Walking in the shadows of giants: logging on the West Coast

208 years ago, nearly to the day, in March and April of 1811, a ship called the Tonquin arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River carrying the first white settlers to arrive on the Western shores of North America. The Tonquin was funded by a wealthy New Yorker, John Jacob Astor, who had the intention of establishing a vast trading empire between the fledgling United States of America, Russia, China, and England.

The men aboard the Tonquin had experienced a harrowing 18-month journey from New York, around the southern tip of South America, through Hawaii, and finally through the treacherous Columbia Bar. Along the way there were cultural clashes between the Scottish, Irish, French-Canadian, and American men; between soldiers and trappers; and between the over-eager leadership of the young Captain Thorn. Eight men died, and six of these deaths were the direct cause of unwise and over-bearing leadership on the part of Captain Thorn.

Arriving at last on land, the men charged with the duty to establish a physical post were eager to have their freedom of Thorn's toxic ship environment. Unfortunately, they found the forests of the West Coast a formidable encounter. Having only hand tools at their disposal, it would take these men up to three days to fell just one massive log at the site of their eventual fort. After three months of labouring this way, they constructed a small cabin and storage room, unloaded the Tonquin, and parted ways with Thorn. The forest would continue to haunt them, however.

The dark, wet, and cold winter severed the men's ability to find food. Scurvy, depression, and further unrest between the diverse cultures grew ten-fold. After two winters the men all abandoned their posts, finding their own ways back East, both overland and sea.


I get up from a nap and walk across the floating dock that supports my temporary home. At low tide, the cool air smells of fish and salt water. The spring sun is hot. I'm not going to work today, and I am eager for the rest.

I'm in Potts Lagoon, on West Cracroft Island, sandwiched between Vancouver Island and the remote mainland of Western BC. I work as a commercial tree-planter, contracted by the provincial logging company to replant their harvestable land. I spend my days clambering among the debris and remains of what was once old-growth coastal forest. The match-box of second-growth slash droops between the more massive old-growth stumps, so large that the ground still seems to sag between them, as if each stump has its own gravity.

During the pauses in my labor, I like to look around and imagine what the forest would have looked like if these massive stumps still supported trees. Massive towers hundreds to thousands of years old. I wonder what story the forest has to say about the time elapsed between the Tonquin's arrival and today.


In a series of upcoming posts, I intend to explore this question. For now, here are some photos of these old stumps and of my work as a tree planter.

A friend working a small slope beneath one massive stump. Note the notch where the original loggers put their standing boards.
A colleague takes joy in climbing this old stump, which lived its life on the peak of this cliff.
We walk along an access road through a cut block. A patch of retention trees ahead.
Although we have roads, where Thorn's men did not, they are sometimes more trouble than they ought be.


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