We woke up Monday morning in Exchamasiks River Provincial Park. An RV was thoughtfully playing the radio for everyone within a quarter mile. The sun rose red over the river and old rusty rail bridge with another set of iconic peaks in the background that were almost becoming cliché at this point. The sea had sent a lump of salty air over night, but as we packed up there was no wind. I’d slept reasonably well despite the trains passing nearby.
This chunk of highway 16 could be the best stretch of road in Canada. The ride began in a way that is esoteric in nature to anyone not of cycle touring ilk. All I can say is that it was perfect and effortless. Wind at our back, sun shining, crisp air… smell of salt and northwest foliage, mighty Skeena River on our left….. perfection. The kind of day that you replay in your mind for the rest of your life without having to rewrite a single detail in order to make the memory better than the reality. The kind of feeling that you wish you could hold onto forever.
A white truck pulled off the side of the road several hundred yards in front of us. A fit early fifties man with a shaved head got out. I recognized him instantly. Martin.
I’d met Martin the previous evening. He was taking his dogs for a swim in the river. I was waiting for a quick window when nobody was watching to jump in the icy water and scrub the day’s sweat away. I’m not sure how people peg us when we’re not near the bikes, but Martin pegged me. Just as I thought the place was clearing out he walked down the boat dock and introduced himself. We chatted a bit about bikes, where we’d been, and where we were going.
“Tell you what, I live in Prince Rupert and I work in the logging industry. How about I take you out on a boat tomorrow night.”
As a kid you’re taught that you should not talk to strangers and that absolutely positively under no circumstances should you ever take candy from one. As a traveler these rules are a serious impediment to some of the best days one will ever have.
“That sounds amazing.”
“Great, take my number and call me when you get to town.”
A few minutes later I went to tell Soph about our upcoming sunset cruise. Martin had apparently met her on his way out.
“Hey, some guy just walked by and said that he’ll see me on the boat tomorrow. Have you been talking to strangers again?”
“Do you think it’s safe?”
“Babe, we’ve been together ten years. When have you ever known me to take safety into consideration?”
By the time the morning rolled around I’d forgotten the episode had even happened.
He dropped the tailgate and laid out a spread of fresh fruit, coffee, and whole grain muffins.
“I got up this morning and said to myself, ‘I’m going to go put a smile on some faces today.’” He had a voice that was raspy yet light. Not quite late night talk radio raspy. More like athlete/coach raspy. Talking with the same veracity that he would run a marathon with. Vocal cords worn and saying they can’t go on, but mind determined to power through it.
We sat by the side of the road and had breakfast. He had a twelve ounce cup of half and half. I don’t drink much coffee and Soph doesn’t take cream but I hate to waste food, so I sipped on it and dunked my strawberries and muffin in it.
“Well, I took the day off work. Throw those bikes in the truck. We’re going to have some fun.”
My heart sank a bit when he said that. This was one of the best days of riding we had to date and the thought of getting into a truck was not appealing. My first thought was to decline and say that we would meet him in Prince Rupert in a few hours. After a bit of consideration I decided that we should see what he had in store.
We drove just a few miles before pulling over.
“You like hikes?”
“Of course,” we answered in unison.
“Great. This is one of my favorites.”
We hopped out of the truck. I went around the back to change from my riding sandals into my hiking shoes. In a rare moment of intentional thought I decided that wandering into the woods with a guy that had strangely struck up conversation with me just 12 hours before on the side of a highway that is notorious for abductions was something that might justify a bit of precaution.
“There bears around here?” I asked.
“None at all.”
I grabbed my bear spray anyhow. The instructions state that it is not for use on people, but I was willing to give it a try if necessary. Soph noticed this, but apparently did not clock it as a way of potentially thwarting a human attack.
We walked across the train tracks and onto the original highway which had been abandoned for years and was now mostly overgrown. After a few hundred feet of walking a trail went off to the right and up a steep hill. We scrambled up a dirt path in various stages of erosion. Fixed ropes were in place but I made a point not to use them.
“Are you taking us to that creepy abandoned murder shack up there?” Just ahead there was an old corrugated tin building. The doors and windows were all busted in. The roof appeared intact, but seemed as if it would blow away in a moderate gust.
“Uhhhhhhh, no. Wrong way, I think we need to go to the right.”
We rounded a corner. There was a utility tower. Martin began to climb it.
“You know. At first I thought I heard you say ‘Do you like heights?’ but then decided that you said ‘hikes.’”
“Yeah I said heights.” He was already 15 rungs onto the first of five platforms that were spaced further the higher you went. “Come on up.” Soph looked hesitant. No stranger to trespassing on hundred foot towers with high voltage wires I gave her a comforting nod and she worked her way up the first ladder which was remarkably wobbly. At the very top it terminated on a platform no more than four feet by four feet and lacking in a rail or any other safety device. We could see for miles.
On the way back to his house he said that his girlfriend had sent him a message noting that he should be careful picking up strangers on the side of the road. By this time my little cup of half and half had warmed and I was delighting in the sweetness. He dropped us at his place in Prince Rupert and made a big plate of smoked Salmon.
“I have to take care of a few things at work. Make yourselves at home. Use the shower, laundry, and eat anything you want. I’ll be back in an hour or two.” He’d changed into a set of brown denim overalls and boots. He looked like the cover of a National Geographic running a special on the logging industry. It would likely have been titled “Loggers: The disappearance of the men that built North America.” They would have him wielding an axe and they would have cleaned the saw dust off his face and replaced it with a sawdusty looking makeup. As he opened the door to leave he turned around and said, “And don’t worry about finding a place to stay, you can crash here.”
We had just enough time to bring our gear in and get cleaned up before he came back.
“Ok, hope you’re ready for some off-roading.”
Out front was a massive kitted out Jeep. He took us tearing over the mountain behind town. I couldn’t tell if Soph was enjoying it. It occurred to me that this was not the standard past time in England that it was in the states. We dropped the Jeep and grabbed the truck and the dogs and went for a six mile hike. One of them had bad hips and Martin had built a ramp so it could walk into the bed of the truck. It was my first time exploring in an old growth northwest forest. The hundred foot canopy and the amount of moss on everything made the woods glow a phosphorescent hue that I had never seen. A 30 year veteran in the logging industry, Martin pointed out that if some of those trees could be cut, they would be worth close to a hundred grand each.
We dropped the dogs at home after the hike, Martin made a few calls, and we jumped back into the truck to head for the docks. The logging industry is reminiscent of what I imagine the automotive industry was 50 years ago. By modern standards it is a dinosaur. The work is hard and lonely. Most of the employees are older men that have been doing it for decades. It’s working class, but somehow it has been spared from severed wages, benefits, and consolidation. There is a high value placed on a person with 20 plus years of experience that is probably the difference between life and death in an industry that seems to have successfully flown under the radar of modern safety regulations. In boom times, the industry is pissing cash. Martin’s office space on the main dock was kitted with hand carved tables, railings welded from industrial relics, fans built from old motor props, and fine leather furniture.
The work generally involved wandering around with a 50 pound chainsaw, prepping trees, dragging them into the Skeena River, and then staging them for shipment in what is essentially a floating warehouse in the port. In some ways it is done with a scalpel as opposed to an axe these days. You can’t simply clear cut a forest anymore. You find trees that have fallen in avalanches or floods or are likely to collapse under their own weight. Beyond that, things haven’t changed much in 50 years. All of their boats had been in the water for more than a half century and have been rebuilt dozens of times. Life on a tugboat is an afternoon wet dream for your average American man sitting behind a desk envisioning a rugged individualistic life. You have a double burner stove so you can cook your coffee while you fry an egg with the morning’s salmon catch, a small table to sit at and watch the tides, and a “bunk” underneath that is just a piece of plywood with a piece of foam on top. In peak season, a person could spend a couple of weeks on their tug working 16 hour days with no time off. As one would hope, they are usually mini bachelor pads with dirty dishes in the sink and miscellaneous oyster shells and fish bones scattered around the little deck.
The “Warehouse Office” floated on a barge a few miles from town. It was surrounded by a maze of logs that had been lashed together to form aisles, corridors, and processing areas where timber was bundled and staged for shipping. All of the wood goes to China to be turned into lumber and is then sent back to North America.
“Check this out.” Martin was bent over on the edge of a dock that wrapped around the barge. He pulled rope hanging into the water, and at the end was a crab trap with 3 monsters in it. He dropped it on the dock, set an old keg turned into a boiling pot on a stand, and fixed what appeared to be a blowtorch below it. As the water began to boil he showed us the dozers.
A dozer is basically a miniature tugboat. They have a serrated band of steel around the entire hull. They’re used to ram into logs and maneuver them around the warehouse. The engine is mid-mounted and can be spun 360 degrees. This makes them incredibly maneuverable. It also negates the need for forward and reverse as you just turn the wheel 180 degrees to change directions. They’re only about ten feet long, but built like an iceberg with nearly eight feet of the hull below the water. They weigh almost ten tons. This makes them almost impossible to tip over. He took us each out for a quick spin. The thing would rock almost perpendicular to the water but always found its way back to center. Soph screamed, “He’s crazy.” I laid on the dock holding my stomach and laughing.
“It’s all yours,” Martin said as he leapt onto the dock.
I looked at Soph with the grin of a 12 year old that had just discovered the joys of breaking windows from 50 yards with a slingshot. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t think I want to ride that with you.”
“We don’t have a choice. Martin has to cook the crab and we have to smash this little boat around because he is a gracious host and this is what he wants.”
“They’re indestructible. Don’t worry if you crash it. Food will be ready in ten,” he chimed in.
The steering takes a few moments to get used to. A seasoned veteran could parallel park it with inches to spare on each side. The trick is to push it to full throttle and cut the wheel. This twists it sideways so fast that it tips and the deck goes nearly vertical. You can almost reach to your side and dip your fingers in the water. Soph dug her fingers into my neck as I did my best to flip it.
After several attempts to park and eventually ramming the thing into the wall of logs around the docks we jumped off and the crab was ready. Sitting on hundred year old planks, sun setting, seals basking on floating tree trunks, carb bits in my beard, tossing shells into water in front of me and watching them sink past my submerged toes into the darkness of a nearly 200 foot deep natural harbor. Cliffs rising from the depths just behind us. I drove the tug back to the main dock. We went back to Martin’s place and had halibut for dinner.
We had a quiet evening around the table. He told us about how just a few years ago he would get off of work, snort a bunch of cocaine, drink a case of beer, and pass out. It became a daily routine until one day he woke up and decided no more. He tried a few different programs, but decided they weren’t for him and quit on his own. He focused his energy on eating healthy, exercise, and making people smile.
“What do you get out of it?” I asked.
“Making other people happy makes me happy.”