Tree sap flew as the chain thrust its way through the rough, wet bark of the biggest fir tree in the area, and in minutes, the once majestic giant dropped to the ground. It took several cuts to get it to fall, but when it did, it hit its mark exactly. The loud thud could be heard for miles, and the sky opened as the limbs from this marvel of a tree crashed to the ground.
The next one was not as easy, as its branches were tangled together like hands in prayer. Several cuts had to be made to ensure the tree did not crash through the roof of the lunch shack, with its chimney blowing black smoke. We had to get this one done before lunch, and with the way this day was going, a hot cup of tea was the only thing on our minds. This tree took the work of three of the best in the crew, as they cut long poles and worked to aim the top of the tree away from the cabin. The wind was not on our side on this day, and as the towering giant made its way to the ground, the top of the tree sled towards the little warm up shack, knocking the step from its base.
Before we could eat, we had to remove all the branches from the road, and from the top of the now broken step. The timber-jack operator steered towards the cabin, hooked cables to the top of the tree and proceeded to free the damaged step from its grip. Four of the remaining crew members worked to fix the step, and in less than an hour, a tired and wet crew entered the cabin and ate lunch.
Those Newfoundland loggers were a hardy crew. Tree fellers, as they were sometimes referred to, worked through the driest months of the year, cutting trees, removing the limbs (limbing) or branches and then attaching the cables from a gigantic machine called a Timber-Jack to be hauled out to the road, to be loaded on a trailer and delivered to the local paper mill. The money was good, but the work was very hard. When a person retired from logging, there really wasn’t much he could do, as this life toiled at his muscles and bones throughout his life. Saying that, most of the loggers worked well into their late 60’s, so perhaps this wasn’t such a difficult profession after all.
The work was so hard that during the winter months, crew members bulked up by putting on as much weight as they could and still remain healthy. By the fall of the year, when they could no longer work in the wet cold weather autumn brought, much of the newly added body weight was no longer present. I remember coming out of the woods in late November, weighing roughly 135 lbs, but in the spring when we began working again, I weight anywhere from 175 to 200 lbs. By that fall, I was down to 135 or less again. This may not have been the healthy way to live, but beginning the year underweight often led to a crew member dropping off the crew far before the end of the season.
Most of the loggers were veterans at this job, having started working when they were nothing but kids. My uncle, who owned the operation, started working in the logging industry when he was just twelve years of age. My dad was not much older when he started, and neither were the other men. I admired their professionalism and their loyalty to their jobs, as they worked in the wet rainy weather and suffered the consequences of broken bones and wounds when things went wrong. I was just a kid at the time, the ripe age of seventeen, and anxious to learn all the tricks needed to fall trees as expertly as my uncles did.
The tea was extra strong today, but the added caffeine and hot water would give us the extra energy we needed to get through the day. Those days, the weather was cold and wet, and once your clothes got wet, the work got even harder.
The trail back to the landing was muddy and slick, and we had to watch our step as we climbed the hill where we stored our chainsaws. A quick filing of the chain, and we were ready to go again.
Frank, the timber-jack operator waited patiently for us to fell a few more trees, and once we had them limbed, he hooked up and dragged the long poles down the hill towards the landing for them to be sawed up in eight foot lengths and loaded up on the trailer. On this day we would lose a valuable member of the crew, as his tires slipped across the boggy trail, causing the giant machine to tumble over the steep hill. Frank was lucky the old timber jack still had its roll cage, which was the only barrier between the sharp tree stumps and the operator inside. When the colossal machine stopped rolling, the huge wheels spun freely pointed to the heavens, my uncle trapped beneath the big yellow giant. The crew of tired but anxious men rushed to his aid, and using several come-alongs and the tiny J-5, they worked to remove my uncle from the wreckage. Frank let out a loud yell, and then passed out from the intense pain he was suffering. His leg was crushed, and we feared that his back may have been broken as well.
I was amazed at how calm my father was. A man who hated the sight of blood stayed cool and collective, and this showed when he took charge of the situation. Using a makeshift stretcher, the men used what First-Aid training they had to rush Frank to safety, which was quite a distance from the scene of the accident. A two mile walk down the hill followed by a thirty mile ride in the back of a truck, and my uncle was in the safe hands of the oldest doctor in town, who praised the men who treated Frank’s wounds. We all waited patiently outside the doctor`s office, and any onlookers must have thought we were a crowd of hobos, with our sap filled clothing and muddy hands and faces.
The crew returned to the woods after a few hours at the hospital. We didn’t get paid when we did not work, and with the fright we all had, our equipment remained wherever they were when the accident occurred. We didn’t work long today, worried about our fellow crew member and half the day already wasted, we decided to head home.
The ride out today was a rough one. We worried about Frank, who was not only one of our crew, but also one of my favorite uncles. When we arrived home, his wife called to assure us that he had been doing as well as expected, and that he would be out of commission until the spring of the year.This was the life of a tree feller. It was not predictable, nor was it guaranteed, but it was our life, and we fought to keep this life.
We later got a call from the crew boss that if he could not find another Timber-Jack operator, the year would be over for us until he found one.
In this part of the province, hard workers were in abundance, and in the spring, an operator was found. A young man, whose reputation said that he was fearless, almost insane, and that he could climb or descend even a cliff and not shed an ounce of sweat. We were excited to return to work, and on Monday morning, we headed back to the wood lot where we worked.
The work got a lot harder that week, as the young driver arrived from each load much quicker than we were used to. Rushing in the woods this time of the year can lead to more injuries, so despite his constant hurrying us, we keep calm and worked in stride. A few of the younger crew members rushed to please the new operator, and they suffered the consequences. Attempting to run on slippery logs leads to injuries, and they proved this time after time. By the time we finished the week, we were without three more crew members.
I worked in this industry for twenty years. I have lived many adventures in the woods, and this life has given me material for a ton of books, and has given me experiences that most could only dream of.
My Uncle Colin, who owned the operation, called us to his office one day. He informed us that the local paper mill had decided to stop buying pulpwood from local contractors, and concentrate on rebuilding in another location. My family were loggers for as long as I could remember, and as long as my father could remember. Most members of the crew were in their late fifties and early sixties, and they worried about their futures. This news was not good for the community and their families.
Most of the men who worked in the woods, as fellers and as operators knew nothing else. Going back to school to retrain was not an option for them. As a result, most of them left the island for work in neighboring provinces and even in other countries. I was fortunate enough to be young enough to return to school and do something different with my life. The others were not as fortunate. My father worked a few small jobs, most of them demeaning, and eventually retired. Frank, too young to retire, but broken too badly from the accident all those years ago to work anywhere else, ended up on welfare. This was difficult for him, a man working at the same job since he was just fifteen, and now dependent on a government program that demeans a person. This was not fair, but it was a reality they had to live with.
I am in a very different line of work now, but I will always have the adventures and stories of the wonderful days I spent working with my father and with my uncles. I tell those stories to my son, and I hope he tells them to his sons when he is my age.