep on an acreage not far from our cabin. I called them from the pay phone on the wall of the market. Out of the blue. There was a hesitation and then I explained that we just liked horses, had a bit of experience with them and some grass for theirs. I could hear her quickly tell her husband what was going on and then she asked us by. But first she told me that the horse was in the habit of rearing all of a sudden and falling right over backwards if a rider got on her.

She had been acquired at auction in Duncan, one of a number of horses brought each year to the spring sale from a ranch in Washington State. These horses arrived ‘green broke’, meaning in their case…….burdened with a saddle over which a heavy sandbag was tied then driven into a shallow river to buck themselves out until tired by the weight and the water.

About four years old, coarse and scruffy-looking she would remain despite the grooming we at first lavished on her.  She had a pale roan coat with big dark, honey-brown patches on it and one wall-eye. Conformation-wise though she looked pretty-nicely put together; compact, well-muscled, about fourteen hands at the withers. A little nervous….a touch wide-eyed. They were scared to put their kids on her.

I hadn’t been raised with horses. Books taught me to love them…and I’d found ways to become a passable rider. Good enough, anyway, to have put in a few weeks at a dude ranch in Alberta shaking the winter cobwebs out of thirty or so trail horses. I wouldn’t claim to be brilliant at it, but I took a fall well.  I’d more recently done a bit of horse training and taught riding at a kids’ camp known as Berci’s Farm near Huntingdon, between Montreal and the U.S. border in Québec where Aus and I had worked earlier that year.

I’d had a horses rear up and go over on me, a couple of times without being hurt or even feeling particular at risk of being hurt.  It was agreed that if we could catch and ride her we could keep her over the next several months while we prepared to head off into the unknown.XXXXXXXX

Dusk was well into turning day to night as we left the house for the adjacent pasture where the mare grazed.  From a small, clapboard barn we obtained halter, saddle, blanket and bridle.  An eighty-foot-long coil of half-inch poly rope hung on the wall, to be fashioned into a lasso that we quickly found we’d need. This little horse proved entirely unwillingly to let us near her.

So we commenced to walk her down, projecting a steady flow of soothing words over her haunches to laid-back ears from fifty feet astern.

In short order she walked herself into  a corner of the pasture where, along one fence-line, happened to be to be lying a length of heavy, jaggedy logging cable. Not a nice thing to handle. But Aus, game as she would so often prove to be, picked up the end away from the corner where the mare shuffled nervously and, while I shook out a loop, began to drag it sideways, squeezing her into the sharp end of an ever-narrowing ‘V’.  When she broke and ran she would have to pass by me close enough to be roped.

That she did…snorting and blowing….clods of dirt flying from her hooves. My loop fell softly over her head and off she cantered. I held to my end of the rope long enough to pull the loop snug around her neck and then let go so as not to get rope-burned. Now we only had to get within fifty feet or so of her and as she picked her way through a grove of alder trees I got hold of the end of the rope and took a wrap around one of them, bringing her to a halt.

She was jumpy of course as I moved hand-over-hand to her head, but took to the bridle, blanket and saddle well enough when Aus brought them over.

We led her back out to the open grass. I stepped into the right stirrup, swung a leg over her back and settled into the saddle. She was tense, skin jumping and quivering, veins swollen and pulsing.

We stood still for a bit while I spoke softly to her then moved into a walk easily enough and to a trot. I gave her a little bit of leg.  She took three strides into a canter, skidded her hind end right underneath herself and reared straight up. Right on script.

As our center-of-gravity shifted back past vertical I withdrew my left foot from its stirrup and brought it over her hindquarters, beside my right. So as she fell over and on to her back ( if you can picture it) I was gently lowered to the ground, standing in the right stirrup, and able to step away, almost casually, to avoid any flailing of hooves. The saddle gave out a crack as it was landed on (but turned out not to have been broken) and the mare rolled over and scrambled to her feet to stand legs splayed, breathing hard….giving me the fearful eye.

I’d kept hold of the right rein so she couldn’t bolt away. Moving to her head, I ran the back of my hand gently from forelock to nose and said something like, “Not this time, sugar.”

Suspicious….Ready for the Road

 We walked her home that evening in the dark, staked her on a long line in the yard, named her ‘Suspicious,’ for starters. She later became ‘Beauty’, but never stopped being suspicious.  She reared almost to the point of going over a  time or two, but never quite did. It seemed to scare her, getting so close. On one occasion, cantering along Otter Point Road towards town, she did drop her head mid-stride and break into a long series of crow-hops along the tarmac, but not so vigorously that I couldn’t stay in the saddle simply by leaning my shoulders further back than my hips, letting them relax and pump up and down as if they were detached from my torso.

We now had our dwelling, a horse to help us out in various ways, a spot for a garden and a source of manure to feed it. We had our cats and, best of all, were we grading, we had one another. We got the occasional use of another horse, a tall, leggy, blanket appaloosa, and would  ride together and on occasion race neck and neck the length of the dirt runway of Sooke’s airport.

We had a bad moment at the road edge approaching Sooke Bridge when the appaloosa, with Aus aboard, reared at the roar of a fully-loaded logging truck approaching hell-bent from the other direction and started to shy off the road-allowance into its path.  I sat helpless and horror-struck on the mare while Aus got it all in hand.

She had been so focused on getting the animal under control, she told me afterwards, that the danger barely registered. I, on the other hand, retain to this day an almost photographic memory of it etched within my emotional archives quite capable of regenerating the fright of it.

It wasn’t the only close shave we would have. The choices we were making pretty-well guaranteed that. But you set these things aside immediately if consequences don’t bind you to them….if you want to live fearlessly, as we did.

So we needed a boat and a destination. We would settle in for winter, wait for what we needed to find us or be found, enjoy our circumstances and check out alternatives or complements to what we had in mind.

There was a commune, for instance, starting up a few miles along the road but, as was so often the case with the upstart communes of the day, it was poorly conceived, hopelessly under-financed and a hunting ground for power trippers….not unlike a lot of human constructs of one kind or another. We also chatted to folks who were forming  the ambitious and ultimately successful and much-to-be-congratulated Caravan Circus. It was appealing in the range and color of its vision, but ultimately a little too busy for us.

As I hitchhiked home from Sooke one day an ancient, bright yellow, undercoat-spotted half-ton pickup truck approached, seemed to consider stopping and then…did. I opened the passenger-side door and behind the steering wheel was a man I just, somehow, immediately knew I was going to like.

Leaning to haggard,  in a healthy, vigorous kind of way, probably gets it right.  A little bent maybe, but from hard work not defeat and with eyes that spoke of dry humor, self-possession and a life lived on his own terms, near to half a century more to it than to mine.  A lot to read in a man at first sight, I know, but….there you go.

I had not thought of him for a long while and found myself tearing up as I wrote this, recalling just how much his friendship had affirmed my young self.

I got into the truck, settled back into the cracked, worn upholstery and exchanged introductions with Harry Way.

He was driving to his daughter’s place, to get her kitten out of one of those tall, thin firs in front of the rancher across from the entrance to our driveway. I’d been an avid climber of trees from early childhood and, without suggesting  that retrieving the kitten might be better done with the advantage of youth, I made the offer and it was accepted.

The kitten, it turns out, wasn’t just ‘up’ the tree. It was twenty meters up, with an optional seven more in reserve if it chose to go further.  A similar span separated the ground from the first branches on a trunk no more than half-a-meter in diameter at the base. A ladder was found to get me to them and from there it was a relatively easy climb.

The tree was remarkably straight, telephone pole material, but up where the kitten was it got awfully slender. When as I neared it the youngster skittered up another three meters  I followed with a definite sense of the unequivocal need to keep my weight absolutely centered over the trunk below me.  It seemed more than possible that if I didn’t the kitten and I might hit the ground hard, in company with the top of the tree, far too quickly for me to survive, being short eight lives. It was thin enough and high enough that even the kitten didn’t want to climb further.

It was clear to me, as to you if I’ve painted this picture well, that I was going to need both hands to get us back down.

So with the bark pressing my chest through shirt and all,  I reached my right hand up and grabbed the frightened little beast by the scruff of the neck.  He relaxed, as kittens will when so grasped, and I lowered him to the front of my face, took the loose skin at the back of his neck in my teeth as its mother might have and, belly snug to the bark all the while, made a careful descent with it, one branch at a time, to the ladder and the ground……. and to something of a heroes welcome and an invitation for tea and cookies.

Of course we traded stories.

Harry was a highliner, among the top-earning trollermen in the west coast fishing fleet. He was building his third boat, the thirty-four-foot long troller ‘Irmadine’, named for his wife. Its hull was to be of clear yellow cedar that had been curing beside his boat shed for six years.  He had lots of strait-grain red-cedar on hand, he said, and it would be no problem for him to rip some of it into strips from which Aus and I could build a couple of identical canoes that he would draw plans for. We would span them with the length of a single 4’x8′ sheet of marine plywood on top of which we would mount a mast to which we could attach a sail. In return I’d give him a hand with building the Irmadine when he needed it.

Best of all…..Aus and I got two exceptionally knowledgeable and generous friends in Harry and Irma, along with jars of salmon and fruit, and regular evening games of Hearts. Harry was a competitive soul and, for my part, I confess to, only once, sorely testing his generosity of spirit with a victory dance around the table, having fashioned a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Harry had become a man by means seemingly unavailable to my generation. He’d come west from Newfoundland, where he’d served in the Canadian Navy and been a competitive boxer. On the B.C. coast he had worked on rum-runners bringing in illicit booze from the U.S. to Canada through Juan de Fuca Strait. He battled emphysema, most likely from inhaling sawdust while building his boats and he hobbled a little due to a steel pin in a leg run over when a logging truck he was working beneath came off the jack and rolled over it. Now he fished the open waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island, favoring the Big Bank, and built his own boats, medicating just enough to take the edge off the pain in one part of his body or another.

Harry eventually asked me to work as his deck hand in the upcoming season. It was a compliment for sure and I knew it. I appreciated it. My life would have unfolded differently had I accepted. But if there were two people likely to get really pissed off with one another with neither backing off it was Harry and me. And anyway, Aus and I had plans.

Building those two canoes was a test for me, simple as it might seem now, looking back through the prism of a lifetime of accumulated skills.  Me being edgy and frustrated by my limitations was hard on Aus but she bore it with the kindness that characterized so much of her life and her treatment of me and the daughters that bore our genes.

I had no experience working with wood beyond building a couple of corrals out of poles. Using a hand plane to get long, narrow strips of cedar to lay snugly edge-to-edge atop one another and form smooth, curved hulls was not something I had a flair for. They would be skinned over with fibreglass, and thus watertight, but still, I wanted them to have more integrity than I managed to give them.

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The deck was a straightforward sheet of plywood with 1”x4” strips, on edge, glued beneath it to conform to the inside of the gunnels of the two canoes. It would lay crosswise, giving us a beam of 8′. We would hold it in place with removable through-bolts. The mast was something like 12′ high with a mainsail of canvas. It was not designed for performance.  At 19mm thick and with a couple of coats of fibreglass’ on them, those hulls weren’t light by any means. But that, as it turned out, would prove fortuitous.

Our one  little sail left us badly underpowered and, with no jibsail, all but unable to make headway into the wind.  Yet we would, though with considerable difficulty, do with it what we hoped to.  And when stripped of deck and mast our two canoes would prove admirably suited, due to their weight, to the sometimes choppy waters they would ply. Where that was to be would become apparent as spring drifted in over the land.

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WILD MOYEHA BAY

There are days when any place we love can seem Edenic.  On just such a day Aus and I were hitch-hiking into Victoria along Sooke Rd. when a long, heavy, somewhat old, dusty and dun-colored Pontiac sedan pulled over. The driver was, tall, medium built, battling a bit of a belly and in his forties. His companion was a first nations woman, somewhat younger, with the stocky frame of many of the people of west coast heritage.

Vi and Roger Clark would be instrumental in us finding what we sought. In fact I don’t think we actually got to Victoria that day. Turned towards us in the backseat,   Vi told us she was from the village of Ahousat, on Flores Island, where she and Roger lived for part of each year.

Was it bold of us to anticipate, at that very point, what was about to unfold?  Would it have been ungrateful for us not to….given our history of good fortune?  Surely Aus and I would have shared a glance and a sense of fate in the air as we said we were interested in that neck of the woods ourselves.

It seemed there was an unoccupied cabin at the head of Herbert Inlet, ingress to which lies opposite Ahousat. Roger suggested a detour to their house for lunch and a look at a marine chart.  We could talk a little more about that spot and how we might sustain ourselves there.

And it it would come about that, a mere couple of months later, we would be driven to Tofino in that big old sedan; Roger and Vi with their children Junior and Riva sharing the back seat with us and the cats, our new deck and mast spanning the roof racks, canoes atop them upside down, strapped and cinched down tight. Soon thereafter, eventfully and not easily, we would pull our crude catamaran up on the rocky beach at the head of Herbert Arm, at the mouth of Cotter Creek, across from the Moyeha River delta.

God, we’re odd, we humans. Embarrassment  made me reluctant to write about getting to the head of Herbert Arm from Tofino. Preparations I’d been primarily responsible for were to prove markedly inadequate. To take on even a few miles of the waters of the west coast of Vancouver Island in a vessel so small, burdened and inadequately powered, not to mention jibless, seems now, after having spent many years working on the water, to have been profoundly naive. But I got down to the writing after remembering that people like Harry and Erma and Roger and Vi were  not reluctant to encourage and help us……folks with years of experience in those environs. They cared for us and in not a single word gave us to believe we would not succeed.

Rightly or wrongly, I’d decided against adding the jib sail so as to avoid being blown over should we run into strong winds. Our was a small vessel, but we would be close to shore and we drew mere inches of water with dagger-boards raised. The marine charts which constituted our only documentation showed many coves and beaches along our planned course where our hulls could be slid up onto sand and we could escape the waves.  It would have been useful to know more of the dynamic realities of tides beyond that they rise and fall. They greatly affect the direction and force of surface currents and the steepness of waves. But the cellular-level connection to all that would come years later through a great deal of day-to-day experience of it.

Between our own research and input from our four friends and anyone else who might offer it, we were appropriately provisioned and had the tools we needed to live as we hoped to. Risk had been assumed from the start. We anticipated with relish, not fear, the opportunity to be tested.

So….away we went. Not far at first, merely a quarter-mile to Stubbs island where we pulled our little catamaran up onto the beach and slept on the sand above the high-tide mark. We shared some glorious intimacy as the sun rose along with the first smoke from the chimneys of Opitsat across the harbor. A fine start to what looked to be an accommodating day.

A light breeze lilted across the rippled surface  and we slowly lost sight of the town and the village…of all sign of habitation. We slid around the western lobe of Meares Island (yet to attain iconic status in the annals of the environmental movement), past Kakawis and quickly into a stiff Nor’wester kicking up whitecaps in Maurus Channel. Back and forth we tacked, progressing painfully slowly, until we were able to get between Morphee and Dunlap Islands and to the beach below Kraan Head at the southeast base of Catface Mountain. There were what seemed to be a few semi-permanent dwellings up in the tree-line and a few counter-culture folks moving about, but they made no overtures and we needed none. What we needed was sleep.

The next morning, with a breeze to play with, we rounded the southern point below Catfish, crossed Coombs Bank, slipped through the rocks of Chetarpe into Millar Channel, passed Marktosis (Ahousat) and by evening had pulled into a small cove just upshore from the entrance to Matilda Inlet.

Marine Chart for passage from Tofino to Herbert Arm

We pulled our catamaran high onto a grassy sward, strung a rope between two alder trees, hung a tarp over it and staked it out to form a lean-to. We laid out a ground sheet, joined our sleeping bags and, feeling pretty good about having made this much progress, fell into the  deep sleep of the righteous.

The cove was fed by a pretty stream that burbled over rocks and through trees down a middling incline to provide us with sparkling water to compliment a breakfast made over an open fire. As the atmosphere sufficiently warmed we stripped the clothing off our beautiful young bodies and made our way upstream, over rocks and around boulders, for the sheer delight of doing so, every pore tingling in the ozone.

Returning, we dressed, unbolted one of the canoes from the deck, slid it into the water and paddled east down the narrow inlet. We passed below the Ahousat general store high on the west bank and swung to port down the dog-leg to the government dock at Marktosis.

I took us to be objects of curiosity….. not unreasonably. Someone pointed out the house of the village chief and after confirming there that we were welcome ashore, we made our first contact with some of the folks Vi and Roger had referred us to. It was probably  Cosmos Frank’s house that we first stopped at. Cosmos’ father David was a much-respected elder and a canoe maker of renown with at least one of his creations featured in the Victoria Museum.

Folks weren’t effusive, but why would they be? They were friendly enough, curious, maybe a bit bemused by us, our means of travel, our stated intention to take up residence at the head of Herbert Inlet.

Feeling adequately introduced to the village, we paddled back to our camp, reassembled our catamaran, and bedded down, determined to be on our way across Millar Channel, around the southerly end of Mckay Island and, hopefully on a broad reach, into Herbert Inlet.

We awoke to an ugly day, under a louring sky, the kind that years later we would automatically associate with winds from the southeast, dark water, whitecaps and the threat of bigger seas to come. This was to be our introduction to it all.

There was nothing welcoming about it. As with our first day out of Tofino, we were faced with headwinds. And once again, without a jib, tack as we might, we were unable to make headway into it. We could see Ahousat off to the starboard through the rain but thought it unlikely that our low, small vessel would be seen in return.

It was a stiff wind. In retrospect I would say steady at eighteen to twenty knots. The sea was choppy but I’m guessing the tide and wind were in sync that morning or it would have been rougher.

It looked to be all we would want to handle and proved more than that. But I had to do my insist-despite-all-odds thing which peaked with my tying a long polypropylene line to the base of the mast and jumping with the other end over my shoulder on to the steep shore of McKay Island. I attempted to drag the catamaran against the waves to where we might make the turn and broad reach into Herbert Arm while Aus used an oar to keep the boat off the spray-slick rocks. I’d slip and slide, occasionally submerged to the neck and have to swim-scramble back onto the shore. I imagine I was pretty much stripped off.  Hard to think I could have stayed up with waders and rain-gear full of water.

What slight headway we made was quickly and repeatedly lost. We needed to go less than a quarter mile, and probably gained no-more than a hundred meters. Who logs the time in such circumstances, but the morning’s efforts could well have spanned a couple of hours.

The seas were getting higher, more of a roll to them, the odd white cap peeping here and there out of the rolling spread of blue-grey. Perhaps the tide had turned against it for it seemed steeper too. Our vessel seemed to be wallowing and as we drifted just off McKay in the channel a quick check under the canvas covering the canoes revealed four-to-six inches of water in the bottom of the hulls and our gear getting waterlogged.

Around that time this weird, muted, portentious, basso ‘you are going to die’ mantra started going through my head. Not something to share with Aus and anyway I thought it self-dramatizing nonsense. I did, however, take it to suggest that we were definitely not getting into the inlet on this attempt and we readily chose to turn back.

Fortunately the slight headway we had made allowed us to cross easily back to our campsite of the previous two nights. Bedraggled we might have been but by no means were we broken.  We set up our lean-to, unloaded the canoes, set up a clothesline, and over the next few days got ourselves back into shape to take another shot at the crossing.

We also took another look at the chart and decided to get into the inlet by going around the more circuitous northern end of McKay. It of course occurred to us that we might have chosen to do that on the day of our failed attempt. On the other hand, with that wind, we might have just been blown on past our turning point…to who knows where.

Providing far more intermittent paddling assistance to the sail than we’d have preferred, we took all of a day to circle our way around McKay, work up its northeast shore, broad-reach across the entrance to Herbert Arm and pull in to White Pine Cove. We slid the catamaran on to the wide, gravelly beach, secured it by the bow to some drift logs, set up our lean-to and savored the day’s small victory, rain pattering on the canvas, campfire at our feet.

We would have set a kettle in the embers to boil, feet as near as tolerable to the flames, haunch to haunch upon a log, breathing in the scent of beach and forest……with surely a kind of wonder that we were where we were. We would gaze out upon a stage where Aus and I, several months later, would come close to becoming victims of the wind that Whitepine Cove was known for.

Each of us in our own way had chosen to shy from the options on offer from the configured world, to start from scratch as it were, to learn about ourselves and create our lives together from there. They would be very different from our middle-class experiences to that point.

Aus was sore and suffering from her share of the hard work of heavy paddling, for which I was better suited. We took a drizzly day off to recuperate. Then with the cabin that would protect us from inclemency mere kilometers away, we packed our gear on board and pushed off to cover them to the end of the inlet… riding a light chop, wind at our backs, tide in our favor.

With the easterly shore to starboard, ahead and off to port came our first glimpse of the environment we’d occupy for the next eighteen months or so in the form of the Moyeha River delta.

Then the full scope of the inlet’s headwaters came into view: A wall of rock rising sheer and mottled, scrub-timbered from the water to a height of perhaps eight-hundred feet, a thin stream emerging from below its peak to splash and tumble down to the surface of the inlet.  I sensed or imagined for a moment a great Godhead looking down upon us and then heavenward as if to say, “Do these two paltry creatures actually think they will survive here?”  I shrugged it off as I had the ‘threat of drowning’ experienced a few days earlier, as an echo of tales read as a boy. And last but not least the salt-water-bound riffles of Cotter Creek, the good-sized cabin, the long stretch of stony-beach calling us towards what would become our home.

Aus at Herbert Arm 1970

 Soon the twin bows of our tiny craft ground on to the beach mere feet from the wide rough wooden steps to the plank deck sheltered beneath the extended roof gable, and the door.  I helped my brave, awestruck and delighted lady across the slippery stones and then clomp,clomp,clomp…..scrape, shuffle squeeeeek, we peeked in: Side by side.

It was much larger than we might have imagined had we imagined it at all, say forty-feet long by twenty wide, dimly lit from six-foot square, windowed alcoves poked out either side. Minimally insulated it seemed obvious….but we had months to go before winter and no aversion at all to cuddling beneath bedclothes for warmth.

It was all one big space, centered by stacked twin oil drums below a chimney, the lower for a fire, the upper as a warm-air chamber. In front of the heater a trap-door hid steps down to a root cellar about two meters wide by three long, shelves on either side.

The kitchen area had a white, enameled wood stove in decent shape and on the shelves to either side a previous resident had left a perfectly good potato for us and a can of salmon, which we immediately combined into a meal.

It must have been an immediate and ongoing chore to provide wood for heat and cooking, yet I have little recollection of it. No logs drifted ashore voluntarily there. There was no standing timber close to the cabin nor had we the practical means to fall it efficiently had there been. With at first only a swede saw and later a big old crosscut I must have gathered most of it from the edge of the logging road that ran back through the slash above Cotter Creek and from the switchbacks, strapping it to the simple wood-framed Trapper Nelson backpack for the trip home. Though I see from the pictures that I must have felled and trimmed the occasional shoreside tree.

It seemed about half a mile away to where the glacier-fed waters of the Moyeha River melded into the saltchuck. Halfway across to it the waterfall could be milked from a canoe for water of exquisite purity.

Waterfall snip 2

Photo by Jim Nieland

The Moyeha, at its mouth, divides to create a broad delta, now covered with high grass. The morning after our arrival we canoed over and paddled silently within a few meters of a black-tail buck, two adult does and a couple of yearlings. Narrow mud skidways seemed likely signs of otter. On the slick, grassy flats we scouted for edible plants, found some rice-root as well as bear-sign in abundance.

There were some good sized sitka spruce growing along the banks of the river. They had been heavily logged during the 1940s, a lot of the wood going into the Mosquito Bombers that served during and after the Second World War. The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito was a  multi-role combat aircraft was one of few operational front-line aircraft of the era constructed almost entirely of wood and was nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder.” During our time at Moyeha Bay Canadian military jets  on several occasions, perhaps as a salute, would break the sound barrier over the valley.

Cotter Creek exited into the bay behind the cabin. To either side of it the lower slopes had been logged off a half-dozen years or so before our arrival. The low, moist land to either side of it were densely infilled with berry bushes already showing signs of bearing heavily. An orchard of sorts for a back yard, it would give us a pie every two days for weeks on end, the mealy salal berries complementing the plump, watery huckleberries fatter there than I would ever again find elsewhere.

We came to see, on separate, rare occasions, the high dorsal fin of a ten-meter-long basking shark idly circumnavigating the inlet’s headwaters. Pink and dog salmon and springs would arrive at summer’s end, pursued by seals and sea-lions, each of the latter a massive, swift presence to quicken the heart as it passed close beneath the canoe.

Canvas-backs, mallards and wood-ducks would land and nest. Male merganser, tawny and orange-tinged like the females most of the year, would don sleek, bold, formal black and white long enough to give the females a train of youngsters to lead along the shores, as many as a dozen dwindling to one or two as one predator or another picked them off.

A winter flock of trumpeter swans, rare at that time, would split their time between the river delta and the narrow lake just up the valley, flying over our cabin fifty-strong, brilliant against clear, blue sky. Snow geese would pass overhead but not deign to visit. Loons would indeed paint the soundscape in their legendary, haunting tones of solitude.

There were harbour seals of course. On one occasion four of them pushing up from beneath a school of salmon close to shore, fanning out in a flash of symmetry, a choreographed ballet that I thought then must be a rare blessing for anyone to see, fish scattering like pink and silver confetti. And one day I might have seen the refined head of a fur seal. One sure sighting of a fisher, near to black, on a high branch over the river’s edge. A shy beast that few are said to have seen in the wild. One pug mark in the gravel at the edge of Cotter Creek the only visual sign of a cougar.

As my lady Australia put it, “There is such fullness.”

Of all these wonderful creatures, none would come close to moving me as she did, her grace and presence, patience, kindness and, yes I confess, sheer femininity….forming and re-forming the rich core of my day-to-day.

Outside that core, there was much for me to learn. In retrospect, after many years lived in ways grown from the roots of those days, much of it was not so complicated. But still, starting from scratch, as we were, small mistakes could loom large. I had little tolerance for mine, a gift from my father, the self-directed rage too palpable to leave Aus unaffected, acknowledge, explain and apologize for it as I might.

As lacking in complexity as anything to be newly undertaken in that place was the business of hunting and fishing. There were deer aplenty, fish aplenty, bear aplenty. We had our much-thumbed copy of Bradford Angier’s ‘How To Stay Alive In The Woods.’

For all that much is made of it, to line-up front and rear sites on the neck of a deer or behind the shoulder of a bear is not a complicated matter, providing that the sites have not been bumped out of line. To tie a silver Swedish jig to the end of dark green cod-line with a couple of pink and green hoochies tied at two-foot intervals above it was straightforward enough. We had been informed by those who knew it well that the fish bit best at slack tide.

Angier’s knots were easily mastered. Cleaning fish, skinning and butchering large animals would turn out to be straightforward. We’d dry the skins, treat them with an infusion made with hemlock bark. Come winter, in the absence of flies, a deer could be hung from the porch rafters and meat cut from it over the stretch of a month without it spoiling…. breaking down only enough to tenderize the toughest parts. Neck and shoulder, eaten last, had become as soluble in the mouth as was the loin.

To paddle out a hundred feet in front of the cabin, lean over the side of a canoe and lower the lures into the seventy-meter-deep hole plainly indicated on the chart was a chance to inhale the salty, moist ozone up close.

The line would go slack as the lure hit sand. I’d raise it a foot or so then bounce the jig a couple of times on the bottom to generate a little interest. Often within seconds would come a solid strike then a steady, hard pull, such as cod will provide, sustained throughout the slow retrieval, the line piling beside me in the canoe to be properly rewound later. And then the orange and white flashing a few feet down……and another a few feet from it….and yet another jaw-bound to the jig itself. An easy enough lift over the gunnels. Three nice red snappers, three-and-a-half, four pounds each on my first try.

That cod-hole would prove, with a few gaps, to be a reliable source of food for us over our time there. The cats would relish the scraps, the martens, with their orange-splashed breasts, pretty as no other mustelid comes near to being, would pull down and drag off the skeletons clothes-pegged to a line strung between the upright log-poles supporting the porch roof…..vying with blue jays for them.

Our first dusky evening, opting I suppose to get down to it and needing food for the cats, I had shot one of a flock of fifty or so crows gathered in the branches of a close-by alder, curious, I suppose, about the new arrivals.

Down it tumbled and up rose a din of condemnation and protest that went on well past my retrieving the unfortunate loser of my casual lottery…on into dark….resuming afresh at dawn as the smoke rose from our kitchen chimney.

Even weeks later, as I hunted, the flock would gather at long range to raucously warn any game willing to pay attention that a killer was on the prowl. Finally, in protest myself, I shot another. It fell into the Moyeha River, the flock following in the air overhead, calling out to it. Not a proud or happy moment. But effective. They subsequently left me to wander and hunt in peace.

Moyeha Screen Capt.

Photo by Adrian Dorst

On the morning of our third day there I took the canoe across to the river-mouth and entered the deepest of the tributaries. Where it joined the main flow was a grassy bench of a quarter acre or so, backed by a sheer rock rise of ten meters, a fringe of alders at the base of it, through which hooves and paws had pressed a trail.

I pulled the canoe quietly up onto the dry, rocky shoulder of the river-bed and, bolt-action Cooey .22 calibre rifle in hand, walked up onto the sandy flat. Idiosyncratically a single columbine, in full bloom, stood clear of the replenishing grass. Not fifteen yards away, head rising in caution but not yet alarm, looking straight at me, stood a young doe, perhaps two-year-old.

The bullet took her in the neck, the crack of the shot echoing and fading away into the set-back forest. She hopped twice and went down kicking. I walked close enough to see the light fade from her eyes. I can see it in memory still. Each time I have taken the life of an animal, from near or far,  it is with that image in mind.

And then I set about ‘dressing’ the ‘carcass’, cutting the throat to bleed it out, opening it from breast to anus, pulling out and separating the innards……head, lungs, stomach, intestines to be left to scavengers, heart, liver, kidneys to be placed back in the body cavity, it to be formed into a bag, forefeet poked through the hamstrings on the hind legs and pulled over the shoulders, forelegs become bony straps, the whole carried back to be laid in the bottom of the canoe and transported home.

It hung from the rafters of the front porch, covered with cheesecloth to keep the flies at bay and to age for a nominal day or two, the air too warm to leave it longer. Then, having at that point no jars in which to cook, seal and keep the meat, we cut up the carcass, much of it into strips, and smoked it over an alder fire for three days.

But when you hunt to survive, over a fair stretch of time, it is not by any means sure to be so tidy a business.

My thoughts on hunting were and remain various and elaborate. Evasive, abrupt, lacking resolution. I don’t hunt now, but might again in different circumstances.

In my current reality…..in relatively close proximity to others, shooting one of the many and often pestiferous deer is just not on…..and why would I really? To remind myself of what a very different time required of me? Too little need and value in it now to seek to replicate  the experience of those days….and why try? There is much otherwise to be experienced in my current entirely satisfactory present..

I have loved many animals in my time, not withholding it from those whose lives I ended and knew I would end in one self-sufficient locale or another.

Of late I find myself wondering if taking or denying life to any other being might equate to the wages of original sin….eternal…endemic…the endless metaphorical eating of apples from the tree of life. This from the filaments of biblical lore in my ‘Western’ consciousness, not from scholarship or belief. More akin to acknowledging the synchronicity between prediction of  ‘a fire, not a flood, next time’ with the laying to waste of vast tracts of the earth’s forests caused or exacerbated by human activity and our ever-accelerating consumption of other resources that seems to me also to be most firelike.

It’s overwhelming to think of and for some much more comfortable to insist that this obvious effect of our activity isn’t really occurring or won’t eventually lead to body and soul-destroying consequences for our own species……to instead set about profiting from people’s angst and addictive preference for comforting narratives. There’s money to be made, much of it by uninspired, deceit-dependant, swinish means…..apologies to pigs.

Our economies rely on destruction to sustain consumption, converting the elemental animal, vegetable and mineral substance of the earth into landfill with often only the briefest stop on the way there as ‘consumer goods.” Human beings still paying for original sin endlessly in seeming pursuit of conceptually inevitable self-destruction. What has been, is and will continue to be, lost.

For all that we ourselves might suffer for it we continue to crave both life and paradise……..seeming to ‘have it’ only to shy away or outright pervert it.

There is no milk, without the breeding of livestock, the quick conversion of excess male offspring and aged females into meat. For eggs it’s much the same. Roosters and over-aged hens aplenty….a secondary product lying pink and damp, plastic-wrapped on supermarket shelves. Nor does vegetarianism get us off the hook. Every bit of terrain we turn to meaningful production of food for ourselves denies it to a whole range of organisms that once inhabited it, relied on it, evolved through generations on it.

How ironic that our attempts to devise our better versions of paradise can become so gluttonous that we, like lambs to the spiritual slaughter, justify elaborate, skillfully-managed and comprehensive outlays of energy to exploit the disappointments of existence, principally by supplying ‘goods’ and ‘services’ that must of necessity fail to satisfy if they are to be manufactured, bought and sold ad-infinitum.

So I have preyed upon my animal kin…..and rationalized: Better to be free and your naturally evolved selves until I snatch life from you than to stand in line to die, the air redolent with the reek of it all. But for those we consume we are simply another predator, a competitor for space and resources, a stressor to be added to disease and cold and hunger.

We delude ourselves if we believe that systematizing it and segregating ourselves from the slaughter somehow ameliorates the terror we create.

At Moyeha Bay there was no garden built up over years such as would later feed Aus and I and our daughters, just sandy soil stripped of nutrients by heavy rains and virtually incapable of producing anything edible other than plentiful berries in season. Oh we would try rice-root and wild onions, seaweed, salmon-berry shoots….but there was no lasting abundance of any of them, nor were they particularly flavorful. We would bury fish and animal waste in a small spot we cleared near the beach, with little chance that it would break down quickly enough to do much for the leafy vegetables we planted there…..as our small harvest confirmed

Yes, I have ended the lives of many animals in my time. Whether it was a deer a hundred meters away, a young whether raised from birth and lovingly smooched immediately before being put down or a beloved, too old and suffering dog….it always occasioned in me a gut-level grimace and sense of loss on many levels.

Oh, I was surprised on occasion to make what struck me as an unlikely shot or stalk a bear up a mountainside through logging slash, the effort barely registering, as if drawn from some deep-seated capacity that may well reside in our genes. What I didn’t feel was pride.

Aus and I were there at the head of Herbert Arm to kick off the independent stage of our lives minus the denial and pretense that struck me as epidemic and unavoidable in modern life. Writing about my hunting… and wrestling with how to approach doing so I speculate as to why I chose to place myself in circumstances that required it.

 

BEASTS OF MOYEHA BAY

*See image credits
As a boy I adjusted to an occasionally lonesome childhood vicariously sharing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Kim, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood; their environments infinitely more exotic and engaging than our flat in North London. Call Of The Wild, Moby Dick, Charge of the Light Brigade. Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of the Kumeon….each read many times. Books on nature and animals. And too repeated visits to London and Whipsnade zoos. For me the Museum of Natural History was far more engaging than the great artifact-filled British Museum or any other display of the works of man.

But that was so for many a boy who nevertheless melded or were molded into prescribed roles as adults, ones that could be studied or trained for, success gauged by broadly accepted standards. I stuck my toes in those waters but with no enthusiasm, anticipating that they would be as I found them…..tepid.

With my father’s encouragement I traveled by train through Europe and ate sand in the back of an army van across Arabian and Persian deserts and hitch-hiked across India and down the length of Thailand and from Darwin to Sydney…as much to prove to myself that I could as out of the wish to be educated by the journey. Essentially I learned that there were many ways to live and be and many way to measure their worth….ruining me for regular life before the age of twenty.

University could not enthrall me. The highlights of my foray of several years into journalism were parachuting out of a small plane, racing a camel and an ostrich, riding with the four-day centennial wagon-train from Gravelbourg to Mortlach in 1967 and hitting the quarter-mile-line at 114 mph so as to write a feature on a local stock-car strip. And that was while working for the Moose Jaw Times herald……far more satisfying than anything I did with the more prestigious Star Phoenix in Saskatoon or with Canadian Press in Toronto.

But Toronto was where I came up hard against my internalized terror of prescriptive existence. I asked someone I truly loved to marry me, was willingly accepted and after days of wrenching depression…panic really….withdrew my offer. It was not being with her that I was afraid of…I much later came to realize….but the utter predictability of marrying and of the future it seemed to predict and prescribe.

The shame of hurting and the agony of inevitably losing her…I understood much later…..was a form of dying….of the personality I had invested in failing me utterly. And I fled. To the other side of the country and whatever eventuated.

And what did, to cut to the chase and bring the topic of living from the land back into focus, were psychedelics. If there was anything that drove home for me the disparity between appearance and reality it was psychedelic experience. This I may well write of in some detail, but for now let me just say that it is one thing to understand that a tree breathes…..another thing altogether to see it breathing. The former slips easily into the intellectual catalog, merely more data; the latter informs one’s ongoing awareness….of everything really.

Arriving in Canada from England at the age of eight I became a town boy in North Battleford, then a city boy in Saskatoon: a middle-class kid, a split-level dweller. Nothing too fancy…my folks weren’t into that. Comfy, well fed, adequately educated, athletically indulgent.

But my twelfth summer was spent on the farm, delighted from nose to toes, of Ernie Tallis, near Borden,Saskatchewan. Ernie was father to Cal, who grew up on the farm and became a legendary Saskatoon lawyer and eventually a provincial appeal-court Justice. He and his his wife Dorothy were good friends of my father and mother …..and of me, I felt.

Ernie set me to doing chores, setting fence-posts and stringing barbed wire, turning over summer-fallow with the old Case tractor, pulling and stacking green oat bales, driving truck for the combine and shooting the Cooey .22 caliber rifle he put in my hands. One jack-rabbit I recall. A long shot through the truck window at a crow far enough off for a noticeable delay between the shot, the crow tumbling from the treetop and the thump of the bullet’s impact coming backs to my ears. Competitors in the farm world. Unlike a horned owl, at dusk, shot for no justifiable reason and to my eternal shame.

What I experienced and learned there speaks to the previous paragraphs and starts with an experience few will be able to post in their resume: I think Ernie was testing me and catering to a sense of humor as dry as dust rising away behind a summer-fallowing tractor.

Ernie’s was a ‘mixed’ farm, common in the day, perhaps still. Grain and cattle. He had a herd of grade Herefords serviced by a much respected, somewhat legendary purebred bull by the name of Wee Willie. It had once taken a charge of bird-shot in the hindquarters to get him to break off a fight with a neighbor’s bull, the two of them having torn up half-an-acre of wheat, going round and around, head-to-head.

He weighed between a ton and a tonne, pick your scale, and was a good three meters long, not counting his tail. I got close enough to Willie one day to inhale his fermented breath, see up close the dust in the tight, dirty-white curls of a forehead that spanned the length of a man’s forearm between glazed red eyes. He had come staggering with lust from the shadows of the barn as the heavy, plank door slid back on its rollers, nose held high, curling, savoring the scent of the cow in heat that we’d brought there for him to service, prejaculate spraying left and right.

His massive shoulders hunched over her hind end as I held up the manure-stained, tufted end of her tail so that Willie could have his way with her, the poor thing nearly buckling at the hocks as she took his weight. Snot ran from his nose as he huffed and moaned.

Perhaps then it was only a glimmer of fond, amorous memory that set him to trotting my way some time later as I took a short-cut across his paddock one day, on the way to greasing up the combine. I’d seen Ernie walk up to him calm as could be one morning and snap the end of a four-foot-long, wooden bull-pole to his nose ring. And even when he took off trotting, pulling Ernie over and dragging him twisting and cursing around the paddock, blood streaming from his nose (Willie’s I mean) he could have stopped and ended the incident, fatally, in seconds. So his approach to me may not have been cruelly intended.

Still I took off trotting myself, tossed the grease gun over the barbed wire and followed it head-first, gracefully employing the tuck-and- roll learned in the school gym that spring to get to my feet and create a little separation.

Ernie’s herd ran to thirty or so, cows, calves, heifers and steers. Butchering one of them for his own use he always took the great care, he told me, to do it downwind of the barn where Wee Willie was stalled. When one day, as a prairie wind will, it suddenly reversed itself while a fresh carcass was being hung from a gin-pole, Willie, bellowing with rage, smashed through the door of his stall and shattered the heavy barn door on his belated way to the rescue.

I wasn’t there for that, but my sense of the beast and Ernie’s story convinced me that the reek of death is a matter of no small consequence to cattle lined up at a slaughterhouse, en route to final inglorious display beneath supermarket fluorescents.

-A good friend, reading the above, told of her dad returning from a Moose hunt with blood on his jacket, going out to feed his stock and having to crawl into a grain bin to escape a mauling from his own bull….fortunate to escape with three cracked ribs.-

When I took the lives of my prey mostly they never saw it coming. They were not bred and fattened for bulk, immunized, force fed, crowded, sometimes to their hocks in mud and shit for days on end. Nor was I the only predator they had to fear… or disease, cold, starvation, any of which could might claim them in the natural world.

I have on occasion experienced myself infused, taken over as it were, by the instincts of the hunt. Nowhere more so than over the eighteen months we lived on Moyeha Bay near to the flats of Cotter Creek. I have been entranced…for mere seconds and for long enough to stalk up a steep hillside, strewn with slash-burned timber to where a bear browsed the edge of the topmost reach of a switch-back logging road…to come out of it with my sights set just behind a shoulder and virtually no detailed memory of the fifteen or twenty-minute climb and barely a change in my breathing.

I have head-shot a mallard skimming downstream through the thin mist over the Moyeha River and neck-shot a deer, barely aware of my crude open World War 11 gunsights, from a snow-laden slope as it plunged along a creek-valley logging road below me. A far more inexplicable shot than one that some years later on Nelson Island took down a buck standing hardly visible against weatherworn logging debris: Three hundred meters away but seemingly four-times closer through the telescopic sight on a much more modern rifle.

There too, on Nelson Island, I felled a deer only to have it regain consciousness just as I was about to cut the jugular and bleed it out. It took much of my strength to hang on to its heaving and bucking body while I completed the act. I couldn’t let it go, could I? It might die slowly from a gunshot wound. But as it turned out my bullet had nicked its spine, knocking it down and out only temporarily.

I have, on the other hand, wounded a bear with a shot so wide of the mark that I and my prey might have been in two different dimensions, out of sync with one another by eighteen inches. I chose and still choose to blame that on the old army-surplus rifle. Had I banged the sight on the way up the hill through the burnt-out slash? To this day I don’t want to accept that my focus might have failed so badly with the quality of a death on the line.

To kill cleanly to eat is one thing…..to cause profound suffering something else entirely.

That two-year old bear, shot so as to cut down on the number of deer it was taking to feed the two of us, was the second bear I took and as jolting in its way as the was the killing of the first.

What a terrible lot of violence……in those few paragraphs, in those events.

And if, understandably, you are put off by that and wonder if you want to chance coming across more of it in this recollective, well, I give it to you all at once precisely so I won’t have to keep tripping over it.

It is far less disturbing, less intrusive of my state of mind, to not see the hidden violence that feeds me now, to buy my meat wrapped and laid out on the cool supermarket racks. As do I share the sense that uprooting beetroot and pruning branches must be more benign, generate less of a disturbance in the peace of the cosmos than the attaining of meat.

As I have put down, a clean kill was not a sure thing, expertise never to be assumed. Still, I recall with something like bemusement deliberately and quite comfortably head-shooting two grazing Canada Geese a couple of decades later with a single shot from my ultra-modern, fibre-stocked, telescopic-scoped .22.

Why bemusement? Well there were so damned many of them that the pastures were coated with their shit, contaminating our horses hooves, destructive of the environment we shared.

And it was we who had encouraged them to visit from a rocky islet near to the shore of our North Trail Island home…they and their charming, cuddly offspring. But they had become pests. My two-for one shot wasn’t much of a deterrent. The flock took off, flew in a big circle, above the trees, grey-bodied and black-necked against a blue sky….and swept back down to land where they had just taken off from…..with the freshly slain geese still flopping amidst of them.

Yet I do not make light of the taking of life we do when we detach ourselves from the factory slaughter-houses and fishing-ships and the torn and deforested land that mark our feeding upon the earth. Like teredo-beings boring ever deeper into our cosmic log, adrift in space, turning solid wood into reeking, digested sawdust. And how unlikely that makes any prospect of us changing before we completely undermine the buoyancy and resilience with which the planet has born our depredations.

And for what? We are a passing protoplasmic parade…fascinatingly differentiated, but protoplasm nevertheless…and passing, most definitely. And there are those among us who are all for doubling our individual lifespans. What bizarre narcissism.

Anyway….there is much to be ambivalent about in our living off the land as we all unavoidably do.

I don’t and didn’t dwell on it. It’s not a state of mind I want to sustain, only to occasionally remind myself of, not what I want my consciousness to be consumed by. We live in balance, not stasis. And I find my opportunities to give and receive love, affection, and respect across the range of species. But not blindly.

Back to Moyeha Bay.

Aus and I, Mom and Sis (our Siamese bluepoint siblings) would eventually hike the ten kilometer length of logging road to the head of Cotter creek’s valley, negotiate the salal, sidle through the devil’s club, sustaining the odd deeply painful, aching scratch and sleep just within the tree-line upon a bed of balsam boughs laid upon ground groomed to accommodate hips and shoulders. As soft and sweet a night’s sleep as ever I have had.

From there we would traverse the forested side-hill to emerge on to the 1200-metre-high alpine of Mt. Abco. We’d boil our rice and raisins in snow-melt while the cats explored, having willing followed us on the ascent. Coming down was a different matter. We’d herd and cajole them downhill seventy meters only to have them turn and head back up hill. We were finally compelled to bushwhack our way down, making up our course as we went, each with a protesting feline pressed down under one hand atop a shoulder while with the other we grasped bush and branch to manage our descent.

On other days we would take one of the canoes a couple of miles up the Moyeha, to where a swift ice-cold, glacier-fed stream meshed with it, dragging it on a long line up through shallow rapids and past log jams, tobogganing back down with care and idling in the slow current through the wide, calm stretches.

I made a solo trip up the mountain side to the site of the old gold claim which our cabin had been built to serve, shying from the pitch-black shaft, salvaging the odd item from a cookshack/bunkhouse that looked freshly constructed, the cedar still red: A large coffee pot that came untied and clattered away down the scar of a landslide, never to be recovered, a nice little anvil that I still have and tied high to my pack frame. It nearly propelled me over a sheer drop of twenty-five feet that could have easily done me in, the fall and the seventy-five pounds of cast iron together. I slid about fifteen feet on dry needles and twigs before my heels found purchase mere inches from the edge. Dead or injured, it was unlikely that Aus would have soon found me, if ever. We had no radios. No cell phones back then.

We added a little dormer to the cabin in anticipation of the mid-August arrival of Aus’s sister Judith Wilson and her family. We pretty much obliterated their expectation of the hard-scrabble existence we must surely be living…sharing with them a welcoming roast haunch of venison capped by salal and huckleberry pies and seasoned with the tale of the unusual circumstances of acquiring the main course.

One morning, a couple of weeks before their arrival, I pulled the canoe up to the long slick bank of one of the pie-shaped pieces of the Moyeha delta, scrambled up into the long, coarse grass, scanned the far brush-line with my binoculars and seemed just able to make out the shape of a deer. Was it? Wasn’t it? Ah there, the flick of an ear.

It was about seventy yards off…..the silhouette not entirely clear through the glasses, even vaguer through the open sight of the .22. But I took the shot anyway, aiming as always with the .22, for the neck. The shot cracked out across the open space but to no effect. I took aim and fired once more. That generated a shake of the head and a turn away into the bushes. Shit, what now? Did that last shot hit it or not? Not a hope of finding it amidst the trees and bushes. If injured it might simply lay down and slowly expire. If slightly injured it would in all likelihood make its way back back up the river, so I got back into the canoe and paddled up to the juncture where it split up to form the delta.

It was quite a lovely morning. The river was late-summer low and I sat on the smooth, exposed rocks, enjoying the fresh, moist air. One of the great Sitka spruces for which the Moyeha Valley was known, nearly two meters through, its root-system undermined by the assault of many years of winter turbulence, lay massive and prone behind me at the high-water mark.

I was watching some fingerlings near the waters’ edge, when down-river to my right a great clatter arose and my deer (I felt sure) came leaping and scrambling headlong towards me along the exposed opposite shore. A rough script of the movie about to roll out sprang to mind, short only the predator from the deer was surely fleeing. I had indeed hit it with one of my two shots and the scent of blood could certainly draw a bear or cougar.

As if it were ordained, the deer stopped and chose to cross the river to my side just before it drew opposite. Sides heaving it stepped out of the shallows about fifteen feet downstream. I had already turned, slowly, and raised the rifle to my shoulder to position myself for a shot. As the deer picked its way towards me I gave my shoulders a little shake, causing it to halt in in alarm, and pulled the trigger on a fatal shot. Then I looked down river for what I knew was coming. Likeliest of all was a bear, given the substantial local population of them, and sure enough, some way downstream, hustling along over the rocks, nose up snuffling the air for the hot scent still lingering there, came a good-sized adult black bear.

I would give up the deer of course, if it came to it, but still felt at some risk myself. That big downed spruce beckoned. I quickly bellied up to it, lay my rifle atop it and followed myself. I don’t quite recall how. It was near as thick as I was tall. But I did, and picking up my little rifle put it to my shoulder as the bear drew opposite. Well, I had height or the appearance of it in my favor now and using my deepest, most powerful voice I hollered, “Hey Bear.”

And I’ll be damned if he didn’t just turn reflexively and head away into the trees opposite. I waited briefly, dropped of my perch, bled the deer out, left the entrails for the bear should it return, loaded the carcass into the canoe and expeditiously departed downstream.

The visit was somewhat restrained and I couldn’t come up for my part with a remedy. Judy’s husband David and I made the canoe-trip up the Moyeha and went overnight back up Abco Mountain, transitioning the ridges from vista to vista.

Then they were gone, as was the last of our small supply of cash. But nature came along with one of those Indian Summers that atone in great measure for our usually dreary West Coast June. The daytime warmth and weather held up well into October.

So did timely good fortune, in this instance  courtesy of a blue-and-silver Cessna that waggled its wings over the cabin, circled the bay and landed well out before taxiing to the shore in front of it. Out onto a pontoon stepped a small, grizzled figure. He energetically greeted us and asked if we could put him up for a few days.

I grabbed his trapper-Nelson packsack and took in hand some boxes of grub he brought along, carrying them up the steps and into the cabin. And just like that eighty-four-year-old Bert Clayton stepped into our lives.

Aus and Bert

Aus and Bert

 

Bert’s arrival proved timely….for a time. He soon headed up the valley to split planks from cedar logs abandoned at the roadsides when log prices dropped precipitously some years earlier and the logging operation that cleared the slopes behind the cabin pulled out. Together we fashioned them into a frame for a small cabin a few kilometers up the valley road, then roofed and sided it with shakes split from another abandoned cedar. We fitted it with a bunk and a wood-burning heater.

His chainsaw hurried our process of amassing winter’s wood. I carried supplies to the site of some test-blasting he wanted to do.

The mine-site I had visited up on the mountain had evolved from Bert’s prospecting of some years earlier. Not long after his arrival another plane dropped in bringing some speculators to look into revitalizing it. They wanted a helicopter pad built up near the entrance to the shaft and hired me to build it. I packed my mattock, axe and shovel up the mountain side, cut and peeled poles, then made a crib of them which I back-filled with rocks and surfaced with gravel. It was a tad small due to the steepness of the location, but they made do with it.

As it turned out the mine never was re-activated so any profit associated with the nominal efforts applied to the mountain side presumably came from promoting stock. Not my concern. I was happy with the rare chance to earn some dollars.

While all this was going on Bert was sharing the cabin with us. He had a wide range of skills, cooking and baking among them. A couple of weeks after landing he flew back out and returned in a five-meter-long clinker-built boat powered by a one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton inboard motor, a somewhat dated configuration still to be found in those parts. That pretty-much put an end to our intermittent day-long return-trips by canoe to Ahousat and the associated risks.

Most of those trips were uneventful, rendered eerie only by morning fog. But one came very close, I think, to ending our lives. This journey in was uneventful but we cut our visiting short as the sky began to darken. We cut in close to the southern shore of Mckay Island, trying to keep the journey as short as possible. So we were on the wrong side of the inlet, opposite White Pine Cove, when the wind increased precipitously and we found ourselves with four-foot-high white caps rolling into us from the starboard side. We had no choice but to turn into the wind, bearing slightly to port so as to eventually cross to the lee shore. I was at the stern and to keep the boat from swinging sideways to the waves was making these wide strokes to optimize the effect on the bow. It was not enough. Aus was well forward, in the sharp rise and fall, catching the wind near-to-head on and digging in with everything she had.

She was so close to being overwhelmed. I could feel that with every fibre of my being. I would scream into the wind at her. ” You have to keep paddling……..you have to keep going.”

And she did. To the very point of exhaustion and at great physical cost. And finally we worked our way out of the main force of the wind and came into the shelter of the lee shore. There we could both lean forward with our paddles resting across the gunnels, regain strength and then make our way home.

Bert’s was a generous nature and his contributions made us materially more comfortable. But, as such arrangements will, it began to pale and he built himself a small cabin further down the beach similar to the one up the valley.

The dynamic of Moyeha Bay was then drastically altered when some of Bert’s new-generation relatives arrived to make something of a summer camp of things for themselves and their two little fluffy white dogs. It soon became apparent that they wanted the cabin we occupied. Given Bert’s influence with the mining company that still nominally owned it, one way or another they were going to get it.

Well, it had become a very different place from the one we had arrived at.

So, aided by friend and noted canoe-builder David Frank and his boat we loaded our hides and spare goods  aboard and motored away from Moyeha Bay. When a year later we returned to visit Ahousat from our new home near Gibsons on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast we were told that the cabin by Cotter Creek lay in ashes, a few burnt bits and pieces and the hulk of a stove all that remained. With Vi and Roger we took a day to motor down and successfully fish the mouth of the Moyeha for returning spring salmon and saw that it was so. Sad to see. A waste. Word was that both dogs had disappeared there, the second seen headed down the beach in the jaws of a cougar. The place had been good to us. So would moving on prove to be.

One thing in particular stuck that Bert said to us: People who live and explore as he had and we had begun to were not reckless or more daring than others. They fully recognize the need to adequately equip themselves and to proceed cautiously into new territory…..but, above all, they actually go.

 

 

THE BIRTHING YEARS

After leaving Moyeha Bay we lived in limbo for a month or two in Surrey, part of Greater Vancouver, supplementing what we got for our canoes in Ahousat with the single welfare cheque. Our inquiries led us to a house near Gibsons on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast after a wearying pack-laden plod in the dark and rain up the long North Rd. hill from the Langdale ferry terminal. Five of us now; the two cats, Aus and I, and Megin alone warm and snug in Aus’s womb. She would be born a few months later in February in a cabin on what we were told was one of the first two homesteads in the area.The twenty-acre array of old buildings, pasture, garden and forest would be our home for the next four years or so. Sweet years, full of learning on many levels, of animals and of youngsters of various species.

bucolic-scene

As a boy I was much drawn to animals, their Black Beauty force of being and nobility, their scent, texture, vitality, sometimes enormous strength. Their soft-nosed affection. I would make clay models of the lions at Regents Park Zoo though it was the tiger I thought of as the apex creature.

But for our species as a whole it is convenient to perceive animals as lacking personality and anything like awareness and discrimination, since we feed upon them. Substituting familiar and comfortable lies for inconvenient and uncomfortable reality is, after all, the norm for our marginally humane species. An accepted, rarely and then barely acknowledged self-replicating necessity. But still a lie. One of the vast array we keep on hand to operate by.

A horse might play tag or offer comfort, as of course will many a dog or cat.  A rotund, brassy queen of the roost may assume entitlement to the crumbs beneath the kitchen table, daily coming around to collect; Goats will home in on the clicks of an electric fence and spring over it, unshocked, between pulses.

So it was on this old homestead, created at the start of the great white in-migration to this long, lean stretch of coastline where Aus and I and then Megin really got into country gardening.

My beautiful picture

If ever there was a place to grow veggies it was the wide, long wetland near the forest’s edge. Damp enough through the heat of summer never to need watering, it accommodated our long rows of mounded soil that let the roots stay out of the rotting sog while their fine tendrils drew sustenance from it. The meadow that sloped up and away from it had barely a foot of topsoil covering the hard pan and it was easy to imagine its nutrients filtering down to rich garden beds made even more so by the ongoing, composted, alimentary donations of our beasts.

Aus and I were both products of middle-class upbringing. We had eaten well, been adequately dressed and schooled, had opportunities in athletics and music and taken for granted parks, libraries, medical care.

At Chamberlain Rd. it was quality family time that was most treasured, omnipresent and comprehensive, from the birth of two daughters at home to the beauty of the surrounding cedar, hemlock and fir forest, to our garden, to the animals with which we three shared that space and time.

No question though that we benefited also from being at home in the society at large. We spoke its language, knew its tones and rhythms and comfortably utilized its services. We were not self-abusive….were moderate really. Drank wine infrequently….for my part took an occasional toke or two to kindle the musical fires in the thoughtful redolence of reminiscent psychedelic light.

So the old house with its leaky kitchen roof, the cabin and its logs peppered with abandoned termite holes, the clapboard shack that seemed soundest of the three livable buildings and in which Megin, our eldest, was born…..were fine by us. Fifteen or sixteen square meters of floor space was cosy in a good way. Easy to heat. And we were further warmed and nourished by our proximity to one another. Everywhere we turned there was simple beauty, inside and out.

I relish the memory of one subsequent, torrential, rain-drenched Christmas in the old house when, ‘laughing all the way,’ we transported the turkey to the dinner table beneath an umbrella, transiting a kitchen floor strewn with pots to catch large droplets passing seemingly unimpeded through the tired and overwhelmed tar-paper roof.

The thing about animals is that, usually, if you love them they will love you back, offering better odds of that than do our own kind. The velvet earthy snuffle of a horsey nose-to-nose. The delicate prehensile nibble of young goat lips at your thinning hair. The chicken whose rough pin-feathers you ruffle as she mines worms from freshly-turned soil and who follows and squats, follows and squats as you work your way down the bed, clearly wanting more of the same personal attention.

Or this…..Brillig of the gentle equine soul, approaching the infant Megin as she lay fresh and near-to-new in her basket in the grass and reaching over its brim with one hoof, intending I felt sure, to get a gentle feel for this tiny new creature. My faith failing so that I walked to them, tucked my shoulder under her chest and lifted her up and back….sincerely apologetic for not quite being able to trust to quite that much inter-species synergy.

Sanchor and Brill Reduced

Or Megin, aged two and entirely at ease with all the beasts of our little Eden, dressed for the snow, deciding to take a short-cut under Sanchor’s black and white belly to get to Brillig as they both nibbled at a fresh pan of oats. Being newly a tad too tall, she bumped her head on his taut tummy and fell to her hands and knees on the hoof-packed snow. Sanchor casually reached around, snuffled her blonde curls, grasped the nape of her parka, matter-of-factly set her back on her feet…then returned to his oats. Aus and I, at the kitchen table watching out the window could only grin, look at one another and shake our heads in awe and deeper understanding.

Or our dominant rooster, flying at me claws extended after I’d already put him to flight once for attacking my visiting grandmother(whose Welsh accent and rolled-up, ultra-thin crepes, strewn with lemon and sugar I adored). My raw, righteous pantomime of rage sent him fleeing, legs desperately akimbo, towards the refuge of some long grass. I helicoptered the broom over my head and let it fly. It struck full athwart, right across what passes for a rooster’s bottom and, as if it were glued there, rolled him over and over, several times. A small, instantly doled out dollop of vaudevillian justice to be relished in the moment and righteously recollected many years later. And how often does that happen in the lives we live? And perhaps too it was another triumphant example of the instinctual connection to the skills of the hunter within.

My daughter Megin’s by-the-book birth took place in the clapboard cabin. It was a tough go, of course, for Aus, but a lovely thing for she and I to share in. Her sister Maughan, apparently comfortably lying backward in the womb and disinclined to shift, joined us  in our third year there, a few hours late, after we had moved to the main house.  Aus handled the situation with a certain ferocity, mother and midwife both. Each in their different ways a holy event….. as birth can and optimally will be experienced as and understood to be.

Very different for me too, the one birth from the other. Textbook assistance on the first birth. No role to speak of for the second. Aus, a tad impatient with my restlessness, said she was fine with me going to work in the garden. It was going to take a while to get that baby to turn. Never a suggestion from her that we make the twenty-five kilometer drive to the hospital in Sechelt. I kept an ear out for how it was going and so did not miss the birth. Neither did Megin, who simply took it in stride. She was probably a bit of an old hand at it by then. She’d seen her share of kidding among our several goats, and a number of women by then had come to stay temporarily in one of the extra cabins while they gave birth. Registered Nurses in Australia trained in midwifery and, legalized or not at the time, women who were set on home births regardless found Aus willing to help. For her it was clearly the call to vocation….nothing political about it.

Hard to think of those years as less than idyllic. Of Aus and I coming into our own in a life of our own creation.

In the meadow on a balmy afternoon Brillig and I might play false tag:  Me hollering in deep, manly tones and racing after her, arms like raptor wings, then turning to flee….she wheeling to pursue, head down and reaching for the seat of my jeans, hard on my tail, then spinning to lash out with her back hooves……always well short of making contact. And then we’d do it again.

Or she might poke her head in the back door, reach over to the rack of old newspapers we kept for fire-starter, grab some in her teeth, strew them across the doorway and (yes, really) point her nose in the air and scrunch it up, pink gums and long, yellowed teeth bared in a horse laugh.

brillinkitchen

Or Sanchor getting a little too nosy and aggressive while examining the wee mid-meadow tower of white wooden boxes that buzzed so strangely……then fleeing tail-high across the meadow with a tipped hive-full of bees in pursuit, seeking to introduce themselves en mass to his backside, the first and fastest planting pulsating souvenir stingers in his thick hide.

And that lovely garden: Wheel-barrowing out the cobs for a corn-roast with newly-met friends; brussels sprouts of a size and quality I never could grow elsewhere in all the years to come.

9-2-2012-11-16-49_006

Or Sanchor, Megin and I tearing flat-out down a hard-pan Chamberlain Rd., my lovely child pulled tight to into my belly, wind in her wheaten locks, his power surging into our bodies, our veins, our viscera. She younger than three; and wild and free. Oh yes….I know: Iffy as hell; but oh my we loved it, we three.

Once in a while I’d get a telephone call that had me reaching for the 303., walking away from the house and firing into the air so that our friends David and Sue Callingham, living incommunicado in a tipi back some way in the woods, would know that the ferry wanted Sue to work.

And the luck: Taking a newly acquired, ancient, fresh-painted but still homely International pickup truck out to the Fraser Valley for a load of hay bales, the left back wheel falling off just as I braked to a stop back home beside the stable.

 

THE BOOMING YEARS

While all of the above and its ilk were truly wonderful, a chance and informative conversation with some neighbors about the floating log-sorting grounds  in Howe Sound suggested to me that I might do well there and get some dollars behind us. There comes a time.

“Tell ’em you worked up coast at Teakerne Arm. They’ll never check. Just say you worked on the swiftering crew.” Whatever that was. Something lower-rung presumably. That night I phoned up the owner of one grounds, the foreman of another…left messages, most of it lies. Kept it simple.

The owner, Brodie by name, phoned me back that night. Could I start the next day, he asked? My first job would be to drill boomsticks…. whatever they were.

Booming Grounds at Stillwater, Malaspina Str.

Small Booming Grounds at Stillwater, Malaspina Strait. (Google Maps)

The next morning, after a crew-boat ride from Twin Creeks over to the western side of Gambier Island, I was dropped off at the ‘stick-pocket,’ where the long logs due to become boomsticks were corralled, tidily lying side by side. They were each twenty meters long, varying  somewhat in diameter, but large overall. My ever-reliable sense of balance sufficed on the floating logs across which I strode in my new, rubber cork boots. I had my instruction but first stood and took in the immensity of my surroundings.

A great, long floating barricade of particularly large and long logs, heavily chained and cabled, bordered acres and acres of water partitioned like a feedlot; herds of logs separated by size, species and grade. Diesel engines, some near, some far, played a throbbing sound-track. Little yellow steel boats called ‘sidewinders’ meandered here and there, dipping and rising, turning within their own length, pushing wood around. That’s how it was referred to. ‘Wood.’ No delusions on that count.

I was to drill four-inch-wide holes down through each of these nascent ‘boomsticks, ‘a third-of-a-meter back from both ends. To two of every fourteen add a hole six meters back from the top. To each of two more drill an extra hole six meters back from the thick butt. Lots of long, thick sweet-smelling shavings, the accelerating roar and juddering throb of the auger carving out the holes.

One telling might have been adequate for an actually experienced man. I knew there was a ratio and thought I had it for a while but, awash in logs, I became uncertain of it or lost count and and resorted to doing what I felt might be ‘close to right.’

It seems I did quite a few too many holes….in logs that would eventually be milled each more valuable intact. When the owner came by on a sidewinder to pick me up at the day’s end, his jaw actually dropped. What could I say? I got off the crew boat and went home thinking I’d get a call that night telling me not to show up the next day.

One 'section' of 'flat-boomed' boomsticks with a 'swifter on top

One ‘section’ of ‘flat-boomed’ boomsticks with a ‘swifter on top

Old boomsticks boomchained together showing ring and toggle

Old boomsticks showing a boomchain’s ring and toggle (the latter not properly crosswise and plugged as it would be on a well-made boom)

Instead it was ‘Tubby’ Skellet who called, to whom I had also spun my Teakerne Arm tale and the next Monday in the dark, cold morn I clattered in my new boot onto the deck of the ‘Nootka Bell,’ bound for Andy’s Bay. One of ten or so men, I was soon set, hatchet in hand, to cutting and shaping wooden plugs to be used to pin the ends of the boom-chains in their holes, toggles across the grain so that they wouldn’t pull through. That I could handle. I probably broke the record for plugs cut in one day. How else make such a job interesting other than perfecting technique.

 

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Everywhere were logs, logs, and more logs. Dumped 20,000 tons at a time from 130-meter-long barges, towed from the ‘jungles’ up coast, their perfume now sharing the olfactory scentscape with the sweet reek and roar of diesels. They would slide en-masse into the water sending a huge, soft swell rolling away through sorting grounds where sidewinders spun and dipped, converting a chaos of fir, cedar, hemlock, cypress and balsam by species, size and grade into flat-booms and bundle-booms. These would then be chained together three or four wide, two or three long and towed to the saws up the Fraser River, in Burrard Inlet or on Vancouver Island’s eastern shore.

Some might have been towed down the Georgia Strait from inlet logging camps….others felled on the the Sunshine Coast opposite, to be trucked, dumped and most often flattened out, resorted and re-bundled.

Truckload of mixed logs Howe Sound Bound

Truckload of mixed local logs Howe Sound bound

Bundle tow sheltering at Southeast Rock near Sechelt

Bundle tow sheltering in the lee of Trail Islands at Southeast Rock near Sechelt

Perhaps it ‘should’ not have been beautiful but it somehow was, set against the steep, slate-dark, jagged western walls of Gambier Island to the east, beneath an ever-evolving sky over the broad channel bordered to the west by the industrial flats and low hills of the district of West Howe Sound on the Sunshine Coast. Setting aside what it was, even the white exhaust of microscopic, toxic fibers drifting up the rainy River valley from Port Mellon’s Pulp Mill, over the dark green forest and against a blue sky, could be stunningly beautiful. And everywhere, tough, purposeful boats big and small, good at what they were built for. You had to like them.

A standard log boom is roughly  a hundred and twenty meters long, twenty wide. It comprises six sections, each a boomstick in length. These are chained end-to-end, connected butt to top by heavy steel boom-chains. These ‘strings’ are towed into and arranged around a floating ‘alley’, the top of the tail stick pulled open and chained so.  A ‘winder’ turns tiers of logs or bundles into the long, open rectangle, pushing them forward, parallel to the sides. Tier after tier snugged up one after another, touched up and tidied, the ends of the tiers knitted, the chain-linked side-gaps spanned where possible to give the boom some stiffness.

Even before I operated one I saw  sidewinders as little miracle boats. About three meters long, they had no tillers, just a couple of oversized hollow skegs to stabilize them and house fresh water from the engine to be cooled by the surrounding brine. Ahead of those, in a heavy steel cage was a substantial propeller on a leg that could turn hydraulically full-circle,  directing thrust laterally in any given direction as fast as the steering wheel could be spun: That was fast indeed with a suicide knob mounted on its rim and the throttle lever locked full on. It was like riding the finest of cutting horses. Hell….it was as if you were the cutting horse: Nudge a log here, send it spearing away over there, rear up and then dip the bow deep to drive its teeth low into the side of a boomstick near the top, rear back while driving forward and lift it up onto the sidestick of a boom. Anybody riding on the engine-cover better hang on tight or they were in for a swim.

Typical sidewinder with a boomchain hung on its side

Typical sidewinder with a boomchain hung on its side

With the whole six sections stuffed full the tail-stick would be pulled away from the stifflegs forming the alley, pushed up snug behind the last tier and chained closed.  On a flat boom comprised of single logs, a lightish boomstick called a swifter would be maneuvered up and across the logs. Connect these with boom-chains to opposite side-joints: Hanging on to the toggle end drop the ring into the water, fish it up with a pike pole, run the toggle through the ring and choke the side chain, draw a toggle up through the hole in each end of the swifter, pull up the slack, drive a plug in beside it to stop it backing out and: Voila, a long, semi-flexible rectangle,  full of logs.

On a flat boom, comprised of individual logs, you would maneuver another swifter called a ‘rider’ across the boom five meter back from the head and tail to stop the first and last tiers from working their way out over the end sticks. With a bundle boom, as most were then and are  now, it would be heavy cable instead of swifters, choked near to the butt ends of the sidesticks and snugged tight. Not too tight…..even bundles can slip out beneath a sidestick when seas gets rough.

All very simple in essence…. unless a chain’s too short or a top-end’s split, or the links are worn….just too far gone, or a bundle is splayed, a cable unlayed, a hole too far back and you can’t get slack, and on and on….you could write a song.

While the swiftering crew is taking care of all that, elsewhere on the grounds sidewinders are nipping and tucking logs into tiers, turning them twenty to forty at-a-time into the bundler’s maw, spinning away to cut out another tier as cables emerge dripping and the bundling winch roars, pulling the logs up out of the water back against the bundler’s ‘brow-logs’ into one long sheaf, to be wrapped and cinched with anything from galvanized steel ‘megan lines’ to raw, rusted, recycled cable. Elsewhere, scalers and graders are measuring and marking. Mechanics in floating workshops are swapping out drives and changing bearings, welders patching up dented and torn steel boat hulls.

Small yarding tugs with their standard power configurations and deeper hulls, ten meters or less in length, assemble booms into log tows or break down tangled and entwined ‘jackpots’ of fresh-dumped logs, flattening them out, bagging them off with long strings of boomsticks and towing them to ‘bullpens’ to be sorted. Float-planes and crew-boats rotate in and out carrying scalers and log-buyers.

Everything is afloat, subject to tide and wind and the ever-varying, shifting effect of the dynamic distribution of mass across the full expanse of the sorting grounds. Open to objective cognizance as it might be, and requiring of you an array of skills and physical prowess, it is the seat of your pants that you operate by: A jazz concert, not a symphony. And my time would come.

Two boomchains single-toggled together

Two boomchains single-toggled together

Boomchain choked around towpost and double-toggled to another

Boomchain choked around towpost and double-toggled to another

Until then, priorities being what they were I packed it in for the summer again……planted a garden and got my daughter Megin and Brillig started towards being able to patrol the fence-line and do a little goat-herding. I’m a big believer in everyone in the family contributing.

I know Megin looks a little ticked off in this pic....but I also knew I was right in telling her she's too young to ride around the neighborhood on her own. Man...kids those days!

Megin looks a little ticked off here….but I know I was right to say she couldn’t ride the neighborhood on her own…yet.

Brillig was a major presence in our lives. The product of two registered quarter-horses, her albinism made her unregisterable and considerably reduced her cost to us.  As a two year-old it was would be some time before she could be ridden. We paid seventy-five dollars for her and were willing to wait a year for her to ride her.

Aus with Brill on Lunge Line

Aus with Brill on Lunge Line

She wasn’t fast, as you might expect a quarter horse to be but had a beautiful slow canter. Sometimes in the morning you would find her standing forlornly near the house with her right hind leg extended behind her, locked, so that she could only move by dragging the front of the hoof along. Never good to see but easy enough to remedy by just taking the weight of the leg into your arms and forcing the leg back into place. She seemed to feel no pain with it.

With winter oncoming again, I signed on at L#K, a tidy, well-run log-sorting operation. As usual I had a few issues with the guys over the nonsense men in groups expect to have sanctioned in some some primitive playing out of the myths of fraternity. If you don’t provide approbation for the pack, it tends to start sniping, nipping at you in one way or another.

My internalized response was, “Fine….give me a couple of days at any job on this booming ground boys and I will match or exceed the production of any one of you.” Then I set out to make it so. When L&K sat me on a winder it was to tier up and stow logs for the bundler, whose operator was sustained by the delusion that pulling a lever or two and securing two steel-wires around a bundle of logs merited high status and the right to parade it. I soon had every log the full length of the feeder alley tiered up and would turn them in beneath the bundler’s cables at near double the rate of the previous sidewinder operator. So, nearly twice as frequently as before my arrival, the snarly bugger had to climb off his seat at the winch, trot across the deck to each fresh and irrepressible bundle. He had to pull nearly twice as much cable tight. I would push the new bundle through to be later stowed and have another tier turning in over the cables as soon as they were back under water.

He threatened to quit and they moved him…..but he packed it in anyway in short order. I was making them a fortune; they weren’t about to change that. Two booms out every day instead of one and a bit. They were falling behind elsewhere on the grounds just to keep up, assigning extra guys to sort logs into the alley, cinch cables across nearly twice as many bundles, tow two booms out instead of one, set the alleys up with new boomsticks an extra time each day. Then I got another winch operator whose stated, bizarre and brassy ambition was to “be giving other guys orders.” Unfortunately for him the authority on this particularly job now clearly lay with me.

All anyone ever  had to do with me was be civil………though admittedly I was enjoying competing with my own record too much to ease off on the production side anyway. We were being paid to be productive, weren’t we?

That’s how you empower yourself if you don’t want to be subject to a pecking-order. Perform. And it makes the job less boring if you are always working to optimize an array of techniques, whatever they might be. As spring beckoned the bosses were disappointed when I opted for another summer with homestead and family. Promotion was whispered at, unavailing.

By then Megin was getting some size to her and (yes….at the age of two-and-a-half) becoming confident on Brillig’s back. They had something very loving on the go. And she was getting to be a help around the place.

 

 

 

THE ARCHIE DAYS

It must have been fall of 1974 when I had one more go-round on the booming grounds of Howe Sound. At Gulf Log Salvage’s little sorting ground, past the pulp mill at Port Melon, salvaged logs were sorted, boomed up and sold. Of the vast number of logs harvested on the coast these had come adrift from broken bundles or flat-booms on their way down to lower-mainland and Vancouver Island mills or for export to the U.S. or Japan. They dribbled steadily out of weather-damaged or poorly put-together booms or tows damaged in heavy weather. The log-sorting grounds too were a steady source of them….the result of broken boomsticks, cables, chains, sorting alleys inadvertently left open, of low-floating logs slipping out of the grounds and away on the tides as the sidewinders and yarding tugs moved them around like herds of cattle.

Log prices were high and several well-equipped and able log salvors teamed up and ventured into the inlets above Powell River to clean beach-worn logs from river mouths and shores and tow them down to Howe Sound. Added to their regular inflow of salvaged logs, it was too much for GLS to handle, so they contracted the bundling of this material out to on Archie Haleta.

He had a lease on some water in front of a tapped-out gravel pit at Hillside, across from Andy’s Bay, where he formed  up an alley with a couple of long stifflegs leading to a small bundler set up on float logs. Gulf Log was to supply someone to run the log bronc to stow the logs into it which turned out to be me. Archie himself hired Wayne Larsen, a quiet, self-contained, competent, natural-born entrepreneur, to run the winch.

I got to run and ride a small but historic piece of equipment, stowing logs into the bundler with a log bronc…a crudely-conceived low, flat-decked steel hull with a 50 horsepower outboard mounted on a turntable in its middle for power, a precursor to the infinitely more agile and powerful sidewinders. Heavy teeth the width of a working man’s hand at the bow and vertical protruding steel strips welded along the sides gave it enough bite to move logs around. It was tippy and pathetically under-powered…….but did the job, in a fashion.

Log Bronc, photo by Jim Hillcar

Log Bronc, photo by Jim Hillcar

Wayne was off for the day and I was stowing logs into the bundler then getting off the log-bronc and cinching them up into bundles with the winch. Twenty to forty at a time depending on their widely varying dimensions. I was standing on a stifflegs, straightening out a jackpot with a pike-pole when from around Bear point this pink creation looking a tad like a miniature tug boat rumbles into sight, pushes into the far end of the alley, nosing logs aside, and works its way up to where I’m working.” Ah, I thought, the boss arrives.”

Archie had far too much scope to him for mere appearance to do him justice. A seemingly innate, understated charm emanated from a mid-sized, slightly aged frame and a remarkably open face. Contrary to appearances he was a strong man, with great reserves of endurance, of matter-of-fact persistence in the face of recurring setbacks, both personal and financial. He seemed to find his tribulations somehow ironically amusing, incorporating into his world view, as it were, an unfailing understanding that this life of ours is, after all, a tragi-comedy. It was as if he reacted to setbacks with an”is that all you got” and a wry chuckle. Above all, when I knew him, he was a gentle man. Not demonstratively so….but at the core.

On the day he pulled in with his little towboat, the Kathy, alongside the stiff-leg where I stood, he was just someone who had lost a lot of credibility when his saw-mill operation failed, leaving a lot of guys unpaid. So when he complimented me on the job I’d been doing and asked if I’d like to work for him full time my response was, “You’ve gotta be kidding, Arch, do you know what your reputation is?”

It kind of slipped out in a matter-of-fact way and Archie was visibly jolted by it. No pantomime. He was genuinely hurt. It was a little glimpse, of what I would grow to like, admire and respect in him, of what I came to see as his quintessential humanity, something not a lot of guys in the logging game would be willing or courageous or real enough to show. But it was not enough to get me to sign on with him until he agreed to pay me a dollar an hour over union rates and at the end of every week. That would catalyze much that could never have been foreseen for my family and me.

Archie was putting on a bit of a show of his own capacity for work I think when he wanted me to start at 5 a.m. There was barely a glimmer of a chilly dawn when I knocked at his door. It opened and I could smell the hot vegetable oil simmering, the bacon, the toast, the coffee….and feel the warmth of the house and the bright kitchen into which I was invited. He insisted I share breakfast with him and I accepted coffee and sat at his table while he tucked in. I had already eaten, anticipating a long day.

And we got into it. I mean everything….a broad range of topics, the swapping and sharing of points of view and personal history. I would reminded Archie how much this discussion was costing him. He’d wave it off and away we’d go again….into the esoterica of our respective lives. And somewhere, probably in this first conversation, he found a way to tell me that he had finally paid all those who worked at his mill….when he could have declared bankruptcy and dumped the debt. He needed me to know that. It took about two hours for us to get out the door.

And here’s what Archie walked me around:

A wide, flat, scarred, vegetation-free work-yard maybe a couple of hectares in size. Forty meters of buffering shoreline facing east and a bank of a hundred more curling back around into a creek mouth to the north. Off by the southern property line, in the direction of the Langdale Ferry dock and the town of Gibsons, piled a dozen high, was a long stack of flared butt ends of logs….most one to two meters through and three to four meters long.

They were predominately  the butt ends of hemlock trees, a species once used only for pulp, regardless of quality and size. By this time hemlock had been used for some years as flooring and treated structural lumber. Incredible amounts of value were lost over decades before they figured that out. Too much of plenty, no need to plan or innovate; The ever-sloppy market economy eventually tightening up enough to require practical alternatives and enhancements to be invented.

Unfortunately, efficiency misapplied in a similarly simplistic and crude fashion is why clear-cuts scar our lush mountainsides. The long-term costliness of short-term economic expediency, the public…supposed ‘owners’ of the crown land that produced the logs being fleeced all the way.

We had a whole wide forest to live from and successive provincial governments charged with custody of it ceded de facto ownership posing as management to short-termer accumulators of personal wealth.

Archie created a business salvaging from the barged or towed-in logs those inclined to sink butt-first. ‘Dead-heads’ might, from the moment they hit the water, show a foot or less of their length at the surface before slipping in stages down, down, down to deep and silt-thick bottom. Untold numbers of logs: Roads built to them, bunkhouses and cook-shacks erected for logging crews, chainsaws snorting to bring them down, branches trimmed, bucked into log length, rafted up and towed or barged perhaps, down Johnstone Strait, only to slip two-hundred meters down into the Fraser River silt that spreads in suspension out into the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, the Salish Sea and Howe Sound.

What the overwhelming majority of folks with little awareness of the world of timber harvest don’t know is that on some logging shows, the story goes, as much as ten percent of a hemlock harvest immediately sank, little of it recoverable. Years later, when lovely Hardy Island at the mouth of Jervis Inlet was being stripped of trees I saw the occasional whole bundle of smallish hemlock logs turned deadhead, grounded on one end in front of a log dump. In Narrows Inlet I watched logs being dragged by helicopter from the high  northern slopes and dropped butt-end first into the blue-grey waters. They would disappear beneath the surface before shooting straight back up to lay down and float. Most of them…but not all.

There are places where sunken logs have been recovered and milled, in fresh-water lakes or newly inundated reservoirs predominantly. Logs that sink in salt-water shallows are soon infested with teredos, commonly known as ship-worms. Oysters of a type that seed on wood in water less than three or four meters deep, as they feed and lengthen their vestigial shells carve out ever-deeper tunnels, rendering the lumber from their hosts useless for anything other than boutique purposes.

Entrepreneurial attempts to recover sound logs from a few hundred meters down in Howe Sound stirred up so much silt that it was impossible for helmeted divers to carry on working. And the crushing force beneath water that deep could damage them at a cellular level, rendering those that could be recovered useless even for pulp.

This only one kind of resource loss typical of a culture of rabid competition and the inevitable resulting ethical and operational rot.

Logging contractors cutting beyond survey lines, getting a final inspection of an authorized cut then moving the flags and working long hours over a few days to log and load the illicit harvest onto a barge and away. Caught dumping the barge at night and flat-booming the logs for sale sans stumpage; no revenue to the Province and no charges for theft arising out of it.

A foreman privately selling off the backsort….logs that wouldn’t quite fit into the dimensions of a standard boom. Fired but never charged: The industry preferring to avoid attention that might feed the ever-simmering public skepticism about its ethics.

An established coastal company exercising a provincially-mandated right to buy at local market prices logs that independent loggers could otherwise sell most profitably overseas or in the U.S.: Dry-landing them, trimming off the independent’s stamps and doing the exporting themselves. Stealing the export profit. Undermining democratization of access to timber supply.

Endemic, anti-competitive favoritism in the allotting of logging rights in favor of the major companies.

Most destructively of all, from the point of view of citizen/owners, putative free-enterprise cutting and thrusting led to price fluctuations beyond bizarre: Yellow cedar going for pulp and then for a thousand dollars per meter then a hundred ten, then fifteen. Pulp prices fluctuating over a similar range. At one point B.C. companies trying to milk market highs, contracted to bring in barge-loads of Alaskan pulp only to see prices plunge, the now excess supply undermining demand for B’C’s pulp logs that by law had to be taken from the land along with the prime logs. Some logging industry writer of the time opined, undoubtedly anticipating a receptive upper-echelon industry audience, that it would be a good thing if the bundles of unwanted pulp clogging the Fraser River’s shoresides would sink and disappear. Irony in service to ignorance. Competitive, freebooting-enterprisers just being themselves. The ethics of gluttony.

What else could be expected: A Fort Knox of a forest with an overburdened and tiny cadre of government foresters guarding the gold, their number slashed in the name of ‘reducing taxes,’ resulting in literally ‘untold’ but surely massive ongoing shortfalls of revenue to the public purse. Money that could have built schools, provided free tuition to university students, sent hospital waiting lists to the shredder.

Oil is like that these days. Utterly inadequate oversight as a norm. Toxic privatization of public resources. No thought to the needs of future generations. Now, with the clearly approaching, inevitable ceding of market domination by the gasoline-fueled auto sector to cleaner renewable technology, it is easy to imagine the oil industry’s secret mantra of these days: “Christ….sell the stuff…make some money from building pipelines at least. Lock the country into old technology with new infrastructure. Alternative energy is a-comin’ and then what will all this oily infrastructure and our oily shares be worth?”

Hey…I get it. They are true believers. Have to be. They’ve been justifying their depredations for decades. They identify with their objectives. Clones of the tobacco industry. Champions in their jousty little world. Stomping their collegial feet all over the public interest. They have developed a bogus rationale that they nevertheless still seems able to sell to that gullible public. More than a tad short of visionary. And what can even good men do when to stay in the competition virtually requires operational and ethical compromise and rewards connivance. If ever a resource cried out for a Crown Corporation it was B.C’s forests. And don’t cry ‘NDP’ to me….they changed nothing when they had the chance.

But it would take a few years for me to get a handle on all of that.

Our work, Archie’s and mine, involved my doing regular rounds on the Kathy of nearly every booming grounds in Howe Sound and taking under tow any deadhead still visible at the surface. This low-floating, insidious, temporary presence is what made them such a notorious danger when adrift in open waters. Recreational boaters’ relatively fragile hulls could be instantly split if they hit one.

Not the Kathy. She was a little rhinoceros of a boat, all roughed up fiberglass at the waterline, her hull seven centimeters thick, perhaps ten at the chines….just over half-a-meter of freeboard to each side of the short back deck with its center-mounted, ten-centimeter thick towpost. She was bit over seven meters long, two-and-a-half wide. On the short bow-deck forward of the windshield was a steering wheel and engine controls mounted on a vertical steel post. There were similar controls inside the three-meter-long cabin. Another set on the the back of the cabin wall.

We would rumble alongside a booming grounds, where the freshly dumped and flattened out barge-loads of logs stirred and shifted, and scan them for deadheads.

The Kathy had a heavy steel keel extending back at an angle just beneath and beyond a propeller that, along with her weight, allowed her three-hundred-thirty horsepower gasoline engine to power her over the lower-floating surround of sweep-logs. She would nose through the stirring and milling logs to reach a deadhead and another and another. Four-inch-long spear points (dogs) with big eyes on the striking end and three to five-meter-long lines connected to them were driven into their tops.The Kathy and I would string them out behind us, six or seven to each close-coupled jag, maybe as many as thirty deadheads in all. And then with the nearest snug against her stern she’d gather enough speed to get all the deadheads flattening out on the surface and drag them out over the sweep sticks. The heavy butts would press the sweep down so that the tops of the next jag could ride over it….and away we would go, chugging along back to Archie’s. All by arrangement of course. Whether head office had a handle on it or not…..hard to say. Sometimes…perhaps. Anyway…..Archie had permissions that allowed him to do this work. Allowed me, at that time, to do it.

Dogline

Dogline

I quickly felt myself to be entirely in my own realm, operating such a boat in such a way. Steering from the bow deck, on a good day with a favorable tide, I might sweep back to Archie’s around Bear Point operatically offering ‘The Keeper Would A-hunting Go’ to the steep, echoing cliffs, somewhat insulated from the accompanying roar of the battling engine by the length of the cabin.

On the money side, once I understood the economic realities Archie dealt with I chose to work straight time and took my wages when he got paid for the relatively buoyant top-ends of the deadheads that we flat-boomed with pike poles. At twelve to sixteen hours a day it still generated far more than I had ever made. At the outset with Archie I put in sixty such days with only four off, none sequential. He was a long way in debt and together we dug him out of it.

The Fraser River is a totemic presence on the lower west coast of Canada: Snow-melt pours off long mountain ranges and kicks downstream spring and summer currents up to four to five knots (8 kph). The longest river in B.C., it drains 220,000 km² of watershed and disgorges it every spring and summer out past Vancouver Airport and the overlooking, ritzy homes of Point Grey. In the season of the flood it offers the first hint of an approaching shore for ocean cruisers heading our way from across the Pacific Ocean. What doesn’t exit via the Strait of Juan de Fuca pushes up the Sunshine Coast shore as far as the Ragged Islands above Powell River. Part of it splits off below Welcome Pass above Halfmoon Bay and curls across the Strait of Georgia and back down the eastern shores of Vancouver Island. Twice a day it fights then flirts with the wind or simply overwhelms it, stopping powerful tugboats and their tows altogether, sometimes for days. The tidal water may intermittently exit Georgia Strait, but it does so down deep. At the surface the up-coast spew wins almost every hour of every day, sometimes well into July. It can briefly reverse but soon again asserts dominance……subsurface hyperdynamics working away. Not many coast dwellers know of this. Most of the time we forget the tidal current is there at all.

To me ‘The River,’ as it is most often called….as if in this part of the world there is no other……is emblematic of the power of the universe as expressed here on earth. One of many powerful symbols but not the less for that. I felt this well before my first direct experience of it.

That came when I fired up the Kathy and made my way at seven knots, with Langdale Ferry Terminal to starboard, out between Keats and Bowen Islands, around Point Grey and over to the mouth of the North Arm of the Fraser. The river forks a substantial way upstream before emptying out into the Strait of Georgia, now being called the Salish Sea. Kind of a cool name, really. Feels good on the tongue. Salivary, sensual in a green sort of way. A touch of alliteration at least.

Once….perhaps another time, perhaps this one. I came around Point Grey with the Kathy semi-surfing on a big stern swell. She was small, short, heavy….everything a predatory wave might overwhelm. She kept wanting to turn sidewise to the surge, at risk of rolling.  I focused with notable intensity on not letting it happen. Every wave had to be assumed to be unique, it’s form and character to be intuited and adjusted to.

Archie had arranged to buy a hundred or so deadheads from where they’d been accumulated just above Steveston. I got a call saying to head over there in the Kathy. He was was waiting for me, he and his new boat the Ten Days, a near clone of the Kathy, so named, at the insistence of his wife of the time, because completing it took months longer than planned, with Archie insisting all along that it would be ready for the water in a week-and-a-half.

He’d booked rooms in the Steveston Hotel, just back from the river shore. We ate there and sacked out wanting to be early to where the deadheads loafed, butts in the silt, a short way upstream. Archie had them already dogged and arranged in clutches of three to seven, tied to a long line of large, high-floating logs which could carry them if they sank. Unlikely, since we were going into salt water, denser than fresh, where they should float higher.

Our first task was to get them to the mouth of a river notorious for its ever-shifting underwater topography of sandbars.

The varying depths over which we would guide these defiantly vertical deadheads was completely unknowable from the surface at any given moment. As soon we got out into the middle of the river and began drifting downstream with a current of four or more knots (eight kph)….the longest deadheads would hit bottom and rise, spinning, skyward as each in turn would encounter a hidden sand bar.

Lines would snap, dogs pull out. Now in addition to dealing with our substantial downstream velocity and keeping the whole tow heading down-river in something like a straight line we had to break off from the tow, drive fresh dogs into the end of each maverick deadhead,  gather them together again and re-secure them to the float logs……while they were still inclined to spontaneously leap from the bottom now and then. The current was going faster than the tow, slowed up as it was by the ongoing collisions on with the sandbars. If one of us was head-ending it there would be extra velocity but also extra thrust coming back from the lead boat’s propeller. Lots of dynamics. Lots of paying attention going on. Which is why I can still play the guitar. I came close to losing all the fingers on my right hand when the Kathy swung quickly sidewise in the current just as I was attempting to heave a dogline connecting several deadheads free of the tow post. My hand nearly went around between the drum-tight line and the post. I actually pinched the skin at the top of my little finger as I pulled it away…which prompted a brief sit-down to contemplate how damn lucky I was to be a quick as I was.

But you could get caught unawares in the calmest of waters. I was pulling deadheads from Rivtow’s log pocket and had driven one of a few particularly large dogs we kept on board deep into the hard, meter-and-a-half wide top end of the kind of massive, near-to-immovable specimen that, with a big dog in it and a heavy line to it, needed to be taken under tow carefully.

That became moot when I tripped on some wayward doglines, fell forward reaching for support and drove the gearshift and throttle full ahead with the heel of my hand. As much as the Kathy could leap she did then. The dogline snapped tight and jerked that big steel dog free.

It hit me in the back of the right leg. I went down like I’d been clubbed with a bat. Through a fog of agony I managed to reach up from where I lay writhing to pull the throttle back. In the intervening second or two the Kathy, unloosed, had been careening around amidst all those logs.

But even then, in the balance, I was fortunate.  It was the flat side of the dog that hit me. Point first and who know what it might have done to major nerves and blood vessels. Even through the jeans and hitting flat it drew blood. For weeks I would carry a technicolor, ‘dog’-shaped bruise spread well away from the impact area.

Once I got a string of deadheads back to Archie’s I’d tow them at high tide up onto the broad mud flat where, as the water receded, they would settle down and lie in disarray over the silt like bones in an elephant graveyard.

When the lowest tide of any twenty-four hour period left them thus exposed, we would have at them with chain saws. We’d cut off the sinky ends, usually the thicker third of a log’s length hoping and expecting the longer, more buoyant top would then float. There was continuous risk of getting a leg pinched or falling and getting rolled on, particularly in winter when the low tides were in the middle of the night and it might be pelting down rain. We worked with only the glaring spotlights of the Michigan Loader for illumination, like some giant mechanical charge hand keeping eyes on us.  But it had its beauty too….the risk…part of it. And a certain camaraderie between Archie and I.  A couple of logs rolled in on me one night and stopped just touching the sides of my boot at the calf. Luck. I have always had luck.

BEACHCOMBERS

One morning a six meter long welded aluminum jet boat planed slowly into Archie’ bay and pulled into shore, I guess to talk business with him. Just another beachcomber. Every morning we’d see their small boats leaving Gibson to search for logs come free from the several booming grounds in Howe Sound. The daily double of intermittently strong tides alone generated considerable loss. Northerly winds funneling down from Squamish could be particularly harsh in winter. Sweeps might be opened up for one purpose or another and never chained closed. Powerful little side-winders and yarding tugs working hard would knock lower-floating logs out under sidesticks. Stray logs might accumulate within a booming ground, never be integrated into another sort and just drift out of the booming ground overnight…and pickings would be good for the salvors.

Archie once had a crew of them running a small fleet of boats and at one time operated a buying station for salvaged logs. So a beachcomber coming to chat to him was unremarkable. But when, on his way again, he casually powered his boat over a couple of strings of boomsticks that impeded a direct exit……now that struck me as mastery of one’s environment.

Archie had much to tell me about making one’s living salvaging logs. And not paying taxes on what I might spend putting together a couple of boats in order to get into it was appealing. Of course there was substantial federal sales tax on pretty well everything I would need to buy to accomplish that. There was a lot less to gain than I thought. I purchased a thirty-five-foot steel shell, hull, decks, cabin that sat for several months beneath the trees at home before I accepted that I didn’t have the skill or knowledge to realize its potential and wasn’t likely to develop either. I sold it  and purchased, without an engine, an eight-meter long cabin cruiser and a five-meter long speed-boat, their plywood hulls sheathed over with fiberglass.

The former I put up on blocks by our house, installed a new gasoline engine and leg, hydraulic controls and steering stations in the cabin, on the cabin roof and on its back wall. I beefed up the hull with multiple layers of new fiberglass. Then I did exactly the same with the smaller boat. All the while we were putting out feelers for a location, any location further up coast, that would return us to something of what we had left behind at Moyeha Bay.

I was buying what I imagined I might need to salvage and then sell logs out of such a location. Doglines, towlines, hooks and chain for ‘yarding’ logs off the beaches, axes to drive dogs, pike poles to position them, a peavey or two to roll them. To facilitate our transition we let go of the Chamberlain Rd. acreage and stayed for a month or two in a house that Archie had skidded onto his property. I continued working for him and at the same time purchased a steel-barge about ten meters long and a good-sized winch that we welded to its foredeck….for bundling all the logs I was going to salvage.

On a cool, clear, sweet winter day with a benign forecast we four humans, two cats and a dog, boarded the optimistically if unimaginatively named ‘Step One’, hooked up the smaller ‘Step Two’ behind it, the barge behind that….and headed away from Twin Creeks, past Langdale and the town of Gibsons, through ‘the gap’ and into Georgia Strait. We steered to starboard and motored northwest, staying half-a-kilometer off the stony shoreline, past the propane tanks at Roberts Creek, past Halfmoon Bay, through Welcome Pass, up to Francis Point, past the entrance to Pender Harbor, into Agamemnon Channel and on to Moon Bay on Nelson Island.

There, on its south side, up at the edge of the trees was a weathered fairy-tale kind of a house, a long  float at the shore-side. A flexible wooden ramp and winding walkway on piles meandered over shelves of natural rock past a fair-sized workshop to the house. We anchored the barge offshore, tied up to either side of the float and disembarked.

Arriving at Nelson Island

Arriving at Nelson Island

The interior of the house was cosy and, with a fire in the wood stove, quickly warmed up. There was a sleeping loft at one end with more sleeping area below it where the girls would sleep. A kitchen occupied most of the other end, across an open living area, with a pantry taking up the rest of space. We were there to provide a care-taking presence at the semi-remote locale. How things might evolve or where we might be when the summer of ’76 kicked in was yet to be determined.

The repeatedly reliable counter-culture grapevine had led us to Moon Bay. Had we not gone there we might never have found our eventual home of the next eight years….a couple of kilometers up the channel, just outside Green Bay…. that was both ideal for us and idyllic.

From Moon Bay I began to scout the area around Nelson Island for logs. It was slim pickings. Few log tows were going by. The odd one would pull into Boom Bay on the mainland shore opposite, waiting on weather.

Since they passed right by our location it became clear that we were going to compete with at least three boats working out of Pender Harbour. We would learn that another worked out of Saltery Bay and rigorously patrolled Jervis Inlet, Blind Bay, and the beaches from Scotch Fir Point up to the Ragged Islands. All were better equipped than I, knew the waters and shores as I did not, and had understandably no interest in seeing me be successful.

What I had was an advantageous base of operations. I could hear my competitors heading up Agamemnon Channel every morning to patrol the waters between the tows tied temporarily along the mainland shore below the Ferry Terminal at Earls Cove and Doug Fielding’s multi-acre BC Forest Products log sort on the Nelson Island side. There was a fair-sized sort right opposite the terminal at Annis Bay and a couple in Jervis Inlet. Most of the logs they processed were brought into the area in bundle tows, at least when we first arrived.

Log dumps and stiff-legs also served smaller logging shows up Jervis Inlet and through the Skookumchuck at Egmont, in Sechelt, Narrows and Salmon Inlets. When log prices warranted it, there was a lot going on in the immediate area near Moon Bay as well in Malaspina Strait, and between Nelson and Texada Islands. Bundle booms arrived there from Johnstone Strait, via the Yuculta rapids and Hole in the Wall, from camps large and small on both the Vancouver Island and Mainland sides. These were extensive and complicated waters where waves and currents vied against and not infrequently overcame the considerable skills and knowledge of the towboat captains charged with getting logs to lower mainland mills.

Many, though not all, of those tows were well put together with big boomsticks, newish chains with toggles plugged, well made bundles properly stowed and cross-cabled. But at times even that was not enough. Extreme conditions would jolt plugs  loose, jostle toggles around to lie with instead of across the grain and then be slowly jerked into and through the ends of even the finest boomsticks. Or the seas would simply overpower a tug and push a whole tow onto the shore, cables and boomsticks breaking, bundles floating free and away with the tide or blown aground and often breaking apart over long stretches of shoreline.

Even the inlet waters, to all appearances placid, were host to tides of a force that on occasion could tear a whole booming ground from its heavy moorings, using its own weight against them, logs spreading over a broad area, away up the inlets and out into the straits. Influencing and often dominant in all of this was the current from the Fraser. It could  carry logs lost near its mouth up the length of the Sunshine Coast as far as the Ragged Islands above Powell River. Many log from such mouth-of-the river spills would end up aground in the bays of Lasquetti and Texada Islands or along the shores between Roberts Creek, Halfmoon Bay and Pender Harbour.

When we arrived on Nelson Island there was little evidence of any of this. Slack markets I suppose. Still, the salvors patrolled and hearing them rumbling past our place and seeing their spotlights checking out the shores well before dawn gave me the opportunity to rise even earlier and work by spotlight myself. I’d be idling quietly back home along the Nelson Island shore, running lights off, as the competition headed up the opposite shore. They’d get up earlier and I’d get up earlier still until I was heading out at about two a.m. After a while they went by rarely.

While I wasn’t yet allowing myself to acknowledge it, the inadequacies of my boats were glaringly obvious compared to those of the opposition. With no basis in experience for assuming I would succeed in an enterprise and area so foreign to me, I had been unwilling to invest in boats of a power and build equal to those with whom I competed. And our objective had been primarily to live at least somewhat remotely, the beachcombing to provide minimal but adequate financial support for us doing so.

Given our peripheral links over several years to the society and values of what I prefer to call the counter-culture of the sixties and seventies I had forgotten just how innate it was to me to compete and to detest losing when I did.

That soon asserted itself again in the context of the log salvage game. It would take but a few years to replace my two inadequate vessels with three higher powered vessels of welded aluminum, aided in no small part by the good money I made at Doug Fielding’s booming ground just a short run up Agamemnon.

Happy and fortunate as we were to have been able to move into the Moon Bay house we jumped at the chance to take up more permanent quarters a couple of kilometers further up Agamemnon, immediately south of Green Bay.

Water for the house and garden fed to it by gravity from a small lake back in the woods a few hundred feet above sea-level. It filtered underground to a two-inch pipe that provide sparkling clear water at decent pressure to two cabins, the larger of which we moved into. What we did not use, by far most of it, flowed to a pond near the waters edge then into a substantial tidal lagoon, both fed and drained by tide through a gap about three meters wide, home to a deep bed of oysters. At high tide the lagoon reached back perhaps seventy meters into the woods. The fresh water, even mixed with the salt, made the mud flats at the far end an excellent place to keep logs free from the threat of teredo infestation.

We chose to dwell in the larger of two cabins well, up from the waters edge. Like the other three buildings on the place it was clad in weathered red clapboard, had a decent-sized living room, a kitchen along the northern wall and a couple of other rooms each on the order of three meters square. The black-topped, white enamel wood-fed cook-stove served double duty to heat the place, for the most part reasonably well. Taken as a whole it was adequate, internal plainness compensated for by the view across the channel and the quality of the air.  Kerosene lamps sufficed after dusk and we soon purchased a small Honda generator for occasional use.

At the water side a wooden ramp with two-by-four railings led to a thirty-foot-long float of logs and planks, adequate for a boat on each side. The steel barge we tucked away in Green Bay but never did make use of. It would prove far more practical to rent a gasoline-driven rock drill, set heavy pins into a steepish rock slope on the north side of the bay and use a block and tackle and the power of the boats to fashion bundles of fifteen to twenty logs each.

Log Tow About to Pass Green Bay

Log Tow About to Pass Green Bay-Lagoon on Lower Right

At Fielding’s I again operated a sidewinder, sorting and feeding the bundler and stowing yellow cedar into flat booms in slack pockets without benefit of stiff-legs to help form them.  Stowing subjectively, you might say.  Misgivings on the part of BCFP about having a part time beachcomber doing this crumbled when they discovered that my booms were making it to their mills with nary a log lost, something new.

A stolid but highly skilled boat operator and I smashed the record for bundle production. It was subsequently ‘broken’ by three chronically dysfunctional guys who had to resort to spinning undersized tiers into the bundler to do it. Same old same old. Bullshit does not confine itself to Boardrooms.

The odd and somehow sad thing was that if you found yourself standing on the logs with one of these types by himself, you might find them intelligent and perceptive. It made it so plain that they made fools of themselves, sold themselves so thoroughly short….in order to belong. In a very real way they were afraid of one another. I wanted no part of it, or of their pathetic Monday morning jocularity over the Saturday night’s stripper in the local pub.

And, wouldn’t you know it the alpha male was…..wait for it…..the guy operating the bundler. So I was on the outs with most of the crew and this guy decides, while I’m idling my boat at the end of a freshly secured bundle, to slack off the cables then jerk hard on the brow log and send a sheet of water cascading over me.

If I hadn’t been fending off his domineering ways pretty much since starting work there I would have taken it in stride….a practical joke….no big deal. But that wasn’t the dynamic. He was chuckling and grinning as I tied my winder to the big old ex-gravel barge that served the bundling operation, climbed to its deck and went into the lunch shack. I thought the situation over briefly, considered my options and looked around. I emptied a few lunch wrappings out of a blue plastic twenty liter pail we used for garbage. While the winch guy was busy with the next bundle I went to the back of the barge,  climbed down the rough two by four ladder spiked to the weathered grey creosoted planking. I reached down and filled the pail to the brim, climbed back up, and waited. When I knew the next bundle was up ready for cabling, the operator of necessity holding the locking lever back because the brakes teeth were broken, I stepped around the side of the little plywood shelter over and around his seat and gave him the whole twenty-liters right in the kisser.

Of course he had to delay, dripping, until he could let the brake-arm go but then came storming out from under his plywood roof ripe with threat display.  I was ready for whatever happened. Fists up. “Let’s go,” I said. “Right now.”  He had a few inches on me and probably fifty kgs..  But, for whatever reason he chose not to ‘go.’ So I got back on my winder and to work, having made my point.

It didn’t put an end to the general hostility altogether but the nature of it was a touch less targeted. More of an intermittent group pout than anything else.

If all of that seems primitive, well, it is. No matter what we hide it behind, or disguise it as, primitivity is always in play, modulated or hidden altogether. It comes to the fore when you step outside whatever charade its using for cover and decide that what’s really going on is a battle for dominance. In which case I sometimes opted to cut to the chase….or the battle.

Some men can avoid getting to that point without seeming or seeming to feel compromised. I admire that and can do it now, for the most part. For a long time I couldn’t. Testosterone levels all around surely had something to do with it. (I generally found the charge that women were slaves to their body chemistry absolutely laughable in the light of what men deal with).

In those days I had a straight-from-the-shoulder ‘right’ that usually knocked even a large opponent down or made him quickly lose interest in fighting. It did only temporary superficial damage and I wouldn’t have wished otherwise. Marquis of Queensbury Rules and all that. Of course there were guys I would have lost to and one or two I would have avoided confronting most days. But the ones who swung from the wings…..hopeless.

After a few months I cut back to weekends, putting together the yellow-cedar flat-booms on contract while otherwise salvaging logs from the waters and beaches of the area. And then the log market really took off. Lots of tows, plenty of attrition, good prices.

I had my first aluminum vessel, the Harrier, built by Argo Marine Builders in Vancouver. I was still a little stuck on my original concept of what I needed and essentially duplicated the smaller of my first boats. The Harrier had much more power though, a  two-hundred-twenty-five horsepower Chrysler 318 V8 engine and a heavy, stainless-steel shaft on an oversized transmission and v-drive. A lot of power for a little boat. She responded so eagerly to shift and  throttle that she was often assumed to be jet-powered. In short order that little boat multiplied my revenue, by perhaps by a factor of three.

The Harrier on the Move

The Harrier on the Move

So  I had Argo build me another aluminum work-boat just under nine-meters long. It had a three-hundred-thirty horsepower gas engine, also working through a heavy transmission and V-Drive. She had steering stations for operating from the roof, cabin or back deck. A friend and I installed pretty-much standard amenities inside the cabin and with an oil stove she was passably comfortable in any season. This was the boat I needed to work the log spills that began to occur with some regularity in Georgia and Malaspina Straits. Parsimony and the mythological belief that the ‘snap’ of a big V-8 was needed to yard logs from the beach kept me from putting a diesel in her…..and undoubtedly cost me a lot of money over the next years. I called her The Stray.

The Stray on the Turn

The Stray on the Turn

These aluminum boats were not built thin like runabouts. Their bottoms were a full quarter inch thick, sides three-sixteenths with lots of horizontal lath on edge within each hull to stiffen it. She was close to indestructible and perfected suited for the blows she would take rising in big seas and falling hard onto the logs and boomsticks she strove to re-order, for the dents and scrapes delivered by shoreline boulders.

And while I always kept the marine radio on at home so I would hear when towboats were starting to lose logs or bundles, I also started to get calls direct from some of the skippers. Many were appreciative of the work we log salvors did to limit their losses, recover most of what was lost and help put their tows back together.

When your tastes run to living simply but you find yourself making an unexpected amount of money it’s tempting to invest in art….particularly your own. We were content with our place and possessions as a family. It was no burden to visit Aus’s  family in Tasmania every few years. I could hold a tune and do some kind of justice to my 1953 Gibson J45 guitar in accompaniment. No needs there. But things could improve where the art of log salvage was concerned. A jet boat would complete the palette of tools for the job.

On one of our visits to Tasmania I found myself intrigued by the jet-boats that ferried tourist sight-seers along the rapid-strewn Huon River. They were roughly seven meters long three wide and could make thirty knots while packed with passengers. Each was powered by a V8 identical to the Stray’s, driving a single Hamilton 1054 jet with a 25 centimeter impeller. The jet itself was essentially a monstrous pump. The intake, inside the boat at the stern, drew large volumes of water up through a protective grid. No shaft, no propeller, so no keel. Behind the thick flange that bolted to the stern the stream of water was steered by a nozzle. Reverse was achieved with a scoop that redirected the stream back towards the bow beneath the hull.

Hamilton 10-31 jet.....which was mounted entirely within the hull at the stern

Hamilton 10-31 Jet

The jetboats used by west-coast log salvors to this point were generally narrower. V8 power pushed three stage jets with smaller impellers sequentially more radically pitched to produce a small but ultra-high-speed stream of water. They were very fast but lacked torque. For a log of any real size you’d have to drop a lot of thick yarding line behind the boat and accelerate away fast so as to throw the weight and velocity of the whole boat into the effort. They were slow towing once you put a few logs behind them and, running at high revs, were notoriously hard on engines, heavy on fuel and loud.

So once again I found myself talking to Lorne at Argo. I wanted a boat seven meters long, three wide, somewhat short of a three-meter-long cabin on it with a forward-sloped windshield—to cut glare, let me get the radio high and handy but out of the way so as to make the cab functionally roomier. I’d seen this on American boats but not here. It would have no back wall and be controlled by a single steering station up forward. She would have the same power train as the Tasmanian boats, her engine a twin of the Stray’s.

But when we  got offshore in Port Moody and started the freshly christened ‘Stranger’s engine we almost immediately smelled something burning that seemed likely to be the heavy rubber hoses carrying the salt-water that cooled the exhaust manifolds out through a pair of stern pipes.  I was sitting on the portside gunnel across from Lorne watching him crack the hose intending to bleed off any trapped air. But the pressure blew the loosened hose off the manifold and boiling water and steam shot out of it, across the boat and into my lap. In a move that could barely have been entirely conscious and was all but immediate I did a rolling back flip off the gunnel and into the water. That undoubtedly saved me some serious burns and blistering. I assumed that it was not some previously unrevealed sadism but relief and the slapstick quality of the move that accounted for the grin on Lorne’s face as I pulled myself back aboard.

I was lightly scalded, the affected skin a tad red, but with the original problem remedied the Stranger and I slipped and slid our way over the incoming tide beneath Lion Gate, zipped past West Vancouver, rounded Bowen Island, streaked up the shore of the Sunshine Coast and for home up Agamemnon Channel. Now I was ready to become a force to be reckoned with.

The Stranger Gathering Logs at Grief Point

The Stranger Gathering Logs at Grief Point

 

 

 

Image credits:

Marten, Image Courtesy of http://www.jonathan-tyler.co.uk/
Bear, http://www.nps.gov/archive/yell/slide…
Fisher Cat, http://fishercatscreech.com/fisher-ca…
Seals, http://www.dennisbuurman.co.nz/galler…
Basking Shark, Image Courtesy of Thinkstokphotos.ca, Royalty-Free License
Steller Sea Lions, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Salmon, Image courtesy of http://www.scsalmon.org
Swan, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Raccoons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Wood Duck, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Merganser & Chicks, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Drake Merganser, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…
Mallard Drake, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ana…
Mallard Hen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ana…
Canvasbacks, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fil…

  • Kate

    This one is particularly fabulous John. Wow! Love seeing you and Aus just starting. I’m being greedy and reading everything in sight. I think I should prolong the pleasure with strict rationing! Please, please send them out for publication!!! Enter a CBC writing contest. Something to broaden the exposure. Many would love the opportunity to read these wonderful memoirs.

    • Needless to say Kate, your response is much appreciated. As far a
      seeking other outlets, at this point I can’t imagine where I would find
      the time to pursue them. There is a video in the works on the garden, a
      lot of writing yet to do and sustaining the other elements of my
      existence, like the garden itself, family time and music. A few weeks
      back I went into the studio and lay down bed tracks for another thirteen
      songs…which will require ongoing work to get them to a presentable level.

      This is by way of explaining, not complaining. There’s nothing going on
      that I didn’t seek. Not a bad thing to be able to say about a life.

      j

  • Billiecorbett

    Hi John,

    I loved reading this. Of course, it resonates with me as being of a similar adventurous spirit…
    Keep it coming….Your story makes for wonderful reading. All the more because I know and love the characters in
    It.

    • Stray

      A pleasure to have you reading these tales Billie. It can only hasten my return to the keyboard after a summer hiatus now extended well into fall.

       

  • Hey John, I found a treasure trove of old Jervis Inlet photos on Flickr a while back. The collection of Nick DeWolf
    ( interesting guy ) in the series 45-161 to 45-173 shows a set of photos that he took in the summer of 1972. The pics show him sailing past a cabin-less small tug pulling logs…a man and a woman on the tug waved to him. I’m wondering if that was you?..or maybe you know who it was.

    Great pics of hippies encamped in Coal Harbour, same summer. Cool stuff from Berkeley..

    I can email the images to you, but can’t cut and paste due to protections on the site.

    Mike Pearson

    • John

       Thanks for the interest Mike.  We got to Nelson Island in the summer of ’75. Still, I might recognize the folks in the boat..if you can get the pic to me, as a screenshot if need be.

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