4. Logging 1924-1925

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

4. Logging 1924-1925

The winter of 1924-25 – my first winter at work – it was decided to close down the mill for a couple of months, and cut logs. Late in December the boiler was drained and cleaned – an unpleasant job – and soon the mill was ready to leave.

Roy and Glenn owned a timber lot – always identified as “The Reynolds lot” – which was situated about three miles distant from home. To get to it, you had to go a mile out the Otter Brook road, then go through woods for a couple more miles.

A sled road had to be made through the woods. There was an old road, formerly used, but now badly overgrown with bushes. These were soon cut, but there had to be a quarter of a mile of new road cut through full-grown timber. By cruising around a bit, a place was found where the cutting wasn’t too difficult, and soon the road was ready to use, but there was no snow for sledding.

Porcupines

About 4 o’clock on this particular afternoon the roads were all ready, the brows for logs had been built, the snake-paths cut, and the actual logging was ready to begin. We had no horse there, and were about to go home and start logging in the morning.

All at once someone spied a porcupine far up in a huge hemlock tree. I won’t take time now to go into the case against porcupines, but no lumber men have any love for these creatures who eat the bark off countless hundreds of trees. If the tree isn’t cut for lumber very soon, it either dies outright, or there are large blemishes that make it unfit for lumber.

There was only one way to get this porcupine, and that was, by cutting down the tree. So a notch was cut into it with an axe, and a couple of us started at it with a “cross-cut” saw. Eventually it fell, and on it’s way to earth, a number of limbs were torn off by it’s contact with other trees. As soon as it hit the ground, Lewis Graham – who was part of our crowd – started running up the tree, hot on the trail of the porcupine.

Roy noticed what was going to happen, and shouted to him to stop. It was well for him that he did so. A big limb, torn off the hemlock, and lodged on another tree, fell right in front of him, and landed on the hemlock, within a foot of Lewis’s face. Had this fallen on his head, he would certainly have been killed.

The porcupine, in the meantime was unhurt by the fall of the tree. His natural instinct had led him to climb to the side of the tree that would be uppermost when it hit the ground. This same natural instinct also informed him that it was high time to clear out. He made a bee-line for the nearest tree, but time ran out on him, and he didn’t make it soon enough.

Winter walking

We usually walked the three miles to and from home. When the snow came, we used a small sled, drawn by the yard-horse. But the cold weather usually forced you to walk in order to keep warm. January of that winter was fearfully cold. As long as you kept moving briskly enough, you could fight off the cold. But if you once got cold on those frostiest days, it was hard to get warm again.

As a place to eat lunch, we had built a small cabin with a good stove. This was a warm and cozy place. The lunch hour there was really something to look forward to. One day there was an almost total eclipse of the sun. That morning it had been 22 degees (Fahrenheit) below zero. During the eclipse, which came around 10 o’clock, the thermometer dropped five more degrees. Lunch hour really appealed to me that day.

That winter Lewis Graham, or Lewie, as everyone called him, drove our sled-teams which hauled the logs. As time went on, there were more logs then one team could haul, so Allan Deyarmond, – mentioned earlier in this story – was hired to come with his own team. Graham Fulton yarded logs for us that winter.

Otter Brook Road

My brother Tom, whose eyesight wasn’t good enough to work at the actual cutting of logs, worked on the brow where the logs were piled, rolling them down, and piling them up at times. He also kept a fire going in the lunch room. Roy, Glenn and I cut the logs.

We left for the woods before daylight, at 7 o’clock or a little earlier. First there was a mile of walking out the Otter Brook road. Then we turned off through Put Fulton’s pasture. This was the coldest part of the trip. For a quarter of a mile or better, the wind had a full sweep for two miles right up across the North Meadow. That blast of wind would have made an Eskimo shiver.

After that we crossed a little brook – in which we often fished in summer – and found ourselves in the woods, which at least reduced the force of the wind. The rest of that road through the woods has been completely obliterated by the passing of time. It has been re-claimed by the forest to the point where it can no longer be recognized as a road.

Through the woods

But the’ memory is still fresh in my mind. First there was a quarter mile or so of swampy ground. At least it was swampy in warm weather. Then you came to a hill, we called it the Big Hill It was really steep, and it was fortunate that the logs had to be hauled down it. Beyond this was the Big Swamp.

It had frozen solidly, and was perfectly safe to haul over this winter. It was about three quarters of a mile from it to our cabin, or lunch room, and of this distance there was one hill to be climbed, then two down grades, going towards the lunch room, and a short distance over level ground. And you were there.

It would be nearly eight o’clock by the time we got there. Glenn usually started a fire in the lunch room, as it was hard for Tom to do this on account of his poor eyesight. Roy and I went out the snake-path and started cutting logs. c.c. snake-path, by the way, is a narrow trail cut through the woods for the purpose of yarding the logs. It had to be reasonably straight, and wide enough to be travelled easily by a horse.

Browing the logs

Snake paths were never very long, as it didn’t pay to yard the logs very far. Around a quarter of a mile was about the limit, and when the logs were farther than that, the sled road had to be extended, and a new log brow built.

The brow was usually built on sloping ground. The trunks of trees were used in its construction. The top ends of these tree trunks were bedded into the ground some distance up the slope. The butt-end, down the hill, was raised to a nearly level position by putting shorter logs crosswise under them.

The brows were usually raised to a position somewhat height than the sled which was used for hauling the logs. This made the loading of the logs comparatively easy. The yard horse could haul out one good-sized log, or several smaller ones, at a trip.

Old growth timber

The logging that winter was done in ‘old growth’ timber. In other words, this was timberland that had been previously untouched by the woodsmen’s axe. It was principally spruce, and even at this period, such timber was growing scarce in the Stewiacke Valley. There were still lots of stands of old growth timer, but most of them were in places that had been considered inaccessible due to the limited possibilities of transportation at that time.

The trees on this lot were big, some of them as much as thirty inches on the stump. Among these, of course, were smaller trees, but the winter’s cut of logs only took about twenty pieces to produce a thousand feet of lumber. It almost seemed a crime to cut down those trees. But sentiment isn’t a predominant characteristic in the lumber woods, and down they had to come.

It was interesting to count the growths of wood on the stump after the tree had fallen. In this way you could determine the age of the tree. The oldest one I can remember had over 160 growth rings. That tree must have been there as a sapling before the earliest settler came into the Stewiacke Valley.

Signs of life

A hundred years before that, 1925, it would be a good-sized tree. It must have survived a fire that ravaged a good part of the woods in that area around 1830. A few of the trees there had slight blemishes well inside the tree-trunk. Apparently the fire had skirted that piece of woodland without doing much damage.

It took time and hard work to cut one of these trees down with the cross-cut saw. There being three of us to do the cutting, two would start using the saw, while the third party would relieve each in turn as they became tired. Soon the tree was ready to fall. If possible it was wise to fall it in the direction in which it was leaning anyway. Nearly every tree in the woods leans slightly in some direction.

But often it was necessary to fall the tree in another direction. Then a wedge had to be used. This wedge was inserted in the cut made by the saw, and driven with a hammer until it’s force caused the tree to tip ahead to the point where it was over the centre of gravity. Then it came crashing to the ground. Once it had fallen, Roy and Glenn cut it into logs, and I cut off the limbs.

Special order

That winter an order had been accepted for 2 x 9, 13 feet long. That is, the logs, when taken to the mill, were sawn into plank 2 inches in thickness, 9 inches in width, and 13 feet in length. Hence all the logs big enough for this size were cut 13 feet in length. Smaller logs could be cut various lengths, and we always seemed to end up in the top of the tree with a log ten feet long, and just big enough to make 2 x 4.

Most of these trees had beautiful clear butt-logs, and the second and third logs hadn’t too many limbs. There were often five logs in the tree; three of them 13 feet long, and the other two could be any suitable length. It was those last two logs that were the bane of my existence that winter.

By the time you got to the, you had run into plenty of limbs, and those black spruce limbs were as hard as iron. They were so big you had to chop off each individual limb, instead of just giving them a swat with the axe.

Spilled milk

On one of the frostiest mornings of that winter we were on our way to the woods. We were going up the big hill, and Tom was walking along behind the sled. He was a milk drinker, while all the rest of us drank tea. He carried the mil in a fair sized bottle, which he kept in one of the pockets of a Mackinaw top coat which he wore.

This morning, the bottle of milk froze and burst. Tom was happily unaware of this, until, happening to look around at him I saw him going along, with several large icicles of milk hanging from the tail of his coat, and reaching nearly to the ground. There was an all-around shortage of milk that day. We divided up part of what we had for our tea, and all got by on that.

Another time, Tom got on a wrong road by mistake. Just after crossing the brook the road forked. Ours was the left hand fork, and the right hand fork turned in a direction up the brook. By the time we got to the foot of the big hill, somebody noticed that Tom was missing. Guessing at what had happened, Roy and I cut through the woods and hit the other road.

Tracking Tom

There had been a new fall of snow on it, but sure enough there was a set of tracks on it. We followed these a short distance, and soon came across Tom, who had just discovered that he was lost. He didn’t seem much worried; I guess he surmised that he’d soon be found.

When we were back in the woods he usually cut the wood for the camp-stove. There were lots of small hard wood trees there, and he would chop away at one of these without seeing very much of what he was doing, or more often he used a bucksaw to cut the tree down. When he got in cut clear of the stump, if it didn’t fall of it’s own accord, he would drag the butt of the tree away until it landed on the ground.

On one occasion one of his trees narrowly missed a sled-stem, which happened to be going by at the time. Another time, he became more ambitious, and decided to cut a much bigger tree. Finally he got it cut clear of the stump. It had been right on the edge of the sled-road, and I don’t know where he expected it to go, but anyway the whole tree landed length-wise of the sled road, just at the time we were all ready to leave for home, as it was late in the afternoon. We had to bring our axes and clear it out of the road before we could leave.