Loggers Paradise

The coal oil lantern in Herb Anderson’s cabin is lit just before 5:00 am. He is used to these dark and early winter mornings and puts on several flannel layers, wool pants, and boots before heading out for the workday. It was his first day on the job as a logger, and at 15 years old, he was the youngest logger to start work for the Gift Lake, Alberta sawmill camp. He got up before everyone else so he could familiarize himself with his surroundings before the day began. It wasn’t that he didn’t have confidence in his abilities; he had been working alongside his dad learning about logging since he could walk. It was about proving he could. He has lived his life with the land, and to someone else, it might be intimidating, but to him, it was a connection to Mother Earth, and he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

The rising sun lit his path through the snow as he walked among the forest’s rooted giants who did their best to reach the sky. The spruce trees’ limbs held on to the snow that had fallen overnight, creating a magical wonderland of solitude. The child in him wanted to stick his tongue out to collect the dancing snowflakes that fell around him, but he was a young man, and those days were long gone.
He is the son of a logger and a cattle farmer, and as far back as he can remember, even as a young child, he has always learned the meaning of hard work. The winter months were spent logging, and during the summer, he was a firefighter and worked as a commercial fisherman. Time for play was few and far between because his parents, Ernie and Helen Anderson, kept him and his siblings busy. His father spoke of logging as a fisherman speaks of the water. Both have their challenges, hardships, and rules for survival, no matter how much experience one had.

Families moved from the Gift lake Métis settlement to work at the sawmill camp. They built themselves log cabins and lived there from November to the end of March. There are 10 crews, each consisting of 3 men, and they work from morning till dawn. There is always so much going on in the sawmill camp, everyone with specific responsibilities to get the jobs done. At that time, they did everything by hand with simple tools of hand saws, chain saws, and cant hooks.
He walked out to where his section of the timber was marked for harvest and looked
around with trained eyes. He checked the terrain for the most level landing site and ensured there is always an escape route should the unexpected happen. Logging is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and if you are not aware of your surroundings at all times, injuries and even death can happen.

The rest of the crews started to emerge from the cabins, with calls of good morning and coffee thermoses in hand. He yelled out to his crew members, his brother, and the workday gets started.
His brother’s job was to cut down the trees. They had to be felled in a specific direction causing the least amount of damage to the remaining trees, and so a skidder could easily get to them to haul them away. Felling involves cutting a notch from the direction you want the tree to go, then making a back cut, so the tree falls.  To start, his brother works at a steady pace to carve out V-shaped chunks from one side; then, with his chainsaw, he bites into the back before the flat treetop wavers slightly. It leans more and then a little more, a loud crack, a deafening silence fills the air, followed by a thunderous crash as 16,000 pounds of wood shakes the ground. After the tree is down, it’s his job to cut the limbs off with an ax and power saw. He cut the logs to 12 feet, used the cant hook to pull and roll the logs onto the sleigh using an A-frame, finally transporting the haul to the sawmill where the logs are cut for lumber, peeled for plywood, or chopped for pulp.

They were paid $8.00 by the thousand feet of logs, and his crew would haul 5 loads a day; each load was about 1500 feet. The 3 man crews worked diligently, never feeling the cold until the end of the day. The work’s risk was all on the loggers, and the harder they worked, the more they were paid.
At the end of the day, when darkness rolls in, they finally head to the cookhouse to relax, play a game of crib, sharing stories of the day while enjoying a warm hearty meal.

Now, as he looks back, the tough and hard men who belonged to the crews of the early logging camps are men to be remembered. He realizes so much has changed even while he was logging. The tools he and the other men used seem unbelievably crude now, but even when he was a young man, the old ways changed rapidly and evolved. He has been through many changes throughout his life and has plenty of tales to share from the old rough and ready days when Gift lake, Alberta, was a logging paradise…

“That was my work, it was my life, and I loved everything about it.”

Herb Anderson