A high-pitched whistle shrieked amid a myriad of Western Cedars that rested in disarray on the forest floor. A thick metal cable floated through the sky, settling a few yards from a small gathering of men. One of them, the apparent leader, pointed to a tree near the cable. A younger man scrambled through the confusion of trunks and limbs, arriving near the dangling wire. Struggling to tether the log, the man slipped a large knob through a hole and sprinted over and under the foliage for cover. Three whistle blasts screamed through the forest. The cable tensed. The timber was viciously ripped from its home. I had set my first choker.
Not the best student, high school did not see me honoured for my academic achievements. I suppose I lacked maturity and any sense of vision for the future. I managed to scrape through most subjects but, upon entering grade 12, the school administration decided to abandon the class attendance requirement. This 1969 failed experiment was called “The Free System” and I was expected to possess enough maturity, self-discipline, and ambition to attend classes of my own free will. This, apparently, was designed to better prepare me for my future academic journey. I took full advantage.
By June I was two subjects from graduating and had become a high school dropout. Furthermore, I was without employment skills or experience, and had no ability to pursue a higher institution of learning. My closest friend, who had already graduated, was a much more accomplished academic than I and planned to better his grades for university acceptance by attending classes a second time. We, therefore, had 5 months before the next semester to explore the world. Funds were needed to fuel our travel aspirations.
Courtenay is a small logging community located on central Vancouver Island. Many peers had entered this industry and could be seen driving shiny new cars while accompanied by pretty blonde accessories. They seemed like young princes to us, parading the town’s streets on their shiny steeds. My rather foggy understanding of those who worked in the forest was based on books and movies, but I had no actual experience. I envisioned trees felled by burly lumberjacks, logs tumbling in an orderly fashion onto a river whereby they floated to a mill to be transformed into boards. I was, however, a bit fuzzy on my potential role in this process. I cringed at the thought of actually becoming a logger, thinking of Paul Newman’s plight in the movie, ‘Sometimes A Great Notion’. Disregarding my ignorance and the potential negative consequences to my person, the pretty blonde accouterments and interminable wealth I would surely achieve, was enough motivation for me. We set out to emulate those young princes and, hopefully, become one.
With no experience and only a delusional notion of logging, we soon learned that no local employer would hire us. Consequently, with an old Ford that burned more oil than gasoline and a few dollars, we set out for frontiers more remote. We drove Vancouver Island from north to south, visiting such communities as Tahsis, Port McNeil, Port Hardy, and all points in between but remained unemployed. Our youthful adventure of independent travel was inspiring but our resources were quickly diminishing. Adventure is expensive.
After two unsuccessful weeks we learned that Franklin River Logging near Port Alberni was hiring. Revising our tactics, we outright lied to the interviewer and told him of our vast logging experience. After all, we only aspired to the very lowest position in the logging hierarchy. How hard could it be?
We apparently impressed the employer enough to be hired. Signing a collection of papers, we became proud members of the International Woodworker’s of America. Our new employer directed us to the camp store to purchase logging gear on company credit. It seems we would be working for several days before earning any money for ourselves. Thoughts of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons,” came to mind. Before setting foot into a forest we were already beholden to our employer. We would be working to pay for our room, food, and clothing for several weeks. Princedom was looking to be a little expensive.
Wearing our shiny new gear we set out to discover what was offered in our surrogate home. After all we were embarking on the world of men and needed to be treated as such. Franklin River was at one time the largest logging camp in the world with over 1000 loggers plus cooks and support staff. Our bunkhouse, although not the Hilton, was adequate. In the games room we found pool and ping pong tables, a card room, and lounging men. It was a logger play land. We also found the cafeteria. This venerable institution greeted us with all manner of culinary indulgence. Professional cooks waited to satisfy our every desire. There were over a thousand hungry lumberjacks to be fed three times a day. Fuel was a priority. We had steaks our first night, with mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy that flowed in rivers from our plates. This was followed by a galaxy of pies and cakes. We were not worried about our waistlines, as we needed all those calories to fuel our impending labours. Satiated, we retired to our room, engorged. We were exhausted from our day of spending another’s money and misrepresenting ourselves. Deceit is exhausting.
The morning came very early, before sun-up…actually. This was a shock to our student sensibilities. Ignoring our body’s objections, we jumped into our spotless new cloths and gathered in a central area to receive instructions. We were assigned different crews while our coworkers appeared to be regarding our new garments with disdain. Quietly sitting in the back of a company bus, called a crummy, I was anxious, considering I knew nothing of what I was to partake. One of my co-workers, admiring my glistening metal hardhat, asked to examine it. Not waiting for a reply, he seized the helmet from my, apparently vacant, head and slammed it against a metal post, causing a large depression. I regarded him forlornly. His simple comment was, “That’s better”. I sulked in my seat while the others smirked.
After an hour of driving we arrived at our work site. We were welcomed by a massive yellow contraption with wire cables that ascended a mountain and disappeared into the clouds. The contraption was called a yarder. My apparent boss, the ‘Riggin’ Slinger”, directed me to follow. Another chokerman and I comprised the crew. We scrambled behind our leader over a minefield of slaughtered forest. We were all sweating profusely before arriving at our apparent destination.
My boss asked the fateful question: “Did I know what I was doing?” Considering the question carefully and, since I was a proud union member, I disclosed my complete lack of competence and/or knowledge. This, amazingly, did not deter him, apparently having experienced such blatant inanity on at least one prior occasion. He began to describe the role of a chokerman. Before concluding, however, the yellow monster at the mountain’s base, roared to life and a huge cable ascended the hillside, not unlike a cloths-line. The landing, where the yarder snorted and roared, was the destination for the logs. I watched the other chokerman, who was a veteran of 2 months, set a choker. It seemed a simple process. The log was lassoed with a cable, we vacated the vicinity, and the yarder dragged the log down the mountain. A chaser unfastened the choker at the landing, and the cable was returned for another log. Understanding was beginning to overcome me.
It was my turn. The choker arrived. I scrambled over and under logs before reaching the dangling metal rope. Grasping one end, I found it heavy and uncooperative. The Riggin’ Slinger pointed to a log. It was much larger across than I was tall. Maneuvering the unruly cable around the beastly timber, I managed to slip the choker knob into its home. I scrambled out of the way amid a whistle blast. I had set my first choker, although princely it was not. This was hard work.
After, what seemed like endless hours of obscene labour, the whistle sounded a lone howl. I sighed in relief. It was lunch. My all-knowing leader, pointing to the landing, directed me to fetch him a choker hole. I did not question his request as he was the boss. Scrambling over and under a decimated forest to the landing, the others settled in with their lunches on homemade cedar bough chairs. They languished in relative comfort while I scrambled towards the yarder. After about 10 minutes, and much effort, I arrived dripping in sweat. Enquiring of the foreman, where I might locate a choker hole, he suggested I return to my crew before the lunch period expired. Another smirk….my fifth of the day. It soon became apparent to the vacant one, that a choker hole is the hole in the top of the choker where I had been inserting the choker knob all morning….similar to a donut hole. I arrived at my bountiful lunch after much more sweat just in time to hear a whistle signalling our return to work. It seems I had experienced a logger hazing. I survived the remainder of the day, dented helmet, empty stomach, and all. The last whistle finally sounded as we ascended our crummy for a much needed slumber. The bumpy ride home did not deter my dreams of much wealth and princedom.
Upon reaching camp I found that my partner had been injured and was languishing in the local hospital pending nose surgery. His crew had apparently performed a little hazing of their own. He had been directed to hold down the mainline. This ribbon of steel is about one inch in diameter and, when pulled taut by the yarder, rockets skyward about 200 feet with much violence. My friend had placed his nose in front of the mainline, fortunately retaining his head. I had lost my room-mate and was suddenly alone in a perilous environment. I would have quit, but was just too tired.
Rising early the next morning, I found one day rolled into the next. I improved my skills and became stronger of body and fortitude. There were no more hazings. I was a logger. I even achieved some level of distinction by being able to set a choker amid a wasp’s nest without being stung. Although delusions were shattered about forest princes, I learned a sense of accomplishment in an honest day’s labour for honest wages. I had met these men of the forest but, unfortunately, there were no princes among them.