excerpts from

Three Years
on the
Nowhere Road

Working deck at the mill, and almost losing a hand

Most of the cedar logs that came through the mill where I worked were big, some of them six or seven feet in diameter and 700 or 800 years old. As we understood it, they were primarily salvage logsó logs that had been felled during the first cutting as far back as the 1930s, and just left on the ground, as the only trees those earlier loggers were interested in were Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. Some of the salvaged cedar logs were from even earlier, from a "big blow-down" in the early 1920s, a hurricane-force wind that knocked down millions of trees. Fortunately cedar wood is so full of fragrant oils that it is nearly impervious to rot, especially the heartwood, so these long-fallen logs were still salvageable. And now, in the 1970s, when demand for cedar was suddenly sky-high, any number of little family-owned shake mills were popping up all over the Peninsula like mushrooms.

Each log was off-loaded from a truck onto a chain-conveyor which fed them length-wise into the mill like a harpooned whale being winched aboard ship, until it lay beneath a raised chainsaw blade that must have been a good eight feet long, at least. Having brought the log up to a precise point, the operator would then start the saw which would cut down through the log, slicing off a two-foot slab, anywhere from five to eight feet across, that would slam down with a tremendous crash onto the steel deck--- and thatís where I would be waiting for it.

ďWorking deckĒ involved splitting the slab into manageable blocks with a hydraulic wedge. The wedge could be swung around to any position above the slab and, once it was in place, you hit a button at the top of the shaft which plunged the wedge into the slab.

You first split the round in half and then started splitting off wedge-shaped blocks one at a time. It required a sound working knowledge of how wood was structured and how to "read the grain" to know where best place the wedge for each split. There was a lot that could go wrong and it was all too easy to bury the wedge deep into a slab that refused to split apart and would need cutting out with a chainsaw.

In my case, I had been splitting firewood with an axe and a maul and wedge since I was a boy, and so was an "old hand" at reading the grain and spotting potential problems. Cedar was very easy to split compared to deciduous hardwoods. The occasional difficulties I had were mostly due to the sheer gargantuan size of the slabs, which was completely new to me.

Occasionally a log would be loaded onto the conveyor that was too large to fit under the saw. The blade pivoted on its base and was raised up hydraulically to an angle of maybe 65 or 70 degrees, which didnít always provide enough clearance for the biggest logs. A few degrees of additional clearance could be obtained by manual force, by placing a hand on the blade (and teeth) and shoving it up a few more inches and holding it there while the operator moved the log forward beneath it. Holding the blade up took a good deal of strength, and meant putting your shoulder into it--- which meant that not only were the teeth of the saw pressed into your hand, they were also practically touching your shoulder.

If all this sounds crazy, it most definitely was. The mill owner didnít endorse our method of pushing up the saw blade, but neither did he prohibit it. He had to get those big logs through somehow, and he made sure we felt the pressure as much as he--- to get those logs cut by any method available, and as quickly as we could. In the wildcat atmosphere of those boom times, out there in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula, nothing much was regulated. There were no mandated safety protocols, no safety guards for equipment, and sure as hell no safety inspections. Everyone understood the hazards, and nearly everyone out there had grown up in logging families and took the dangers as a matter of course.

But even among experienced workers, things could go wrong, and did. In this instance what went wrong was that Mitch hit the wrong button. There were two buttons side by side: one moved the log forward, and the other started the saw. While I was holding the saw up, with my hand on the teeth, he should have moved the log forward. Instead, although he had done it correctly hundreds of times, on this one occasion, he started the saw. The teeth, which were nearly half an inch wide, should have ripped right through my hand, between thumb and index finger. Instead, such was their speed and force, they flipped my hand down and caught it on the backside, a single deep slash grazing the finger tendon. Given how off-balance I was, with all my weight pressing forward, it's a wonder my shoulder wasnít thrown into the saw and my entire arm severed, but somehow I wrenched out of the way and only my hand was cut.

Mitch was white as a sheet and probably looked worse than I did. My immediate response was to try and move all my fingers and thumb, for as yet there was no pain and, with my glove on, I couldnít see the damage. Everything moved, so I knew I hadnít severed anything essential. Mitch lifted my hand and started to remove the glove but when he saw the gash, he pulled the glove back up over it, not wanting to see anything more. The boss came running over, immediately sussed what had happened and gave Mitch a look that would have withered a cougar. Someone walked me to the company truck and a few minutes later I was in the office of the local sawbones.

The doc was a gruff old coot who did not inspire confidence. He ordered the nurse to clean the wound, which was clotted with dirt and oil. She started to dab at it, tentatively, at which the doc cursed, grabbed my hand, and went at it fiercely with a swab like he was scrubbing a skillet. As soon as it was gouged clean to his satisfaction, he doused it with something that stung like fury. "If thatís whiskey," I said, "I could do with a little myself." The doc snorted and said I didnít look old enough for a manís drink. Then he stitched me up, wrapped it in gauze, pulled my filthy glove back over it, and said I should get back to work.

At the mill I lied to my boss and said the doc had told me to go home for the rest of the day, and the next day as well. Which I did.

Fifty years later, I still have the scar from that day, and every time I see Mitch--- about once every ten or fifteen years--- I make a point of showing it to him, and reminding him of the time he hit the wrong button.

More excerpts from
Three Years on the Nowhere Road
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Off to the wilderness

A bus from the Twilight Zone

I am picked up, then dumped

On a dark, deserted highway,
the kindness of a stranger

My first ride in a logging truck

Forks, logging capitol of the world

To a camp on the Calawah

Job Interview

Up before dawn, a loggerís breakfast

My first day at the mill

A dip in the river

Working deck at the mill,
and almost losing a hand

To a new camp, further downriver

Robert Lee:
the old logger who lived in a box

The Dickey River People

When a barrel stove becomes a cannon

Alone at last

At the outfitters

On Christmas Day, I am flooded out

At the mill, I am promoted to splitter

Encounter with a sasquatch?

A scene out of Dr. Zhivago

I settle in for a solitary winter

Hanshan, the mad hermit poet

Hiking the coastline with a tomcat

A night on a seastack

I join an encampment of friends
on a tributary of the Hoh

Calling at the country estate
of Robert Lee, Esq.

Visiting around the Peninsula
in Robert Lee's 2-gear sedan

A visit to a Makah family on Neah Bay

These opening chapters represent
about 20% of the entire book,
which I hope to release
later this winter.

BJ Omanson
Nov 2021