Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Making Good in Canada
Chapter VI - Cord Wood Cutting

The tenderfoot arriving in Canada with a slender pocket, but with a good stock of determination, muscle, and enthusiasm aboard may find himself called upon to follow many apparently strange and unattractive methods for keeping the wolf from the doer. At home, such chances of making a bit would be dismissed with contempt, but the West is a great leveller. It is only the man who is prepared to do anything and everything when he is struggling around the bottom of the ladder, that stands any chance of reaching the topmost rung.

In this category of apparently unattractive callings is the cord-wood cutter—firewood chopping in England, if you like. Here, this task is generally associated with the Church Army, Salvation Army, and other societies established for the avowed purposes of ameliorating the conditions of the unemployed. The average out-of-work would just as soon think of selling matches in the streets, or sweeping crossings as splitting wood; it is regarded as one of the most oontemptible occupations in the labour scale.

Canada, however, both in the East and West, although, perhaps, more strongly in the latter, depends very materially for its existence upon the cord-wood cutter, inasmuch as outside the cities wood is the staple fuel. Consequently, somebody has got to go into the woods to secure this commodity, and 8s. a day or more is not bad pay for such work. It is more than the labourer receives on the farm, although the latter has his board and lodging thrown in. As a matter of fact, the new arrival in the West scarcely could do better than take a spell at this work. Certainly he is introduced to a profitable educational course, because a man who cannot wield an axe skilfully, and without pulling the tool up against his limb more frequently than the tree, is of no more use to the country than a telescope is to a blind man.

The axe is the national weapon, and the man who is expert therewith never finds himself at a loss, whether it is a matter of merely lopping down trees, fixing up a raft, or removing with painful slowness the interior of a cottonwood or cedar tree to fashion a dugout. It seems a simple matter to swing an axe to and fro methodically. but a short trial convinces the type very speedily that actually performing work is vastly different from watching somebody else doing it. There is an art in bringing down trees, also in lopping them up, and there is more than an easily acquired knack in learning how to put more edge on the tool than taking it off with a whetstone.

Half an hour’s acquaintance -with the axe and a refractory tree, especially if it happens to be a towering pine that has been killed by fire, and has become thoroughly hardened by the blasts of many seasons, will take the heart out of the tenderfoot as well as the skin from his hands. By that time he will conclude that cord-wood cutting is a modernized and well perfected system of torture. He will feel as if his back is being torn into shreds; that half a hundred or more demons are playing tug-of-war with his muscles; that his lungs are battling against a vacuum pump, and that his arms are being torn from the shoulders by an invisible rack.

But the first half-hour’s torture is nothing to what he will experience when he wakes the next morning. He will search in vain for a square inch of flesh on his body which is not sore and tender; every bono he knows, and a good many others of which he is ignorant, will seem to be bursting through the skin; the muscles will feel as if they had become tangled up in knots, and were having a desperate difficulty to unravel themselves. His hands will be covered with wounds—the foundations of terrible corns. His camp colleagues will probably remind him chaffingly that he did about a dollar’s worth of work the previous day. but will suggest that he takes it easy for a while until he has recovered the results of his first effort. By that time he will be fit, and thenceforward will progress rapidly in his education.

But wood-splitting differs from its contemporary task in Britain. The tree is not reduced to the small bundles of slender sticks with which our household fires are lighted. Wood is sold in Canada in the same manner as it is vended in France, the unit being “the cord” which represents a stack measuring 8 feet in length by 4 feet deep and 4 feet high. The trees usually employed for this purpose have a butt diameter of 6 to 9 inches, and it generally suffices to cut the stump into lengths of 4 feet and then to split them lengthwise in twain. If the tree is of greater dimensions the longitudinal division will be proportionately greater. The wood thus split is stacked in piles, and when the height reaches 4 feet, an indication of the fact is shown by some means of ready identification. Therefore, when purchasing, the buyer merely measures the length of the pile from end to end, counts the number of 4 feet sections vertically, and as the depth is correct owing to the logs being about 4 feet long, the calculation is very simple and quickly accomplished. The wood may be too bulky for the ultimate buyer, but the latter has to accomplish the final splitting to his own satisfaction.

R C. W. Lett.

The price paid for the wood varies according to the locality and the demand. From 10s. to 15s. a cord is a good average in some places, while in others, whore it is scarce, it will run up to a fancy figure. The cord-wood cutter, however, taking it all round, can look forward to a return of about 10s. per cord for his labour. If he works hard and long, is export with the axe, and can keep going, he can split up from one to two cords of wood per day, representing a return for the sweat of hid brow up to 20s.

An indication that the job is not to be despised is offered by the varied characters pursuing this calling. All sorts and conditions of men, generally in groups of twos and threes, and in odd contrast to one another, may be found scattered through the woods. The man who has never been to school and scarcely knows a pothook from a Roman numeral, shakes down in the bunk beside the scholar, who has won his spurs in Greek and Latin at the University; the former office clerk, expert in juggling with figures, jostles with the man who has never held a pen in his fingers; the ne’er-do-anything-at-home who idled his day in immaculate attire and who was banished to Canada on a “remittance,” shares his pork and beans with the sourdough who has scratched rooks and sifted black sand from his infancy. No one will explain why he has Ken to the cord wood business. It is a welcome variation in the interlude of life, and money can be made—that is the only attraction. From morning to dark the hewing the axe with mechanical measure, bringing down the trees and dismembering them into the everlasting chunks, with brief cessations for meals, and when it is too dark to see any longer they sit around the camp fire vigorously plying the whetstone to the axe’s edge. Variety only comes -when visitors strike the camp, and then there is high revelry, because these men are born raconteurs, so that stories, grim, grave, and humorous, are hurled from one side of the fire to the other.

The life may seem humdrum, but it brings its own excitement. The men are their own masters, and now and again they drop the axes for a day’s hunting, stalking the grizzly, chasing, or being chased by an enraged black bear with her cubs, tracking deer, or caribou, or bringing down wild ducks and geese by the score for the larder. They get excellent sport, with now and again some unexpected developments. Two of the boys, when I struck their camp, regaled me with a bit of fun they had had two or three days previously. They were having a day off, as a big grizzly had been seen hanging round the camp, and they resolved to bag him to save dispute between him and themselves.

They set of with their rifles and a goodly store of ammunition. They soon picked up the spoor, and having hit upon the most recent tracks, followed them up. While they were stealing along quietly, eyes and ears alert, they heard a crashing in the brush on one side. They pulled up and stepped into the bush. About twelve feet ahead they espied not only the grizzly that had been haunting their shack, but its mate as well. This result was scarcely expected; but they became so excited with the possibility of bringing the two huge lumbering brutes down that they started off after the retreating forms. The foremost of the men, when he thought he was in good sight, let drive, although he realized that he was at a disadvantage in attacking from the rear. The bullet struck the leading bear in the buttock, and to the hilarity of the hunters, the brute turned round, and. thinking his consort had bitten him, gave her a smart snap. Milady resented this unprovoked assault, especially as just then she received a smack in her flank from the second rifle, and she set about her consort in a merry fashion. The two hunters were so amused with the unusual spectacle and its cause that they burst into laughter. The sound of their mirth reached the ear of the quarrelling animals, who looked round. Both divined at once that the men were the cause of the quarrel and they came lumbering along towards the hunters on dire mischief bent. The foremost rifle let fly two or three shots in quick succession, and emptied its magazine, but the shots were without effect. They hit both animals, but instead of inflicting any damage, merely lashed the two brutes info fearful fury. The second hunter attempted to fire, but his magazine got jammed.

The situation was somewhat alarming and both men broke cover with the bears in hot pursuit. The man whose rifle had jammed swarmed a tree in double quick time, as the grizzly is not a climber, while his comrade ran on, filling his magazine as he went as best he could. The one in the tree thought he could gel his rifle to work again while in refuge so that he could return to the fray. To his astonishment, as he swarmed the tree, he heard a growl above his head and there saw that a big black bear was already in possession, and was coming down on top of him. He was between two fires, end could not get his magazine clear. As the black bear came lower and lower, he got his huge Jack knife ready, and looked down at the vicious wounded brutes pawing the hunk of the tree just below. He yelled out to his mate, who had recharged his rifle, and instantly there was a responsive halloo and two sharp cracks. One shot caught a grizzly fairly and squarely on the frontal bone, smashing it to atoms and penetrating its brain. It gave a lurch and fell forward dead.

Meantime the position in the tree was thrilling; the black bear was only some four feet above the second hunter’s head and was peering down at him rather quizzically, The man worked his way down slowly, keeping his eyes both on the bear above and that below. Seeing that one brute had handed in its checks, he yelled out, “For the love of Mike knock the other grizzly over; there’s a black bear in this tree with me!”

Another crack spurted out, and the second grizzly fell back in a heap on the ground, clawing the air and the tree trunk which it could just reach, in frenzy. The shot bad ploughed clean through her spine. But Mister Black Bear above was getting fidgety. He thought it time to come down to make a close investigation. The treed hunter edged down a bit more until he stood on a branch about four feet from the ground whence he could reach out his left hand and touch the other “cuss” still struggling.

With a “Hold up, pard!” the treed man gave a jump, just missed the grizzly, fierce and helpless in her death agonies, below him. stumbled to his knees and picked himself up quickly, as the black bear also rolled to the ground. He grabbed his gun and tore towards his chum, keeping out of the latter’s line of fire. The other wondered whatever was the matter when he saw his pal pitch to the ground, but directly he saw the black brute he raised his rifle. In two minutes both animals had received their quietus. The two men had received more diversion and excitement, as well as a bigger bag, than they had anticipated. The grizzly skins were shown to me, and the two fellow's roared heartily over the episode.

In the new districts, which are now being opened up rapidly, there is great activity in cord-wood cutting, as well as along the up country waterways where steamboats are plying. The vessels burn wood, which is cheap and abundant, in preference to coal, which is scarce and expensive. On a busy river, such as the Skeena, cord-wood cutting has been a profitable occupation for several summers past, but more particularly during the period of constructing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway along its banks. Before the arrival of the railway the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s boats plied up and down between the posts at Essington and Hazleton, the latter being the distributing point to many of the inland posts.

The river makes a swirling rush to the sea. and the boats, although capable of clipping along in smooth water at about fourteen miles an hour, can scarcely make two miles upstream in that time at some places on the waterway. To maintain steam under such conditions, the furnaces eat up wood as greedily as a rat devours cheese. On the average the fires consume three cords of wood on the down, and five cords on the upward run, per hour. The ungainly logs are packed round the tires and on the deck, so that the engineer appears to be entrenched like an outpost in war.

When the railway was commenced, five other boats came into service, and they plied up and down incessantly. The demand for cord-wood became tremendous. The cutters selected a promising site, ran up a tent and with great gusto set to stripping the land of small trees immediately around them. As the trees were felled and lopped up. the wood was piled like a fence along the river bank. When the steamer required a fresh supply of fuel, she simply pulled alongside, made fast, and the captain gave the order as to how much he would take aboard. Sometimes it was one-and-a-half cords; at others it was three. An official stepped ashore, ran his rule over the face of the pile, and indicated how much was to be pitched on board the boat. A credit note was given to the owner for the amount taken, which he could change into cash when he desired. If the owner were not present at the tune the steamer called, the wood was taken just the same and a big placard was attached to the pile indicating the name of the ship which had called for fuel. The owner on his return measured how much had been taken, and tendered his bill in due course. The result was just the name. No money was handed over as a rule until the end of the season, for the simple reason that it was useless; it only got in the way. If the woodcutter required a fresh supply of provisions, he gave an order for his requirements to the down-going boat. On the return journey the supplies were delivered, together with the debit note for same. Upon the conclusion of the season, when the cord-wood cutter perhaps went out, he called at the offices and the account was balanced and settled. Sometimes he would stay in during the winter, increasing his reserves of cord-wood for the succeeding year. The average price ruled about 10s. a cord, and it was a poor week when the cordwood cutter could not make £10 or more.

Although cord-wood cutting is continued through the winter, that season brings its peculiar experiences. One chum of mine and a partner had established a shack, and had made it snug and warm for the cold months, intending to pile up a good stack of cord-wood for the next season. Unfortunately the partner fell ill, and my chum had to set out over the snow-covered trail to the nearest town about twelve miles away, for medical requirements. On the way home he lost the trail, and spent several hours idly wandering in the endeavour to regain his tracks. When he did pick up the trail, he calculated that he had about another eight miles to go, and, although the shades of evening were advancing rapidly, he kept going. But his blind wandering and ploughing through deep mow had fatigued him, and he stumbled rather than walked along. It was a mechanical, toy-like stride, as there was nothing on either hand to arouse interest, though he gripped his Browning automatic tightly in his pocket. He had not troubled to bring his rule, feeling that the smaller weapon, with its long, point-blank range, would be quite sufficient if he came into contact with any hostile animal foes, for the wolves were out.

While he was staggering along, suddenly an animal whipped across the path in front of him, followed by another, and another, until at last about twenty brutes had skipped out of the silent forest depths on the one side, to plunge into the wooded darkness on the other. They were coyotes. The sight braced him up, and he gripped his revolver more tightly. Peering into the forest gloom on either side he could see the brutes silently dogging him, quickening their pace when he hurried, and blackening when he slowed down, but ever keeping in line with him. If there is anything more nerve-racking when trailing through a forest, so tired that scarcely one limb can be dragged before the other, than a herd of coyotes, I would like to know what it is. The treacherous brutes keep their eyes glued upon you, they do not give vent to the slightest sound; when you look round they crouch and gravel or stand at, motionless as the trees themselves, so that they shall not be distinguished. They are too cowardly to attack, but prefer to hang on like limpets until you drop or stumble into the snow, when they are on you in a moment. Now and again they jumped across his path, drawing in closer and closer as they thought their quarry was beginning to give out.

My chum tolerated the situation for three or four miles, and then could stand the ordeal no longer; so he resolved to out-do in cunning the animals hanging so relentlessly on his flanks. Hr was fully acquainted with their ways. He exaggerated his exhaustion, staggered more wildly than ever, but drew his hand from his pocket and gripped his revolver more tightly while cooking it. As he reeled and looked out of the corners of his eyes, he could see the brutes drawing in still closer upon him. When at last they made one of their periodical phantom dashes across the trail in a solid phalanx, this time behind him, he wheeled round sharply, and the Browning gave five or six vicious spits of flame at the heaving mass barely ten pacts away. The howls that broke the silence told that several of the shots had got home, and bucking himself together, he strode forward more rapidly, leaving a group of writhing, snarling, and barking animal struggling in the trail behind him. He saw no more of those coyotes; his ruse had completely surprised them, and they wore evidently startled at his sudden return of strength.

He thought his troubles were over, but as he approached the shack, which nestled in a hollow under an overhanging bank, he heard a sound that filled him with dismay. The howls of wolves broke upon his ears from directly ahead. Creeping forward silently, his revolver reloaded and cocked, he distinguished a crowd of the beasts in the wood near the shack. They had not caught sight of him, and as he had only a few yards to go he ran for his life. A terrible howl told him he had been seen. He glanced back and saw they were after him in full force. To gain the shack by the winding path was impossible, because they would leap the bank and get between him and the door. With a blind luck he ran to the edge of the bank, gave a spring, and landed on the roof of the shack, at the same time hailing his sick comrade within. The animals jumped likewise, but pitched short of the roof of the shack. Letting fly six shots promiscuously into the barking crowd, he dipped off the root and glided into the door, which his comrade had unlatched in readiness, slamming it to as the foremost brute was springing through the air towards it; then, discarding his coat, and picking up his Savage automatic, he returned to the attack, and in two minutes there were three hungry wolves less round the dwelling. Finding the odds so much against them, and being baulked of the prey, the savage brutes drew off.

The outfit for a cord-wood cutting expedition is simple and cheap. As a rule, a small party of two or three should work upon the co-operative system. Unless they intend to make permanent quarters in a district where the supply of wood is likely to be continuous, a tent will suffice, otherwise a shack will have to be erected for winter-quarters. A good stock of provisions, such as flour, pork and beans, tea, sugar, and milk, is acquired and cached. The tools will comprise a good supply of axes, both heads and handles, together with whetstones.

The most important point is to secure a good “station.” Developing or existing lines of waterway traffic are the most remunerative. At the present moment the stretch of the Fraser River, between Tete Jaune Cache and Soda Creek, representing practically 500 miles of waterway, and the Nechaco River between Fort George and Fraser Lake, nearly 150 miles, are excellent grounds. Both these waterways have been pressed into service for the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and steamboats are being used upon a large scale for distributing supplies from point to point. There is plenty of timber in this country suited to steamboat firing purposes, and there is not a long haulage from point of felling to stacking on the river bank. The price will range about 10s. per cord, and at this rate it should be an easy matter for a man to clear £20 per month if export with the axe.

I struck a camp with two young fellows who were in at the beginning of this enterprise. They had selected an excellent station near Fort George, and their first month’s work, stacked in a big pile on the bank, represented over one hundred cords. In sterling this was the equivalent to about £50, and could not be reckoned other than a good month’s work. Although they were so far in advance of the railway constructional engineers, the latter were to be anticipated by private steamboat enterprise, and despite the fact that their stack might stand for some time it was certain to sell. Even when the railway is completed, there will still be a demand for cord-wood among the populations of the new towns along these rivers, and taken on the whole it must be considered one of the most promising centres for activity of this description.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.