Rail Trails, Tall Trees and Cougars | West Wind Hardwood

Once upon a time, in a land far away in wilds of British Columbia dwelt the fortunate. Forests thrived; trees reached to the sky and animals were abundant.  It was a land rich, rich in natural resources; one of which was logging; not new news.

The sound of axe and handsaw, of trees falling, of whistles blowing were heard throughout the province, up and down the coast and on Vancouver Island.  Throughout Desolation Sound, Sechelt Inlet and the Broughton Archipelago Jan and I have seen the imprint of times gone by.

Throughout the forest beds rest rusting cables – All photos by Jan T. Nielsen

Engine remnants along Crane Lake Rail Trial

Initially, folk hand-felled trees most easily accessed along the shoreline but as these stands were depleted, they were drawn inland.  Horses and oxen were used to haul logs down to the shore.  Railway logging followed as stands of timber were sourced further and further back in the bush.  A network of rail lines were laid; miles and miles.

Trestle Rail Lines along West Mohun Road (Vancouver Island)

Vicinity of Mohun Lake (Vancouver Island) BC

Bloedel, Stewart and Welch (BS&W) was formed in 1911 by US lumberman Julius Bloedel and railway contractors, John Stewart and Patrick Welch.  They were attracted by the availability of quality lumber and the pending relaxation of US import duties on Canadian Lumber.  HAH!!  What’s changed?  The economics of softwood lumber trade between Canada and the US is still a contentious topic.  Where will the will ‘o wisp whims of Presidential decisions take us now?

BS&W had an impressive rail operation at Menzies Bay, and their railways ran from the bay reaching inland to the forest lands.   Camp Five on Brewster Lake, was a railway logging camp housing about 500 people, including 40 families, and even had its own school. Some self-sufficient camps evolved into communities, like the Nimpkish and Kelsey Bay Camps.

Beaver Cove Log Sort – Mouth of Kokish River – near the old Nimpkish Camp

Woss Camp is the only remaining railroad logging camp in BC.

Vicinity of Woss Bay (Vancouver Island) BC

By 1925, BS&W was logging extensive holdings of prime timber in the Union Bay, Menzies Bay and Alberni areas on Vancouver Island. Locomotive No.1 worked at the Menzies Bay, Great Central Lake and Franklin River operations.

Current Day Timber Load – Menzies Bay (Campbell River), BC

In 1958, the merger of BS&W and H.R. MacMillan Export, created MacMillan & Bloedel Limited, a company capable of thriving on the global scene.   Locomotive No.1 was taken to Vancouver in 1953 in preparation for sale to Philippine interests. When the deal fell-through, the locomotive was sent to the company’s Chemainus Division, where it was lettered as M&B No 1.  Destined for scrapping, it was purchased by local lumberman and museum founder, Gerry Wellburn, as the first item of a large personal collection that evolved into the Cowichan Valley Forest Museum in 1964. The engine was put on display at the museum entrance in 1966 and remains there still.  Affectionately known as “The Old One-Spot”; the “Spot” references the dot painted to the lower right of locomotive road numbers.  Her life spanned many evolutions in BC logging – the era of steam power, the introduction of high-lead yarding and duplex-loading (at Myrtle Point) and the use of chain saws and hard hats (at Franklin River).

Bloedel Stewart & Welch Ltd steam locomotive no 1

By Nils Öberg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As truck logging became increasingly popular, this spelled the demise of camp life, as men could easily commute to and from home on the roads built for logging trucks. In time, most of the rail lines were pulled up and the old wood trestles and bridges dismantled – replaced by steel bridges.  Railways formerly used untreated ties milled locally – often yellow cedar – now making increasing use of steel ties.  Over the years, re-purposed timbers have found their way to many, many West Wind Hardwood customers; large timbers – aged, clear – with a story to tell.  Many of the bridges still have planked decks to allow logging trucks to cross them; parts of lines and trestles can still be seen.

Old Logging Rail between Gold River and Woss Lake (Vancouver Island) BC

Captured Image from Menzies Bay Railroad Operations Map – Bloedel Stewart & Welch Ltd.

Crane Lake Rail Trail – September 2016

In 2015, our first foray to Morton Lake Provincial Park (north of Campbell River) was because of the 30’ drop of Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park; due to the extreme hot, dry summer.  Only one out of three boat launches were still in use……barely.

We stumbled into new territory; pushing boundaries that our fall mushroom hunt would lead us through.  We stumbled upon a group of elder men on quads.  They told us they were mapping out the rehabilitation of the Crane Lake Rail Trail for multi-use recreational purposes.  And a feather in their caps as this also meant the rehabilitation of streams and fish beds that would be crossed; acknowledging the need for healthier water ways. Well done boys!

The next year, we found the trail complete.  Wet boggy silence; lovely squishy moss sounds. Than Jan stops……and softly calls out ‘do you see it’?  Naturally I ask ‘what am I looking for’? He responds ‘for that deer bounding up the rocks……oh no, look it’s got a long tail with a black end.’  Indeed if it was cougar, which Jan swears it was, that would be the end you want to see bounding away!  This was our first camping trip and serious hike without our well missed Lucy II.  Much she is missed!  However, considering the glass half-full philosophy, we saw so much more birdlife and smaller wildlife; always grouse along the trails and song-birds in the trees….and cougar bounding up rock cliffs 🙂

Farewell Lucy II – Morton Lake Provincial Park Trails – September 2015

Although there is still is some logging going on; the old days are gone. Great recreational opportunities blaze their way through the abandoned rail trails.  You can walk the Menzies Creek Estuary; lope along the Ripple Rock Trail that takes you to the Seymour Narrows lookout; miles and miles of rail beds; flat, low-grade, very distinctive landscape in an overgrown, 2nd growth forest.

The spring of 1938, during a prolonged dry spell, the Campbell River area saw one of the worst forest fires; known as The Great Fire, The Sayward Fire and the Campbell River Fire. It burned out of control for almost 30 days and destroyed roughly 30,000 hectares of forested land. By the end of July, the government shut down all logging operations in the province and the unemployed were by conscription, forced to work at fighting the fire; over 1700 men were on the ground fighting this fire. The impact of the fire was felt province wide. It was cooler weather and rain that finally got this blaze under control.

After the fire, forest officials could see that natural regeneration was not going to work so a plan was devised to plant trees in the burned out area. This was an important moment because it marked a turning point in how we looked at reforestation; it is now common practice to replant after logging.


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