By Jim Stirling
Like most clichés, the platitude about old dogs and new tricks has some truth to it. But needs must be met. You do what you have to do.
Unlike most old dogs, however, all old loggers have a lifetime of experience to draw from when it comes to adapting to change. On one level or another, changes requiring a response happen every working day.
As an illustration, that background helps make dealing with the mysteries of modern electronic communication devices less daunting for Bill Litke. It makes the invented language surrounding them easier to translate and the whole process a little more straightforward. The realization can make an I-Pad handy and the foibles of Facebook just another tool to be used when it’s needed, and ignored when it’s not.
Litke’s life of changes really began when his father, Henry, moved the family across the Rockies from Alberta into British Columbia. They settled in the Buckhorn-Punchaw Lake country to the southeast of Prince George.
“That was in 1948,” said Litke who was a lad of about 12 at the time.
The Litke family’s westward strike in search of a new life was not unusual. There was a steady migration from the northern halves of Manitoba and Saskatchewan— as well as Alberta.
One of the Winton Family’s sawmills was in The Pas, Manitoba, and the community’s name was exported to Prince George and became a long term logging and sawmilling mainstay in the Prince George area: The Pas Lumber Company. Similarly, the Rustad Family came from Saskatchewan and the innovative Kordyban clan moved to Prince George from Alberta in 1951 and it remains based there today.
Some of these titans-in-the-making attracted employees from back home in the Prairies with them. Others, like the Litke’s, struck out on their own. A common denominator among the newcomers was the willingness to get stuck in and work. Much of that in central B.C. was built around logging and sawmilling. The words combine well: black and white; peaches and cream; logging and sawmilling.
“It wasn’t an easy lifestyle, but it kept us in good shape,” added Litke, with a grin. “There were so many little bush sawmills around the country then,” he recalled. “When we started out, we were cutting about 5,000 board feet a day. We eventually grew it to around 25,000 board feet. We would move the mill when the nearby wood ran out.”
Think about that for a moment. Imagine all the integrated parts of that statement. Punchaw Lake was relatively isolated country back then. There were no good road connections to town and not a lot in the way of supplies when you got there. Other farmers and loggers could usually be relied upon for a helping hand. But folk were self reliant back then, observed Litke.
The logging itself was different too. He recalls horse logging as a 15-year-old kid along some of the forested valleys and streams draining into the Fraser River. Indeed, horse power in one form or other was to become a constant thread in Litke’s life as a logger.
The horse logging kept Litke busy for a couple of years. “We tried to find private timber and we hauled and sawed quite a bit of that.” Much of the sawn rough lumber was finished at one of the outfits along ‘Planer Row’ in Prince George.
The region’s slow growing spruce—there were real winters back in those days—might have been cut on unsophisticated bush mills, but they produced quality wood products. Prince George’s reputation grew as a result, along with the numbers of gyppo sawmills. The country opened up as loggers spread further afield to find fibre.
Litke was part of the trend, working as a machine operator for logging companies and contractors. He spent time working out of Fraser Lake, about 160 kilometres west of Prince George, and now at 85, it’s still home base. Litke worked with large and small companies as resilient as himself. From the small family-owned Larworth Logging Ltd, to Fraser Lake Sawmills, a division of West Fraser Mills. The Ketcham Family built West Fraser into one of the world’s largest integrated forest companies from a home base in Quesnel, B.C.
Litke honed his considerable monkey-wrenching skills on the job working on Cat D-8’s. The D8 and its horsepower created an uncompromising machine. It and Cat’s more powerful bulldozers were designed to deliver brute force—and did so with style. Subtlety wasn’t their strong suit. Paying attention to the damage large powerful machines can cause the environment was not a priority. Today, big tractors like the Cat D8 and D9 have roles to play but more common are the scaled down models. Those machines retain strength but are more nimble, with a less damaging footprint on the terrains they traverse.
“We used the D-8s to build roads and landings,” explained Litke. Landings are usually a larger location to which logs are skidded. The continuing mechanization of harvesting equipment has now led to more roadside logging techniques to move wood from the forest to the mill yards.
We all have ‘what-if’ moments: times when we didn’t do what we were tempted to do. The time was the mid-1980s, the place was the eastern flank of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park near Ootsa Lake and the opportunity was certainly available.
“I was there with three other Cat 8’s and there just across from us on the park side was a patch of about 100 acres of beetle kill pine trees. You can see how far up the trees the beetles had gone,” Litke recalled as if seeing those stricken trees again. “We talked about taking the Cats, smashing the patch clear and burning it.” They didn’t as it turned out. Burning is prohibited in provincial parks. Had the ‘8’s’ done their thing, it probably wouldn’t have changed history, the die was set. But taking that patch out then, well …
As it was, the mountain pine beetle epidemic persisted for years. It exacted a terrible toll on the people of B.C., changed the fibre supply picture and forced the entire provincial forest industry into a profound re-organization.
Decisions or rather the lack of decisions at critical times was also a factor with wildfire for Litke. Like beetles they’re a natural part of B.C.’s forests. And as with beetles, reacting to wildfires is time critical. For Litke it used to be simpler.
“When there was a forest fire, we took guys first from the sawmills, then the planers and then the bars. It was pick and shovel work at that stage.”
But it worked and stopped many a small fire in its tracks. Forest fire experts in these days of warming climate concur with the rapid attack theory. Especially when it’s combined with removing some of the fuels on the forest floor that accelerate a fire’s spread.
It’s become a very different time in the bush, as in society. A handshake has lost its meaning to a high-five and a key in the ignition is not an invitation to do a runner. Old loggers like Litke are learning to use electronic communication methods so they can still swap lies with their buddies. They have to, under COVID conditions, even though today’s gadgets are too clever by half. Until they stop working. Then you’re sunk. At least you could always monkey-wrench a D-8. Laments Litke: “I miss those times—every day.”
On the Cover:
For the San Group, which has been finishing the first sawmill to be built on the B.C. Coast in 15 years, the last year has come with special challenges. But they have been able to successfully meet these challenges head-on. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Langley, B.C.-based company has built a greenfield sawmill/reman operation in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. Read all about this new cutting edge sawmill beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of The San Group).
A great ride in B.C.’s forest industry
B.C. Interior logger Bill Litke has ridden the rollercoaster that is the ups and downs of the forest industry over many decades—and it’s been an adventurous ride.
B.C. gets a new sawmill, on Vancouver Island
The San Group is wrapping up work on a major new small log sawmill in Port Alberni, B.C.—and there are more investments to come for the B.C.-based company owned by the Sanghera Family.
Focus on fir—and timbers
A focus on Douglas fir and timbers have proven to be the keys to success at Alberta’s HC Forest Products—so much so that they have purchased another sawmill, in B.C.
Family roots run deep in forestry
Father and son loggers Basil and Chris Isbill have a rich family history in New Brunswick logging that includes setting up equipment manufacturing company Forax—and Basil still heading out to the woods every day at the tender age of 78.
LSJ takes a look at the new developments and technologies in Small/Portable Sawmilling.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski talks about how the success of an Ontario wood products business cluster shows the value of much-needed outreach in the forest industry.