In yet another life (I have a checkered past) I worked in a sawmill situated on the margin of False Creek in downtown Vancouver. (Today, False Creek is a fashionable Vancouver address. But in 1948 the inlet called False Creek was a virtual cesspool; it was wonderful the stuff that rode up the jackladder clinging to the backs of Douglas fir and cedar logs).
My job was tailing the head saw. I stood a couple of feet beyond the main saws – two big circular saws spinning one above the other and nearly touching – that sliced up the logs, dropping either a thick-barked slab or a piece of lumber in front of me with each pass of the carriage.
The slabs were awkward to handle, particularly those cut from the butt log of a giant cedar. The lumber was hardly better, for it came to me in “cant” form, six- or eight-inch thick billets of wood that were re-sawn into boards in a gang saw further on. It was my responsibility to forward the slabs and cants down one or another rollways into the mill’s digestive system, and the principal tool of my trade was a gadget called a “pickaroon.”
You might not be familiar with the noun pickaroon. Neither was Scott Broad when he recently purchased an example (seen in an accompanying photograph) at an estate sale in Seguin Township. Puzzling over its purpose, Scott consulted Parry Sound history buff Mike Morden, who suggested he try me. Mike referred Scott to the right guy.
Scott’s photograph of the tool aroused such memories that I went to some length in describing my experience with it. I’m now parlaying it into a column, before my enthusiasm wears off.
Incidentally, the pickaroon was not peculiar to the West Coast, nor was it only employed by tail-sawyers. Anywhere in the course of a sawlog’s progress through a mill and out onto a lumber pile it was liable to feel the prick of a pickaroon. And pickaroons were standard equipment in most mills throughout Canada, including in and about Parry Sound, which explains why this one turned up in Seguin Township. The tool eased the job of handling an item of lumber, whether a bulky cant or a railway tie, or even a one-inch board. The user reached forward with the pickaroon, and with force commensurate with the bulk of the target, pecked the pick into the wood. A sharp reef on the handle then sent the timber on its way along the rollers.
The Andrew & Miniato sawmill (the owners were White Russians who cast up in Vancouver after fleeing the 1917 Red Revolution) was a relatively small outfit, but it operated two shifts daily. I was part of a gang of a dozen or so (my brother Don was the head sawyer; that’s where he learned skills later employed in his own little sawmill beside Highway 124 three miles south of Dunchurch) working the evening shift. And long evenings they were. As I stood at my post, a big, illuminated clock atop Vancouver’s city hall stared me squarely in the face. As the evening wore on I compulsively checked the time at every pause in the action, and the hands on that clock seemed never to move.
Another annoying aspect of the tail sawyer’s job in the A & M mill was the odoriferous spray thrown off the head saws as they sliced through a log freshly raised from False Creek. Although being inured to barnyard smells, I soon enough got used to that.
However, worse was to come. That was the night I got showered by shrapnel, sharp-edged shards of iron that seconds before had been the metal fittings of a canthook.
The canthook belonged to the “dogger” who rode the carriage and saw that a log was properly clamped in place before it nosed into the screeching saws. Perhaps Don was too fast off the mark in starting the carriage forward. Or maybe the dogger was careless about releasing his canthook’s grip on the log. Anyway, he lost his hold on the tool and it slammed into the meshing jaws of the head saws, sending a blast of wood splinters and bits of iron my way.
This shut the mill shut down for an hour while blunted saw teeth were removed and replaced, giving me plenty of time to pat myself down feeling for mortal wounds.
I said I always worked with pickaroon in hand, but that’s not quite true. Three or four times, always on a Sunday, the pace in the A & M mill slowed as we rendered a special lot of logs into “airplane spruce” destined for England. The logs, select specimens of Sitka spruce rafted down from the Queen Charlotte Islands, were sent to us by a nearby larger mill which wasn’t able to give the timber the kid-glove treatment demanded by the overseas buyer.
I suppose the term airplane spruce was a hangover from when frames of the dog-fighting biplanes of the Great War were fabricated from the best spruce available. And Sitka spruce was the best. The wood must then have found other uses in England, for top grade Sitka spruce was still in demand there in 1948.
The market wanted only six-inch-thick billets of knot- and blemish-free wood, sliced like fillets from the flanks of flawless logs.
Even so small a mark as the peck of a pickaroon might devalue a piece. So on airplane spruce Sundays I put aside my right arm, so to speak, and handled the cants hands-on.