Monthly Archives: August 2017

Stranded in Englewood – Ch. 3

In 1953, my parents moved with two small children to a remote logging camp on Vancouver Island, inaccessible by road. It was my father’s first teaching job, the principalship of a two-room school. The second teacher? My mother. This chapter outlines our arrival at the halfway point in our journey.

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My father burst into our stateroom after an early walk to the bow of the ship.

“She’s docked! We’re here! Everybody up!”

Rousing ourselves, we were soon shivering on the wooden deck of the steamship Catala and peering out at a thick, forested world. My brother rubbed his eyes and clung irritably to our mother.

“I hope we get breakfast before we get off,” she muttered, shifting him around. “What a cold, busy place!”

She was right. The whole area was alive on this grey, misty morning. Logs choked the bay surrounding the dock. They bobbled and jockeyed for position, roiling around in the choppy waters. Men in boots and woollen clothing dotted the pier. Fork lifts rumbled across the wooden dock, running steadily at piles of logs or lumber, picking up great stacks of wood, dumping loose logs into other piles or trundling stacked lumber into various sheds.

“I don’t know where to look,” chuckled Dad. “What do you suppose….” His final words were lost as a rail car to our left released its logs and sent thirty thousand pounds thundering like an avalanche into the salt chuck below. White spume billowed well above the pier, and fingers flew into ears.

“Omigosh!” shouted my mother. “I wish we’d known that was coming!” Rubbernecking passengers beside us stood in stunned silence. Few had seen such a sight. We felt as if we were in an action movie.

Our city eyes gaped, watching dock workers in hard hats and flannel tees striding along the oily pier or darting in and out of big, green shacks nestled the whole way along, with the massive, green mountains for a backdrop. A huge A-frame, used for loading and unloading logs, loomed in the middle-distance, while tugboats bustled about the log booms like harried nannies. The booms lay everywhere; one could almost walk to shore just hopping from one log to the next. In fact, men with peavies – long spiked poles – did something similar; they burled and poked stray logs into position within each boom.

“The lower-grade logs go for pulping,” another shivering passenger pointed out. “And look at those tugs, farther out, wrestling with whole booms.” It was a stunning sight, as busy as a crowded downtown street in rush hour, without the cars.

“I want to see!” I wailed, climbing one rung up the railing, with my father’s steady hand holding me. My mother held up my younger brother. Our hair blew around our faces and we grinned until our teeth froze in the cold breeze.

After breakfast, we scrambled down the gangplank with our suitcases. Boxes of our linens and kitchen supplies sat in the ship’s hold. Once off the ship, we huddled at one end of the dock, totally lost.

“Excuse me!” my father said to a hobnailed worker wearing green rain gear and carrying a large chunk of wood. “We’re the new teachers for Woss. Where do we catch the rail car?” The dock worker smiled. His face showed two days’ black stubble and a toothpick wobbled between his teeth.

“Speeder 121 takes passengers there once a day,” he said, slowing his pace, “and it left an hour ago. Next one is at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” Our jaws dropped.

“But we were told we could connect right away!” said my mother. “We have nowhere to stay the night!” She drew her cloth coat more closely around herself and glanced up at the surrounding forest and the grey clouds above. It was a forbidding outpost, this Englewood.

“Well, I dunno what you were told,” said the fellow,”but for sure you can’t get out until tomorrow. Maybe talk to Marge at the Canteen over there.” He gestured at one of the smaller green shacks down the pier. She can likely find you a place to stay.”

We stood there in the rain, dumbfounded. Walk the length of the pier in the rain and oil and grease? It was over seventy-five yards! Each of us carried two suitcases and the rain had begun, a cold drizzle that seeped inexorably into our shoes and coats. It was not pleasant, but what could we do? We picked up our bags and shuffled along, trying not to get in anyone’s way, stepping over cables, cords and bits of bark. My mother, who wore low heels, slipped at one point and almost fell, grabbing onto my father’s arm at the last minute.

“Welcome to Englewood,” she muttered under her breath. “It may be a log dump, but to my mind, it’s just a plain old dump!” My father at least had the grace to look sheepish, as this whole venture had been his idea.

We arrived bedraggled and grumpy at the Canteen. Dad wrestled with the heavy wooden door, propping it with a knee  to allow the rest of us to shoulder in with all our baggage. A large, friendly woman behind the tiled counter gave us a big grin and motioned us over with her beefy arm.

“Hi there, folks!” she laughed. “You seem a tad damp. Are you lost?” She stacked dirty plates into a plastic, grey tub as she spoke. Her white scrubs sported sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and a red kerchief corralled her hair. She looked old to me but was likely about forty.

“We are rather lost,” said my Dad, brushing water from his hair. “We’re the new teachers for Woss.”

“New teachers, eh?” She stuck out her hand. “Glad to meet ya. Name’s Marge Brandon. Been living here fifteen years and likely to die here.” She chortled comfortably. “Leastwise, unless I can find me a man to support me so’s I can retire from all this!” She waved over a stack of dirty dishes piled up in a commercial dish-washing trough. “Anyhow, next speeder leaves tomorrow at 10. You’ll have to stay in Englewood tonight.”

“But where? We have two children!” I could tell my mother was nervous, thinking we’d have to pitch a tent on the dock and fend off cougars single-handed.

“No bother. Just head down the road there.” She pointed out the large front window toward the wall of mountains to the west. “See that white and yellow house just beyond that last shed? That’s the Michaels’ place. They’ll put you all up.” She nodded comfortably. “Don’t worry if they ain’t expecting you. They’re friendly people and always ready to take on stranded travellers.” She smiled and grabbed for a water nozzle dangling from the ceiling, then began sluicing down the dishes before stacking them in a green dish rack. We took this as our signal to leave.

The drizzle had intensified, but luckily, it was only a ten-minute walk from the dock to the dirt road and then twenty yards more to the Michaels’ house. Our hands were frozen numb from holding onto our bags. My father opened the rickety screen door and knocked without conviction. He and my mother exchanged dark looks. After a moment or two, the door was wrenched open by a couple of young kids laughing to beat heck and falling over one another. We reeled back a little, startled.

“Boys! Boys! Settle down. Where’s your manners?” An adult voice boomed in the background and a tall, portly man with a buzz cut appeared. “Hi there! Name’s Jim Michaels. I’m the First Aid guy in these parts. “Welcome to our home.”

We were grateful for the refuge. The Michaels put us up in a couple of spare rooms. They also fed us and entertained my folks with a game or two of Gin Rummy later on, while we kids played Parcheesi and Chinese Checkers on the bedroom floor with the Michaels boys, who proved to us that they could indeed settle down.

“How bad is the trip down to Woss?” I heard my mother ask at one point.

It was the Michaels’ turn to exchange looks.

“Well,” piped up Wanda, pouring out more wine. “From here, it’s two hours – about 56 miles – down to Camp Nimpkish. You have to get off the speeder there and travel one hour by boat to the Vernon Reload because the rail track doesn’t go all the way through yet.”

“After the boat ride, there’s one more speeder that takes you right into Woss,” added Jim. “But that’s a short ride– only about forty minutes. All told, it’ll take the whole day to get down to Woss. Don’t worry! We’ll make sure you have sandwiches with you.”

My mother blanched. All day! Two transfers! Two kids. Six suitcases.

“We’d better get to bed early,” she said morosely.

The next morning, the family gave us eggs with English muffins and jam before herding us back to the rail track. It was here that we caught our first glimpse of Speeder 121.

Convincing Mother – Ch. 1

“I’m sorry. I just don’t like the sound of it!”

My mother at breakfast in 1953, in the kitchen of our one-bedroom home in Vancouver. We lived a few blocks east of Little Italy, a quaint area in the city. We kids loved to walk the 2nd Avenue hill and trudge up the other side to Copp’s Shoes, which offered the most wonderful toffee suckers wrapped in wax paper if you bought any small thing – even a pair of shoelaces. What a thrill to open the wrapper and taste that creamy caramel toffee inside!

At the moment, however, toffee suckers were off the table, as it were, since my father had just proposed that we pick up and move from Vancouver, lock, stock and barrel, to a remote logging camp on Vancouver Island. Hence, my mother’s reaction.

At the time, our tiny, stucco house felt cramped and old. Cold, too, as I recall, since it rained steadily in Vancouver and my parents had to economize on heat. However, Granny Davis, who lived in our basement suite, owned a pot-bellied stove. Her place always exuded a cozy warmth. Orange poppies bordered the cement stairs down to her door, and I remember smelling their pungent odour when we visited her for tea and cookies on occasion.

My folks were young then, children of the Great Depression, struggling to raise two kids and earn enough money to keep a roof over our heads. Times had to be tough for my mother to even consider such a drastic step as my father was proposing. The Post-War boom hadn’t yet reached full momentum, so many families still struggled as we did. Luckily, Mom had attended university on scholarships and now had a full-time teaching job in an elementary school.

Looking back at their discussion, I picture my father reaching for the sugar and stirring two lumps into his coffee, then sucking on a third in the Scandinavian way. He likely wore his Yellow Cab hat, one that he no doubt hoped to “deep six” for a teacher’s garb if he could convince my mother that this move was a good thing.

“It’s a principalship in the Nimpkish Valley!” he exclaimed. “And it’s a two-room school, so you and I would be the only teachers. We’d have free reign!”

He made it sound promising, even exciting.

“Why would you be the principal when it’s your first appointment?” objected my mother. “I’m the one with the teaching experience! You’ve only just earned your diploma.”

“I agree it’s not fair, but you know how the world works, sweetie,” replied Dad. “They always offer the men the best jobs. At least the money will be all in the family. And it’s an adventure! Think of it that way. Remember, Huey Grayson will be there.”

“Your forestry friend?”

“That’s the one. He’s stationed at Woss Camp, where we’d be living. So we’ll know someone going in.”

“Yes, I remember him. He has the thickest British accent I’ve ever heard,” said Mom.

“Well, knowledge of the Queen’s English is no barrier to a love of virgin forest. He knows they could log that area for decades and hardly make a dent.”

I can certainly understand my mother’s reluctance to move. There she sat, staring at one dependent child across the kitchen table, while offering strips of toast to a smaller child on the floor beside her. It was difficult enough to be a working mother in the city. What would it be like juggling work and family in a remote logging camp?

“Who’ll look after the kids during the day?”

“We’ll find somebody. We’ll hire a nanny before we go.”

That sounded reasonable, but I’m sure that even my father, who had grown up in mining camps as a child, didn’t fully grasp how rustic those Island logging camps really were.

“There aren’t any roads!” bemoaned Mother. “How will we get in and out?”

“We’ll go by steamship from Vancouver,” said my father. “Then they have company rail cars from Englewood to the logging camps. They call them speeders.”

speeder 121 at Woss Camp
Speeder 121 at Woss Camp (courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River, BC)

“Speeders!? Good grief. I’ve seen pictures of those things,” said Mom. “They look like big tin lozenges on rail wheels. Are they safe?”

“They’re safe,” said Dad. “Not exactly luxury travel, but they have bench seating around the walls and sliding doors to get in and out. Like self-propelled boxcars, really. And it’s only a two-hour ride!”

It was true. You could only get halfway to the logging camps by steamship or by sea plane. Then you took a long railway ride in those metal contraptions, not well-equipped for passengers. And CANFOR, Canadian Forest Products, owned it all. Or leased it, which amounted to the same thing. They owned the camps, the houses in the camps, the rail line, the speeders. And for a song, they held long leases on the forests, courtesy of the BC government.

“It’s a booming frontier!” said Dad. “They’re making nothing but money logging those mountains, so everyone who works for them does pretty well.”

Then he quickly changed the subject.

“Would you like to go on a big ship, kids?” he said, glossing over the rail car part. Naturally, our young eyes lit up. Then he sweetened the deal. “And sleep in a stateroom for a whole night?”

We were sold. Or at least, I was. My mother still frowned. She did not like that our ship would dock at a remote log dump, and that when we arrived there, we’d still be in transit. She knew that Englewood existed only to receive logs from down-Island, logs which were then dumped into Queen Charlotte Strait, tied into log booms, and towed to sawmills and pulp mills in Vancouver, Prince Rupert or Victoria. Our steamship port wasn’t much more than a huge pier, cut out of the wilderness. There was no guest house.

My mother had one final protest.

“What if one of us gets sick?”

“No problem! There’s a camp medic, and they can always fly us out to Alert Bay if they have to. It’s only a twenty-minute flight by emergency float plane.”

“Twenty minutes! We could bleed to death in that time!”

As it turned out, some bleeding did take place during our stay there, and one of us did fly out on that emergency float plane.

I’ll tell you more about that when we get there.