Youthful Days On Hollyburn Ridge - Part 1
"The Building of Mildew Manor"
A.G.M.F. - February 2011
We’d rather hoped to build our cabin out of logs, but were told that our structure would have to be framed. Municipal authorities were not willing to supply us with sufficient logs to construct a cabin using nearby trees in the vicinity of site 214. Those same officials were, however, amenable to our cutting several trees for use in constructing a basic foundation. To facilitate this, we went over to the ranger station at First Lake where we had recently made the acquaintance of the local ranger, Ted Russell.
To the casual observer, Ted Russell looked like any one of a thousand other guys who might walk out of a sawmill or off a job site - just another working stiff. But to the four of us, he came across as an instantly likeable man with an engaging, forthright manner who we could depend on to steer us in the right direction. As it turned out, Ted Russell was one fine fellow who was always there when we needed to consult him for advice and he always gave it willingly and graciously. This in spite of the fact he was dealing with a bunch of adolescent rabble who weren’t averse to getting a little bent out of shape if we happened to get into a case of beer or a mickey of hard stuff. Notwithstanding our youthful defiance, we did not consider Ted as just another authority figure whom we felt obliged to heed. To us he was a mentor and friend. Though he came across as an unassuming sort of chap, Ted was a very capable individual who excelled at his profession. And he was that steady breed of man whose skill and know-how mocked lesser men who thought themselves his betters.
Ted Russell was an accomplished forester in the pioneering sense and a fine woodsman who knew every track, trail and cabin site on Hollyburn and most of the people he encountered during the course of his duties. He was experienced in handling emergencies, and it should be noted, taught a course in first aid and rescue techniques for West Vancouver Civil Defence. Ted always seemed at ease with himself and when he took charge in a given situation he saw to it that things got done without regard to who got credit for the outcome.
If a nuisance bear was hanging around endangering casual hikers or harassing cabin owners, naturally something had to be done. So, it fell to Ted to track down and dispatch the bothersome bruin if circumstances warranted. Should he encounter a couple of rowdy characters acting up in such a way that they were making life miserable for other folks, Ted would affect his stern official countenance and sort the matter out. If he was around when a person hurt themselves skiing or hiking, he’d fix them up and provide comfort until others could take them away. If you knocked on the door of Hollyburn Ranger Station and Ted was home, unless he had important matters to attend to, he’d invite you in and welcome you like long lost kin.
Not so significant to others perhaps, but important to the four of us was the fact that he treated my pals and I like adults and we responded accordingly, albeit with limited success. Simply put, it was due to the presence of Ted and people like him of whom it should be said; they made Hollyburn a better place than it would otherwise have been. He was the kind of man one would not soon forget. And, I think it’ a fair assumption that he never forgot the motley bunch of cabin builders over at Site 214.
I’ve often wondered why we wanted to build a cabin. I can only suppose that beyond the idea of a manly adventure, it has something to do with one’s desire to feel liberated from the social norms and myriad constraints that go with living within a large metropolitan area. In my case, it stemmed largely from a venturous notion that developed over time.
Whether it was Tom Swift or the Hardy Boys solving a mystery, Rich Hobson driving cattle in the Cariboo or R. M. Patterson paddling his canoe up the South Nahanni, I was there in spirit. So my wanting to build a cabin, even if it couldn’t be a log one, was, at least in symbolic terms, paying tribute to the past while living out a boyhood fantasy. In practical terms, it was a prelude to manhood.
Additionally, going up the mountain offered an easy form of escape to a remarkable place where one could throw off many of the rules, both written and unwritten. Rules that to a greater or lesser extent tended to inhibit a person from being themselves. The ridge was a place where people could keep the cares of the world at bay. Anyone who has known such a place would likely agree that there is a fortifying element in the rustic simplicity of living in the woods. Merely being there offered an unmistakable counterpoint to the hectic pace of a modern city like Vancouver. More than anything else, simply finding a different way of life amidst those forested slopes bestowed upon my friends and I an unfettered existence tinged with romance.
Most people I knew who were Hollyburn regulars during my time found what they were looking for largely because they and others created the conditions that fostered their expectations of what they imagined being part of a unique cabin community should be. It was like belonging to a large extended family. Some members you hung out with, some you spoke to in passing, while others you rarely saw but experienced a sense of kinship just knowing they were around. For almost everyone, the ridge represented a place of retreat where everyday concerns could be kept at arm’s length so long as folks remained on the mountain. As a doctor of our acquaintance who had a cabin nearby was given to saying, he could be busily engaged with his practise all day and by nightfall be enjoying the solitude of his cabin; his professional cares left behind in the city. For whatever precious time he had to himself, most of it was on Hollyburn.
Life was uncomplicated there. No one cared who you were, how much money you made or what status you enjoyed ‘down the mountain’. Practically anyone could traipse around the ridge doing their own thing and no one would take exception as long as they acknowledged other folks’ right to do likewise. On Hollyburn, only basic conventions really mattered. Respect peoples’ property. Get along. Contribute something to the general good if you could. And treasure the fresh air and enjoyment that the forest afforded those who resided there. That was pretty well it.
True, from time to time unpleasant things happened, but just the same, there was no obvious need to keep track of other peoples’ foibles. To the extent that comity prevailed, if there were those for whom existing social norms presented a hindrance, other folks made reasonable allowances. I think it’s fair to say that everyone accepted others as themselves. After all, the ridge was a place to let off steam, to shed strict formality; to cut loose within reason. Criminal activity was rare and there weren’t any sanctimonious police officers patrolling the trails handing out lectures or making arrests. So, on balance, it was a care-free, fun-loving place to be; whether one was searching for firewood, swimming, visiting friends, skiing, cutting firewood, hanging out at a lodge, splitting firewood, out hiking, stacking firewood or simply hunkered down in their own abode.
For forest dwellers, firewood was and is a constant necessity, especially in a place like Hollyburn where it has traditionally supplied the only form of heat. Fire kept us warm and dry, provided the means for cooking and served as a centrepiece for socializing, just as it’s done since the earliest days of human habitation.
But before we needed firewood, we needed to build our cabin. So, it came about that in the early Spring of 1961, when the winter snow had just melted away and the sap was running, my three chums and I arranged to meet Ted Russell at our site. We were there to select some standing timber to be used for building a foundation. We all wandered about fifty yards into the bush along the same contour as our cabin site. There we found a fine stand of yellow cedars, and together we selected several suitable ones - I believe five. Then Ted Russell felled them as expertly as you please; all neatly dropped so they were pointing towards our encampment.
Now, the question in our minds was ‘how the hell are we going to drag those suckers from where they are to where we want them?’ There lay logs that weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1500 pounds. Just to get a sense of their weight, we tried lifting one at the light end but the four of us could barely budge it. Everything about them looked like work. Naturally, our ranger friend knew how to move those logs to our camp with style and relative ease. Once they’d been limbed, Ted had us make a lengthwise slit in the bark with our axes so we could peel it back. Then we rolled each log enough to get those sections of bark loose. We dragged these loose lengths and set them out in front of the lead log so they lay on the ground heading towards our cabin site.
Now, we had five glistening, pale-yellow logs, each laying in half of their bark. Bark that only moments before had been a vital veneer of life was now transformed into a flume of slippery sap along which we could slide our foundation logs to their final resting place. Moving them actually turned out to be a piece of cake. On both ends we hung a pee-vee or drove in an axe to act as a handle, then all we had to do was haul each log along that slick runway moving sections of the ‘flume’ as we went. Before we knew it, those logs lay neatly by our site. Thus, the first step in our cabin project turned out to be a whole lot easier than first anticipated.
After digging ten post holes and building the log foundation, the next stage involved laying floor joists across it. For this we planned on purchasing two by eights from Hodgson Clark Lumber, located at the corner of Marine Drive and 15th Street in West Vancouver. Thanks to John’s dad, we had our own account there - which each of us paid from our own resources. So when supplies were needed, we simply went by and took the material with us or asked to have it delivered up to the H. A. T. Inn; so-named for the lower terminal of the Hollyburn Aerial Tramway.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that those guys at Hodgson Clark Lumber treated us like we were their best customers. As with so many other stores along Marine Drive, this establishment was the kind of business where the owners took genuine pride in being around during regular hours and they always made us feel welcome. I can still recall seeing the framed one-dollar bill hanging on the wall behind the old style manual cash register. It was that kind of place.
As for securing materials for Mildew’s joists, framing and wood siding, we originally expected to secure all of it from Hodgson Clark Lumber. But with limited resources, our first instinct was to look around to see what could be had for next to nothing or for free. And given his oft demonstrated proclivity for finding things, Bob became our chief scrounger. And scrounge he did. And what a find it was. History in the unmaking as well as a dusty bit of heritage salvaged for posterity.
Bob heard from Alex Swanson, who was then a volunteer fireman, that West Van’s old fire hall was being torn down. This building once stood on the northeast corner of 14th Street and Bellevue Avenue across the Pacific Great Eastern railway tracks from the ferry terminal. Well, did we luck out! Sure enough, some of the old lumber was available for the taking. And after checking it over, it was evident that we’d have all the material needed for the floor joists. Now, the ones we acquired weren’t just any old beams; your typical split and knot-holed dimension lumber. They were rail straight, solid, rough-sawn, Douglas fir ones with just a few tight knots, bone dry and virtually hard as nails after forty-some years of holding up the fire hall.
Given our acquisition, we were feeling quite smug. Or, at least we were until those beams made it up to the top of the chairlift where we actually had to bear them ourselves. Man, were those beggars heavy! But up the half-mile or so to the cabin they must go. Wishing to minimize the number of trips, we devised a system for packing them up the trail that in Winter served as the ‘ski-out’ linking First Lake to Hi-View. Additionally, we hacked out a shortcut through the bush from the Sidewinder cabin to our place so as to lessen the distance we had to travel. Then it was back and forth from Hi-View to perform the heavy lifting.
Having unhooked the bags from our Trapper Nelsons, we worked in pairs, each team taking two beams at a time lashed to either side of our packboards. Then off we trudged, panting and puffing and resting occasionally as the sun followed our slow progression through the woods. Each beam was roughly two inches by eight inches and probably only eight feet in length, though at the time they seemed a whole lot longer. I’d guess they weighed about 60 pounds or more apiece. At any rate, after a fair bit of effort, we got them all up to our site and after a few weeks of toil had them solidly spiked down on a foundation of three lateral logs supported by ten uprights. (To ensure the longevity of the posts, we dug each hole down to hardpan, painted the butts with creosote, then positioned each upright by shimming them plumb with rocks.)
After we finished this stage of our project, Ted Russell came over to inspect our work and told us that in his view, what we had was “the best foundation on the mountain”. It was a distinction that filled us amateur builders with considerable pride and likely inspired us to strive a little bit harder. But, with winter closing in, we had to put our project on hold until the next year.
During the winter, we made an occasional foray to the ridge for skiing and such. And in the early spring, we were ready to get on with building the rest of our cabin. The first item on the agenda was to lay a utility grade sub-floor.Now, I’ve got to say that Hollyburn Ridge in June of 1962 was the most bug-infested place I’ve ever been. Within the space of just a few weeks, there were monstrous hatches of no-see-ums, flying ants and mosquitoes and who knows what else. You simply couldn’t work without some kind of protection and thousands of tiny body parts were strewn everywhere; mostly in our food and sleeping bags. So we finally gave in and donned our goofy-looking surplus mosquito nets acquired at the old Army and Navy Store on East Hastings. Not only were those nets a bloody nuisance to smoke through, but they made us look like a bunch of berserk bee-keepers praying for respite as we knelt on our knees trying to pound nails into those bone-dry floor joists.
But not being ones to give in to a bunch of bugs, we toughed it out. The day we finished - it was sometime in early July - three of us decided to take advantage of our newly completed floor - and that was when one of the most unusual events in my life occurred. An ideal summer day had gradually been transformed into a calm, warm, clear summer night. So, Bob, John and I, climbed up onto our new sub-floor from our small encampment in front of the porch end and lay down on our backs to stargaze.
It was well after dusk, perhaps around midnight. For the next hour or so we lay there beneath the heavens observing all manner of sky-borne wonders. We watched aircraft with their landing lights on approach to Vancouver International Airport, saw shooting stars and followed the course of WW II searchlights emanating from commercial sites in the city as they swept to and fro over the skyline. We caught a glimpse of Sputnik or Telstar - I’m not sure just what satellite it was - wobbling across our field of vision high overhead. In short, we observed virtually every kind of manmade and natural phenomena one might expect to see in the night sky at that latitude and time of year.
Then it happened. Moving slowly from right to left - roughly from west to east - three objects appeared, moving slowly at a distance that I would judge was less than a mile; likely a lot closer to a quarter mile. The instant they came into view, John and I instinctively jumped up and both started yelling something like: ‘did you see that?!’ I believe Bob thought we were jerking his chain because he’d been looking somewhere else and missed seeing them. Ted had already gone to bed. This startling event lasted less than ten seconds, but it absolutely stunned John and I.
What we saw was this: three round lights in a triangular formation moving slowly but steadily at about sixty degrees off the horizon; one in front and two behind. There was no sound associated with these lights. They just drifted silently across the sky like ghostly discs that didn’t belong where they were. What was particularly odd about the lights was that they were indistinct, like car headlights in a fog – remember, the air that night was crystal clear. The edges were not well delineated as one would expect them to be.
Just as they reached the centre of our view, each in turn - beginning with the front one - appeared to rotate so that the light diminished to virtually nothing then came back as if each had altered its course. Before we knew it, they disappeared behind the treetops to our left and that is why John and I jumped up because we were both trying to further our view of whatever it was that we saw.
What fixed this occurrence so clearly in my mind is that it wasn’t one of those typical instances when some movement suddenly catches your eye while you’re pre-occupied with other things. We were deliberately looking up into the sky to see whatever was there and our concentration had not been broken by distractions. So, there was no other way to describe what we had seen other than to characterize them as unidentified flying objects.
It was an absolutely amazing sight. Our eyes had seen something our minds simply could not comprehend. I have never witnessed anything like it before or since. But life goes on. We talk about the incident from time to time, but what can a person really say about an experience like that? Few others can truly relate. Anyhow, even UFOs weren’t about to keep us from our work. And we had lots of it to do.
When I casually asked my dad one day if he was interested in venturing up the mountain to see what we had achieved so far, he seemed a mite too interested in the idea. On a weekend in early July, instead of dropping me off at the H. A. T. Inn, he bought a ticket and rode up to the ridge.
Physically, it was a challenge for him, yet once he got going up the trail he seemed energized. Perhaps it was the invigorating fragrance of an evergreen forest or some happy memory of his truncated boyhood. He didn’t say. But the woods can have that effect on people, especially on those who aren’t used to it. At any rate, my dad managed to hike up the trail to our site without too much discomfort and seemed quite pleased with himself.
Though only in his fifties, he had bad feet as a result of an operation. Also, the strain of spending the duration of World War Two in London helping to rescue people from bombed out buildings as a member of the ARP (Air Raid Patrol) had taken its toll. But he made it up with relative ease and while there took some photographs of us standing on the sub-floor with a wall of studs up.
The fact that my dad took time out of his weekend to ride that rusting old chairlift up to Hi-View, then hike seven tenths of a mile through the woods clearly hinted at a conviction that his only son might be engaged in something worthwhile. Though my dad was generally not concerned about the whereabouts of his wayward, pool-playing offspring, neither was he altogether consumed by that fleeting impulse called trust. Did he change his mind about me after visiting our cabin site? It’s hard to say. Who really knows what fathers think? That said, it meant a lot to me that my father came up that day because I sensed that it gave him some measure of reassurance that all those weekends and holidays I’d spent up the mountain hadn’t been a total waste of time. And, as it was, the time for work was quickly slipping away. So, by mid-summer the four of us were back to packing lumber and supplies to the cabin site.
As the end of August approached, we had the place framed and commenced installing several windows (scrounged) a front door (scrounged) and applying some very substantial 12 inch ‘rough cedar siding’ purchased from Hodgson Clark Lumber. When school started in September, we knew it was time to get serious about roofing material with the prospect of closing our cabin in for winter. With that expectation in mind, during the summer we’d purchased an ‘airtight stove’, pipes to fit and a Yukon chimney, so were all ready to heat up the place once the roof was on.
After discussing the matter with Ted Russell, it was determined that we’d have to rule out red cedar shakes because there were no suitable trees nearby. At any rate, ones that might have met our needs grew several hundred feet below Hi-View Lodge which would have necessitated a lot of back-breaking trips up to the Manor. Since our original plan to use red cedar shakes was now thwarted, we resorted to a different species of conifer; a balsam fir as Bob recalls.
So, on the day designated, we went with Ted Russell a short ways uphill behind The Doghouse cabin and there found a fine specimen suited for our purpose. With his usual expertise, Ted felled that tree just where he said it would go and then bucked it up into rounds which we later split into nice quarter bolts. Ted or Alex Swanson- I don’t remember who - located a shake knife and we fashioned a couple of froes. Then, it was just a simple matter of sitting on our behinds for hour after hour after hour bashing away with that froe. While the others worked at readying the roof -pitched at forty-five degrees - each of us took turns sitting in the woods with the goal being to cut enough shakes to cover an area of about 700 square feet.
Luckily, we only had to pack those shakes a few hundred yards downhill back to our cabin site, so it wasn’t so much of a chore as it might have been. Even so, we had our work cut out for us. Like its softwood brethren, these shakes didn’t split off so easily compared to what we might have had. It was a lot tougher work than watching shakes practically spring off a bolt of that gorgeous red cedar wood. But regardless of their merits, to do the job right meant accumulating a heck of a pile of shakes. Each shake measuring roughly thirty inches or so in length was nailed onto narrow strapping running lengthwise across the roof. Each shake needed to be overlapped by about one-half to assure strength and resistance to the snow load experienced on Hollyburn.
Some people might think that sitting alone in the forest splitting shakes would be pitifully boring and lonely. Well, it was. But, it also afforded me a chance to enjoy nature in a way that it might not normally be experienced. I remember the times when I’d take a break, sit back, roll a smoke and just listen. It was typically one of those deathly still days in late October when the sun was obscured by a heavy overcast. Occasionally, the muffled drumming of a distant grouse penetrated the woods. Simply being there all alone seemed to confer upon me a sense of prescience.
It was like some invisible spirit of the forest was giving notice that before long, ground that hadn’t seen snow for six months or more was about to be blanketed with a slushy mantle of white stuff; that one season was ending and another was about to begin. As that surreal perception pervaded my mood, I was overcome by a feeling of foreboding mingled with subdued euphoria. That said, one can’t be too careful about where the mind is inclined to wander when a person is all alone in the woods and low on sustenance. Sometimes, irrational thoughts adversely affect ones mental acuity when a person dwells on such ethereal matters.
So given that I had allowed myself to ‘sluff-off’ for far too long, I went back to splitting shakes. By the time our roofing effort was almost complete, it became all too obvious that daydreaming and rough guesses about how much work had been done on the splitting end of things had its drawbacks. Simply put, in spite of all our strenuous efforts, none of us had actually bothered to keep proper track of just how many shakes we’d cut. So much for the four of us never needing math.
As it turned out, we came up a little bit short and didn’t have quite enough to finish, so we tarped the remaining area over with poly and thus had a temporary skylight for the winter of 1962-3. So, apart from that, the cabin was closed in and ready to occupy. Before the snow flew, we acquired a few sticks of furniture and several army surplus metal-frame, spring-tensioned bunk beds to put up in the loft. After that, it was time to enjoy our cabin along with some of our chums including Don Matheson and Bruce Williams, who’d lent us a hand from time to time.
The following year, we finished shaking the roof and made a few rustic improvements to the inside. With that, our cabin-building efforts essentially came to an end. It was a constructive experience that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. And, one other thing; from postholes to peak, all the work we performed building Mildew Manor was done entirely by hand. Not one power tool was used except when Ted Russell felled those cedars and our shake tree with his chainsaw.
Given the availability and portability of today’s power tools, that one should take pride in the fact we never used any is admittedly retrograde. Nowadays, anyone who would deliberately engage in manual labour on such a scale is likely to be perceived as being either a brute for punishment or perhaps a bubble off plumb.
But fifty years ago, it was normal to be that way. And I’ll definitely vouch for one thing; using hand tools keeps a guy warm. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be up on a roof nailing anything on a cold, sleety day in November with some fancy, battery-operated nail gun. It was cruel enough out in the cold even when one was active. Swinging a hammer all day is so much more invigorating. And, for all the tired muscles, bumps and bruises the four of us sustained, we did manage to build a fairly decent little hut with some pretty basic tools.
Now, I’m not saying we had all the comforts of home at Mildew Manor because we didn’t. But, if you had heat, that was half way to getting there. I doubt if I’m revealing any secrets if I make the observation that sometimes starting a fire can be a tad problematic. And, given the humidity on the West Coast, it’s even more of a challenge. Normally, to start a fire in an airtight stove, one is required to open the lid and lay some combustibles arranged in the customary way i.e. first, some crumpled up newspapers, then a few sticks of kindling and a couple of chunks of wood. Sometimes the only paper available was so damp it just wouldn’t stay lit. I recall the time when I arrived at our cabin feeling chilled right to the bone having dressed too lightly for the prevailing weather conditions. On that day, heat couldn’t come quick enough. And after the newspaper I tried to light went out for about the third time, I was getting desperate.
Then I spotted the white gas can. I thought just maybe a few dribs of gas would help matters along. So I poured a little bit into the airtight and then felt around in my pockets for a match. Well, that lit wooden match got just about half-way from my fingers to the wet paper and wood when there was a sudden, loud bang, the airtight jumped off the floor and I was blown upon my butt. Now, I don’t know how many other geniuses have pulled that stunt, but I suspect I’m not the only one. It wasn’t a smart move. Luckily, as they say, I still had a few smarts left.