Wally Knott on saw and his partner Red Meyers at Meades Creek Oct. 1945 by W.H.Gold PhotoMOFM Logo
Bob Vessey
Bob VesseyI began in the forest industry in 1956, when my friend’s father got me a summer job at Gordon River swamping on a Cat.   When we were swamping, they showed us how to start up the Cat in the morning, and warm it up. The driver would sit in there having a coffee, while we checked the oil, water, and all that.  Then, I went setting chokers on the logs, pulling them out to the road, and piling them up.  Then, the Cat would go ahead, so that he wouldn’t bury them.

I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I basically learned how to drive while I was there.  I would climb this panel truck, and follow the Cat when he was moving from one area into another.  Anyways, I swamped on the Cat, and I can remember some of it was hard work! There was this swamp that the Cat was making even muddier – I can remember being up to my crotch in mud setting chokers!  When I got home, there was mud in my underwear!  Back then, I also used to work weekends – I’d go with the operator on a Saturday to change the oil in the machine and got paid extra for that, which was kind of neat. 

I went back to school, but I quit in 1959 in grade eleven.  In those days, I actually hired out at Meade Creek on a Friday – I was chasing and second loading.  But on Saturday night, this friend of mine’s dad called me up and he asked, “How would you like a job at Gordon River? We need a swamper for the shovel.”  Eventually I told him, “Yes.  I wouldn’t mind learning how to run a machine, instead of traipsing around up and down the sides of these hills.”  So, I ended up not going to Meade Creek, and on Monday morning, I went to Gordon River

Truck Road #4 Work Crew 1970's There were logging camps all over here with three mills going, as well as quite a few gyppo mills.  Most guys could get a job, and if they didn’t like it, they could quit and go out and get another job!

My dad worked as the head painter at the Hillcrest mill.  So, I went up to the office, and applied for a job. I went in there, but I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days, so I went back up again.  Lem Traer was the head manager up there for the Stone Brothers, and his reply was always, “No, I don’t need anybody now.” I was pretty skinny back then … probably about a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet!  But I kept going up there – I went up for six weeks trying to get a job! 

It turned out that my dad had gone to Lem Traer, and told him he didn’t want me working in the woods.  He said, “I want my kid working in the mill.”  Finally, he went to my dad and said, “This guy’s driving us nuts in the office, so I gave him a job.  He’s starting on Monday.”  That was really a good place to work … I had some great experiences there!  There were some interesting characters that worked in the woods! 

In those days, there were eleven people on a side – we used to have four chokermen lots of times.  It was always fun working on a side – I started out as a chokerman on the back bead.  ‘Back Bead Bob’, they called me! 

When I first started working in the woods, whoever was in charge of my side trained me.  So, when I was a swamper, the Cat operator would tell me what to do.  When I started, the hooktender broke me in and told me, “Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.”

The two greenest chokermen got the back bead, and did a little more pulling.  If the crew needed the lunch buckets moved up the hill, or anything else, they got to do it.  they took turns, whoever had the least seniority.  In those days, you never went to the landing to eat your lunch – it didn’t matter if we were two hundred feet from the landing, we still wouldn’t go down.  Grade Shovel near Gordon River 1960'sWhen lunch time came we ate where we were, because as soon as that whistle blew we were logging again. There was none of this going down to the crummy, and sitting out of the rain. I always remember that. 

After working there for just about a year, I can remember that our usual engineer was away, so we got a new one.   The other guy would "slack the lines down" nice and easy, but this new guy was an old steam man, and he just let it fly!  When he went ahead on something, he went ahead!  And when he wanted something down, it came down right away.  With the other engineer, we could go in, get under the rigging, and grab the choker; but this new guy, he just dropped it!  I didn’t know that, so on this occasion when the rigging came back, I went running like hell down there while the hooktender was just yelling at me to stop! Then he screamed up, “You’ve got a different engineer here today!” and that thing just went whizzing down with chokers flying.  

One time we had hooked onto a buckskin log.  In most settings there’d be the odd buckskin… it’s like a snag, they are sort of a grey colour, and some of them are solid trees.  Well, we hooked onto this one that was still full length, as we hadn’t bucked it.  We pulled it up the hill, and of course it pulled that rigging way up high.  So, they dropped it quick to try and get it to go on land, and stay there without coming down the hill back at us when they unhooked it.  All of a sudden, we saw the whole crew running down the road – it was a black bear!  It had been hibernating inside the hollow end of this buckskin log, and when it lifted it up and plunked it down, the bear came rolling out of the end of this log just like a kid.  Everyone took off!  Grade Shovel near Gordon River 1960'sThat happened twice.

In the summer time it was bees – there was a bee’s nest in a buckskin, and the same thing happened.  They picked it up, and this time everyone was running… even the engineer!  We were just standing down there wondering, and there it was… just a big bee’s nest in there! We actually got quite a bit of honey out of that!  There was a fellow from Duncan who worked up there, Gus Armand – he had a septic tank pump truck, so we called him ‘Shit House Gus’.  He wasn’t scared – he would go right in there, and take out these big chunks of cone out of the bee’s nest.  None of us would go near it, but he knew they wouldn’t sting you once they were disturbed, because they start to eat the honey.  And once they eat the honey, they won’t sting you, because they want to start a new hive … so they just want to take off with it!  We didn’t know that. 

I can remember one winter; we were up at a place called Siberia where a lime rock seam runs right through Bamberton to Hillcrest, and Gordon River… right up to Caycuse. There are places in Siberia where there are lime rock holes that fill up with snow like caves.  There was one place in particular that was bad for snow caves, so we brought some two by fours up from the mill – we had to walk around carrying these boards in case we stepped in one.  We never had a problem, but there were some of those holes that were like a funnel almost … it was probably one hundred feet down in one of them!  We would drop rocks, and things into them, and you couldn’t even hear anything land.  One time, the grade foreman came up – he had one inch sticks of dynamite … I don’t know how many sticks!  Anyways, he taped them all up, put a fuse in it, and dropped that all down a hole.  There was nothing but wind that came back up … just a big ‘poof’ of air!  So, I think that there was water down in the bottom.

I was there in 1959, when the first steel spar was moved up to our side.  One time when we were raising the spar tree, we had run the guylines out right at the knoll of a hill, just as one of these little fighter planes from Comox flew over.  It wasn’t going that fast, so I guess he saw us. Well, we already had the spar on a saddle, but it was raised up just a little bit at that point.   So, I guess that guy thought he was going to give us a little scare, and came around in his plane over the side of that Crib work on Truck road #4 near Gordon River 1960'shill going really fast!  In the meantime, we had raised the spar up.  Well, he came over the crest of the hill just and it shot straight up in the air – it was so funny!  I’ll never forget that.

Gyppos, and some smaller companies, had portable spars that were really small.  Rather than having a machine worth quite a bit of money picking up logs, they used portable spars for cleaning up little areas between two roads, and then grapple yarders picked up stuff in between. 

When they got the tower at Hillcrest, they also got the ‘talky-tooter.’ They were called that, because you could actually talk to the engineer.  They put a speaker on top of the fuel tank, up at the back of the yarder, and if you wanted to talk to the engineer you just pushed the button. When talky-tooters first came out, only the hooktender could have them – nobody else could touch it, because it was expensive. It was essentially the same as the whistle wire, but it was wireless.  The only hitch was that you had to warm it up.  But once you warmed it up, you could blow the whistles.

These were the old yarders that had canvas on the sides – they were basically open, but the heat of the engine would keep them warm.  But when we’d had the talky-tooter for a little while, Tony our engineer, was away.  He was the same guy that ran the slackline steam machine, and Bill Brown was pulling rigging– he’s the guy that picks the logs out when you are setting chokers.  Well, Tony didn’t even know that there was a speaker back there, he just come from a machine that doesn’t have a talky-tooter.  All of a sudden, he heard his name called:  “Tony, this is Bill Brown your friendly radio announcer.”  Suddenly, the canvas opened up and Tony was looking around, and then he got up … he had no idea what was going on!  We were all laughing – we thought it was a big joke!

Anyways, one time we were setting the turn, the hooktender was at the back, and I sent him his strawline extension.  Then, the rigging came ahead, and we set these two good size logs.  Now, sometimes a log would hit a stump that would stop it, and we would have to back up and try and get around it.  So he started to go ahead – we could see there wasn’t much lift there, and as the logs were coming down around, we could see they were going to hit the stumps.  So he went to blow the whistle, and of course it didn’t work...  You’ve got to warm it up! 

He was standing there pushing the talky-tooter, but as soon as it hit the stumps, you could just hear the machine engine dying, and you could hear Tony shifting gears down.  Now, once you‘"go-ahead" they still keep going, and you can hear Tom shifting it down to give ‘er!  Bill Brown is still madly trying to get the whistle to work, but … too late!  Tony gave a great big tug on this bloody thing, and the wood spar snapped in two places.  It broke half-way between the guylines. But when it broke it didn’t go right to the ground, the wood was flying all around, and it was all tangled up and hanging.   

We knew when it let go – the guys were out of that landing just like that!  He pulled the heat on all of us, because of that talky-tooter.  You’re supposed to be careful with them, but I’ve seen a hooktender take those off and throw them down the hillside.  And then they’d drag the whistle wire out.  The whistle wire was two pieces of wood with two pieces of metal in between … it was more reliable.  The whistle punk would hold it in his hand, and put the two pieces of metal together to make the whistle blow. 

The whistle punk was really important for the operation:  he would have wire, much like an extension cord, wound around his neck; and he would follow us maybe three hundred to four hundred feet down the hillside with this whistle wire.  I can remember his neck at night would be black from the wire.  Bob VesseyJust black!  Usually they were an old person who couldn’t do anything else, but sit on the stump and blow the whistle.  They were always cold from sitting still, so they would be bundled up.  Sometimes they’d have a fire going, if it was a long setting, but usually we moved so quick that they couldn’t keep a fire going – they had to keep moving around with us.

Other times, they had to yell the whistles – especially when a crew was stuck way down a hill.  Now, the whistle punks all had different ways of yelling:  usually it was “Hi! Hi! Hi!”, or if they wanted to "go-ahead" they would yell “Hi!!” with a different emphasis.  Then, there was the fancy one, “Yip! Yap! Yooo!”  It was quite comical to listen to it all, but they really had to yell that signal! 

We were working on this one setting on the low side – there was a draw where the logs were just stacked in there like hair on a dog’s back.  I can remember going in to set the turn, and you could see through the logs there was about twenty feet down to this little bit of water.   Anyways, a choker came undone and the hooktender yelled, “Hey Vessey! Go set that choker!”  So, we ran right down into this pile of logs, and we started setting the choker.  Now the whistle punk is up the hill, and he’s all bundled up because it’s raining, so, he is sitting there all hunched over, when all of a sudden the whistle blows.  Not just one whistle – it was ‘wide open ahead’!  I just ran like hell!  I can remember the hooktender screaming at the whistle punk to blow “Stop it!” and the punk replied, “I didn’t blow the whistle!” He was wearing a rain jacket, that they used to wear back then, which had a  metal tab that would buckle over – so the whistle contact touched that buckle on his jacket, and it blew the whistle and he didn’t even know it!  He thought it was the engineer, but the hooktender chewed him out: “You can see these guys are right in here – you’re going to kill them!”  I was the one that was going to be hurt. 

In those days, everyone wore a pocket watch … everybody!  You didn’t wear rings, or a watch on your wrist because of safety issues … I soon found that out!  I had my wedding ring on, and when I jumped up on the side of a truck to talk to the driver for a minute, my ring caught on the door.  I felt a little tug, and the driver says, “Somebody is bleeding!”  I looked, and my ring had cut through almost right to the bone, and I didn’t even know it!  So that’s why you couldn’t wear a ring – you could lose your finger!  For the same reason, you couldn’t wear a wristwatch, because you could lose your arm! 

Another safety issue was when we were working with cable … we could get what they called a ‘jagger’.  This is where one piece of the wire will break when it starts getting older, so there would be frayed pieces sticking out.  If a jagger hooked onto us… well, we were caught, and if we got wrapped around a drum, we were finished! 

Some of the guys had really nice pocket watches, also sometimes called ‘dollar watches’.  They weren’t a actually a dollar when I started working in the woods, they were two or three dollars.  So I asked, “Why do they call them a dollar watch then?”  Smart Bob!  Everyone had a pocket watch, and if we got a new machine, we got a fob.  If there was a new Cat, or a new machine, they would give us a fob… some of them were really neat!  Then, when we went in the bar after work, everybody knew that we were a Cat operator.  I’ve seen Cat ones with blades or shovels, and they were right to detail!  If you Watch FobTimber West Belt Bucklegot a magnifying glass, and looked at them, they even had all the rivets… they were perfect!  Especially some of the older ones, the details were great.  BC Forest Products (BCFP) gave us all kinds of little trinkets, same with Western Forest Industries (WFI).  I saved a lot of the buttons they gave away – I joined the union in 1959, and got my first button in 1960.  At the end of the year, I would just throw them in my hunting cabinet.  Back in the 1940’s, I got a Gordon River ball cap – the companies started putting their name on a cap, and giving them to you. And once they started, the guys were all downtown with it. 

I lived for seven years in Gordon River when I first got married.  We married, and then we moved into camp because it was cheap rent, electricity and all that.  I remember one time that three months went by without any electrical bill.  I started to worry that that I was going to get a big bill, but when it came the bill was fifty cents. 

The year of 1963 marked the end of the logging camps – they were starting to move out.  They had paved the road up there, and the railroad was gone, I think it was around 1955.  I wasn’t there when they had the railroad, but in 1956 when I worked there in the summer, I talked to the truck driver who lived Building hookup road to Caycusein camp.  He told me he ran the speeder, and on one of those rainy, stormy days he was taking the kids from Gordon River to Honeymoon Bay when he noticed he was going down hill, and then suddenly coming uphill on what should have been a straightaway.  So, he stopped the speeder, and opened up the door to look with the flashlight – he saw that the tracks had washed out, and there was a big culvert underneath with the tracks suspended in midair! The only thing that was holding the tracks together were the bolts – the ties were there, but nothing else!
My wife’s grandfather was a contract logger, and he introduced the first power saw to BC.  His name was Earl Lowry of Lowry Logging in Nanaimo – his two sons took over after he finished it.  I can remember that all he wanted to do was work!  He was one of those loggers that didn’t care as much about the money, as he did about the work.  He would find some timber someplace, and go logging. Sometimes he would buy a house and a place to live – his wife would do the cooking, and they would have a little small camp of their own!  It was always small, just the one side – a real gyppo operation.

Before he died, he was pretty close to ninety!  The family wanted him to take a trip to Hawaii, but he wouldn’t go… So, they bought him a shirt from Hawaii, hoping that would encourage him to go.  Well, he figured, why leave Vancouver Island?  He already had a shirt from Hawaii – there was no need to go!

When he was in his eighties, he bought a piece of property over on Gabriola Island.  He took a Cat over, and the trunk of his car was stocked with his power saws, tools, and stuff.  Of course, the old girl went down there, and she was crying because she said, “I’m too old to be doing this.”  He kept IWA pin 1979getting up at four a.m., like he used to when he worked.  He wanted his breakfast, and he would make it himself; but she had to make his lunch before he would take off over there. But he got himself into big trouble, because he just went out, and started falling this property, and you can’t just do that.  You’ve got to have permits for everything.  So, he got himself into all sorts of trouble! 

The woods had some people there that had a university education, but I had one guy swamping for me that was just about ready to retire, and he had about a grade three education.  One time, we had come in for a safety meeting, and all the company engineers were all sitting around a big round table, trying to figure out some sort of problem the company was having.  Well, this guy with the grade three education, just a swamper with a basic wage who had been in the woods all his life, says, ‘Well why don’t you do this and this and this?”  They were thinking so far past what you should do to solve this problem, and they were too educated to see the simple answer.  I’ll never forget that until the day I die!  I’ll tell you– loggers are a breed of their own!

If I had my life to live over again, I would probably do the same thing – I really enjoyed it.  I loved going out there!  Most of the jobs I worked at, like the grader, were pretty solitary.  I was usually out there by myself on the night shift.

I saw lots of things that most people would never see!  Once I saw a pack of wolves playing in the snow – they were all running around.  I came around a corner where there was a landing, and the snow was so deep!  I came down and the snow was floating off the grader – I couldn’t even see the bottom of the grader itself.  Here the wolves were playing in the landing… a whole family of them!  Of course, when I came, they disappeared fast – they don’t like people.  I’ve seen lots of cougars and wolves!

I’ve made lots of friends over the years… I’ve also lost a lot of friends.  There were a lot of well-educated people working in the woods, because the money was good.  A few I worked with were university-educated – which surprised me, because I wasn’t that educated myself.  It was an interesting life!