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.

 

A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

Who Were The West Coast Icelanders?

log_crew

Some of the Icelanders who came to the West Coast went logging. They came from a country where trees were scrub birch a few feet high. What do you think they thought and felt when they saw scenes like this?

princerupertarea2

From a country with no trees to a country covered in vast forests. This forest is outside Prince Rupert.

Who are these BC Icelanders and where did they come from?

“Gisli and Jonina Jonsson and their baby daughter, Kristjana, came to Canada from Iceland in 1902 to settle in Selkirk, Manitoba. While there Gisli worked as a carpenter and in the fish cold storage plant. In 1914 he came to British Columbia on an exploratory trip. He was looking for a place to settle where weather conditions were more temperate and working conditions more to his liking.”

Gudmundur “George” Snidal,  his wife Ingunn “Inga” and their three children came to Olsand in the early spring of 1919. They came from Graham Island, B.C. George Snidal was born in Iceland in 1879 and came to Canada at an early age. Inga Sigurddottir was also born in Ielandin 18886. She came to Canaa in the spring of 1910. Bhey were married in Winnipeg in late 1911.

Olafur ‘Oly’ Olafson was born in Iceland in February 1904 to Halvardur and Sigridur. In 1910 the Olafson family – three children, Oly (six), Hilda (three), and Swana (two), and Halvardur, who was 38 and Sigridur, 35, emigrated fro mt heir home country to Canada. They speont one winter in Winnpeg, then headed west to the Queen Charlotte Islands wehre othe rIcleandic famileis had gone to live.

In 1918 Benecikt Steffan Hohnson, with his wife Sigurlina Valgerthur Johanesdottir, moved from Manitoba to the northwest coast of British Columbia. Ben and Sigurlina were both born in Iceland – he in 1864, and she in 1862 – and were married in that country before immigrating to Canada in 1888 on the ship  “Cirdasia”. The had four children. Lutehr, their son, was born in Winnipeg April 26, 1894. He was married, before the family moved to B.C, to Thurihur (Thura) Oddson, the daughter of Gudni and Gudrithur Jonsdottir. Thura was born in Reykjavik, Iceland December 121, 1900 and came to Canada in 1901 with her parents and Grandparents.

And how did these Icelanders, braving the trip to England or Scotland, from there to Canada, across the country to Winnipeg, picking up and moving still further west, creating for themselves a small Icelandic colony on Smith Island, live?

According to Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher in Memories of Osland “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies – sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. Then men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. Durnig the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. As child I remember my mother baking sugar cookies with half an almond or a raisin on top. She also baked jelly rolls to have on hand for company. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinatarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter.”

How Icelandic is that?  There they are, probably about seventy people, living on an island on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forest, trees beyond imagining, in a community connected by a wooden sidewalk that wound its way through the forest and at Christmas and Easter the mothers and grandmothers make vinatarta. And I remember my mother in Gimli making those sugar cookies with half an almond on top and jelly rolls. To me, sugar cookies and jelly rolls are childhood, Gimli, Icelandic, Lutheran, but they’re obviously also Osland, BC, Icelandic, childhood, there over the vast prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, beyond the mainland, there’s vinatarta on a plate with a mug of strong coffee, and jelly roll and sugar cookies. There in the fog and rain, in the vast forests, on the edge of the world. Icelandic.