Ernie White is not the first person to gaze upon the jumble of drift logs cluttering local beaches and get dollar signs in his eyes thinking about how valuable wood is, especially these days. The process of scouting Sunshine Coast shores for escaped logs and dragging them into log markets is known as beachcombing or, more officially, as log salvaging, and it has a long history in these parts, not exclusively honourable.
When I was a kid growing up in a small logging camp on Nelson Island, beachcombers were the bane of my father’s existence due to their practice of lurking around his precious log booms like vultures, eager to seize upon any log that strayed into open water, whereupon they would snatch it away, never to be seen again by its hard-working owner. It didn’t help that many beachcombers, referred to by Dad as log pirates or wood rustlers, weren’t above sneaking into our booming ground at night and helping a few choice peelers to escape by surreptitiously undoing the boomchains that held them in place. He was not the only boss logger who kept a loaded rifle by his bedroom window in the interests of deterring such behaviour. That gun was fired more than once, mostly at a particularly notorious rustler named Ed Wray who was noted for sneaking noiselessly around booming grounds in a skiff equipped with soundproofed oarlocks. To rub salt in the wound, he was an amateur scribbler and published self aggrandizing stories with titles like “Confessions of a West Coast Log Rustler” in the Star Weekly.
Not all log salvors (to give them their preferred title) were bottom-feeders. Some, like Sam Lamont, were hard working, honest people who played a useful role in rounding up runaway timber and made a good living doing so. He had a fine little tug which he named the Vulture in a nod to beachcombers’ unsavory reputation, but was respected up and down the waterfront for his fearlessness in venturing out into storms when big swells were breaking up the log-tows and the larger tugs needed help.
“I mean, we didn’t pray for bad weather,” his widow Anne Clemence laughs. “But we knew when the bad weather hit, we’d have work—and you weren’t paid unless you turned in the logs.” A genteel London-trained nurse, Anne took a position in the old St. Mary’s Hospital in Pender Harbour in the early 1960s. There she met Sam and became his trusty second mate, running the Vulture while he galloped back and forth on shore lassoing logs, which she would then jerk into the water by snapping the towline tight.
On one occasion the heavy line broke and whipped back at her, knocking her out cold and putting her in hospital for a week. Now 89 and still maintaining the lovely waterfront home she built with Sam, she chuckles at the memory. It was all in a day’s work for the Coast’s lady beachcomber.
Sam and Anne quit chasing runaway logs in 1978 because they felt beachcombing’s best days were already past. The trade continues, but like many pursuits common in those wild west times, it is a mere shadow of itself nowadays. Decades ago the government undertook to regulate the business by making the beachcombers buy licences and deliver all salvaged wood to official collection stations, which pay the salvager only a portion of a log’s full worth and, after taking a healthy slice for themselves, return the remainder to the log’s original owner. As well, the number of logs escaping is a tiny fraction of what it was back in the day, partly due to the shrinkage of the logging industry but mostly due to improved methods of bundling and barging logs that greatly reduces escapement. To some, like Wilson Creeker Ernie White, that just creates an opportunity for a low-budget startup like the one he has in mind. Ernie, whose day job is at the local pulp mill, hasn’t actually done any log salvaging before but is fairly handy, as evidenced by his yard full of spare car batteries, used tires, dogs, rusty pickup trucks with mismatched fenders and doors—those that have doors at all—and other accessories of the well rounded handyman.
Earlier this year, Ernie and his deckhand/videographer Connor Smith are assembled in the work yard getting ready to launch their new beachcombing sideline. Ernie, a stocky 59-year-old in a loose sweatshirt and worked-in jeans, has traded for a sturdy and suitably beatup aluminum skiff with an experienced 30-horse Yamaha outboard for power.
Things seem to be starting off well. Ernie, who answers his phone as “Edub” has just received his log salvor licence from the ministry of forests and sees a good omen in the number.
“I love the number,” he exults. “One, three, three, three, three! And I love threes!”
Connor has brought along his video equipment to record the momentous launch and Ernie is a willing subject, looking straight into the lens and declaring that the project will be like a gold rush except in wood, whereupon he produces a Sharpie to scrawl the name Wood Rush on the skiff’s dented bow.
They scout the shoreline below Ernie’s property and like what they find.
“This is a log catch right over here,” Ernie says, pointing to a small cove. “It catches logs all winter long and just stashes them.”
“See this big old cedar log,” he says, indicating a slivery veteran of the storms with ends rounded like a cigar, “I suspect this baby is worth—two grand.” He slaps the log. “Two grand right there! There’s another money log over there. Look at all these!”
Ernie is almost dancing with glee, his voice rising to a squeal. “This log-catch is a money pit! It does it every winter! I come down here and there’s logs everywhere!” Safe to say there’s not a log in sight Anne Clemence would have bothered to put her line on, but a lot has changed in log markets since her day.
Presently the rollout of the new enterprise hits a few snags. When they go to launch the boat, it turns out one trailer wheel is rusted up and won’t turn. Ernie has a standard treatment for recalcitrant machinery that consists of beating on it with an axe, and eventually the wheel loosens up. They whisk the Wood Rush to the water and anchor it off the “log catch” to wait for the right tide, but by the time they get back the little ship is half sunk. They bail furiously and get it back on an even keel, but then the ancient outboard refuses to start.
The cranking mechanism has locked up. Ernie taps on it with a dog hammer, but this time the all-purpose cure fails to work. Tired from all the bailing, the men decide to leave their assault on the money pit for another day. As it happens, months pass before they can return, but “Edub” remains as determined as ever to dip his oar into the coast’s colourful beachcombing tradition.