Wally Knott on saw and his partner Red Meyers at Meades Creek Oct. 1945 by W.H.Gold PhotoMOFM Logo
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Mike Paton
Mike PatonI started working in the forest industry in June 1954, following in the footsteps of my dad, Jim ‘Jock’ Patton.  He came over here from Scotland when he was nineteen years old.  When he started in the woods, he didn’t know anything about it as he had been a fisherman over there.  He started logging in Lake Cowichan right above where the high school is: they logged there in 1929. Then, they moved to Caycuse for seven or eight years, but he went on loan to Nitnat(Camp 3) in 1930 something – they said ‘will you come over here and work for us for us for a little while because we’re having trouble?’  So, he went over there, and he never came back until 1957! 

He stayed in Nitnat camp, and that’s where we grew up. We were one big, happy family.  Everyone got along, and nobody locked their doors. It was a wonderful place to live!  In Camp 3, there were probably over one hundred men in the bunkhouses.  I’ll take a wild guess about the number of houses… I’d say probably thirty homes.

The railroad ran right through the middle of the camp.  The speeders on the rail lines did everything: they took all us children to school, took all the men to work, and hauled all the supplies up from Youbou.  You know, we had half a dozen speeders going.  These things were big– they would hold forty-five people… and they were nice!  They were built right in the camp.  

I went to school in Nitnat until grade eight, and then I got on the speeder, and went to Lake Cowichan for four years.  We went on the speeder to Youbou, and then on the school bus to Lake Cowichan.  We put in a long day traveling to and from school:  six o’clock in the morning, until five o’clock at night!  We couldn’t participate in any school activities, because of our travel time.  The kids from Caycuse had to come across the lake, and we would pick them up and take them to Youbou.  Sometimes, we had two school buses to handle all of us– there were that many kids! 

Ladies of NitnatThe logging camps were pretty big in those days… they were like little villages– we had everything up there!  We had our own baseball teams… in fact, we had a great ball team!  We played against Lake Cowichan, Caycuse and Youbou on the weekends– it was good quality ball.  There was a lot of competition in the sports!  There was also a dance somewhere every weekend.  And, of course, there were the Saturday night fights… I got my head beat in a few times!

You know, the camp life was good for us kids!  We had a little lake in the camp– it was beautiful in the summer for swimming and fishing; in the winter, we skated on it.  We even had our own bowling alley! We had a huge community hall, and every night there was something that was going on in that hall.  The hall had badminton courts, a stage, a movie theatre and we had a huge dining room with a super kitchen!

Actually, the dining room was where we had a ‘Twenty-two club’ for rifle shooting… in the hall!  We had a big steel thing at the end of the dining room that we shot at; because we all had guns by the time we were eleven years old.  We had the best hunting and fishing in the world!  It was paradise to grow up there.

People don’t even believe you when you tell them how good the fishing was in Lake Cowichan… and I’ve been fishing in Lake Cowichan for sixty-two years!  We lived in a float house at the head of the lake, before we went up into the camp:  I remember my dad would come home from work, and my mom would say, “Do you want fish for supper tonight?”  He would say, “Sure!” So, she’d take a hook, and put a piece of bread on it, go outside, and lower it off the side into the lake. Next thing you know, up comes a four or five-pounder, and we’d have it for dinner.  I’m not exaggerating… that’s how good it was! 

The fish lived under the houses, because all the garbage went in the lake.  We had no garbage dumps, or garbage pick up… everything went out the kitchen window and into the lake! Coke cans, scraps, bottles, you name it– everything went into the lake.  There were lots of big fish cruising around– seven, eight, nine-pounders, just swimming back and forth.  We had a little row boat, and I could row right around the head of the Cowichan Lake where that Heather campsite is now.  I could row around there and back to the house, and I had a baby bathtub full of trout!  Now I can go out there and fish all day, and get skunked… that’s how bad it’s gone.

Before I got out of school, all of us grade twelve kids got to work on clean up in the Youbou Sawmill on the weekends.  So, we had money like you wouldn’t believe!  We were big shots… big trouble!   That was nice for the companies to do that for us, you know.   

I graduated from high school in 1954– my parents didn’t want me to go into the woods, of course, but I said that I’d like to give it a go.  So, my dad took me to work with him– he was a hooktender on the first steel spar that was made up there… it was made at Camp 3(Nitnat).  

Mike & PalI went to work with him setting chokers– that’s where everybody starts.  Like I said, he didn’t want me to be there, so he drove me right into the ground.  He and my mom nearly got a divorce fighting over it.  I would come home sick every night… he just worked me!  He made me run– they don’t run anymore, but in those days they made you run.  As soon as he heard the choker go together, he was the boss of the side.  He would holler to the whistle punk, which they don’t have anymore, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and those logs went out underneath us.  I said to him, “What are you trying to do?  I’m your kid– are you trying to kill me?” He said, “Well, you’ll move faster next time, won’t you?”  And guess what?  I did– I got faster!  You know, after running and climbing around on the side hill all day… well, you pretty well had it when you got home.  I mean, you had to produce! 

So after that, I managed to do a few jobs in other places.  And then he went contracting with two Cats, and he said, “If you want to come work with me, I’ll pay you more than you’re making now.”  Of course, we all want more, don’t we?  So I said, “Yeah, okay.  I’ll come work for you.”  Now, we were working per log to get payments, so depending how many logs we got in a day, that’s how much money we made.

I thought I worked hard the first time– the second time was harder yet!  I was in bed at six o’clock every night… every night!  There was no life at all, and finally I said, “I’ve had it– I’m out of here! You know what you can do with your Cats… I’m gone!”   In those days it was easy to get a job, so I went to the Youbou mill and I lasted, oh, probably a month.  I couldn’t handle the mill– you’ve got to be a certain type of person to do that! 

So, I went back to camp, but instead of logging, I went onto the swamping on the grade crew using a road building shovel. They’re the big machines with the buckets on them used to dig. Well, they used to use those to make roads, and they used Cats too, but they used the shovels more than the Cats at that time.  I got on there as a swamper, with the cranky old bugger that was running it… he was on contract, too.  I worked with him for quite a while, and then I got on with another guy, and he broke me in on the shovel.  Things moved fairly fast in those days, and before I knew it I was running the shovel… I wasn’t even twenty years old!

I was loading gravel trucks, and digging gravel pits. In the summer, I dug out creeks that were dried up, so that they would be good for the winter… all that kind of stuff.  I wasn’t into any logging at all now– I was strictly on the grade construction:  making roads, building culverts, and all that kind of stuff.  When I finally did get running machines, I was really happy! 

They decided, when I was running that machine, they would convert it to a log loader.  They asked me if I would like to go run it, after it was done.  I said, “Well I don’t know the first damn thing about it, but I’ll give it a whirl.”  So, they converted it over to a log loader, and I went running on that.  It took me a little while, but I finally got on!

Log LoaderYou know, with the grapple, you have to have depth perception, because you’re throwing the grapple all day long… it’s like you’re fly fishing, but you are throwing the grapples, and getting logs.  You’ve got to produce– if you are throwing it out there, and you’re missing, and the logs are falling off… then you’re not doing too well!  So you have to get going.  It’s the kind of a job where I think it either comes to you, or it doesn’t… either you can do it, or you can’t.  I had lots of guys that I tried to break-in over the years:  some of them caught on, and others I worked with them for months, and no way– they couldn’t they get the hang of it! 

In those days, the second loader used to stand on the top of the truck – if  you had a log that was too long, you could wipe him off.  That guy is up there, and he trusts you.  So, you had to be careful that you didn’t wipe him off the truck!  This is where the depth perception comes in. 

Another thing we had to remember when we were loading the logs on the truck:  we couldn’t have them too close to the cab.  We had to have at least two and a half, or three feet clearance, so the truck can go around corners.  If we didn’t have it right, when the truck went around the corner, the logs would bind against the cab, and we wouldn’t be able to steer… the truck would go over the bank!  So, if you have one on the bottom of the load that’s too close to the cab, then you’ve got to cut off three feet. But, you don’t want to be cutting ends off logs to fix that, because they are already cut to length, and you’ve taken good money out of that log.

Turner DozerI did that job for a long time, and then I went on another machine that was called a turner dozer.  That was a four-tired machine… a big machine, with an arch and a winch on the back-end, so you could log with it.  It pulled logs like a Cat, but it moved faster.  I ran that for awhile– it was kind of a fun job!  It was a big machine, all electric, and run by toggle switches– you would work with just your fingers on this thing… it was kind of neat. That machine would go up pretty steep, but a Cat had to put a road in for you first.  

Like I was saying, I started out setting chokers and I pulling rigging… in fact, I did everything but falling.  I could fell a tree but I didn’t want to be a faller.  So, I worked on gravel trucks, then went to operating road building shovels, rubber-tired log haulers, and northwest shovels converted to loading. 

At the end, I was running mobile track loadersMobile track loaders were big machines that weighed about eighty tons, and were on wheels… they would only go about six miles an hour, but they were really nice machines to run.  They were also very versatile: you could load logs with them, or you could take the loading lines off, and the grapple off, and put yarding lines on it. So, you could set up, yard for a week, change to your loading lines, put grapples back on, and then load it all out.  Or, we could go to a side, with one of those steel towers, and sit and load from there– we were also mobile!

We had to maintain the equipment we operated – this involved lubrication and oil changing.  On those old shovels, there was a lot of greasing to do– hydraulics are a piece of cake!  They are great for small timber, but they can’t handle the real big stuff.  We usually did our maintenance on the weekends.  We got time and a half on the weekends, so we looked after that; but for any big repairs, of course, all we had to do was fill out reports for the shop crew.  Then the shop crew would come out and take the machine to camp, if it broke down badly… it happened sometimes!

Just before I went into the loading end of it, when I was still on the construction crew, I drove this gravel truck for awhile.  Well, in the old days we used to have a section crew for the railroad that were all Chinese– they were all old Chinamen and they worked hard!  They had a special ‘V’ shaped car on the railroad track that hauled gravel.  When they wanted to dump gravel on the track, they would just open up the Rail Dump Truckbottom and let it go!  Then there’d be this great big mound of gravel and all these poor Chinamen had to shovel it all between the ties. It was back-breaking work all day long… it was a really tough job! 

The master mechanic at Nitnat said, “There’s got to be a way to help those guys.” So he said, ‘I’m going to try an experiment.” So he took that old gravel truck that I was driving, took it off the road, put it into the shops and they put speeder wheels on it.  I was driving it on the track with disconnected steering, so all I had was the gear shift.  They said, “Now we want you to take that thing out in the woods– the shovel out there will load you with gravel, then we want you to try and spread it.”  So we did that.  We had set the chains on the back of the box, so that the tail-gate would only open so far… well!  You talk about work like a hot-damn!  I tell you– I took off down the track, put the box up and let the gate go and spread that gravel for about ½ of a mile.  The Chinamen were just stunned!  They just had to take a little bit off the rails, and then tamp it a bit. But what a pile of work we saved them! I was about 18 years old then.  That was really fantastic!  To them, our innovation was wonderful and I was a hero. 

Mike and his Rail Dump TruckOne thing that was different about the Chinese crew, was that they didn’t pack a lunch. They had to have a hot lunch out there, or they wouldn’t work. So, right along the railroad track they would build a little shack out of railroad ties, and they brought all their big pots out and cooked a hot lunch every day.

Logging wasn’t all work– we had a lot of fun out there, too! When Bob Norcross was the woods foreman, if it was really raining and we didn’t have a place to eat, he would come with his pick-up and we would all jump into the truck and have lunch with him… there were three or four of us on the crew.  Now, we used to do this on purpose: we’d sit there after the half hour was up– we’d keep talking to see how long it would be before he would step in and say something.  So, finally he’d say, “I’ve got to go.  You guys have got to get out, because I’ve got to take off.”  That was the hint ‘Get back to work!’  He didn’t come right out and say, “Get your ass out and get to work!”… he wasn’t just our boss, he was our friend too. 

The seasons and the weather really affected our work.  When I started out, a good year would be nine months of work.  I can remember that we had to save for the winter shut down, because we used to get a lot of snow in the old days.  Lots of snow!  Plus, we had to save for the summer shut down, because in the summer it was always hot– we used to swim in May!  We would shut down all summer, and shut down all winter.  I’ll tell you how bad it was: loggers couldn’t get a mortgage! 

Mike PatonAfter I got married, we had a beautiful house on the Lake for $25 a month, so I didn’t want to move.  But my wife wanted to build a house, even though we couldn’t get a mortgage.  The banks changed the rules, after a couple of years, and they allowed loggers and fishermen to get a mortgage.  So we jumped at it right away.  We had our house built in Centennial Heights in 1962, and we’ve been there ever since.  It was a good move, because we probably would have been stuck in Caycuse otherwise. 

In those days, we had a choice:  we could stay in the bunkhouse, and come home on the weekends; or we could travel back and forth. So, I went in to the bunkhouse to try it. Now, we were just newlyweds, so I thought, ‘well this is no good!’   I wondered what it would be like to commute back and forth everyday, so I got together with Bob Norcross, and a couple of other guys and we formed a car pool.  It worked out that between the four of us, that we only had to take our car for a week once a month.  Now, it was a gravel road, so none of us wanted to take our cars over it… but we did it! 

It was tough, because we had to get up an hour earlier than we would normally, and we got home an hour later at night.  So, I put in a thirteen hour day all my life up there.  That meant I didn’t see my kids that much, because I didn’t get home until 6:00 at night.  I mean, I’m gone at five a.m. and home at six p.m.  So, you get to read the kids a bedtime story, and that would be it.  So, we were all in the same boat at that time, but the weekends were good!

So, that’s why we were all motivated to do carpooling for a while. Then, we went after the company for buses.  They argued a bit, because they had a bunkhouse– they kept saying ‘if you don’t like it, move into the bunkhouse.’  But we worked on them, and wouldn’t let up!  Finally, they decided they would rent a bus from Duncan.  I happened to get a tip to go out and get my license for a bus, because someone was going to have to drive it.  So I got my license before anybody else, and I got the job of driving the bus. 

I drove it back and forth for a couple of years, before the crew got so large that one bus couldn’t handle it anymore.  They bought a couple more Snorkle Polecompany buses, so I went on one, and Bob went on the other.  Pretty soon, we had five buses running from Duncan everyday, and they closed the bunkhouse down… so that was the end of that.  I wore out five buses in twenty-seven years!  I drove when I got to the woods, too, but that was the icing on the cake.

Just like today, there was only pavement to Honeymoon Bay, and then it was gravel roads from there.  Once they experimented in Caycuse, they paved about five miles out of camp, until they came to a big hill there.  They paved that road to see how it would work with the equipment, and it worked really well!  It was easy on the trucks, and it was great in the summer; but in the winter those roads were slick with ice.  Plus, the loads were so heavy that the pavement didn’t stand up… in the end they went back to gravel. 

I was a young guy then– I wasn’t at it all that long.  Did we ever work our asses off… did we ever work! Running the grapples kind of scared me a bit.  I thought:  Can I do this?  Can I judge?  There was the boom, and then there was a fifty foot pole on top of that… I was cherry picking over the side of the road.  I was throwing that grapple down the side of the hill, and I had to get a few loads of logs in a day.  So I thought, ‘This is going to be a challenge and a half!’  But you know, I got onto it pretty quick, and it was okay.  I got good at it, and I had the eye for it.  

LoaderA good friend of mine was a good operator on the hydraulic… man he was just unbelievable!  But they wanted me to break him in on grapples, so I said, “Sure!”  So, he came to work with me, and after a month they took him away – he couldn’t keep up!  He’d go there and he’d try– he’d work his ass off, but he just didn’t have that touch.  But put him on the hydraulic, which he is on till this day, and he’s a whiz at it.  So you either have the touch, or you haven’t.  For example, Bob Norcross can climb trees… there’s no way I can climb a tree!
When you’re in the woods, you have to know what your limits are, and keep your wits about you.  There isn’t a guy in the woods that hasn’t had a close call… I had a lot of them!  But, I feel extremely fortunate to have escaped injury.  Even my dad got banged up, and he was a top notch logger!  I had a pretty good perception of danger… it was like I had a sixth sense about it, probably because I was scared!  Even so, I’ve had many, many close calls. 

I remember one time:  I had my machine set up on a side hill, on a very steep road.  The hooktender was in control of the logging end of it, and I was on the machine, and landing end of it.  We were going to take the lines up, string them out to the back end, and then take all the rigging out there.  I happened to notice that there was a huge rock back there.  So I said to Fred, “You know, I’m right in the line of fire here!” because it was about eight hundred feet up the hill to that large rock.  I know it had been there about a thousand years, but we were going to pull logs over top of it. 

Turner DozerI thought, ‘If that thing ever broke loose… I’m toast!’  So I said to Fred, “You know what?  I’m going to move the track loader down the hill about sixty feet, just to get off to the side a little bit.”  And he says, “Ah! That thing will never come down – it’s been there millions of years!”  But I said, “Well, I’m just going to set it down there.”  And I did.  So, we were logging away and everything was going smooth.  Then, we started logging over top of that rock– and it broke loose… down it came!  And I thought, ‘Oh boy!’  I didn’t even have time to get out of the machine– it was heading right for me!  I thought, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do here.  If that hits me, I’m toast– I’m gone over the side hill!’  It was as big as the machine!  Well, sure enough, it came down, but it just clipped the front of the machine.  To this day, you can see where the steel has been peeled off the front of that machine.  The rock went by, and down into the canyon below me.  If I hadn’t moved, there would be no Mike sitting here today– that was one close call!  There were lots of close calls like that, but that was one that I won’t forget– that was a dandy one!
Another time, I was moving down a really steep hill at Shaw Creek.  When it’s really steep, you get a load of logs to snub you down, because those machines are heavy.  You could make it by yourself, but you would have to keep stopping to let the brakes cool off.  So we’d get a nice, big load of logs on the logging truck, and it would hook onto you, and snub you down the hill… they can really hold you back if they’re loaded.  Anyways, we got down the steepest part of the hill, and were coming down around a hair pin corner, when my machine started to tip over frontwards.  That was because I had the boom out there, the pole on the end of that, and the grapples out there too... it was just too much unbalanced weight, so it started going right over!  Pretty soon, I was pinned right up against the front window!

Mike's logging truckSo, the guy on the logging truck holding me, stops everything.  Someone could walk underneath the back end of the machine, it was over so far!  Now what do we do?  So I thought, “We’ll try something here.”  I said, “If it doesn’t bother you, I’m going to swing around, and put the boom down in the load behind you there.”  (I had a fifty foot pole on it, and the grapples)  Just picture the grapples swinging back and forth in front of his window, like a set of windshield wipers!  But, he said they’d be fine, even though everything was on top of his roof.  So, I had to turn right around, and back down.  The machine came back down on its feet again, and he snubbed me down all the way around that hairpin corner. 

Lots of things happened like that:  One winter we had to move out from Jasper Creek on the Nitnat mainline, because we got snowed out.  But on this occasion, we only had Cats to snub us down– they had plowed the road so that it sloped in, which meant I kept sliding sideways into the ditch.  Every time I ran away, I took the Cat with me, because I’m eighty tons, and he’s only thirty or forty.  So, we’d have to get out of the ditch, and then go back out again– we did that for eight hours to go a mile!  By the time I got down to the bottom, I said to the woods foreman, “This is the last time you’ll ever see me do that again– I am finished!  If you want to can me, you can me!”   But the foreman said, “Ah!  That was a dumb move… that was really stupid!  You’re lucky you made it down there!”  I said, “How the hell do you think I feel?”  Oh, my head was pounding with a headache – I was just wiped!  But you know what I should have done?  I should have refused.  But I thought, ‘Ah well, they need the machine down there.  They’re going to shut down for the winter, it’s the end of December.  They don’t want this thing stuck up there for three months in the snow… we’ve got to get it down.’  And so I did – I’ve got lots of stories like that!

Large LogI understand my dad now:  my son wanted to go into the woods, and I wouldn’t let him.  I couldn’t very well stop him if he insisted, but I said, “I can’t do my job out there, if I know you are setting chokers in a canyon somewhere, where you’re climbing up and down all day long with logs flying over your head… I’d never be able to do my job.”  I’d be worried about him!  So, I can understand now why my dad was like he was.  Of course, then I thought he was just a mean old guy.  And my kid never did go in, so I’m glad about that, because look at the way it’s gone! 

But I tell you, I’m really happy– I picked the right career at the right time.  I loved logging, and I made a helluva living!  My wife never had to work.  We had three kids, and took them to Disneyland… took them here, took them there.  We always had a new car, and a boat… I’ve had an absolutely perfect life– I miss it like hell!  I could go back tomorrow!  You know what?  In forty years, I only missed one day of work… that was a record!
There were many, many, times I felt proud to be a logger, but the one that stands out was when I probably felt the proudest of all:  when we broke a production record in Caycuse on the skidder.  The skidder was a real workhorse – the guys worked like hell on that machine! Anyways, we loaded out just a little bit under four million feet in a month … that’s twenty days of logging!  We broke a record, and as far as I know, it still stands to this day.  I would say that happened in the very early 70’s.  They had a party for us in Duncan at the Tzouhalem Hotel. They had a dinner for us, and I got a nice pin for it.   We went three years without an accident too … that was unbelievable to do that on the skidder!  But we broke the record, so they had a big dinner for us with drinks, prizes, pins, slaps on the back and the whole nine yards… so that was a very proud moment.

Young FellaBut I have seen it go from excellent to extremely bad… terrible!  The turning point for me was when Fletcher Challenge moved in here from Australia:  they divided the two camps, and laid off four hundred men.  They did their own thing, but that was bad for all of us… that’s when it started.  I hated Fletcher Challenge– everybody did!  They have a very poor reputation around the world. 

The final nail was when Timber West moved in: they demolished the place… they were ruthless!  They just lost a big fight with the union over back pay for one hundred and fifty guys.  They laid them off, and they never even got their last cheque.  They are a very poor corporation… all they want to do is log it, sell it and pave it!  That’s what they intend to do to Youbou right now.  Real estate is their game right now, they don’t care about logging– they just want to get rid of the logs and then go into real estate.

Right now this Liberal government has no rules for logging– they just do whatever they want… it’s just terrible!  What’s happened is, and I hate to say this, but it’s our own fault.  This new batch of companies that came in, logged all the second growth, and took all the small trees.  The creeks dry up now, and they only run six months of the year.  Well, in our day, we never touched the timber around the lake, and those creeks ran all year round… they were all full of fish!  Now there isn’t any– I wonder why? 

That’s the bad part of it all:  there’s no control… no rules!  We had rules before.  When the big companies left, like BCFP, MacMillan Bloedel, and Crown Zellerbach, that was it… it was all over.  That’s when things really went downhill, and look at it now!  As far as I’m concerned, they have just raped Cowichan Lake

You know, years ago when I was still working in the woods, the deal was:  for every tree you take, you have to replace it with two.  We had a crew of about twenty people planting trees.  But, you can only plant at certain times of the year, so when they weren’t planting trees, they were pruning, spacing, and cleaning brush out of the creeks. 

I care about these things, because everything I have I owe to the forest industry… my kids have done well by it.  My son is in the forest industry, and is doing well.  However, my son-in-law works in the Crofton Pulp Mill, so he’s worried like hell.  My other son-in-law was in the mill in Nanaimo for twenty-four years, until they shut it down. 

I think that the ‘magic’ thing was:  I made enough money to do things right, and to have everybody in my family have a good life.  That’s the answer!  I made enough money to do that.  I made good money– driving those buses was all time-and-a-half, so that was the icing on the cake… besides working all day.  I was useless on the weekend– I was in bed by eight p.m. on Friday night… I had a couple of drinks and passed out!  I did that for twenty-seven years.  Now, we are on the go… we don’t quit!  We don’t sit around, in fact I’m not getting anything done around the house because we’re out so often.  We take a lot of trips… I have been extremely fortunate.

Starting out in 1954 was an excellent time!  There was great comeraderie, there were plenty of jobs, and plenty of money.  Everyone seemed to be really happy at that particular time.  You could get a job anywhere around Cowichan Lake– it was a really good time!  Here it is, short and sweet:  I picked the right career and I loved it!