A Cathedral For Wolves

Far from being as it is today the North America encountered by the early settlers and pioneers was a place comprised, generally speaking, of two great oceans of trees divided by a broad central plain standing over six feet high in buffalo grass. The native peoples lacked the technology to alter these elements in any significant way rather, for the most part, relying on forest and prairie fires as well as other naturally occurring events to clear space for game and revitalize the land.

Old Growth Forest of the American Midwest
Old Growth Forest of the American Midwest

Much like the deep oceans where life is sparse away from the shores, these towering cathedrals of forest that covered most of North America offered very limited opportunity for populations of large birds and animals to exist. These larger creatures, away from the buffalo prairies, depended on the random acts of nature, and the studious work of the beaver, to create new space for meadows, grass, field flowers and wild rice. As a result, the native forest peoples of the time existed in relatively small bands, widely dispersed in order to not overtax their food supply. Large villages like Cahokia were very rare exceptions, existing at all by relying on trade. Sharing this harsh environment were the other people of the forests, wolves, hungry wolves, large with keen wits, and an ever-present eye for the next opportunity to sustain.

Into this environment came the early pioneers, axe in hand more so than a rifle, ready to undertake the task of reforming a continent. The clearing away of the forests of North America was no small feat and after hundreds of years of effort the work continues today, albeit in a more sustained way with an eye to the future. But these early pioneers had little time to consider the future, their needs were immediate, and clearing the land for the farms to come was the first step. Lumberjacks were needed and in great number.

My family for several generations were mainly lumberjacks. Where ever they went, first clearing land to grow food for their family, then cutting timber for lumber, ships masts, and warmth, their lives revolved around the cutting of the ancient forests.

One of my ancestors, it was related to me by my dad, would travel alone up near the great lakes each winter to cut a raft of select timber. These special logs, tamarack mostly, were well suited for ships masts, a particularly difficult tree to find. Tamarack is an Algonquian name, offering a clue as to how far north one must travel to find them. Then each spring he would float this raft of valuable cargo down the St. Laurence river on the spring freshet to the shipyards of the east. One winter, as the story goes, he never returned.

Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Black River Falls, Wisconsin

Another member of the Knight family was the first man to ride a log raft over the rapids at Black River Falls, Wisconsin. In the early 1950s a small park was dedicated at the town of Black River Falls to commemorate his accomplishment. The Knight family, my 6 year old self at the time included and riding in the back seat with my grandmother Bessie, traveled there for the dedication. The small park is gone now but in various places the deed is still recorded. “Log Driving” at any time was a dangerous business, with the Black River being uniquely so. The “drivers” had what was considered the most dangerous job in the logging industry with daily dunking’s the rule and drowning an all too common outcome.

My Dad, Bayard Knight, worked as a logger early in life. He logged in the virgin timber of the Mississippi Valley in forests of fir and sugar pine of large girth, often 6 feet in diameter and greater. This was double edged broad axe work and he bore the scars on his feet to prove it. Double edged broad axes have a nasty habit. When striking the tree at a just slightly wrong angle, they tend to glance back directly into the loggers ankles and feet. If the logger hadn’t yet learned the reflexive action of turning the axe handle slightly when this mis-strike occurred then he ended the day with a nasty gash to his boot, and at times the foot underneath. If he had learned the trick then he got away with just the side of a several pound steel axe hitting his ankle with enough force to crack the bone if he was unlucky. Watching a skilled axe man with a double-bladed axe was truly remarkable to say the least. With just a few precise swings of the razor-sharp blade chips of wood, each measuring in pounds, would begin to fly and the tree was felled in just a few minutes. My dad seemed to never lose his touch at this skill and with the cutting complete the tree would fall exactly where he had intended.

Bitter cold lumber camps
Bitter cold lumber camps

The lumber camps that Bayard Knight worked at in his early 20s, along with his brother Glenn as well, were far from the closest settlements and they were connected to those settlements by “skid roads” formed by the travel of teams of horses and oxen pulling loads of logs through the snow to a river or mill. The men that worked at these lumber camps were for the most part “Swedes” as he related, big men that put in long hard days of work in usually bitter cold, stopping only when the sun no longer allowed the work to continue. The highlight of the week, Saturday night, was looked forward to with great anticipation, perhaps it being a tradition in Sweden, my dad wasn’t sure. But Saturday night was a major part of what made this work worthwhile to these hard-working timbermen.

Each Saturday night the men would put on their best clean shirt, have a hearty dinner, move on to the drinking of some whiskey, and then fight. It would be a brawl, with all discord and disagreements of the previous week resolved in short order. My dad, having already made his contribution, as I will explain shortly, would retreat to a top bunk and try to stay out of the way until peace was restored. Sunday arrived with time devoted to a little prayer, the nursing of cuts and bruises, and then back to work in the big woods.

Atima Atchakosuk - The Cree Wolf Legend
Atima Atchakosuk – The Cree Wolf Legend

My dad was found to be of unique value to the Saturday night events at these camps and it made for him a special place that he much enjoyed. It seemed that in these remote and wild forests, while larger life forms were scant, there was one other group sharing the forest with the loggers. Wolves.. Well, it seemed that the “Swedes” as a rule were deathly afraid of these wolves, not being familiar with them in their past lives as farmers and sailors. That presented a unique problem because each week someone had to go to the nearest settlement to get the supply of whiskey for Saturday night. A weekly chore in that the lumber camps did not allow whiskey in the camp during the rest of the week knowing the inevitable outcome of the mixing of whiskey and loggers.

Bayard Knight had very little fear of wolves, his family having lived around them for generations, so it was with no shortage of thanks that the “Swedes” gratefully let it fall to my dad to be the man that would set out each Friday along the skid road to hike the miles to town and return with a pack encumbered with a precious cargo.

On these trips wolves would on occasion dance and sift through the trees at the sides of the skid road, following the traveler sometimes most of the distance to town or back. My dad recalled that this made him nervous but not really fearful. As he explained, wolves are not dumb animals, they fervently avoid the risk of being injured themselves because in their world any injury, even ever so slight, can spell the end of their life in those harsh surroundings. So, the wolves would just follow, knowing humans were dangerous, hoping probably, if wolves have hopes, that their prey would simply keel over and die so that dinner could commence.

One last recollection of my dad, in regard to his relationship to the giants of the forest, is that later in his life he traveled in his pickup truck from Wisconsin to California to visit at my home in Santa Cruz. Because of his history and that of the family I suggested that we go take a look at some really big trees and it was with his great enthusiasm that we drove to “The Forest of the Nicene Marks”. Trees there are coastal redwood, enormous trees, each one many feet in diameter and old beyond telling.

Redwood Giants
Redwood Giants

At the Nicene Marks trail head, we joined a large group of environmental enthusiasts there to see one of Gods greatest works of wonder. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but these were generally the most “huggiest” of the tree hugger specie and they were there for a religious experience.

Now my dad would never, in my experience, say anything to intentionally offend or hurt someone, but he was occasionally endowed with an exceptional ability to simply say what was on his mind at rather inconvenient times. And so, it was with the utmost of ill timing, that as the group stood close together staring in silent awe at a particularly large and perfect wonder of nature, that my dad uttered to himself, but loud enough for all to overhear, “boy, wouldn’t it be something to cut that one just to see it fall!”. The true thoughts of an old logger. In all of the silence present before his comment it somehow became even quieter in the moment that followed. As one, all of the heads in the group slowly rotated away from the enormous tree and toward our little family. And as the expressions of each face changed from wonder to horror, and worst, into that vacuum of impending doom I blurted out the only thing that came to mind, “well dad, it’s getting late so let’s call it a day and just go back the way we came”. I doubt my dad even took notice of the moment he had brought about, he was still too astonished by that immense tree.

 

David Knight

October, 2019