I Became a Pulpwood Cutter
How one discharged white-collar man triumphed over adversity by means of an axe and a bucksaw
W. A. EATON
BY THE end of March I’ll have worked sixteen months in the woods, two seasons of eight months each; and I’ll have a nest egg of $524 saved, which, I think, is very good for a man who did not know the difference between a spruce and a balsam two years ago.
At that time I was a bookkeeper in a garage in Southern Ontario. The boss laid, me off and put his son on the job to try and cut his expenses. I hung around for about four months, expecting to get work of some kind, paying my way, and I all but ate up the little savings I had from four years work.
I had heard and read, “Go North, young man; lots of work there for everybody,” so I decided to give it a try. When I was down to my last $20 I stored my good clothes, donned some old fishing duds I had had for a couple of years, and hit for the great North from Toronto.
It t(K>k me a week to get to Kirkland Lake; and I firmly believe that I travelled in everything that had wheels except a baby carriage, at a total cost of $5.80. I wasn’t lucky enough to get picked up by a long-distance traveller; I happened to hit a town-to-town motorist at the start, and it seemed that I couldn’t get out of that rut. Finally I wound up in Kirkland on a freight train, dirtier than I had ever been in my life.
1 found out that a man can get a job in the mines if he has money enough to live on for three or four months while waiting his turn in the employment offices, or if he has a little drag or pull. Easier and preferably if he has the drag. I learned this by living in the “jungle” with seven other “bo’s.” I considered myself a bo after I had been a week on the road.
One of the bo’s and myself picked up a ride to Timmins, and found the same conditions prevailing there. It was in Timmins that I first heard about bush work; and, being down to my last few cents. I headed up to Cochrane and into another jungle, where I found a pot of stewed rabbit from the bush and stolen vegetables from some backyard garden. There were three French-Canadian boys who were bushmen and were hopping a freight that night for Smooth Hock Falls, so I travelled with them.
Getting a Job
T FOUND that only experienced men were hired for the bush, so I got some coaching from the three boys as to cutting and what company I could claim to have worked for, and was taken on as an experienced hand. I was rather nervous about it all, because the only bush I had ever been in was when I had gone fishing. I knew an axe and a bucksawwhen I saw them, but wasn’t very good at handling either.
I passed the medical examination okay. Every man going to the bush had to pass a doctor. If he had a bad heart, lungs, rupture, deafness or scxial disease, he was urned down for a job. The company paid for the examination. On August 8 we took the boat from Jackson borough — the company depot on the Mettagami Riverand headed up the river for eleven miles. Then we proceeded five miles on a truck over a good gravelled road that was built and maintained by the company to circle rapids and falls on the river. Another seven miles by boat to the camp landing, then a mile and a half walk over a g;xxi trail, and we were at the camp itself.
We got in just at supper time -and talk about grub! Fresh meat in August in a pulp camp, and fresh vegetables! Everything that a workingman could wish for was on the table. It was coarse food, but well cooked and there was lots of it. If the food hadn’t been put up well, the cook would have been changed by request of the men.
Everything was on the table; if you wanted a second helping, it was there in front of you, help yourself. If you had a sweet tooth, there were pies, cakes, cookies, dough-
nuts and syrup—all for seventy-five cents a day, with your bunk thrown in for good measure. The blankets were wool, with a mattress and spring, and one slept alone.
But I am straying. One of the French boys spoke good English, so I stuck close to him. We ended up as inseparables, and are still together. When we arrived in the camp, we went to the office, and the clerk signed us on to cut spruce and balsam logs at five cents apiece. These logs had to be sixteen feet six inches long, and no less than three inches in diameter at the smaller end. We had to buy an axe and bucksaw each, which were charged against our earnings. We bought used saws and axes at $1.50 and sixty cents respectively. In addition to seventy-five cents a day for board, we were to be charged twenty cents a week for laundry, and $1 a month for a medical fee.
After supper the chore boy gave us blankets and assigned us bunks, the four of us together. One of the boys had a file in his pack, and he touched up all our saws a bit and put an edge on the axes.
How Pulpwood is Cut
XTEXT morning we were up at six o’clock and in to breakfast at six-thirty. We got a lunch to take with us, and at seven were on our way. The strip boss took us out to where the cutting was started, and gave us strips.
They had a long main road cut for two miles, and other main or sub-main roads running at right angles to it at every 2.000 feet. In between these sub-roads they had the strips abutting against each other. The cutter had to cut fifty-four feet of bush along this strip. In the centre of the strip he made his road, about fifteen feet wide, and bunched his wood in piles of from fifteen to as many as he could put on without slugging and bulling t;x> much.
My chum I’ll call him Joe told me to watch him during the morning and he would help me in the afternoon.
The men new’ to any camp are always startl'd off in the dirtiest bush, and the boss must have been saving this stretch for us. It was dirty. Joe said such was the rule, but when we had finished and had done good work, we would get a blitter strip.
1 watched Joe all morning, and it looked a cinch. Cut your tree down, fall it the way your strip is running, and cut the limbs off. You first cut a pole either four feet or
eight feet long with a six-inch mark on one end, measure your sixteen-foot-six log, and go to it with the Sw’ede saw— bucksaw to the farmer.
You don’t need a sawhorse to hold the tree to saw it. The limbs at the top take care of it, or it might be lying across an old fallen log, or caught in the alders. These alders are not the ones mentioned in the schoolbooks, I’m sure. I never heard of these wooden devils “shaking out their powdery curls.” If they ever did, they must have been very young, because the least touch and they would fly back and slap your face, scratch your hands, and tear your clothes. The first week I almost went crazy a couple of times-—slashed and tore at them with the axe, much to the amusement of Joe, who had experience and knew how to handle them.
As a rule, you could get an average of two logs to a tree if you w’ere in what was called a black spruce swamp. The smaller end of your log had to be three inches or over, so sometimes you had to leave in the tree a ten-, twelveor fourteen-foot log that w’as good pulpwood.
With the help of Joe, I cut and bunched tw’enty-tw’o logs in the afternoon and made my road; that is. cut all the stumps off tight to the ground, and filled in the holes with limbs and rotten wood, making a fairly level roadway for horses.
We took our time. This was Joe’s advice; and also when you are working by the piece you have no driving foreman over you, hurrying you up. You are your own boss; the harder you work, the more you make. We stopped three times to smoke, making sure our butts were out when we finished. The cardinal sin in the bush is for a cutter to start a bush fire through carelessness.
Good cutters cut from eighty to 100 logs a day, depending on the kind of bush and strip they have. I knew a Lithuanian at another camp who averaged 128 logs a day for the cutting season, a gross of $6.40 a day for what some people call common, unskilled labor. A good cutter is a skilled laborer in every’ sense of the word.
A cutter would turn in, say, eighty logs a day, yet he might cut up to 100 logs. He kept this balance in what was called a “bank” for a day that he did not work. If it rained or was too cold, he had his bank to fall back on and turned in his usual eighty logs at the office, although he might
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I Became a Pulpwood Cutter
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have a couple of hundred in his “bank.” When he completed his strip, he had to turn in all his logs cut on it, so the strip boss could count them and turn them in for a check on his own count for the office. It might take a man from one to two weeks to finish the strip, depending on the length of strip, type of wood, and underbrush.
I wasn’t tired that first night from cutting, but was played out from fighting flies. I believe they have every kind of fly that ever existed in the bush up there. Even common houseflies are in the bush, and they bite too. They say that when houseflies bite it is going to rain, and it usually works out that way. You even run into a wasps’ nest occasionally. My eyes and ears were puffed and bleeding from blackflies, and the back of my neck was all lumps from the biggest mosquitoes I had ever seen. Joe claimed to have seen them so big, up in the Lake St. Jean district in Quebec, that if one lit on the back of your hand you waited till it started its proboscis into your skin, then you hit it hard with your other hand, then, quickly clinching the proboscis where it came through the palm of your hand, by bending it sharply, you anchored it there and could kill it at will. I bought a small bottle of fly dope in the camp van, putting myself twenty-five more cents in the hole.
That night I was in debt $3.35 and had earned $1.10, leaving me $2.25 in the hole.
That was my first night in camp as “one of the boys,” so I felt free to get a good look at a logging camp for the first time.
Camp Night Life
THEY HAD a reading room, with a radio loud-speaker wired in from the office. There was not much to read at the time, as the men had to send out for their literature. Gasoline lamps all through the camps; bathroom with a steam bath and a bathtub; a separate room for drying your wet clothing; a washroom for your hands and face. All windows and doors were screened. There were two bunkhouses, each with accommodation for 100 men, office, scalers’ shack, cookery that seated every man at one sitting, cookery warehouse, a stable for forty horses, and a blacksmith shop. Also several smaller buildings, the laundry and some small storehouses.
I was surprised to find no “boss of the camp,” such as I expected from reading logging stories. It was as quiet as any Y.M.C.A. I was ever in. Of course there was always a noisy corner, where a gang collected to tell stories and jokes. There was one fight in the camp that winter, and the foreman fired both men.
Lights went out at nine o’clock week days, and ten on Sundays.
The next morning Joe and I started to work at seven thirty; that is, we were at our strips at this time.
Joe suggested that I had better work on my own from now on. I started in where I had left off the night before, and by noon I had cut fifteen logs. That night I had cut and bunched thirty-two logs. By the end of August I had made $11.43 clear. It didn’t look so good, but I was sure I would dobetter in September. Joe had sharpened my axe and saw four times and showed me how to do it for myself, after which I had no trouble. Of course I didn’t do a good job, but it satisfied me. The first week I found very hard, but after I got hardened, it wasn’t so bad. Got fed up several times, but knew I couldn’t get a job outside, so stuck to it. If you are lazy, stay out of the bush. I had a bit of a lazy streak, but knew it would take hard work if I wanted to make any money. Some green men think that they can sit down on a log all day and still make a living, but it can’t be done.
The van is what surprised me most—
razor blades only twenty-two cents, tobacco the same as in town, clothing quite a bit cheaper. There was no chance for any crooked work. You got a slip with every purchase, and it is your privilege to check your account at the office at the month’s end.
September started rather wet, not many flies, and the days were getting short. I had acquired the hang of cutting and bunching by now, but, due to my dirty bush and inexperience, I made only $19.70 clear for the month.
October was a bit colder with a little snow. Joe said it would be easier cutting and bunching now, because the logs would slide on the snow.
I was getting better. I netted $51.20 for October. November was $60.70, and December $62.30. I don’t believe I ever had a better Christmas dinner than the one we had on Christmas Day. Turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce, mince pie, candies, oranges and apples. Also roast pork, roast beef and the usual vegetables. I must have eaten two pounds of turkey— the first and only time I ever had all the turkey I wanted at one sitting.
January, February and March I went on day work. Two dollars and fifty-five cents a day, pay your own board. After van, medical fees and laundry were also deducted, it averaged $1.50 a day clear.
This netted me for the eight months I was in the bush $332.33.
Some men begrudged paying the doctor the monthly fee of $1.1 ’ll give my reason for not kicking. In January I had a toothache. The doctor made the rounds of the camps once a week, and usually tried to stay overnight in each camp. I had the doc pull the tooth for me, no charge, and it saved me approximately $14. I would have lost three days work—one day to go out. one day to see the dentist, and one day to come back. It would have cost $2 to have it pulled, and pay my board while out. Also it saved me two more days of toothache agony. I must have used about $3 worth of cough syrup, iodine, bandages, gauze and toothache drops. All this was covered by the $1 a month medical fee, so I do not see where some men had cause to kick.
A Pleasant Summer
THE CAMP broke up the end of March, so Joe and I came out together. We went to Cochrane and paid for a month’s room and board in advance at a boardinghouse there. Thirty dollars a month each. I had and have no people depending on me. so figured I might as well stay there.
Joe and I went on a spree the second day after we arrived. I spent $50 in three days —how, I don’t know. I finally got Joe squared away in a week, but he had got rid of close to $200.
Most men come out of the bush in the spring, and in a week’s time are broke. They lose most of it by being “rolled” by bootleggers, etc. They buy liquor for everybody, whether friend or foe.
We laid low till the middle of May, then rented a small shack on the edge of town, and bought some second-hand dishes, stove, blankets, cots and mattresses for $29, and set up bachelor quarters. Joe claimed he had always wanted to do this, but had usually waked up broke and sick at the end of a week or so. We put in a very good summer. Ate what and when we wanted. We went to Timmins and Kirkland Lake once, and found the mining game the same as during the previous summer.
We heard that the camps were opening early again that summer, so headed back to Jacksonborough on August 5. I still had $94 in the bank and Joe had a little, but we figured we might as well go to the bush and get another good run of work.
Again we were examined and passed.
Got back to the same camp we were in before. Piece work was priced the same according to the type of wood cut, but day work had been raised to $2.72 a day, board eighty-five cents a day. Everything else was the same.
It’s Not a Had Life
T WAS an experienced bushman now, so felt better about going to the bush than during the previous year. It took me ten days to get settled and hardened, then I tried to work up an average. Till the middle of December I averaged $64 a month clear, which is good money in any town for ordinary work, and much more than I would have got if I had been working on a farm in Southern Ontario.
I came out for a week at Christmas to
get rested up and to break the long stretch of winter, then returned and went on day work, loading logs on sleighs. This loading job paid $2.90 a day, pay your own board. It was a higher rate than ordinary day work because it was much harder work.
I am still working at this rate and expect to be until the camp closes for the season. I will have a stake of $430 for my season’s work, plus the $94 in the bank, giving me a nest egg of $524 with which to l(K>k around.
There are a lot of things I can do with this money: Play the penny stocks on the market, maybe lose, maybe make; start a small business or buy a bush lot up here from the Government; or I can travel a bit. Or else I can sit tight in the mining towns and wait for work. I think I’ll travel.