Logging Expressions and Stories

oxen hauling logs over skid road
Oxen hauling logs over skid road - Vancouver Island (Campbell R Museum)

Did you know that there was once a unique set of words and phrases on Vancouver Island? Charles Lillard, a logger and poet, compiled a list of words and phrases that he remembered from working in the woods.

Logging camps had a cookhouse and a bunkhouse which were the source for many expressions. In italics below, are some expressions:

Cook house at a logging camp
Cook house at a logging camp 1930s

Punk: bread
Dough goods: camp bread and biscuits
Huckleberry grunt: biscuits with berries
Cackleberries: eggs
Canned cow: milk
Salve: butter
Bear sign: berry jam
Monkey blankets: pancakes
Sow bosom: salt pork
Snoose: tobacco
Skid road: corduroy road where logs are placed perpendicular to direction of road cut through the forest
Widow maker: tree with a dead top
Schoolmarm: tree with a large fork
Wolf-tree: a large tree that ‘hogs the sun’

Topping a tree at Cameron Lake
Topping a tree at Cameron Lake

Wangun: a float house that followed loggers on their spring drives, which housed the cook and supplies
Salt chuck: ocean
Sourdoughs: old timers
Cheechako (pronounced chee-chah-koh): newcomer
Cabin fever: when people grew tired of one another’s company after spending several months together
Breakup: Spring
Split the blanket: to be rid of one’s partner
Bush fever: when someone tired of living in the bush
Grubstake: to finance a logger
Having missed too many boats: haven’t been to the Mainland in a long time
White-socks: tiny biting insect
No-see-ums: tiny insects that can get into one’s eyes, nose
Big smoke: smoke rising from sawdust burners

 

John Keast Lord wrote of logging expressions on “Vancouver’s Island” in his book At Home In the Wilderness published in 1867. Here is an excerpt:

“…hold the [axe] handle by the extreme end, not too firmly, or it will jar your wrists, whirling the axe at arm’s length round your head, bring it obliquely down upon the spot you have fixed your eye on. If you bring the edge down at the proper slant, the blade should be nearly buried in the bark and timber; if you do not, it will ‘glance,’ and then look out for your legs. Repeat this cut, if you can; an axeman would, twice or three times following in the same place; should the tree be, for example four feet in diameter, chop in the next cut you make three feet lower down than where you made the first cut, but this time horizontally, always bring the axe round at arm’s length. This will give you the ‘right-sized chip,’ to use a ‘lumberer’s‘ phrase. The ‘length of the chop’ is always in proportion to the girth or diameter of the tree to be felled.

It may be a useful hint, to mention two cases of terrible suffering, both of which ended fatally to ‘lumberers’ employed in splitting heavy timber. One was wedging open a large pine which had been ‘felled.’ He had driven three wedges, one after another, and thus opened a considerable fissure; the first two wedges were loose, so that one of them came out easily, but the second being rather more firmly fixed, required to be knocked clear with the mallet or ‘wedge beetle.’ Holding the top of the wedge with one hand and striking it with the mallet held in the other, it suddenly slipped and the jerk threw him forwards.

Dropping the wedge and instinctively pushing his left hand forward to save himself from falling, he most unfortunately pushed it into the gaping crack, a matter that would have been of no consequence if the third wedge had not suddenly ‘sprung,’ or slipped from out its place. In an instant the crack closed, and firmer than any steel trap ever held a beaver the fissure shut upon and held the wretched man by the wrist and hand. Luckily in this case there were other ‘lumberers’ at work nearby, who hearing the shrieks of their comrade ran to his aid; and wedges driven by muscular arms wielding massive mallets, soon released the sufferer from this novel trap of his own making.

Although the hand and wrist, crushed to a mummy, were together amputated, still the shock was too great; the wound became gangrenous and the axeman died.

Loggers on springboards pounding wedges into tree
Loggers on springboards pounding wedges into tree 1905 via flikr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second misfortune befell an axeman who was ‘logging’ up a very large tree into four feet lengths for splitting into ‘cord wood.’* An immense amount of practice is required to enable a man to ‘log’ timber cleverly. In the first place, it is extremely difficult to stand on a tree lying on the ground, and chop betwixt your feet, your legs being well apart; in the next place, few but the most practised hands can make the two ‘cuts’ meet exactly in the centre of the tree trunk. I have seen a tree 250 feet long ‘axed’ into four feet lenths without a log being moved or displaced; so accurately did all the notches meet, that division was accomplished without knocking one of the ends out of the straight line.

If the axe is not brought down as it is ‘swung‘ round at the extreme end of the handle, exactly true to the slant of the notch, it will be certain to ‘glance,’ and then if you do not require a wooden leg for the rest of your life, why, you may congratulate yourself upon possessing a greater share of luck than falls to the lot of most young choppers.

The man had finished his logging, and commenced splitting. I have said that the logs, after being chopped one from another, are seldom displaced, so that the ‘lumberman,’ when he splits them, still stands and works upon the log he is going to divide with immense wooden and iron wedges to be driven by a ponderous mallet, the axeman having first made a place with his axe to insert a wedge into the oblique cut in the log’s end. The lumberer I am speaking of began his task, wedge followed wedge, and with many a creak and groan the tough fibres yielded to the resistless force of the wedges.

Soon a yawning crack opened along the log, and in a brief space it would have been in two, but by some mischance the man slipped, and, just as in the other case of the handle, the wedges ‘sprung,’ and allowed the crack to close upon his foot. Having tried every means available to free himself, but in vain; shouting he knew to be useless, as there was no one within hail, and night was coming on, he was well aware that the bitter cold of a northern winter must end his life long before any help could be reasonably anticipated.

In this agony of mind and intensity of bodily suffering, with mad despair the poor fellow seized the axe, and at a single chop severed his leg from the imprisoned foot; with wonderful presence of mind he tied a ligature round to prevent it from bleeding, and then dragged himself along in the direction of his cabin, some distance away. All was done for the gallant sufferer but in spite of all, he too died.

There are a great many very similar stories told of mishaps which have befallen the Canadian backwoodsman, but these two I relate having come under my own observation.”

*cord wood was used as fuel for sternwheelers

Logging by axe in Sooke
Logging by axe in Sooke 1880