By Peter “@Newton” Bell, 11 August 2017
"This was my very first coastal outing. I was a teenager. I was a rookie treeplanter with perhaps sixty days of planting experience under my belt, but I was invited to Bute Inlet nonetheless. The terrain was extreme compared to the ground I trained on in the BC interior. It was a trial by fire type of thing. On our 2nd night of camping out along the Scar Creek corridor, crazy shit started to happen. After the Bute Inlet debacle, I slept with a loaded shotgun whenever we camped out in tents." -- @DirkDiggler
Please enjoy this next chapter from CEO.CA's own resident treeplanting adventurer.
There was a rage in the air. Everyone sensed it. Breakfast that morning was accompanied by a lot of soul-searching. This was 1983, in one of the most geographically isolated areas in North America. There was no easy exit. And there was no clear-cut resolution. James’ horrific account of the manner in which they were forced to deal with two hostile grizzlies only one year earlier, along the same corridor, clearly exposed a lack of protocol in dealing with these situations. We didn’t exactly have a fish and wildlife officer on speed dial. Our only mode of communication was a two-way radio phone - an operator assisted party line that was strictly controlled by the logging camp manager. A satellite phone might have opened up more options for us, but that technology was years away. We were stuck in this place, and we were on our own.
A quick brainstorming session after breakfast produced a simple but logical plan; one we would launch immediately after work that day. Appreciating the fact that all wild animals have an innate fear of fire, we decided to construct two additional fire pits at opposite ends of our tent village. This would augment the centrally located pit James had constructed the previous night. Further, we would collectively scour the forest floor and begin stockpiling as much dry wood as possible. The idea was to create three large blazes that were to be maintained throughout the night. Without hesitation, I assumed responsibility for feeding the flames at the far end of the corridor.
Another concern: 'The Gauntlet' - the trail that linked our tent village to the logging camp. Being only four feet wide and enclosed by thick brush on one side, dense forest on the other, there was no way to circumvent a bear encounter by veering either left or right. The trail also meandered, making it impossible to see more than ten meters ahead at any point along the way. If you walked the trail alone, especially in the evening, you were rolling the dice. To address this risk, we resolved to always walk in groups. Of course, having Lady as a minder was the preferred scenario, and incredibly, she patrolled the trail diligently, acting as an escort whenever she encountered people. Between the three roaring blazes, our two high-velocity rifles, Lady, and a heightened state of anxiety, we were optimistic that we might actually walk away from this contract unscathed. Physically anyway.
As if the situation back at camp wasn’t enough to keep us on edge, the drive to our planting areas presented an entirely different type of hazard altogether. Our access was carved out precariously along the steep mountainous walls above the valley floor below.* Much of the terrain was so steep that the road engineers were forced to compromise road width. These ‘roads’, which were a series of switchbacks across faces of near vertical terrain, were already beginning to erode only one year after they were last maintained to accommodate heavy machinery and logging trucks. Access to the upper plateaus of these massive clearcuts required a slow, cautious, and steady climb, switchback after miserable switchback. My job, sitting in the front passenger seat of the lead truck, was to communicate with the driver and alert him whenever we traveled too close to the edge. Rock slides and general cutbank erosion often placed immovable obstacles in our path, forcing us to travel precariously close to the edge in order to get around them. I have vivid memories of hanging my head out the window and watching as the distance between our front tire and the precipice edge diminished to mere inches as we attempted to navigate around large boulders. A drop of a thousand feet or more, and perhaps several seconds of air, would have been the consequence had the sloughing road margin collapsed under the weight of our truck. This perilous access, which we were required to traverse on a daily basis, was so unrelentingly nerve racking that James - the great hunter himself - refused to ride along with the rest of us 'trapped' inside the truck. He had an arrangement with management that caused our little convoy to grind to a halt whenever we approached a particularly nasty section of road. This allowed James the opportunity to hop out, climb on to the roof of the truck, and ride the rest of the way up the mountain, unencumbered, free to leap to safety in the event we suddenly plummeted off the edge. We all lost a lot of enamel traveling these Bute Inlet logging road systems.
* (back in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was little consideration given to sustainable logging practices. These valley walls were often clearcut over vast distances. Due to the steep grade, extreme rainfall, and the slopes inability to hold soil, it didn't take long for erosion to render these roads impassable)
The terrain we were planting at this stage of the contract also presented challenges. Aside from the steep grade, the brush was often well over our heads, making it difficult to size-up our areas. It wasn’t unusual to watch a planter completely disappear from sight after taking only a few steps off of the road. Also, the slash that littered the ground was more than a meter deep in places. It was unstable, shifting as you attempted to walk over it. When you weren't tripping, falling, or attempting to extricate yourself from yet another trap door, you were repeatedly probing the ground with your shovel blade, attempting to find soil that simply wasn't there.* In my sleep deprived state, it was remarkable that I managed to plant nine-hour days on this terrain without collapsing from exhaustion, or becoming another silviculture statistic.
*(A 'trap door' refers to a hollow or crevasse that is concealed by a weak layer of slash or debris. It's not uncommon to break through the surface of such a trap believing you are on solid ground)
The end of a grueling day on the slopes is normally met with sighs of relief, beaming faces, and buoyant conversation. Here, the end of our day was met with hard swallows and strained silence. Arguably, the descent back down the mountain was even more nerve-racking than the ascent earlier in the day. I put on a brave face, but in reality, I was scared shitless.
Within minutes of arriving home, we immediately set about gathering stones and stockpiling wood for our newly constructed fire pits. After igniting three large blazes - secure in having fortified our little village - we made our way up the trail toward the logging camp. The greeting we received from the loggers as we entered the dining hall that evening ranged from derision to genuine looks of concern. They all knew what we were encountering in the dark of night. Word travels fast in remote camps. I chatted with one of the loggers after dinner and gave him a brief rundown of events. All he could do was shake his head. I remember him telling me that the fishing in the creek we were camped beside was extraordinary, but that no one in their right mind fished there - not without armed-backup anyway. Once again, I wondered what I had gotten in to.