Big Trees – Big Dreams - West Wind Hardwood

Ballet on Water – Pas de Poisson – Photos by Jan and Shelley Nielsen

(Right) Ballet on Water – Pas de Poisson – Photos by Jan and Shelley Nielsen

Jan and I have traveled north – beyond on the rapids – to The Broughton Archipelago on three occasions since 2004.  We have always been the smallest, oldest and most wooden boat up there.  It is a go-to destination for yachts, mega-yachts and super-mega yachts without a doubt.

Being ‘bookie’ people, we have quite a library aboard.  We collect books on natural and cultural history, on local stories – from then and now and of course, the various boating bibles on the go-to destinations.  If you read my articles, you’ll know we love to mix travel and timber-talk as much as possible…..and what better occasions to see the industry in action.  These books spin a tale of hard work and the pioneering spirit, industry growth and decline…..and reinvention.  Up in the Broughton’s, you can ‘live’ history.

I have discovered a fabulous synopsis of the History (150 Years) of the Forest Industry in BC.  This is credited to The Historical Thinking Project at  This project is committed to the incorporation of historical thinking into curriculum, classrooms and educational resources.  Can’t argue that!

It follows as……..

Before 1778
Before the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations people used the forests for homes, canoes, tools, fuel and clothing. The western red cedar was especially useful because it is naturally rot resistant; thin strips of its bark were made into waterproof clothing. Today, the forests remain an important part of the First Nations’ economy and culture. Read my article on Culturally Modified Trees in Newsletter #19 – October 2008.

As still seen today in Strathcona Park (Vancouver Island) BC – Photo by Shelley Nielsen

(left) As still seen today in Strathcona Park (Vancouver Island) BC – Photo by Shelley Nielsen

Beginning with Captain James Cook when he anchored in Nootka Sound, British sailors cut down coastal Douglas fir to make masts for their sailing ships. Even Jimmy knew a good resource when he saw one!

1840 and 50’s
Small logging companies began to cut down trees close to the water and sawmills were established along the coast to cut the timber for export. The Hudson’s Bay Company built the first sawmill in BC at Victoria in 1847. Other mills were built at Nanaimo and Alberni.

In 1865, Hastings Sawmill opened on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver and was given timber rights to much of the surrounding area. Soon there was a mill in North Vancouver.

In 1868, Gassy Jack Deighton opened a saloon nearby. This was the beginning of Gastown, the small village that would grow to become Vancouver. (In those days, “gassy” meant someone who talked a lot.)

Logging was mostly done by hand. Horses or oxen dragged felled trees along “corduroy” roads, trails with small logs, greased to reduce friction, placed across them; the ridges made by the logs resembled corduroy fabric. These were called “skid roads” and they led to the water where the huge timbers were floated to the mills.

In BC, loggers put a springboard into the tree a couple of metres above the ground. Two axe men stood on the board and chopped at the tree with heavy, double-edged axes. They also used long saws with handles at each end.

Located on Gilford Island, Broughton Archipelago – by Shelley Nielsen

Located on Gilford Island, Broughton Archipelago – by Shelley Nielsen

Road between Gold River and Woss Lake – by Jan Nielsen

Road between Gold River and Woss Lake – by Jan Nielsen

The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway created a greater demand for BC lumber. With the railway’s completion in late 1885 lumber exports to eastern Canada and the world increased. Railways were built to reach the logging camps. By 1912 there were 365 kilometers of logging track on the British Columbia coast.


On logging road west of Woss Lake – by Jan Nielsen

On logging road west of Woss Lake – by Jan Nielsen

Around 1897 the steam-powered donkey engine, introduced from the US, replaced oxen. The steam donkeys increased the speed of work and volume of timber that could be logged, but they also increased the danger to the workers. Another innovation was the “high lead system,” in which a line high over the skids pulled or lifted the logs over obstacles.

Remains of a steam donkey – located in Teakerne Arm – by Jan Nielsen

(Left) Remains of a steam donkey – located in Teakerne Arm – by Jan Nielsen

Trucks were introduced, becoming the prime means of transportation in the industry, almost completely replacing the railways.  By the late 1920’s, BC was producing half of Canada’s annual cut of timber. In 1910 BC production had surpassed Québec’s; in 1917 it had surpassed every other province’s.

Late 1930’s
A growing market for lumber as war was developing in Europe caused a sharp rise in the use of chainsaws in the forests. The first saws were heavy, awkward two-men contraptions, noisy, smelly and unreliable. However, once in place, they cut at incredible speeds with relatively little effort.

Some old beauties located in Tzoonie Narrows – near Sechelt – by Jan Nielsen

(Right) Some old beauties located in Tzoonie Narrows – near Sechelt – by Jan Nielsen

In the 1940’s wartime development of lighter metals lowered the weight and size of chainsaws, allowing one person to operate them.

The end of World War Two also meant that there was a surplus of heavy trucks and bulldozers that were sold at a low price to lumber companies. This made it easier for them to extend logging roads further into the forests and increase the scale of logging.

Companies began to practice replanting, sending workers out to former logging sites to put seedlings into the ground.

1947 – 1979
The BC Forest Act, established in 1912, was amended in 1947 to establish forest management practices that would be managed for a long-term yield of timber. It was amended in 1979 to ensure that BC forests were logged in a manner that gave the best return to government and to society by establishing an “allowable annual cut,” or AAC. The AAC determines the maximum that a logging company can log, but also says that the logging company is required to log close to that amount. The theory is that setting such limits will sustain both the industry and the forest by ensuring that old growth areas are cleared to allow for new growth.

By 1984, the forestry industry was worth $23 billion per year, and employed one out of every 10 Canadians.

Concern increased about the effects of logging, especially the common practice of clear cutting all the trees. Many criticized the logging industry for not protecting the forest ecosystem and not planting enough trees to replace what was harvested.

Several environmental groups challenged the companies and staged acts of civil disobedience. At one confrontation at Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island that lasted throughout 1993, environmentalists blockaded the logging roads. By the end of the year, 856 people were arrested. The conflict became known worldwide.

1990s to today

The BC government set a goal of preserving 12 percent of the forest as park land.

The BC government introduced the Forest Practice Act, which set strict regulations on harvesting and replanting. The new law limited the size of clear cuts, protected stream flows and animal habitat, and mandated reforestation.

 Located on East Redonda Island (Desolation Sound) – by Shelley Nielsen

(Left) Located on East Redonda Island (Desolation Sound) – by Shelley Nielsen

Several factors have an impact on forests and the forest industry. Climate change, the result of many complex factors, has resulted in hot dry summers in British Columbia, increasing conditions that cause fires. Forest management practices designed to limit forest fires, though they save homes and property, have had an inadvertent impact on forests and the industry.

The lodgepole pine needs the heat of fire to release seeds from the pine cones. Seeds released into a dense forest are unlikely to grow because there is no room for growth and light and water are limited. But when old trees burn down, it clears the way for the seeds to grow, allowing a new stand of lodgepole to grow where the old one existed, unimpeded by other trees. When forest fires are suppressed, the trees grow much larger than normal and the forest becomes denser. This creates much more fuel, called a fuel load. Hot dry summers are conducive to producing forest fires. When lightning starts a fire, the conditions combine to make it grow rapidly and it becomes harder to suppress. The burning forest creates vast amounts of smoke, releasing carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

Bowren Lakes – 2005/2007 – by Jan Nielsen Pine Beetle Kill Located on logging road between Gold River and Woss Lake – by Shelley Nielsen

Bowren Lakes – 2005/2007 – by Jan Nielsen & Pine Beetle Kill Located on logging road between Gold River and Woss Lake – by Shelley Nielsen

Current conditions in the forests have encouraged an epidemic of mountain pine beetles, which threatens the forest industry. There have been hundreds of beetle infestations over the last century, and normally a cold winter or two kills off most of them. But several mild winters in a row, coupled with the abundance of mature lodgepole pine forests, has allowed the beetle population to grow significantly. The beetles are munching their way through millions of hectares of forest. The dead trees that are left standing are still harvestable, so they are logged, which should allow new forest to grow, though logging large areas of forest has not stopped the insects.

…and where does that leave us today?  It’s good cause for thought. After all it is one of the world’s few renewable resources. What is the role for BC forests and forest products in a climate change economy? What will forest product markets look like in future?

Kevin Bromley, a partner in the forest and paper practice of the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers was blunt in saying, “the past five years have been anything but pleasant for foresters, despite generally strong demand for other commodities.”  Are better days coming as he suggests?  Here! Here!

What are you thinking?  Let us know and click here!

Nevertheless it is a delight to lose oneself on the water, delving into the past and observing industry hard at work today.  All this pictures are taken by either Jan or me somewhere Coastal BC.


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