Transitions….Boarding School to Booming Grounds to Beachcombing

I was an only-child early on and in not one of four schools long enough to develop a friendship even by the age of eight.

My only notable connection and comfort during six isolated months at a boarding school was the surrounding English countryside.  The solace found there likely had much to do with  the environments I have made my own over the years.  I don’t recall a single conversation with any of my peers there, good or bad.

At yet another brief school stay, courtesy of the Catholic element in my ancestry,  I was on one occasion slapped repeatedly back and forth across the face by one of two nuns looming, whey-faced, over me while I hollered in defiance. I see it now as an early experience of self awareness as well as of dissociation, of choosing to stand aside from shock and pain to the point of barely feeling either in order to hold ground I obviously felt was vital. Good ground work for later adventures and livelihood that required me, not infrequently, to remain focused while in considerable danger.

Other than, on occasion, my twin cousins my companions of those years were Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Kipling’s Kim and the like. Their lives, if in some cases inglorious, were full of color and adventure.

My haunts, beyond the walls of our apartment in London, were zoos, museums and parks; my guide, a loving mother. She was a friend and almost without fail caused me to understand that I was a source of joy to her:, something I subsequently sought, and was fortunate to find, in the women I have loved.  She struck me only once that I recall and that across the face after I opened a third-floor window in our apartments, screamed and hid under the bed.  She rushed into the room. From her cry I knew immediately that my practical  joke had been terribly ill-conceived, scurried out from beneath the bed and suffered the blow in the full understanding that it was fully justified and in fact yet another indication of the depth of her love for me.  My apologies came equally from the heart, not from fear of another blow.

With her I happily crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool to Montreal in late June of 1953.  Met by my father, who’d immigrated a year earlier, we made our way, in a brand new pale-blue Chevrolet, through suffocating heat to New York City and overland to our new home and my father’s medical practice in the small Saskatchewan town of North Battleford.

Gone were the chilly, alienating restraint of English schools and the gray, sky-blocking buildings of London, some still crumbled and empty-eyed from the bombing of World War 11.  Preferable in every way were the ice-cold winters and the grand expanse of the land.

The woods and open fields around the town were ours to roam.  Lunches packed, My friend Ivan Katz and I could head off on a Saturday morning to Glenora Park and along the banks of the North Saskatchewan: Wary of quicksand, startled by the slap of a beaver’s tail, coming upon an old cabin at the edge of an open field, ghost-white with rime; crossing the long, steel bridge to Battleford, wandering the fort with its artifacts of conflict with the Cree and Assiniboine; picked up on the long walk home along the darkening highway by an RCMP officer and chided, ‘though not unkindly, for, in all innocence, generating a search and undoubtedly a terrible tremble in the hearts of our parents.

By my high school years we were in Saskatoon, a city of opportunity to be athletic. I was a pretty good sprinter, won at the provincial level at the pole-vault and had an impact on the basketball court and football field. Each vault, each game, the hard training, the unforeseeable outcomes, I see now were, for me, adventures of a sort, preparation in their way for the consequences of my aversion to the futures favored for the graduates of my generation.

For the Love of Work

Cal Tallis was a lawyer of some reputation in Saskatoon and for that matter in the Province of Saskatchewan.   He and his wife were friends of our family and made me feel they were friends to me. He’d grown up on a farm near Borden and, during my 12th summer, arranged for me to work there with his ever-kind and patient dad, Ernie. I fed chickens and cows, harrowed the sunmmerfallowed fields with the old Case tractor, pulled bales, weighing as much as 90 lbs. from the back of the baler to be piled on the hay rack. We tamped fence posts in the blazing sun and swathed the wheat into long rows to dry before plucking it up with the big fingers spanning the wide apron of the combine, draining the grain from it’s hopper into the back of the truck with high wooden sides for the trips to the granaries.

He had me hold up the tail of a cow, standing to the side as she was bred to a 2,000 lb Hereford Bull named Wee Willie, my face a foot from his; massive, covered in tight, white curls, snorting, red-eyed, wet-nosed, tongue slavering.  On another day that bull dragged Ernie all around a wide paddock, with him hanging to a stick from a ring in a nose from which blood freely flowed….Ernie cursing and all the while trying to regain his feet. In that same paddock on another day I had to dive and roll over the barbed-wire fence when Willie started for me with a nasty look in his eye.  (He and a neighboring bull had once gotten loose somehow and torn up half-an acre of wheat before a load of birdshot into Willie’s hind quarters broke through his testosterone trance.

One sultry afternoon lightening struck fifty feet from where I stood, at one moment, greasing up a combine and, the next, staring from beneath, with no recollection of having got there.

Ernie taught me to shoot the little Cooey bolt-action .22 rifle and I took the lives of a jackrabbit or two and a crow (at considerable range) and, on one darkening evening, that of a horned owl whose great, yellow, accusing eyes stared at me from the ground as their light faded.  I can picture it now….and  easily feel once again ashamed.

I worked couple of summers at various jobs for the provincial Department of Natural Resources, at Pike Lake, near Saskatoon, and near Cochin on Jackfish Lake, where I first learned to work hard, sweat running down my back, pants soaked half-way down my backside with it, as we hoed our ways along row after row of seedling trees.  It was bunkhouse living and on occasion amusing, as when the lone exception to a night out woke to find the rest of us half-undressed for bed believing that we were in fact rising for work.  We assured him that indeed that was the case and that he should get a move on. Half asleep, he commenced to wearily and fully dress himself while the rest of us did the opposite.  He was heading for the door, on his way to the cookshack, when he finally caught on.

It was harmless enough, certainly less so than spread-eagling a dead bat across the springs of a top bunk over a sleeping lower-bunk occupant who awoke and commenced to knock himself out against the bedstead.  At that point the bat was removed and were it not for the stifled but irrepressible snorts from here and there in the bunkhouse the victim might well have thought his experience illusory.

I graduated from high school, worked for a while in Inco’s nickel mine in Thompson, Manitoba and took eight-months to circumnavigate the globe, working underground for copper at Mt. Isa in the outback of Australia and on a construction crew in Sydney.  I returning to learn, after a few semesters, that nothing University offered or would prepare me for had any visceral appeal.  The associated futures and their features were all too prescribed. So began, unaware of it ‘though I was at the time, the process of discovering what I did want to do by the simple device of refusing to continue on with what I didn’t.

Exceeding my father’s tolerance for our disagreements and in need of an ongoing source of rent money I parlayed a job covering the U of S campus as a stringer for the Star Phoenix into something full time. I covered courts, labor and pretty-well anything else outside the purview of senior reporters. Somewhere in there I broke away to put a couple of months in at the edge of the highway between Calgary and Banff, building a corral and riding the winter edge off a herd of horses on the Diamond Cross dude ranch.  Not an experience to be passed over, its brevity not withstanding, if only to share the image and delight of racing down at a gallop off a high ridge behind thirty horses spread out  on the run, tails high, over the flatland below

Over the next few years I did stints with the Moose Jaw Times Herald, Canadian Press in Toronto, the Star Phoenix again and the Prince George Citizen.  I was fired from the latter for refusing to let a cabal of self-interested businessmen off the journalistic hook.  It was a choice and a consequence that I was happy enough with.

Writing seemed to come relatively easily to me and I benefited from the disciplines of deadline and style. But even early on, in Toronto, I began to see this way of making a living as standing on the river’s edge, watching the world spin and twist and eddy on by without testing the waters myself.  A predictive metaphor in a way.  Dark days of a lost love drove me to Canada’s West Coast and eventually to the dawning of a brighter such day that stretched to many more, during which I lived on the shoreland and made a living on the water.

Weaned For Good

After an abortive attempt to integrate my journalistic inclinations with that of the Georgia Strait I would join a crew of about sixteen, recruited mostly, it seemed, via an announcement during a dance at the acid-rocky Retinal Circus on Davie Street. We’d motor up the coast on the Norsal, a legendary vessel on the BC coast, to the head of Butte Inlet.  I would head up a one of two crews planting trees on slopes so steep you could set them into the soil almost without bending.  Ours was a hard-working bunch, so much so that we were told to cut our production in half so the bosses wouldn’t have to explain the inequity between crews.  So we’d spend half the day sitting around a campfire on the mountainside and go at it with our usual vigor and attention to actually getting trees into the ground rather than burying them during the other half.  We got blown out of the inlet at one point by winds so strong that the Norsal’s anchor wouldn’t hold and ended up in a late-night brawl in the marina parking lot at Campbell River.

 

A year or so after this, finding myself fortunately and  freshly enchanted, the enchantress  and I would cross the country, work at a summer camp in Quebec, and return to build a boat.  We’d leave the grid and live for a year-and-a-half off the land at the head of Herbert Arm on Vancouver Island’s west coast. From there, after a brief hiatus on the lower mainland, we would make our way to Gibsons, and I would learn to sort logs and salvage deadheads where the vast booming grounds of Howe Sound swung twice-daily north and south in the tidewater. Out of that would emerge nearly two decades of working solo in stormy weather and calm to recover logs and bundles lost from log-tows grinding their slow way down the coast to Howe Sound and the Fraser River.

Then, in yet another unlikely segue, I would navigate my way through six years of hands-on politics.

But before all that it was logs, logs, and more logs.  Dumped 20,000 ton at a time from 400-foot-long barges come down from the ‘jungles’ up coast, they shared their perfume with the sweet reek and roar of diesels, the swell as they slid en-masse into the water rolling huge and soft 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, each seventy-feet across, six times that in length,  laid out and chained together three-wide, two or three long, to be towed up the Fraser River to the saws.

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 and beneath a changeling sky over the broad channel , 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 tiny, toxic fibres, drifting up the rainy River valley from the Port Mellon Pulp Mill, over the dark green forest and against a blue sky, could be stunningly beautiful. And, everywhere, purpose-built boats big and small, good at what they were built for……you had to like them.

A standard log boom is 420’ long, 70’ wide, framed by six substantial 66′-long  ‘boomsticks’, 16” to 30 “ through at the top, on each side, with another across the head end and one at the tail.  All were connected butt to top by heavy chains threaded through holes bored near the ends. You’d secure the head-stick open and, using a ‘winder,’ turn tiers of logs or bundles into the long rectangle, tucking them in parallel to the sides, the ends of the tiers knitted and the side-gaps crossed where possible to give the boom some stiffness.

Close the headstick and, with a winch or the help of one of the agile little boom boats, maneuver the top of a lighter ‘stick’ called a swifter up and across the boom near each joint; hanging on to the toggle end of a boom chain, drop the ring into the water at each side joint, fish it up with a pike pole, run the toggle through the ring and choke the side chain, pull the toggle up through the holes in each end of the swifters, pull up the slack, drive a plug in to stop it backing out and: Voila, a long, semi-flexible rectangle, six ‘sections’ long, full of logs. Oh…and throw two more swifters across the boom 15’ back from the head and tail  to stop the first and last tiers of logs or bundles  from working their way out.

Simple eh? Unless a chain’s too short or a top-end’s split, or the links are worn, too far gone, or a bundle’s splayed, a cable unlayed, a hole too far back and you can’t get slack, and on an on..you could write a song.

While the swiftering crew is taking care of all that, 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 winch roars, pulling the logs up out of the water back against the brow logs into one long sheaf, to be wrapped and cinched with megan lines or raw cable. Other ‘winder’ operators are stowing flat booms. Scalers and graders are measuring and marking. Mechanics are swapping out drives and changing bearings, welders patching up the torn steel of boom-boat hulls.  Yarding-tugs assemble log tows or break down jackpots of freshly-dumped log, flattening them out, bagging them off with long strings of boomsticks and towing them to ‘bullpens’ to be sorted;.  Crewboats and floatplanes rotate in and out with scalers and log-buyers.

Everything’s afloat, subject to tide and wind and the ever-varying effect of the dynamic distribution of mass across the sorting grounds as a whole. Open to objective cognizance as it might be, and requiring an array of skills and physical prowess, it is the seat of your pants that youl operate by: jazz, not a symphony.

Where crews of men are concerned, there’s always a gauntlet to run if you see no appeal in being one of the guys or fitting into their pecking orders, but out-producing pretty-well everyone gets you the space you need.  So. I set records for feeding the bundler and stowing bundle booms at L&K in Howe Sound and later at Fielding’s grounds in Jervis Inlet.  Fact is, I figure I could do damn near as well now as long as I didn’t have to get off the winder.

There was one more unique experience in this vein that was to transition me into salvaging logs and a life uniquely independent and full of color, beauty and risk.

Must have been about 1971. I’d been running a winder at Gulf Log Salvage’s little booming grounds in Howe Sound, after enjoying a spring with my lady and our first daughter and getting a garden in.  Log prices were high and several well-equipped and competent salvors had ventured together up into the inlets above Powell River to clean  beach-worn logs from their river mouths and tow them down Georgia Strait to  the 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  Archie Haleta.  He managed to lease some water in front of a tapped-out gravel pit at Hillside, where he set up a couple long of stiff-legs leading  to a bundler.  Gulf Log was to supply someone to run the log bronc  to stow the logs into it. Archie himself hired Wayne Larsen, a quiet, self-contained, competent  guy, to run the winch.  As I recall, he and I swapped jobs at times, just to change things up.

I came to see Archie as a resilient, courageous and unique individual, but on the day  he pulled in with his little towboat (the Kathy) alongside the stiff-leg from which I was doing a bit of hand-stowing, he was someone who’d got a lot of bad press from having his saw-mill operations go down, leaving a lot of guys without pay-cheques.  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 (and yes, I recall it clearly), “You’ve gotta be kidding, Archie, do you know how bad your reputation is?’

He was hurt.  Not phony hurt, really hurt.  It was a little glimpse, right there at the outset, of what I came to see as the humanity of this man, something you wouldn’t didn’t see a lot of guys in the logging game willing or courageous or real enough to show.  But it was only a glimpse, not enough for me to sign on with him until he agreed to pay me a dollar over union rates and at the end of every week.

THE ARCHIE DAYS  yet to be written of

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