Our Ancestral Loggers

treelimbinggood5chainsaw

For this prairie boy who grew up in the mixed poplar, spruce, birch forests of the Interlake of Manitoba, the trees of British Columbia will never lose their overwhelming majesty.

There are, of course, the forests of the past, the old growth stumps, stumps so wide, that imagining the trees that grew from them seems impossible. There are still a couple of trees in Goldstream Park that existed around the time that Columbus came to America. There are the old photographs of loggers in front of and on top of tree trunks so large that they dwarf everything else.

You seldom see trees that huge anymore but even in my yard, in my neighbours’ yards are massive trees, the kind of trees that tower over everything, great Douglas Firs in which Douglas Fir Squirrels gambol. They cast down vast numbers of pine cones onto my deck, both the trees and the squirrels, layers of pollen and needles.

The trees are so large, so overwhelming, so majestic, that they dominate the neighbourhood. They seem indestructible. Therefore, it was a surprise when a neighbour came by and said that one of the firs on his property had rot in it that made it dangerous. It if toppled in a storm, it would take out my house. The tree was going to have to come down. Getting permission to fell  a tree in Victoria is not easy. You have to have it inspected and diagnosed. Someone has to pronounce it seriously ill, dangerous, and unsaveable. You need to get a permit. Only then do you contract an urban forester.

With houses in every direction, you can’t cut down a tree like you would in the forest. No yelling timber and letting it fall. The urban foresters arrive, in this case, five of them. They bring a very large chipper to turn the branches into chips. They bring chain saws. They wear yellow helmets. One of them, the main man, as it were, puts a lot of gear onto a belt, a handsaw, a chainsaw, a bag with rope coiled inside. He wears spiked boots. He has ropes tied to him that he wraps around the tree.

He leans back against his ropes, digs in his spiked boots and starts climbing the tree. He comes to the first branches, and these branches are not twigs, but thick, long, heavy and dangerous. He draws up his chain saw, pulls the start cord, cuts away the first branch, then the second, moves around the tree so he can cut branches that are out of reach.

He works his way up, denuding the trunk. Below, his assistants drag away the branches, push them into the chipper. The chipper is noisy, scary, powerful and as I watch, I keep hoping no one puts his (or her, there is a woman on the crew), arm in too far. A human body would be reduced to a smear of blood in seconds. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhh. It’s a harsh, threatening sound as the branches are reduced to small wooden bits.

The climber keeps moving up, branches keep falling. He finds branches that are too dangerous to cut away directly so he leans out sawing them further out the branch, sometimes with his handsaw, sometimes with his chain saw. Having done that, he pulls back, digs in his spikes to get a good purchase, starts up his chain saw, cuts away the stub. He works his way up until there is just a crown of branches at the top. He cuts it off, shoves it to the side and it spirals down. The tree is not majestic anymore but a bent line against the sky.

Years ago, at my previous house, I had to have two very large Lombardy Poplar trees cut down because they were interfering with the drainage tiles and starting to break up the paving in the lane. The logger I hired was Australian. He explained what he was going to do and he mentioned that topping the trees could be dangerous. Sometimes, he said, the tree whips back and forth and the logger can be thrown over the top. His rope and spiked boots do him no good then. They work to keep him from falling, not flying through the air. With the first poplar there was no problem but when he topped the second, the tree began to swing wildly and he had to hang with all his strength until it stopped moving. This fir tree remains stable after its crown is cut off and cast down.

This logger, leaning back on his ropes at the top of the tree, is aware he has an audience. He ties a rope from his bag around the trunk, he knows his knots, he needs to know his knots for his life depends on them, and he pulls a trick I haven’t seen since I last attended All Sooke Day where local loggers competed with each other at logging skills. He kicks away from the tree trunk and rides the rope down to the ground. The first time I saw this, my heart stopped. This time, knowing what he was going to do, I just admired his skill and showmanship.

The crew took a much needed break, then the logger went back up the tree trunk until he got close to the top where he started cutting the trunk off a section at a time. He worked smoothly, sawing the trunk in one direction, then the other, pushing the trunk over, away from himself so the sections of wood tumbled down to be dragged away by the crew and cut into stove wood lengths. He worked his way down until about twelve feet of trunk were left. This stub was cut down from the bottom.

Chain saws were roaring, the chipper was roaring, the crew was raking and hauling and then it was done and where there had been a majestic tree, there was now a stump and a pile of wood. All done in a tight space among houses, in the urban forest.

As I watched the loggers work, I wondered what the Icelanders who came to the West Coast in the 1880s thought. How different a world to which they had to adapt. Someone like Kristjan Benediktsson (Benson) from Hrafnabjorg. He first lived in Winnipeg, Selkirk and New Iceland. Then he went to Seattle for a winter. His family joined him in Bellingham. According to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast “in a few years he had cleared the land of trees”.  I’d like to have a detailed diary describing how he did that.

Helgi Thorsteinsson emigrated in 1887. He went to Victoria and then Point Roberts in 1894, according to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast. He first took 40 acres, then added 20 acres more. “All the land was covered in thick forest. Now most of the land is cleared and cultivated”.

Coming from Iceland, a land with hardly any trees and those few that did exist were of no great size, there was much to learn. This is a double bitted axe. This is a cross cut saw. This is how you cut down a tree that may be a hundred feet tall and that will crush everything in its path when it does fall. In Iceland wood was so precious a commodity that there was elaborate rules over the ownership of driftwood. Here, in this West Coast world, there was wood everywhere. No houses of turf and rock. These massive trees could be turned into lumber and shingles.

Time and again, descriptions of the West Coast Icelanders say the land was cleared of thick forest, that fine wooden homes were built.

So much to learn in such a strange world. Yet, learn they did. Time and again, their short biographies say they built a fine house. What an accomplishment! As I watched the five people taking down the neighbour’s fir tree, cutting it up, I thought I could see the ghosts of our Icelandic countrymen working at what, in Iceland, must have seemed unimaginable. I remember reading a translated letter that was sent back to Iceland. The writer said, I can’t explain to you what things are like here. Beyond explaining, this forest world, filled with trees and wild beasts none of the Icelandic pioneers had ever known.

Learning to cut down trees, mill them, build with their wood. Well done Páll from Mýrdalur, Eiríkur Anderson from Vesturhóp, Hinrik Eiríksson and all those others, and the wives and children who worked with them. Hard were the times and hard the work but triumph and success, like the triumph and success of the logger I watched the other day, can be counted in work well done, adaptions made, lessons learned. For an afternoon, you were with me, there on my deck as I watched a logger work his magic.

 

West Coast Icelandic Children

salmon fishing

In talking about the Icelandic settlers, we most often relate stories of their adult trials and troubles and not much is said about the children who were living the same life with them. That’s a shame because a child’s early life determines much about the adult he or she becomes. It also demonstrates qualities about the adults. How adults treat children reveals much about them.

We are fortunate that in Memories of Osland many of the people writing share anecdotes and details of their childhood.

Steina (Philippson) Degg “remembers going to the lake with other children and adults to skate in the winter and to swim and picnic in the summer. Steina remembers walking out to “Baby Island” in the mud (“Baby Island” is a very small treeless island near the Philippson and Luther Johnson homes). She took something to read, the tide came in and she had to sit there all alone till the tide went out again a few hours later.”

Gerald (Jerry) Philippson says “The kitchen was a place of wonders – cookies, cakes, etc”. “My Father and Grandfather talked very rapidly in Icelandic while I explored other areas, such as the kitchen, where Grandma Freda had the frying pan on while she whipped up the batter for Icelandic pancakes, the greatest treat known to a seven year old.”

And then there are experiences like Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher’s. “The Christmas that I was six years old really stand out in my memory. It was the time that Santa came to our schoolhouse. We were so excited when we heard him jingling his bells as he came up the sidewalk. Then he came into the school room – big as life in his red suit. As he bent over beside the tree to pick up our gifts his beard caught fire from one of the little candles on the trees. As Santa ripped off his beard we gasped in astonishment when we found out that Santa was really George Philippson.” She says we had “wonderful teachers. The would take us on nature walks to Bremner Lake. In the summer it was a popular spot for picnics and swimming.”

Loretta Vaccher Heuscher says Nina Amma Jonsson  “always had sugar cubes dipped in coffee and dried in the warming oven as special treat for us, and Gisli had special dried fish as a treat for us if we were really good.”

“Every Christmas we had a concert with plays and songs and all of us pupils got a chance to ham it up.” “Great for fishing – caught my first good sized trout about a quarter mile up what we called Frank’s Creek…In winter when the lake was frozen over it was excellent for skating and palying hockey. …One year Pop said if he caught over 2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that fall. One morning later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house. So I took Pop’s 30-30 and nailed it, a nice two-pointer. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”

Frances (Oafson) Hanson describes the community Christmas concert in a way many of us will recognize from our own experience. “Everyone at Osland looked forward to the Christmas concerts that were held every December. Our teacher worked with us – assigning our parts for the plays, teaching us the carols to be sung, and letting those of us who were willing to choose a poem to memorize for our big event. Parents assisted—men constructed a wooden stage at the cloak-room end of the school, so we had a place in which to put on costumes, ladies  made curtains (from bed sheets) to conceal the stage area between acts, someone cut a Christmas tree, and tinsel and decorations were borrowed for it. Families and bachelors contributed to the refreshments, music and games for everyone to enjoy after the concert”

“Following the concert and the handing out of treats to the pupils, there were games for everyone, then dancing to the music to the accordion played by Barney.

“Bull-head fishing, at high tide, was a favourite summer  ‘sport’ for children. I enjoyed fishing off the end of the small dock in front of our yard. Our gear was just a length of net twine tied to a stick, little fish hook (if one was available) or a safety pin at the end of the line and a piece of lead for a ‘sinker’. Worms from the garden were kept in a tin can for bait….Every Spring there were large clusters of frog’s eggs hanging from sticks in the creeks.”

Carl Olafson gives us a slightly different view of a child’s life. He says “little did I know that after you’re three you could participate in some of the action – later on it was called ‘chores’ – like collect the eggs, feed the cat, feed the goat, then when you got to be four or five, you were allowed to chop kindling and wood so long as you were careful not to cut off any fingers.”

Carl summarized life for kids pretty well when he says “We kept occupied, going to school, doing chores, skating, and playing indoor games like Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, chess, crib and rummy. On weekends the people would get together to have a social. The bachelors would supply the coffee, tea and milk, and the married couples would bring home made cakes cookies, and ponnukokur (Icelandic pancakes). The kids just had to bring their appetites.”

A touching piece in Mary Jonina (Jonsson) Heinrich’s description of her childhood at Osland is unique for it captures the sense of isolation from the larger world for children and the shyness that results. She says that her foxgloves weren’t as tall the last year as when she was young and “we used to hide behind them. A strange boat would tie up at the wharf and we children would run to  hide in masses of foxgloves. Many times it was the Rawleigh man, Mr. Evans. Afterwards we’d get the treats – syrups for making drinks, lemon soap that smelled so wonderful .Another boat that came was the “Northern Cross”. Then we’d have church services at the school house and sometimes on board the boat.”

“ I recall when we got oranges for Christmas each one was wrapped in tissue paper. Those tissues were smoothed out – of course for what else – the outhouse.”

There are a thousand thousand memories in Memories of Osland and it is difficult to leave any out so if you can, buy this book, it is a treasure. Many thanks to Frances Hanson and to all those who contributed to sharing with us the lives of the West Coast Icelanders.

As a last memory, I will use Alice (Kristmanson) McLean. “Once a year we would get lucky as the Dolly Varden used to head for the lake to spawn and we actually were able to catch something that looked like a fish. I remember having my first barbecue. A big bonfire on the beach, a grill and we’d cook our catch. To kids brought up on fresh fish and eating it two or three times a week thinking we were hard done by, I can’t believe we would get excited about barbecuing fish, but then again we’d never had fish burned by the fire – caught by us and cooked by us!

To the people coming to the INL Seattle AGM, welcome to our West Coast World. We have come here from the late 1800s on from Iceland, Winnipeg, Selkirk, Gimli, Lundar, and many other places on our journey westward. The West Coast is a world of wonders, from Skunk Cabbage meadows to apple orchards, from fresh caught salmon to halibut, from ocean shore to Rocky Mountains.  In spite of distance and time we still like our coffee strong, our ponnukokur rolled with brown sugar and our skyr sweet.