Tag Archives: Vancouver Island

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.

THE KING KONG FENCE

The day Jody broke her ankle, we’d walked the King Kong fence twice each, but only one side. Our legs already ached, but we’d wanted those shorter runs to prepare for the real challenge.

Let’s do both sides now,” said Jody at last, wiping a sweaty brow with her sleeve. Her freckles stood out like brown glitter and her homely face shone.

Ok!” I said. “You go first.” I knew at the time that it should have been me, as the more athletic one, but my politeness got in the way. I would soon regret it.

Jody’s family boasted the highest log fence in Camp. It rose six feet high opposite my own home. If we sat on the wooden stairs at my u-shaped house, we saw only that massive log fence in front of Jody’s place. A dirt road separated the two houses, but nothing travelled on that except cats, bikes, or kids. Once a month, Marcel’s one-ton truck rumbled by, delivering crated groceries shipped up by steamer from Vancouver.

The year was 1956. We were eight, and we loved to scramble up slats in the gate to the top of the first log and then wobble along, stepping from one perch to the next with arms outstretched, like high-wire performers.

Composed of D-logs — whole logs cut flat on one side but still round on the other– the fence loomed in our eyes like the fortress in the movie King Kong. It stood impenetrable, strong. All the kids wanted to climb it, walk it, master it. It called to us in our dreams and at school. That fence tested the outer limits of our physicality. Gollum’s ring held no greater temptation; that fence begged us to walk it, and walk it we did, despite dangers or warnings.

Now, flushed with excitement, Jody stuck a foot in the lower gate hinge and hoisted herself up the gate slats once more. I held my breath and hoped for the best. Could we make it around two sides without falling off? Adrenalin pumped through us; we always started with the side bordering the dirt road, then moved on to the second stretch, which faced a windowless side of Jody’s house. That way, we couldn’t be spotted by Jody’s mother.

She had reached the third log when the sun split the clouds to brighten the way. I craned my neck, walking nervously below, skirting the large sandbox built for the Yaroslavs’ four kids, Jody’s two sisters and a brother. Jody moved slowly as I watched, carefully balancing her small frame. Now a wobble on the fourth log, but she righted herself, pausing until her equilibrium returned. Only ten more steps to go. She made it to five, then six, then wobbled on seven. She paused again. Now eight and nine. Soon she was at ten, ready to make the right turn to head down the second length. We both felt triumphant.

Here I go!” she trumpeted. “Hey! I can see the train yards from here!”

Be careful! Don’t fall off!” As if it was her plan.

Swivelling like a gymnast on a balance beam, Jody faltered a bit but bent forward to compensate. Her arms flailed and I saw her tip slightly sideways. She looked so small that I wished all the more that I stood there instead. My heart lurched, but she righted herself once more and set out along the final leg. One step, two steps, three steps. My neck began to ache from staring up. I felt sweat trickling down my back.

At the sixth log, two things happened. Mrs. Yaroslav opened her front door to let the two dogs out. They were friendly Labs, but they came out barking because Mrs. Boseman from next door chose that precise moment to clatter at the fence gate, coming in for morning coffee. She couldn’t see us for the trees and bushes dotting the yard.

This untimely confluence of events proved too exciting for the two dogs, who bounded toward the gate with barks and howls. Poor Jody turned too far to look over her shoulder.

Jody! Don’t look!” I warned. As if she could prevent herself.

It was too late. Jody lost her balance and fell at the sixth marker. I ran forward to try to catch her, with no luck. She landed mostly on her feet, but the impact proved too much for her tired legs, and one ankle went out from under her. A small cracking sound caused her to shriek in pain. Then her ankle began to swell. She lay on one side, holding her leg above the break and wailing like a banshee. I rushed to her side.

“Jody! Are you okay?” My voice was tearful, joining hers.

The two mothers came running out of the house at the sound of Jody’s shrieks and sobs.

Oh my gosh!” said Jody’s mother. “She’s broken her ankle! You kids and that fence! Honestly!”

“I’ll run to the Dispatch tower!” said Mrs. Boseman, seeing the crooked bend in Jody’s ballooning foot. “You get some ice. She’ll have to be flown out.” And off she dashed.

The Dispatch tower had walkie-talkies and telephones. It was the communication centre for the camp and the outside world. Being “flown out” meant being taken by float plane to Alert Bay, the only hospital site in the area. Woss Camp had a medic, but not for serious injuries.

Luckily, Chuck Yaroslav’s speeder hadn’t yet left the train yards for the bush, due to the lateness of Speeder 121. He arrived home by foot twenty minutes later. Jody’s ankle, now bathed in ice, was lifted with the rest of her and rushed back to the Dispatch Tower by several neighbours. There she was deposited onto a two-passenger speeder and borne three miles south to Woss Lake, where a float plain awaited. Chuck rode along, muttering reassurances. We later heard that the painkillers kicked in about halfway there, and that Jody enjoyed the flight in a foggy haze.  

speeder 121 at Woss Camp
Speeder 121

Back at Camp, kids came running from all directions, keen to hear the gory details of Jody’s fall.

“What happened?” cried Gary and Sammy from down the road.

“She was almost across the second side when she fell! It was the farthest she ever got, but then the dogs came out and scared her! You should have seen it!”

“What happened?” shrieked school pals Mary and Leslie, arriving two minutes later. Then we’d have to explain it all over again. Not that we minded. While sympathetic to Jody’s plight, everyone secretly enjoyed the shivers of shock and horror experienced upon telling and hearing the tale. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in Camp for ages.

Jody returned all smiles the next day, hobbling on crutches, her foot immobilized in a white cast and signed by hospital staff, railway engineers and loggers. She became an instant heroine, all the kids clustering around to hear about the Great Fall and the float plane to the hospital in Alert Bay. Everybody wanted to sign her cast. There wasn’t a kid in Camp who didn’t envy her that plane ride. And, of course, we all got fresh lectures from our folks about camp safety.

As a result of all the fuss, at least three weeks passed before any of us dared to walk the King Kong fence again.

Three whole weeks! That was a feat as amazing as walking the fence itself.