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View from the bottom rung - June 28, 2014

I have been asked if the television reality show, the “Ax Men,” is a true depiction of a west coast logging operation. Well, not really, but in some cases close. Admittedly the job can push the extreme, but ordinarily as it goes not “that” extreme. It’s a bit more complicated but say there are two kinds of logging, flat ground i.e. “Cat logging” and donkey or “cable logging” as in the ax men series where the ground tends steep as the south end of a Holstein cow, or environmental restrictions against the operation of heavy equipment exist.

During the early days of my long illustrious career as a tree feller, caterpillar tractor (skidder) operations often extended from table-top, to ground so “tilted” a tree pitched down hill just kept traveling ‘till it reached bottom wherever bottom happened to be; where the roadway had to be cleared of landslides each morning and roads pioneered around a mountainside in Autumn were blocked by gigantic slabs of earth yet covered with standing timber come springtime. Environmental sensitivity and safety concerns eventually led to logging regulations which prevented such reckless carving up of the landscape, at which time the more difficult hillside harvests were assigned to cable or “yarder” logging where haul lines extended out a thousand yards or more eliminating damage to the harvested land.

Those are the types of harvest depicted on the Ax Men series, and yes there, the “rigging” crew, the chocker setters, knot bumpers, landing chasers, and equipment operators are more a throwback to another era, to more “colorful” personnel and a life style reflected in the fact that yarder operations as featured, consistently found themselves short-handed come Monday morning. On these operations beer and “weed” may be daily staples of the crew wagon. Ordinarily, Cable logging is a bruising job left to the muscle and sweat of the young, the rowdy and the “temperamental” while the older, the wiser and perhaps more sober of us gyrated to the kinder and gentler slopes of less mountainous terrain.

None of this denies that over a logging career which spanned 45 years a few “characters” passed through my life.

“Wild Bill”is now a retired businessman vested in social enterprise living comfortably in Shasta County, Calif., but his history was not always so tranquil. Beset by domestic problems, a wife that left him for the companionship of a transitory worker and a daughter with a trouble causing druggie husband, t’was enough to drive a man to drinking. And it did.

Problem was ‘ol Bill couldn’t handle” his “likker” any better than he managed his love life and there was no end of trouble when he began palling around with his friend, John Barleycorn. Once he was hauled before the local bar of justice for brandishing whilst in an inebriated state down on Main Street of his home town, and in yet another incident, called early one morning to advise he was taking the day off and I should leave for work without him. Turns out after a run-in with his daughters ex, he found the kid’s automobile down town parked at the local Safeway’s, raised the hood, pulled out all the wiring and laid a hammer to every plug on the engine. Wasn’t ‘till the damage had been done he learned the boy had done gone and sold the car to someone else; took the best part of the day to put together what had been taken apart in a matter of minutes.

The trials and tribulation of my unfortunate cohort sat the fellow on a momentary course of instability, which to me as a sympathetic and concerned friend, was both amusing and frustrating. Amusing as the guy took to casting about for romantic solace amongst the towns young and unattached fillies, frustrated at his laying out ‘till sun up, showing up for the morning commute already asleep at the wheel. For my safety and his, the tiring, grinding commute to the job fell to my hand, out and back. Yet there was no question Wild Bill would soon right his ship and be back plying the seas of rhyme and reason, just as before.

My employer, a wiry beer drinking little Scotsman, called one ’90s springtime, a week ere his own job was due to start and asked me to join a select group of cutters to help jump-start a job in the Mendocino’s 25 miles north of Upper Lake in California’s Lake County. This is “way back” country, the disincentive being that it required camping out on the job. The positives offered was a hunting lodge nearby and warm baths after work.

Included in the crew was the boss’s rowdy son Jesse, Wild Bill and a cutter named “Eddie” a sometime state trapper, erratic as a moth chased by a hungry Mocking Bird. I told my lady that I would call from the lodge sometime during the week imagining it to be a modern state of the art facility; as it turned out t’was nothing more than a group of dilapidated, weather beaten old buildings, no outside communication.

Ground at the harvest site was steep and brushy the under-foot loose dirt and gravel; by the end of the first days work in a pair of spanking new calked leathers, blisters had worn on both heels. Those warm baths over at the lodge were sure going to feel great.

Monday afternoon we get back to camp from work, someone sez ‘grab your towels’ which we all do, pile into our pickup trucks and head down the mountain; miles later we come to a small creek at the bottom of a deep canyon. There we park our trucks, get out and walk Indian-file down a narrow streamside trail winding ever deeper into the bowels of the canyon. As we go along, I see small clusters of bubbles rising from the streams rocky bed occasionally reaching down and checking the temperature, some spots they’re hot others not.

Eventually we come to a widening of the stream and there cemented onto the sloping rock bank was a bathtub of sorts into which flowed rivulets of warm water. A sign sez, please ‘Do not use soap’. Beyond is a bend in the stream, above which extends a high stone outcropping; the “boss” and I following the trail, walks out onto the pinnacle and of a sudden the scene before us vastly improves.

There were five of them in all, three pretty little lizards sunning themselves by a pool of water nary a stitch, conversing with pals Bill and Eddie, they having arrived at our destination ahead of us; further down, making their way up stream came two bronzed-up gentlemen right out of Greek mythology, they too, nekked as jaybirds. No jocular discourse took place betwixt me and my employer upon viewing the bohemian camp, we were tired, we came, we saw, and in silence turned back and cleansed ourselves in the waters upstream.

Driving miles down a steep mountain road after a day of bone grinding work, walking 15 minutes down a winding trail and then walking back just didn’t seem worth the effort even for the comfort of a warm bath, neither did the flora and fauna which lay at trails end, though comely in appearance to offer nearly enough incentive. The older and more mature of us never went back.

Episode at Upper Lake: The second day was Eddie’s birthday and for loggers in the group who liked to “party” well, a birthday was excuse enough to pile into a truck after work and head off down to the nearest town some 20 mountain miles away. The group consisted of “Jesse,” son of my longtime employer, Wild Bill, and the even wilder Eddie the trapper. Arriving at the village of Upper Lake (Clear Lake, Calif.) they find themselves a rowdy watering hole and dance hall with a clientele of Native Americans.

There ol’ Bill, still nursing the wounds of marital disharmony finds himself a young lady with a sympathetic ear and whiles away the evening drinking himself silly, all the while relating to her his sad tales of heartache and woe; Why, he tells me with a sheepish grin, “I told her it was unbelievable, I gave my wife everything she ever wanted and she runs off with a farm hand.” Bill’s sympathy seeking as related to me was amusing and harmless enough, happenings as the evening wound down not so much and may have been the major sobering effect on his personal behavior.

Whilst WB was busy trolling for sympathy his two pals went prowling about seeking companionship in all the wrong places. A commotion is bound to happen when one makes romantic advances at some other’s lady and to exacerbate the negative, here the two of them were in the unenviable position of being vastly outnumbered by the locals; when the fight spilled out the door onto the street, Eddie seeking an equalizer went to his truck and fetched back his varmint rifle.

It ended with the locals fleeing the scene, Eddie lifting his rifle and firing off two rounds at the tailights of an automobile racing away into the darkness of the night street. I suspect ‘till this day ol’ Bill thanks his lucky stars he didn’t find himself embroiled in the mix of a killing.

Being an “Ax Man” is perhaps the chanciest job in the U.S.; certainly “cutter” is the most unenvied on the list of American job designations. But the pay is good, it gets in your blood as they say, and the culture is a brotherhood formed of hard work and shared danger, blood, sweat and sometimes a few tears.

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