Down the Nipigon River’s swift waters flow fortunes in wood—Ontario’s biggest log drive is exciting business

D. K. FINDLAY September 15 1944


Down the Nipigon River’s swift waters flow fortunes in wood—Ontario’s biggest log drive is exciting business

D. K. FINDLAY September 15 1944


Down the Nipigon River’s swift waters flow fortunes in wood—Ontario’s biggest log drive is exciting business


UP ON the Nipigon River, in the Thunder Bay district of northwestern Ontario, they’ve just completed Ontario’s biggest log drive. The Nipigon is a flow of green and white water that falls 250 feet as it races down from Lake Nipigon to Lake Superior, 38 miles away, and this year, through the leaping foam and hissing rush of this rapid-studded stream, there hurtled between two and three million dollars worth of wood —460,000 saw logs and 95,000 cords of pulpwood.

The log drive has always had a dramatic place in Canadian annals. It was colorful and sometimes tragic. I ts legends still hang about the logging rivers— of men, active as cats, riding the logs through the white water; of their recklessness in tackling the jams; of the gang fights; of the songs they loved to sing as the pointers—the lumbermen’s long red boats—dropped down the quiet reaches. Along the banks of the Petawawa and the Madawaska you will find many of their graves. For the daring young man riding the logs into fast water too often rode to his death. The Nipigon, too, is a fast and dangerous river but in seven years of driving there has been only one drowning.

“One reason,” says A. J. Auden, woods manager for the Abitibi Power and Paper Company which handles the drives for all the operators on the river, “is that we don’t want our men to take risks. We’d rather leave 1,000 logs in a side-jam than risk a man pulling them loose.”

Another reason is the quantities of heavy equipment and power tools used—mainly the alligator boat. Each stretch of water has two or three of these boats and they are the work horses of the river. They are steelhulled, with flat bottoms and cages to protect the propellers, a winch driven by the engine and a big anchor hook. They chug into a backwater, wrap their tail of boom about an acre or two of logs and start them moving. If the load is too great they drop their hook, back up to the tow and wind themselves along on their own cable. And they can wind themselves along on land by the same method. Hence the name of Alligator.

Driving begins early in May and ends in August. The logs are cut on the shores of Lake Nipigon by the six operators working in the district. Most of the cutting is done in the winter and the logs are piled on skids near the shore or on the ice. When the ice goes out in the spring the logs are contained by storage booms until early in May when they begin to move. Then they are towed in rafts of 7,000 cords each to Virgin Falls, where the lake empties into the Nipigon River. Towing is done by big, well-kept Diesel tugs which were brought in in pieces and welded together on the shores of Lake Nipigon. An average towing speed is three quarters of a mile an hour.

The strength of the equipment used for towing is allimportant. Towing booms are made up of 20-foot sticks of Sitka spruce from British Columbia. For use on Lake Nipigon they must have a minimum diameter of two feet; for use on Lake Superior a minimum of three feet. They are linked by chains and capped with hardwood to prevent the chains from splitting them. A boom stick, chained and capped, is worth $75. A tow boom on Lake Nipigon is worth about $35,000; on Lake Superior, about $40,000.

All towing is done by the Abitibi Power and Paper Company, which pioneered the district, * arriving in 1937. Later, it was followed by other operators.

“Spilled” on Their Way

AT Virgin Falls the water from Lake Nipigon falls . over a rock ledge and begins its journey down the river. Above the dam the bay is often floored solid with logs waiting to be “spilled” into the river, and sometimes they run into a pack of trouble at Virgin Falls when the logs jam up in the sluice. A sluice jam is troublesome business. The wood goes through the dam by means of a sluice gate and when the logs are coming fast the crews work day and night guiding them through.

Sometimes a few logs manage to wedge themselves against the sides of the sluice and before you can say— “Quick, make with the pike pole!”—the current has slammed together a stockade which builds out and down to the bottom of the river. Then the water rises and makes things still tougher.

A jam may be cleared in one of three ways—by lowering a “jam dog,” which is a cable and a hook used to fish out individual logs until the king log is found; by dropping a looped cable over the logs and lifting the sticks in packages with a winch; or, as a last resort, dynamite. I saw one of these sluice jams and it had proved too much for the winch. The logs were still there, their pale ends glimmering below the surface like a crowd of upturned faces; but the big cast-iron winch lay about in pieces.

Once the logs are “spilled” into the river the drive crews, with their pike poles, sharply hooked peaveys and their alligator boats, keep them moving compactly down the river's swift course to its mouth at Lake Superior. Sometimes the quieter reaches of the river are a mass of brown wood from shore to shore. It takes about 100 men to handle the logs and about 38 days to make the trip. More men are needed when the water is low and fewer when the water is high.

On the 38-mile trip to Lake Superior the saw logs and pulpwood come down together and though the drive crews make an effort tí) keep them apart it is apparently not too successful. As the logs scoot into the lower reaches of the river, past Cameron Falls where the main drive camp is located, and on to Alexander where the hydro has a powerhouse and dam, one gets a vivid illustration of the power of moving water. At Alexander I watched a crew running a jag of wood through. They had towed a boom along the shore and into a creek mouth and then pulled the logs into midstream. They didn’t need a sluicing crew here, as there was three feet of water over the dam.

The logs swept smoothly over the dam and down the 20 feet of slick. Then they disappeared and did not reappear until they were 200 yards downstream in the apids. There is a 72-foot fall here and there is a »wooden chute to take the logs down when fhe water is low. It is a wooden trough, eight feet across, and it runs from the top of the dam into the rapids. Once, Scotty Cameron, the drive superintendent, rode u pointer down it—but he says he’s not going to make u habit of it. It was all right until he hit the water then it was too rough.

Six miles below Alexander is the last of the lakes that bulge here and there down the river’s course. This is Lake Helen and it is dotted with cribs which are used to tie up rafts of logs. When I visited this site a small tug was busy towing the logs away from the river mouth which a south wind had jammed solid with wood. From the foot of Lake Helen the logs float briskly to the storage booms in Lake Superior.

From these, most of the wood is moved by tugs 90 miles over Lake Superior to Port Arthur and Fort William. Some, however, is towed across Lake Superior to points in the United States. The logs are towed in rafts which contain between 7,000 and 10,000 cords of wood— a cord covering about 400 square feet of water.

Big towing hazard is a high wind. Last year a raft was caught in a storm and Bince the tug and its tow were being driven toward the rockbound shore the tug had to let go. Next day an airplane was sent out to see what had happened to the raft. It was found still intact —a lucky shift in the wind having turned it from the shore. Two tugH lassoed the whole business and the boom went on to market.

Lumbermen say a boom seldom breaks up. Once massed, the logs show a strong tendency to stay together. The wind drives the ones which float high in the water and their movement draws the others after them.

Supervising this drive is a big job and there are four drive camps spotted at strategic points along the river. All are linked by short-wave radio by means of which the drive superintendent gets reports and giveH his orders.

To get a picture of how the drive is conducted I followed the advice of Mr. Auden, who had just returned from un airplune flight

Up the River

THE mist is curling thick over the river when we start out early in the morning from Cameron Falls, which is the end of the road from Nipigon town.

We are carrying a load of supplies for White Chutes, the next camp, and as a passenger we have the White Chutes cook. We are going upstream, against the current, and against the run of the logs. Our boat is stubby and steel-hulled, with the intriguing name of “No. 2 Ghost.” She is not fast but she is dogged and she knows some good tricks.

She shows us one at the top of Lake Jessie, where a boom of logs, chained together and cradling a half-moon of pulpwood, bars the way. No. 2 Ghost charges the boom, pushes it under her and thrashes and kicks her way over.

She bangs into the pulpwood, batting it aside or riding over it, and the blows on her steel hull echo like thunder.

Over the noise the cook shouts that sometimes when the river is full of logs, she has to do this all the way to the Chutes.

Above Lake Jessie the river narrows into its most spectacular stretch. The

over his district. “The best way to see the work on the river,” he told me, “is to go and live with the crews. I’ll take you to see Scotty Stewart at Cameron he’s the drive superintendent—and you can go up the river from there.” banks rise in 400-foot cliffs, black-faced, hung with spruce, their knees covered by rockfalls. They go on and on without a break, without the smallest clearing, except where a deserted ranger’s cabin perches, dwarfed and lonely. Beyond tbe banks the land is empty—neither trappers nor settlers. The water runs jade-green and wimpled, turning over and over with the force of its internal currents. Now and then it breaks with a small snarl into a whirlpool. In the middle of the stream lies Split Rock, a formation which resembles three battleships anchored in line astern. Coming down the river the boats take the 40-foot passage on the eastern side and come booming down in a free ride. Going up we fight our way up the left-hand side where the current breaks in boils and No. 2 Ghost rocks and twists away from the logs which come spinning down.

Above Split Rock there is a mile or two of easier water, then the river is closed by a raised white line as straight as if it were drawn by a ruler. This is Pine Rapids. Later in the season the Ghost will snort its way up this stretch of water, but now there is too much water coming down and we warp our way into a landing at the foot. A truck is waiting to carry us and the supplies over the three-mile tote road to White Chutes.

White Chutes camp Ls built on an elbow of land which juts out into the rapids. Here you can see why the old-timers said the Nipigon would never be driven and why the Indians call it a two-way river. Opposite the camp is a bay filled with logs going round and round in a solid circle. The current comes down White Chutes with such force that it starts reverse currents moving back along the rocky banks. The logs come through the rapids at 12 miles an hour, then they start back up again until they reach the bay, where they mass and keep turning. They would stay there till they wore out if the loggers let them. There are a number of such big eddies on the Nipigon and after each drive the crews go in and clear them out. They take an alligator in as close as they can, snub it to a tree, get a boom around the logs and winch them out.

Above White Chutes the water widens briefly into Lake Emma. From here on up, at the head of every reach there is another rapid, green and white, packed with horsepower. We went up here with Bill McAllister, the foreman at White Chutes, manoeuvring a pointer with an outboard engine. Bill was an expert at making the pointer jump the booms. He would steer for the end of a boom stick and as the boat reared and plunged over, he would snatch the kicker out of the water and plunk it back when we were over. The trick is to do it without stalling the engine. The kicker did not have enough power to force the rapids so we had to portage around them. We would carry the kicker along the ’gator trail and then attach it to another boat awaiting us above the rapids.

These alligator trails are like corduroy roads—trees felled and trimmed and laid side by side across the way. With a block and tackle secured to a big tree, the ’gator starts its winch going and, pulled by the cable, it goes bellying along on the tree trunks.

We came to a portage where the ’gator trail was flooded. We could neither walk nor push the boat. Bill McAllister went thrashing around in the drowned bush to spy out the land, and came back and said we’d have to take a crack at the rapids.

Bucking the Rapids

WE WAITED in an eddy until the river seemed free of logs—being hit by a plunging log would have been disastrous—then with the pike poles handy and the engine at full throttle we started up. We kept close to the bank, to be out of the main current. We inched along halfway up, and stuck. We tried using the pike poles but the water tried to snatch them out of our hands. We caught hold of branches hanging down from the bank and pulled. We gained a foot or two, then the current drew the bow out from the bank, the branches peeled off and we were swept down the rapids into the eddy.

We tried again, hauling ourselves along the bank until the current plucked us out again. This time, with the paddles working furiously and the kicker humming like a mad hornet, we worked our way across the stream, found a slacker strip, and just before the paddles collapsed we gained the top.

In a reach above, we met the “rearing” crew from Virgin Falls. These crews are an important feature of the work on the Nipigon where the drivers handle the wood of several companies, and each drive must be finished before another is begun. The “rearing” crew brings up the rear of each drive, cleaning out backwaters and eddies and jams, sweeping all logs before them. There were a dozen men in this crew—French Canadians and Indians. They had an alligator, a power boat and a pointer. The pointer went ahead, with the men freeing logs caught alongshore and pushing them into the stream with pike poles. Behind them the alligator on one side and the power boat on the other, with a boom between them, were sweeping the logs along. They would shoot the rapids we had walked around and they figured they would be at White Chutes that night. It wasn’t long after this that we arrived at Virgin Falls, starting point for the whole operation.

As Auden had suggested, best way to learn about the drive and the men who run it was by living and talking with the crews themselves. I discovered it is still unusual to find a driver who can swim. They still wear the traditional garb of the lumberjack—high boots with sharp calks that bite into the wood, pants cut off at the top of their boots, heavy woollen shirts often worn outside as a protection against flies, and an old black hat. They are mostly French Canadians

and Indians, with a sprinkling of Finns and Swedes. Now, in wartime, it is noticeable that the crews are made up of grizzled veterans or youngsters in their teens.

Their work makes them rootless. Many of them have no homes. They drift with the jobs. Often they will cut wood in the bush all winter and come out in the spring to join the drive again. A driver’s basic pay is $3.89 a day plus his keep, and he gets paid for 30 days a month. He gets a bonus of $5 a month for staying on the job. He pays a dollar a month for medical service but he does not pay unemployment insurance premiums because he is classed as being in a seasonal occupation. He can make about $150 a month clear. The camp clerks who act as paymasters say that some of the boys come out with $1,000 in their pockets. But they are likely to blow it in in a couple of weeks— sometimes in a pathetic attempt to buy the friendliness or admiration of strangers in the city.

The old lumberman’s rule of no talking at meals still prevails. It is a holdover from the time when camps were big and turbulent and it was the only way to have peace at the table. Silence has become a habit now and it is curious to see 10 or 12 men sitting together without a word. The food is good and abundant, with special attention to pies and cookies, and everything Is put on the table at once. The men eat quickly, carry their dishas to the sink, and go out to sit on the benches where they can smoke and talk. Their talk is almost always about the drive—the wood, the wind and the water. Many of them have spent their lives on the logging rivers, and there are old tales of how a man who went under the logs was buried in the nearest bank with his boots hung on the wooden cross. And how the porcupines, which will eat anything in camp, would never touch the boots of the dead man.

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Log Torrent

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Healthy Appetites

Breakfast is at 6.15; dinner at noon and supper at six; and when they are not too far from camp they have a snack at nine in the morning and another at three in the afternoon. They may eat quickly, but they like to eat often. After supper the van is open. The van is the store run by the camp clerks where the men can buy tobacco - chewing and smoking—candy, clothing, etc. Some of the young Indians' who want everything they see just about break even with the van on their pay.

These camps are all neat and clean. The bunks are steel double-deckers with flannelette sheets and fly curtains. The bull cook sees that the floods are swept and that there is plenty of hot water. There is too little to do in leisure hours, or when the weather stops work. The men play cards, or sleep, or reread the same old tattered magazines.

The labor turnover is big. Often new men, who come in with only the vaguest idea of the nature of the job, take one look at the brawling Nipigon and go out the next day. The bosses are bothered by a new type of drifter — the man who won’t stay more than 30 days on a job because then, under Selective Service regulations, he cannot quit without working in his seven days’ notice. He will not jeopardize his right to quit. Every day one or two of these leave camp. I saw one of these at Cameron Falls one night, his pack on his back, a nice-looking youth of 20. He had come from the East with workers recruited for the mines. He didn’t like the mines so he drifted West. The driver who had him in his crew said that he would not be taught anything, he was just putting in a few days. He went off cheerfully, another job to be had for the asking somewhere ahead of him. The only trade he knew was to keep moving.

The logging business on Lake Nipigon has its beachcombers too. But the term "beachcomber” is not a term of reproach. A beachcomber there is a useful member of society. He is a small operator with a power boat and a borrowed boom who salvages logs which have escaped from’the rafts. The companies are glad to buy back their timber, at varying prices, usually eight cents a stick for pulp and 25 cents for a saw log. Two beachcombers came in from the lake while we were there. One was a retired jeweller; one was a dealer ÍE electrical equipment who got tired looking at his empty shelves. They collected four college boys and went beachcombing and they said they were enjoying it. They had about $1,50C worth of wood tied up to cribs. According to camp talk, beachcombing is precarious. One day you have $1,500 worth of wood tied up, then up comes a high wind—and there goes the $1,500.

Lake Nipigon—the name is Cree for deep, clear-water lake—is about 70

miles long and 50 miles wide. Its coast is deeply indented by bays and there are more than 1,000 islands. Around the southern end there are dangerous shoals which have been charted, but some parts of it are very deep. At a place called Echo Rock, a line 540 feet long failed to touch bottom. There are a couple of villages of commercial fishermen and the lake yields a substantial catch of whitefish and grey trout.

Its early history is obscure. It was the last of the great lakes to be reached by the white men. In 1678 Charles de Greysolon, Sieur de la Tourette, discovered it and built several trading posts to cut off the trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company over the divide. The Indians were friendly to the French and the country was rich in furs. The explorer La Verendrye had charge of the forts there in 1727-28 and he heard from the Indians stories about an inland sea. Apparently they meant Lake Winnipeg but he thought they were talking about the Western Ocean and the long-sought Northwest Passage. For years there appeared to be some confusion between Lake Nipigon and Lake Winnipeg. On the old maps, when it appears at all, Nipigon may appear as A/empigon and sometimes as Unipón. Some geographers think the word is a variant of Winnipeg.

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The Hudson Bay Company built a post at Nipigon House and it became an important trading post. Then came a flurry of railway construction. The CPR to the south along Lake Superior, and later the CNR built a spur which ran down the shore of the lake from Virgin Falls.

In 1869 Dr. Robert Bell made a geological survey of the district for the Dominion Government. He suggested that in view of the size of Lake Nipigon and the fact that it was drained only by the Nipigon River, the river was entitled to be considered as a continuation of the St. Lawrence beyond Lake Superior. It was Dr. Bell who gave the lake expansions of the river their names—Helen, Jessie, Maria and Emma.

The Nipigon has an international reputation among fishermen because of the size of its speckled trout. No story about the river would be complete without some reference to its famous fish. There are a few anglers on the water this season, but a few days before this was written, Mrs. Stewart, wife of the drive superintendent, took a five pounder from the eddy below White Chutes.