The Big Woods

Posted on Friday, November 25th, 2011 in Stories

In 1979, photographer Zigy Kaluzny and I traveled to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to do a story about the everyday life of loggers who lived in what they commonly called the big woods. It proved to be a memorable assignment.

Although we deplored logging techniques that led to wholesale clear-cutting of ancient timber and we firmly believed in efforts to preserve and protect the old growth trees of the fog-shrouded rain forest, we soon came to enjoy the company of the loggers we lived and worked with during our stay. We hope there is a Valhalla for the loggers — a place with sweet water and lots of shade. As the U.S. Marine ballad said, they’ve served their time in hell.

Loggers fit into a single day events that would be high points in anyone else’s lifetime. They battle brush, fire, and mudslides, and consider rain a guest that had overstayed its visit. When they get time off, they don’t rest but test their logging skills in heated contests. Loggers know how to build a fire with wet wood and a bit of pitch on a snowy day, and they can roll a cigarette in a hailstorm. They quiver when big timber crashes down a mountain, and they deal with the death and pain that go with the job. They are a special breed.

We lived in one of the last logging camps in the lower forty-eight and worked side-by-side with loggers, setting choker chains around huge fallen trees. It was incredibly dangerous and difficult work, scrambling over mountainsides with the loggers of the big woods. We got to know the tramp loggers, that rare breed who goes north when it turns warm, and then comes back to the peninsula for winter work. He is broke when he hits town, broke when he leaves. A tramp carries all he owns with him. Some tramps are on the run from the law, a woman, or from themselves. One tramp we got to know put it best:

“To me tramp logger is a true independent — a man who won’t eat shit for a job. If somebody doesn’t treat him right, a tramp doesn’t snivel or hang his head about it — he’s down the road partner, and gone. Being a tramp is a pride thing more than anything else. I’d rather die a busted-up old man in some sleazy hotel — die all alone — than wind up being a cull who can’t get out of bed and go the mirror and look himself in the face.”