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Hunting Down the Last of the Old Growth Pine

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Hunting Down the Last of the Old Growth Pine

Felling a Mast

Felling a Mast Tree

From the Penobscot Marine Museum

Following is an account of the difficulty of finding marketable pine trees in the mid-1800’s, when much of the easily accessed growth had already been cut. It is condensed and edited from John S. Springer’s Forest Life and Forest Trees, which focused on the logging industry in Maine and New Brunswick, and was published in New York in 1851.

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Twenty-five or thirty years ago, large tracts of country were covered principally with pine trees. Those tracks seemed purposely located in the vicinity of lakes, large streams, and rivers; a winter’s work could then be made contiguous to improved portions of the country, which rendered little previous exploration necessary. But the woodman’s axe, together with the destructive fires which have swept over large districts from time to time, have, so to speak, driven this tree far back into the interior wilderness.

The diminished size and number of these pine renders exploring expeditions previous to the commencement of a winter’s campaign absolutely indispensable, at least to insure success. This labor is performed, more or less, at all periods of the year; but, perhaps, the more general and appropriate time is found to be during the earlier part of autumn. The work of exploring is also performed during the winter, while the crews are on the ground, in camp. The difficulty of traveling through deep snows is overcome by the use of the snow shoe.

When the business of timber-hunting is deferred until autumn, the following method is practiced: Two or three men accustomed to the business take the necessary provisions, which usually consists of ship-bread, salt pork, tea, sugar, or molasses; for cooking utensils, a coffee-pot or light tea-kettle, a tin dipper, sometimes a frying-pan, a woolen blanket or two for bed-clothes, and an axe, with gun and ammunition; all of which are put on board a skiff or bateau.

With these slight preparations, away we start; now making our way up the main river, then shooting along up the less capacious branches; sometimes performing a journey of two hundred miles far into the interior. The locations for our nightly encampments are selected in time to make the necessary arrangements for refreshment and repose near some gushing spring. We pitch our tent, which formerly consisted of a slender frame of little poles, slightly covered on the top and at each end with long boughs, the front entirely open, before which burns a watch-fire.

In some instances a large blanket is spread over the frame; and when there are good reasons to expect rain, we haul our boat up, turn it bottom side up, and crawl beneath it. Of late, small portable tent-coverings are used, which prove very convenient.

Next the evening meal is prepared. Here the tea is thoroughly boiled, in the coffee-pot or tea-kettle, over the little fire. A thin slice of salt pork is cut, and, running a sharp stick through it, it is held over the fire and roasted, being withdrawn occasionally to catch the drippings on a cake of pilot or ship bread. This is a good substitute for buttered toast, the roasted pork making an excellent rasher. Sometimes we ate the pork raw, dipping it in molasses, which some relish; and though the recital may cause some qualms, yet we can assure the uninitiated that, from these gross simples, the hungry woodsman makes many a delicious meal.

Sometimes our slumbers are disturbed by the shrill whooping of the owl, and sometimes the tramping of timid deer, attracted by the waning light of our watch-fire, or some roving beast of prey, attracted by the savory vapors of our evening meal, startle us from our slumbers. One of my messmates recalled the following:

“As I lay upon my back, I turned my eyes upward, when they met the full gaze of a large bear, which stood with its fore paws on the log directly over my head. In an instant I sprang upon my feet, and, seizing a brand from the fire. I hurled it after him, at the same instant making the woods tremble with the echo of my voice. Next morning we came across an old she-bear and her cubs. We had a spirited little dog with us, who instantly encountered the bear; but one blow from her paw completely disabled him, and his injuries proved so serious that we were obliged to kill the little fellow. One of our men caught a cub; it struggled and whined, which soon attracted the attention of the old one. She at once rushed after him, and he was soon glad to drop his prize, but not until the old dam had nearly torn the clothes from off his back.”

Arriving at length upon or near the territory to be explored, we haul our bateau safely on shore, and turn it bottom upward. Then, dividing our luggage into parcels, and making use of our blankets for knapsacks, we begin to traverse the wild forests.

The uneven surface of the country, together with the density of the forest, circumscribe the range of vision. To overcome this impediment, we ascend into the top of some lofty tree. Sometimes extensive views of the surrounding forest are obtained from the side of abrupt ridges, and from the top of a horseback.

When it is necessary to obtain views from low lands, the obstructions are overcome by ascending the highest trees. When an ascent is to be made, the spruce tree is generally selected, principally for the superior facilities which its numerous limbs afford the climber. To gain the first limbs of this tree, which are from twenty to forty feet from the ground, a smaller tree is undercut and lodged against it, clambering up which the top of the spruce is reached. In some cases, when a very elevated position is desired, the spruce tree is lodged against the trunk of some lofty pine, up which we ascend to a height twice that of the surrounding forest.

From such a tree top, large clumps and veins of pine are discovered, whose towering tops may be seen for miles around. Such views fill the bosom of timber-hunters with an intense interest. To detail the process more minutely, we should observe that the man in the tree top points out the direction in which the pines are seen; or, if hid from the view of those below by the surrounding foliage, he breaks a small limb, and throws it in the direction in which they appear, while a man at the base marks the direction indicated by the falling limb by a compass which he holds in his hand, the compass being quite as necessary in the wilderness as on the pathless ocean.

In fair weather the sun serves as an important guide; and in cloudy weather the close observation of an experienced woodsman will enable him to steer a tolerably correct course by the moss which grows on the trunks of most hard-wood trees, the north side of which are covered with a much larger share than the other portions of the trunk. This Indian compass, however, is not very convenient nor safe, particularly in passing through swampy lands, which are of frequent occurrence.

After spending several days in scouring the wilderness in search of the pines, minutely examining their quality, calculating the distance the logs may have to be hauled, and noting the surface of the land through which the logging roads are to be cut, &c., we retrace our steps to the landing, where the bateau has been left. Once more our frail bark floats upon the stream.

It is known to those versed in the habits of the black bear, that late in the fall of the year they manifest an uncommon fondness for pitch or resinous substances. In the course of my travels through the forest, I have often seen fir trees which contained large quantities of balsam, with their bark entirely stripped from the trunk by these craving depredators. Under the impulses of this peculiar appetite, they sometimes tear even our bateau to pieces for the tar with which it is besmeared. If injured beyond the means of repair, we are compelled to pursue our journey down on foot. Perchance we may fortunately meet some Indian trapper with his frail canoe, which we charter for a portion of the journey. As a conveyance, the Indian canoe seems to occupy a space between riding and flying; not in respect to its speed, although this is considerable, but its fairy-like buoyancy quite dissipates the idea of one’s gravity.

Having determined, during the exploration, upon the territory from which we wish to cut and haul our logs, we proceed to obtain permits.

Among other preliminaries which anticipate the winter operations of lumbermen is the putting up of large quantities of meadow hay. Much of the intervale land is covered with a heavy growth of this meadow grass, which is gathered in plentiful supply for the subsistence of the teams employed in procuring lumber in its immediate vicinity.

Crews of men resort, with the usual haying implements, provisions, &c., for making and stacking the hay to be used during the ensuing winter. In the latter part of autumn the meadows are covered with water, which finally freezes. It is therefore necessary to erect temporary scaffolds, called staddles, upon which the hay is to be piled in large stacks. These staddles are made of poles laid upon cross-stakes or crutches, sufficiently high to protect the hay from the water beneath. From these the hay is removed, sometimes in boats before the waters freeze, and afterward upon sleds on the ice.

Since agricultural interests have invited men far into the interior in the vicinity of lumber berths, where large tracts of land have been cleared up, less value is attached to, and less use made of meadow hay than formerly, as English grass becomes more plenty, is more available, and is much better in its quality.

A distinguishing characteristic of this kind of business is the unceasing encounter by our lumbermen with the blood-thirsty millions of flies who swarm and triumph over these sanguinary fields. The only respite is afforded when there is rain, or high winds.

At night the mosquito lancers take up the action, and no coat of mail is proof against the attacks of the midget, which is so small as to be almost imperceptible to the naked eye. The black fly and the mosquito can only reach the exposed parts of the body, but to the midget every portion is accessible.

In one process of the haying operations, in particular, the flies are very annoying. The hay, when cut, is carried in small cocks upon two poles by two men to the scaffolding, to be stacked. While thus employed, with both hands engaged, millions of these little invisibles insinuate themselves under the garments, and, whatever interest or ambition may fail to do, by way of producing energetic motion, the irritating smart of their bite abundantly makes up.

But, notwithstanding the labor and annoyances of meadow life, there are pastimes and adventures to be met with. A shot now and then at some stray deer who may chance to stroll upon the meadow to graze; the hooking of beautiful trout, pickerel, and other delicious pan fish, afford agreeable relief from ennui; while the spoils of the forest and the brook afford most agreeable changes of diet.

At the proper time, which varies in different localities, but generally during the early part of fall, a more extensive outfit is made for another up-river expedition, for the purpose of erecting winter camps, clearing the main roads, and attending to such other preliminaries as may be necessary.

Several years ago the whole distance from our homes to the interior was traveled by water, on which occasions heavily laden boats were taken up these rivers and streams, and across the lakes, an operation which was both hazardous and laborious, particularly where the swift current of rapids was to be overcome, and when it became necessary to carry the boat and cargo around impassable falls—a frequent occurrence, the river in some places being nothing but one continuous succession of rapids for miles. In some places, to save the labor of ‘carrying by,’ attempts are made to shove the boats up fearful rapids, where a single mistake or false maneuver would swamp them. A lively little incident of this kind is quoted below, from Doctor Jackson’s account of an excursion on the business of a geological survey:

“While we were engaged in exploring the rocks, our men tried to shove the boat up the falls, but the violence of the current prevented their effecting their object, the boat being instantly filled and sunk in the attempt, while all our baggage and provisions that remained on board were swept off and carried down the stream. A scene of unwanted activity now ensued in our endeavors to save our articles, as they were rapidly borne down the foaming waters. The boat, fortunately, was not much injured, and we succeeded in hauling it upon a rock, and bailed out the water, after which we gave chase to our lost articles, and succeeded in saving those that were most essential to our safety. The bread-barrel, although scuttled, was but half full of bread, and floated down stream with its opening uppermost, so that but little of it was injured. Our bucket of rice burst open and was lost. The tea-kettle and other cooking apparatus sank in the river, and were fished up by a hook and line. The tent was found about a mile down the river, stretched across a rock. The maps and charts were soaked with water, so that it required as much labor and patience to unroll them as the papyri of Herculaneum. Our spare boots and shoes were irrecoverably lost. Having rescued the most important articles from the water, we carried by the falls, camped, and dried our papers and provision, being thankful that no worse an accident had befallen us. Fortunately, we had taken the precaution to remove our surveying instruments and the blankets from the boat before the falls were attempted.”

Amid pleasant scenes, we are, however, subject to contrasts of a less agreeable kind; and here our Indian, while cutting wood, suffered a severe accident; his hatchet, accidentally slipping, was driven directly into his leg between two bones, so as to expose the anterior tibial artery. I was then called upon in my surgical capacity, and, having my instruments with me, dressed his wound in the usual manner, and early next morning we took him away and made arrangements with another Indian, Louis Neptune, to supply his place while he was recovering from his wound.

These difficulties of transportation have been somewhat abated by the construction of roads, which penetrate much nearer to lumber berths than formerly, and enable us to convey our provisions, implements, and even boats, with horse teams, a considerable portion of the distance once laboriously performed by water. I am not familiar with any kind of labor which tests a man’s physical abilities and powers of endurance more than boating supplies up river. The labor of carrying by falls, and portages from lake to lake, imposes a heavy tax upon the body. Barrels of pork, flour, and other provisions, too heavy for one man to carry alone, are slung to a pole by the aid of ropes, one man being at either end, and thus we clamber, under our heavy burdens, over rocks, the trunks of fallen trees, slippery roots, and through mud sloughs, sometimes without any path, through the thickets and groves of trees. The boat is turned bottom upward, he gunwales resting upon the shoulders of three men, two abreast near the bows, and one at the stern. In this position we pass over the same route through which provisions have been carried to the next landing, where the goods are again reshipped, and we proceed by water on lake or stream, with the alternate routine of paddling, poling, and lugging, until the place of destination is reached.

When I call to mind the intemperate habits to which most lumbermen in times past were addicted, I am surprised that no more accidents have occurred while navigating our rivers. We had plenty of rum on board, which was used at stated intervals, as, according to the faith of nearly every man in those days, it gave to the arm more vigor in the necessary labor of plying the paddle. It soon became evident that one of our number had imbibed too freely, to the imminent hazard of our lives. The reader may easily imagine our perilous condition under such circumstances. Our frail skiff was about eighteen feet long, and four feet across the top of the gunwale amidships, tapering to a point at either end, constructed of thin slips of pine boards nailed to some half dozen pair of slender knees about two inches in diameter. On board were some fifteen hundred pounds of provisions, with seven men, which pressed her into the water nearly to the gunwale; three inches from the position of a level, and she would fill with water.

As men usually are quite insensible to danger when in liquor, so was it with Dan in this instance. Too comfortable in his feelings to keep still, as indeed was indispensable to the most steady among us, he kept constantly lurching about, and periling us with a capsizing repeatedly. He was admonished in the most pressing and peremptory manner to keep quiet; but in his drunken idiocy he became a terror, and it was manifest that something must be done to insure our safety.

“My God! We are gone!” shouted some half dozen voices at the instant. However, by a counter-motion we raised the submerged gunwale from sinking further. In an instant our helmsman was upon his feet, and, raising his paddle in a most menacing attitude over the bead of the intoxicated man, “D—n you” said he, “If you move again I’ll split your skull open!” The threat was terrible, and he would have cleft his head open in an instant. I expected he would strike, for our lives depended upon quieting him in some way; but the fellow seemed to awake to our perilous condition, and slunk down into the bottom of the boat. We put about instantly for the shore, and in a few moments touched the beach.

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Written by johnwood1946

August 17, 2016 at 8:41 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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