Hollyburn Mountain (1928)
Nasmyth Mill Site - Hollyburn Ski Camp at First Lake
Articles by Pollough Pogue & Photos from HHS Archives
Hollyburn Ski Camp in the moonlight, circa 1933 (Kay Park Collection)
January 13, 1928
Even in Vancouver it was wintry, with snow several inches deep, and a temperature of ten degrees above the zero point. Vancouver people, unaccustomed to such sharp frost, were full of indignant resentment. Their remarks on the subject of the weather were as bitter as the cold.
When my wife and I told the other members of our family that we were going up to the ski-camp that night, they hunched closer to the dining room fire. It made them chilly, they told us, merely to think of the ski-camp. It seemed to them contrary to common sense that anyone on such a cold night should want to climb a mountain trail to colder heights.
But they were not susceptible to the magic that lured us from a warm fireside that night. This is a very strong magic that affects many people brought up in Eastern Canada. It is made of sharp cold, white moon and icy stars, violet sky and moonlit snow. In our youth we were under its spell and spent winter nights of pleasure as sharp as the cold, on toboggan slides or snowshoes. It still has power over us and we feel its influences whenever a cold spell comes to Vancouver. The mountain trail leads us to an arctic plateau where we can put on snowshoes and imagine we are in a Northern Ontario winter forest again.
Many people cannot feel the romance in lively cold and silver moonlight dripping through the matted roof of a white winter forest. Their physical fibre has been softened by a mild climate and overheated houses and they fear the cold. They get no stimulation from the thrilling frost.
We left West Vancouver at half past nine. Such was the clarity of the air that almost the whole area of the sky was bespangled with the flashing jewels of the night.
The stars and the shining moon, awry like the crown of a tipsy potentate, spread on the snow an icy light sufficient to show us the trail. We had not been long on the trail when the moon, leering at us through black skeleton alders like a fat goblin, flashed a final elfin squint at us as if to say, “Now I leave you in the dark,” and vanished. But the blue lamps with the stars were our steady, dependable companions that night.
They appeared to coruscate more brilliantly as we slowly climbed to frostier elevations. They seemed to shine down on us with a large and idle benevolence as forbearing gods might look from Aagard’s windows on the night wanderings of inconsiderable mortals on the earth.
The musical grinding off the dry snow under our trail boots was a reminiscent sound. It was a sound laden with associations. It reminded us of winter nights in Ontario, when the snow was dry as sand and thermometers marked a temperature of 20 below zero. “Do you, remember,” I asked my wife,” the night your left snowshoe kept coming off, wouldn’t stay on?” The night, she recollected, that my ear froze. “It will be below zero,” she said,” at the ski-camp tonight.”
Soon we reached the 2000-foot level, from which we could see through the clear air every light of Vancouver, the street-lamps of the city and of its residence districts, streaming and diverging, a vast scintillation of gold embroidery enriching the fabulous cloak of purple. This remarkable spectacle had so much charm for us that we lingered until we felt the cold settling over us, the temperature was zero or below. To warm ourselves we hiked fast, by the light of a bug, through the dark forest of black trees whose trunks looked like columns of iron, but whose heavy boughs were laden with snow. Here the snow was about six feet deep.
The ski-camp was dark, only a few coals where blackening in the big fireplace when we got there at half-past one o’clock. For thermometer outside the main door solemnly registered ten below zero. The hospitable door was not fastened. When I awoke the good Oscar, he did not grumble out of the sense of injury, as many men would have done. On his broad, good-tempered face there was nothing but a characteristic grin of Swedish derivation. Cheerfully he arose and built a fire of dry yellow cypress in the great fireplace. After our long tramp through the still and frigid forest, following with a dogged perseverance for over three hours the ascending snow-trail, the heat of the roaring and snapping cypress logs was particularly luxurious. We took intense satisfaction in that fire; the heat drugged us; we couldn’t keep our eyes open. We had taken our boots off to try our stockings; we acquired chilblains as we set there, heavy with sleep.
But Oscar brought coffee, hot, strong Swedish coffee. It is real coffee. Its fragrance is the most delicious aroma I am familiar with. With the coffee Oscar brought a heavy and luxurious fruitcake. Did you ever eat a light lunch of Swedish coffee and Swedish fruit cake at 2 o’clock in the morning, sitting by a fire made of half a quart of yellow cypress, on the top of the mountain was only thin camp walls to shelter you?
Hugh 'Torchy' Aikens & his sister Bea seated in the 'living-room' of the Hollyburn Ski Camp (Hugh Aikens Collection)
Rosy Fingered Dawn
January 31, 1928
Although it was six o’clock in the morning, and most of the skiers were out of bed, and some more eating breakfast, and some were waxing their skis, in the big living-room at the ski-camp on Mount Hollyburn, outside there was still the dark mystery of the mountain winter night, but the sky was clear, and innumerable stars flashed with blue coruscations like diamonds.
The only light in the living-room came from the fire of cypress logs in the great fireplace. The orange firelight licked the big rough beams that upheld the ceiling, and sprang over the walls in wild silent pursuit of frightened leaping shadows.
We had a hasty breakfast of fried sausages, bread and butter and coffee, brought from the kitchen by Axel Sneis, an adolescent giant, of Apollonian beauty, who has already had his portrait published in the province as the winner of a recent cross-country ski race.
Most skiers leave the ski-camp “a la belle etoile” on a fine morning, in order to reach the peak in time to view the sunrise.
It was seven o’clock when we kicked our feet into our ski-irons and slipped away, shoving back on our sticks, among the black sleeping trees. There was an invigorating sharp freshness in the north wind. Behind us the ski-camp, a dark mass with faintly luminous windows and along straight column of dark smoke climbing from its chimney, had a cozy suggestion of warmth and cheerful shelter amidst grey snow and the cold gloom of winter forest. To leave, at my age, such a snug refuge before dawn on an arctic morning, to make a ski trip over a plateau four thousand feet high demanded a good deal of decision of character.
Through mysterious shadows and ghostly starlight we mushed over the white park-like plateau, across meadows like prairies of snow, through belts of deformed and stunted timberline trees, herringboning up great undulations, and coasting down with appropriate yells. These were answered by other ski-ers, and soon we were overtaken by several parties. Verne in his sleeveless jersey, Johnson, and other fast runners, mounted on long thin racing skis, passed us on their way up to the summit of Mount Strahan.
A faint silvery light, the harbinger of the dawn, whitened the snow as we laddered slowly up the steep slopes of the peak. The white mountains north, east and west of us, sketchy and indefinite in the starlight, began to take form and color in the reluctant January daybreak. The Lion peaks, shrouded in snow has if carved from ivory grew less fantastic.
We watched the southeast. A milky wash appeared. We stood on the summit and devoured bacon sandwiches. Then we lit cigarettes. A reddish gray was now the color of the sky above the southeast horizon.
Then suddenly the red rim of the sun lifted out of the haze and soon the high white peaks were tinted with its crimson.
How delicate the rose color on the snow. Now the lovely panorama of the peaks was clearly defined, each painted with the sunrise color.
The picture was complete.
"Gang of the old club" on the Shoulder below Hollyburn Peak, 1928 (Ommund Ommundsen Collection)
The High Plateau
February 10, 1928
The sun shone with a great brightness and the shadows on the snow were pure blue. All around us the great Hollyburn plateau extended in rolling snowy stretches, in parks with tree clumps standing in open order, and in long gradual slopes toward the summit.
The strong and light air, fresh and tonic, the brilliant sunshine, the conspicuous beauty of the white mountains north of Hollyburn, and on the east side of Capilano Canyon, exhilarated our minds.
“Those who haven’t been up here, don’t know what it is to really live,” one of the party said. I felt that he was right. Life in that high place is a superior life, sharper and higher than life at sea level. In this magical white and shining region the area you breathe produces a high relation of mind, and also a physical animation, as if the air contained some strange alchemy, as well as a greater proportion of oxygen than ordinary air.
The great peaks like enormous snow sculptures foam-white in the sunlight, and splashed with sharp blue shadows, seemed to look down upon us with a cold and steady gaze of disapprobation as with wild abandon we slid down the crusted slopes on our skis yelling like demons.
Greater purer beauty you could not find in nature than these huge and calm blue and silver peaks against the clear sky. You cannot in summertime behold so lovely and noteworthy a sight.
But the January sun soon dropped low. As we started on the backtrack to the ski-camp, the sun, dusky crimson, rolled beneath the horizon, leaving a magenta haze, which soon became brown smoke. In the last of the daylight, the cotton-white snow became the color of ashes. Distant mountains and ridges were lost in the somber peace of the descending night, but the Capilano peaks were still faintly luminous against a sky of clear and cold blue, in which icy waters were emerging.
The air quickly grew cold, with a piercing wind from the snowy fastnesses of the Howe Sound mountains. The snow surface, softened during the afternoon by the warmth of the sun, hardened immediately, and the waxed ski blades scratched on the brittle crust with a sharp frosty music.
Hollyburn Ski Camp in the Moonlight circa 1940 (June Gillrie Collection)
April 9, 1928
Everyone has felt the magic and romance in moonlight, and there is a particular enchantment in moonlight on snow. When the full moon shines on an arctic fairyland like the great Hollyburn plateau, a snowy prairie miles long and miles wide, the ski-er can easily imagine, under the spell of the moonlight, that he has been removed, without the formality of natural death, to the ski-er’s paradise.
In all the Vancouver mountain district there is no place worthy of comparison with this immense plateau as a ski-ing ground.
This is what we said as we flashed on our skis down the silver-glittering slope from the ski-camp onto the wide white plateau, over which the moonlight had thrown an aspect of weird unreality.
The plateau was a gleaming ivory sea stretching away to enclosing white peaks that had an air of having foamed up there at the magical hand of some conjurer of the unsubstantial fairy world into which we seemed to be intruding on our winglike skis.
Undoubtedly, the great domain of winter white, diversified by black tree-clumps that threw shadows like black paint on the snow, was fairy country.
The moon has always been to me a magician of the night, transforming the commonplace and familiar into the fantastic and strange, and turning our ordinary and well-understood world into mysterious goblin land.
The snow, shelled over with a hard crust, was not in ideal condition for ski-ing; the wax on the skis would not hold them on this frost enamel; they screeched musically as we fled across the glimmering white desert between the inky trees and their sooty shadows, towards the peaks poised in their cold beauty beyond the plateau’s rim.
The moon, and incandescent silverwhite face, ruled in the sky, has queen of the night; the lesser stars had withdrawn, or emerged with timid glimmer from the violet profundity of the heavens; but the larger stars, the planetary hierarchy of the firmament, maintained themselves in their customary paths, shining with icy, bluish sharpness.
We looked down on the city below, a purple obscurity spattered with lights: Springtime, with appropriate warmth and blossoms, prevailed down there; upon the high plateau it was midwinter.
"Thomson of Seattle", Easter Tournament, First Lake Ski Jump, 1930 (Ommund Ommundsen Collection)
The ski jumper, when he springs into the air from the take-0ff, after shooting down the runway, probably comes as near to flight has man unaided by machine ever will.
He flies for a considerable distance, with arms beating the air like wings, lands and flashes over the smooth snow on a long tangent line which ends in a beautiful curving turn.
Certainly the ski jumper and the skier who rides his skis down a mile-long slope in a flying glissade attains the highest and most fluid velocity reached by unmechanized man
Ski jumpers get a poignant thrill from jumping and the spectators get a sharp kick out of it, as the crowds in the Roman amphitheaters did out of the gladiatorial combats. Onlookers always find fascinating the sight of a fellow-being apparently risking life or limb. But ski jumping is not as dangerous as it looks.
Any Sunday afternoon at the Hollyburn ski-camp you may see the club jumpers practicing on the First Lake ski-hill.
On the opposite side of the small lake from the camp is a large structure built against the steep side-hill, a 70 foot tower heavily framed of tall tree-trunks and cross girders from the top of which a long trestle-work decked with logs and padded with snow drops at a sharp incline to the level take-off platform from which the jumper launches himself into the air. The take-off is about 10 feet from the ground.
Several ski jumpers climb to the top of the tower with jumping skis on their shoulders. These are not ordinary skis. They are longer, wider, heavier. The cross-country ski has one groove on it’s running surface. The jumping ski has two grooves.
The top of the tower is flat, with a railing around three sides. Half a dozen men are standing there. One of them bends to put on his skis. Give sharp attention now or you may miss something.
Having adjusted his bindings he stands erect, a tall Canadian. Many of the spectators recognize him as Ralph Morris, a well-known A-class Hollyburn ski club jumper. In a moment he has started and with the velocity of a bullet swoops down the runway. He crouches slightly to minimize wind resistance. At the take-off he snaps upright again. With long lean body tense but pliant, arms upraised and fluttering wing-like, he soars from the take-off. For a second or two he appears to hover in the air. You hold your breath. The crowd stands rigid with tense interest.
"Beautiful style," observes a man near you. Morris is a jumper to whom style is more important than distance. But he seems to have covered a considerable distance before he lands, his skis thudding heavily on the packed snow, though he appears to land lightly enough. With the speed of a rocket he rushes up the slight slope from the lake and makes in a blur of spray-like snow a long, infinitely graceful Telemark turn
"Blackie's Cabin, Strachan Valley", Summer, 1934 (Brownie Morris Collection)
Owning My Own Home
April 11, 1928
“The site I have picked out for the log cabin I intend to build for myself in this mountain woods is a day’s trip from a road and an hour’s hike from the end of the Hollyburn trail.
The cabin will be built as the cabins of the earliest pioneers were constructed, in a manner exactly as rude and simple.
It will be impractical to bring in, from the outside, any building material, except lime and cement, nails and window glass. These things will have to be backpacked by myself.
The woods will have to provide all the material. The side hills and the creek bed will furnish the rocks and stones for the chimney.
The tools will be axes, crosscut saw, hatchet, trowel, jackplane and a carpenter’s screw auger.
In this undertaking there is but on matter that gives me anxiety; I have no title to the land on which I am about to build my cabin. That someone has a rightful title to the land is beyond question. No land survey has been made here. I am sure that the location is still uncomtemplated by the real estate dealers of West Vancouver. On the southern slopes of Hollyburn Mountain, the signs of real estate agents are nailed to the trees, offering home sites for sale, but I have seen no signs within a considerable distance of the place where I am going to build. It is my hope that this place will escape the acute and penetrative perceptions of real estate dealers for a few years at least. Though the southern slopes of Hollyburn are already subdivided into building lots as far up as the 2500-foot level, my location is on the northern slopes of the mountain, and I suppose that in such a remote place there is no danger of real estate activity or home site development for some years yet.
My proposed site is a narrow valley between Hollyburn and Strahan (Strachan) Mountains. There is a creek of pure cold water flowing through meadows and my cabin will be enclosed by primeval forest. There have never been bush fires in this district and it is part of the world untouched since the last geological upheaval, or since human history began. I might quote from Mr. Bunyan's "Pilgrim’s Progress" a description of my valley: "Now this valley is a very solitary place: the prophet Jeremiah thus describes it: 'a wilderness, a land of deserts . . . a land that no man (but a Christian) passeth through, and where no man dwells.’ “ This valley of mine is a silent and lonely as Mr. Bunyan's valley, but there is no suggestion of death about It. It is a valley of green life. Over fifty varieties of wild flowers grow there, to say nothing of the shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses and the great plants we call trees. The birds of the mountain forest, and the larger and smaller mammals of the Coast range all dwell there unmolested. The bears and the blacktail deer, the big cats, the whistler (hoary marmot), the pika, the bush rabbit, the sooty grouse will be my neighbors. The gray jay and the squirrels and chipmunks will come to my doorstep to be fed, and I will hear the best songs of the Alaska hermit thrush and Townsend's Solitaire.
I have, during the last four years camped in several places on Hollyburn. My camps were not more permanent than the tents which the well-known Arabs folded up in the poem. When my cabin is built, I will expect to live in it for the rest of my life.
An old-timer of my acquaintance, who interjects Chinook words into his talk, advised me not to build my cabin so far back.
“There's mesahchee bears in there,” he said. "Mesahchee" is a Chlnook word that means 'very bad'. When the Indians speak of a bear as " mesahchee” they mean that the animal is dangerous.
This, to my imagination, placed on my cabin site the proper and satisfactory seal of distinction as a remote and wild fastness.”
Pogue never built his dream home in Strachan Valley but Harry Collins, a friend of Pogue’s son Mickey, accomplished this daunting task. Harry and Mickey were members of the Orphan Eight, a group of young men who shared a rental cabin built by the Swedes at the Hollyburn Ski Camp. At the time, Harry was employed in the paint business and his doctor had encouraged him to seek the clear, unpolluted air in the mountains during his days off.
In the summer of 1929, Harry, with the help of his friends, began to build the isolated cabin, which he was to name after his girlfriend, Blackie. Within two years, Harry was making overnight trips to Blackie’s cabin, ‘enjoying’ the silence and deep winter snows in Strachan Valley.
As Harry was to discover, these deep snowdrifts came with some challenges and worries. Upon arriving at the cabin carrying a heavy load of supplies, Harry spent a lot of time shoveling snow in order to clear the route to his front door. Many mornings, there was more snow to shovel. The weight of snow on the roof proved to be so heavy that Harry had to install several reinforcing posts under the load-bearing roof beams. This impeded movement throughout the interior. One can imagine Harry lying in his bed wondering if there were sufficient posts to carry the snow load.
Photos in the Hollyburn Heritage Society archives indicate that the roof did collapse between 1947 and 1963. Long before that happened, Harry had abandoned his mountain retreat. Today nothing visible remains of Blackie’s cabin. The Collins ski run that now traverses the site is named after Harry.
A grouse on Hollyburn Ridge circa 1925. Note the flume in the background. (Eilif Haxthow Collection)
The Old Logging Road
April 30, 1928
It is easier to find and follow the old skid-roads on the mountain in early spring, before the luxuriant vegetation of the southern slopes has hidden and obstructed them.
Bracken, the giant fern of the Coast Range Forest, grows six feet high on these plentiful sidehills. Bracken, salmonberry, blueberry, wild rose, elderberry choke these old roads in summertime. Some of them were cut out forty or fifty years ago, and the alders, firs, cedars and hemlocks that sprung up in them as soon as the roads were abandoned by the loggers who made them, are now large trees. Many of the old skid rows were well made, with cedar skids similar to railroad ties, set crosswise in them. The forest has almost reclaimed these roads.
But in springtime it is not hard to follow them. Anyone who feels an interest in wild nature, and particularly the botanist or the bird student finds the old skid roads on Hollyburn Mountain more engaging than the trails, which are public thoroughfares. The old roads are private and withdrawn. Most of the hikers do not leave the trails. You do not meet the ordinary hikers on the labyrinthian old roads. Those you meet on the skid roads are hikers of superior merit; they are familiar with the woods, and usually can identify the trees and flowers and name the birds.
High on the side of Hollyburn that faces the sun we followed one of the old roads. It was a day of clear air and sky, westerly wind and warm sunshine. We judged from the appearance of the stumps that the road had been used about twenty years ago. Beside this road there was standing a big green Douglas fir. It was a very large tree and appeared to be sound. Why the fallers had not cut it down, twenty years ago, was a mystery inexplicable to me. It was a mature tree then, and looks not a day older now, for twenty years is but a brief portion of time in the life of such a tree.
A cock sooty grouse sat on a jagged broken limb of a tall dead naked fir snag, so high up that he looked very small, but we could see the swelling of his neck and the teetering of his body as he hooted, and the sound of his hooting came down to us, deep and hollow and vague, as if it came from a great distance.
Two sparrows, almost alike, the song sparrow and the vesper sparrow, charmed us with their bright similar songs. You can tell the vesper from the song sparrow by its outer tail-feathers, which are white like those of the junco; both birds are very dark on the coast, but the vesper is lighter. It is not hard to distinguish between the songs of the two birds, when you are familiar with both.
In this second second-growth sidehill woods, where most of the trees are young and small, and there are many snags and stumps and tangles of down logs and slash, and jungles of berry bushes and shrubs, birds are abundant. Many years ago the slopes were burned over, and reproduction has been rapid, owing to the southern exposure. This sort of woods is very attractive to birdlife.
We saw juncos, towhees, the white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows, the Western Savannah sparrow, the robin, the varied thrush, a number of woodpeckers, several Steller’s jays, two sooty grouse and two sharp-shinned hawks. The varied thrush was on its way up to the high forests, the great green primeval woods, damp and gloomy, where there has never been a fire. The varied’s whistle was still shrill and brief, but later, in the summertime, it will become long, clear and flutelike, but with a suggestion of weirdness in it. You will feel its charm when you hear it sounding through the mysterious dusky aisles of the forests on the top of Hollyburn in summer
Soon, of course, there will be a very large population of birds on the sidehills. Last summer these woods resounded with the rich music of the russet-backed thrushes, which were very numerous.
The road led us to some dilapidated cabins, built of poles and shakes. I had visited them before, and knew their homely antecedents. Years ago they were built and used by some Japanese who had cut poles and shingle timber.
As we stopped in front of one of the cabins, a chipmunk ran out through the open doorway, with a sharp chirrup of alarm. The small Oregon chipmunks of the mountain are long sleepers; they hibernate in their underground dugouts from early autumn to late spring. Their young are born in June or early in July; last summer a baby chipmunk that had not yet learned to walk, crept out onto the trail as I walked along. It could not use its legs properly but dragged itself along.
Vancouver from the forest look-out tower on Hollyburn Ridge, 1936 (Brownie Morris Collection)
August 15, 1928
When I came to the forest service outlook station, on Hollyburn Mountain, to live there, the cabin was unfinished; I was expected to complete the construction, and make the furniture. Everyone in the forest service, except a few ink slingers in the district forester’s office, is supposed to be a woodsman. It is the popular belief that every woodsman can build cabins and make anything out of wood, or fix anything, with such tools as an axe, a saw, a hammer, or auger, nails and an abundance of haywire.
I am not as handy as many bushmen, but I built a bunk, a table, some seats, covered the inside walls for the cabin with tarpaper, put up shelves, and I did the job fairly well. But Ranger Pearson, who is my boss, told me to shake the cabin, that is cover the outside walls with shakes, or shingles split by hand.
Splitting shakes is a common job in the woods with any building is done. Most men in British Columbia who live outside the cities and towns have used the frow, the implement made for splitting shakes from a bolt of cedar. It is a heavy cleaving tool with handle at right angles to the blade.
I had done passably well most of the jobs I woodsmen must do, But I had never made any shakes. I had seen them splitting shakes from cedar blocks with a frow and a mallet, but just how they did it had slipped my mind.
The lookout was surrounded by big snags, some of them nearly two hundred feet high, and dry mummies of firs and cedars burned to the bone by a bushfire many years ago. Some of these lofty masts stood close to the lookout tower. These high spars fall sometimes. The cedars usually are sound and seldom fall, but the firs, often rotted by fungus decay, are very uncertain. Occasionally big cedar snags are but hollow shells at the butt. I decided that a dozen or more of these snags would have to be felled so that I could go to sleep easy in my mind.
Some of these snags were over three feet in breast-high diameter, so that I needed help to fall them. Vince Meraw, another forest service patrolman, came up from below to help me. He packed along faller’s saw and a falling ax. We worked fast all day and felled ten of the snags.
Most of them were firs, but several were cedars, and one about two feet and a half in breast-high diameter appeared to be suitable for shakes.
It seemed to be straight-grained and was very dry and hard, the soundest of wood, though it had been dead for twenty-five years. It was free from pin-knots and would split easily.
I might have questioned Meraw about the art of splitting shakes but I did not like to display a want of knowledge of one of the most important qualifications for a woodsman’s job.
I had a one-man crosscut and when I could not put off any longer the making of shakes, I bucked a dozen two-foot blocks off the straight-grained cedar. I had a frow a light sledge-hammer used for driving wedges.
I set the blocks up on end, and used the frow as I had seen it used.
The shakes split off quite easily I told myself that anybody could make shakes. It seems to be quite a simple thing.
I made about a thousand shakes and owing to the beautiful straight-fibered cedar, most of them were pretty good-looking shingles.
I thought they were quite all right. I tacked building paper on the cabin walls and nailed the shakes over the paper. I thought it was a fairly good job.
The new reddish-yellow shakes looked well and a clean sharp smell of cedar came from them.
But before I had finished the job, a man came up the trail, and looking at the shakes with a critical eye remarked, “You didn’t turn the block.”
He was a lean man with a weather-tanned sardonic face and he regarded me with the humorous eye as he exposed my ignorance of shake-splitting with half a dozen words.
“You have not tapered your shakes,” he told me. “If y’u had turned the block end for end every time you split off a shake, y’u would have tapered them. But they ain’t so bad. That’s mighty good cedar for shakin’.”
So, after I had made my shakes, I learned the essential part of the technique of splitting them. You must reverse the block, and then each shake will have one end nicely tapered.
Lost Lake (East Lake), Hollyburn Ridge, 2013 (Don Grant Collection)
The East Lake Fire
August 31, 1928
East Lake is a lonely mountain lake, of wonderful dark mysterious beauty, hidden like a forest secret in the great green Hollyburn woods. It is one of three lovely lakes not far from each other in a line, known as East, Middle and West lakes (Editor’s note: Lost Lake, Blue Gentian Lake and West Lake). They are at an elevation of nearly three thousand feet. They are on an old prospectors’ trail, the oldest trail on Hollyburn Ridge. The loveliest and rarest of mountain wildflowers, the blue gentian, grows on their shores. They are visited by few people; to reach them you have to follow the old trail, which is very dim, and partly covered up by windfalls and blowdowns; its blazes are so old that they are almost healed over; many of them are now only scars on the rugged bark. These lakes are in the unlogged forest, where there has never been a bad fire; a primeval woods of giant western red cedar, yellow cypress, amabilis fir, western hemlock and western white pine, a silent grave, solemn druid temple of nature worship, mighty tree columns holding up a dark roof of matted boughs a hundred feet from the ground, which is padded with an immemorial accumulation of needles and humus, leaf mould feet thick and covering a net of meshed roots.
Most of the hikers who follow the almost effaced, grown-over prospectors trail’ to the almost inaccessible East, Middle and West lakes are good woodsmen, and extremely cautious in handling fire in the bush. But occasionally some people who are lacking in intelligence or deficient in good sense, drift into that part of the mountain wilderness, guessing there uncertain way through the woods, and these unthinking people are usually heedless in using fire in the forest.
On Saturday, August 18, two hikers of this criminally-careless class penetrated to East Lake, and a short distance west of the lake, and close to a shake-built cabin, started a picnic fire to boil their tea pail. With thoughtless rashness, they built a fire of old cedar shakes on the bed of dry needles between two giant trees, a western white pine and a yellow cedar. With characteristic negligence they did not put their fire out, but went away and left it burning.
This was on Saturday afternoon. Having followed their trail from the shake cabin near the lake, to West Vancouver I know a great deal about these people, though I did not see them. Their footprints in the trail told me that one of them was a young woman, who wore high heel shoes of number five size. Her companion was a young man, whose shoes were of the ordinary street type, size seven. They dropped a number of things on the trail, and
one of these articles was part of a copy of the Daily Province, dated Friday the 17th. The girl carried in her hand a stick cut from an alder, both smoked cigarettes and ate chocolate bars; both were short people, the girl was rather fat, or stout, and did not like blueberries; they sat down many times and logs and once ate some biscuits. I could tell you other things about them if I had the space.
If I knew who they were I would have them punished for neglecting to put out their campfire. After they left the shake cabin, the fire ate down into the tinder dry needles and humus, and began to burn the embedded roots of both the trees between which it has been started.
It worked quietly among the roots and dried needle matting and smouldered in the humus, slowly spreading and deepening, Saturday night and Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon the red gods who look after the green timbers sent to hikers of a very different class, real woodsmen and lovers of wild nature, to the shake cabin. They were Walter Macdonald and Victor Holmgreen. It seems a special providence that these men discovered the fire before it had got a too great start. In that part of the mountain there had never been a bushfire; if Macdonald and Holmgreen had not visited the neighborhood of East Lake on Sunday there would have been a bad one; no one else was in that part of the country on Sunday.
These men sniffed the sharp smoke smell before they got to the cabin; when they saw the fire they sprang to effective action like good woodsmen and good citizens.
Holmgreen started at once for West Vancouver to get help. Macdonald began to dig a trench around the fire. With his axe he cleared away the blueberry brush and chopped through the roots; with an old miner’s spade that happened to be in the cabin he dug out the leaf mould and litter down to mineral soil. He packed water from the creek in a tea pail and an empty bean can, first cutting a trail to the creek. The fire was so hot in the humus that a pail of water produced a cloud of steam.
We hiked up to now steelless grade of Shields’ old logging railway. We followed the old skid roads back as far as they would take us. Then we decided to make a shortcut through the woods to East Lake. It was 8 o’clock. We plunged into the brush. It was tall green timber, the original Coast Forest. Black darkness fell. We pushed and struggled through thick head-high blueberry brush in the approximate direction of East Lake. Of course there was no trail. We lost a lot of time looking for old blazes. The woods seemed full of old blazes, partly grown over. We descended into a deep gulch. I had a fall and hurt one of my knees badly. I could hardly walk. We had a bug which Holmgren was carrying. We knew we were at Grouse Creek Gulch, and crossing the creek we struck the old prospectors’ trail, which took us to East Lake. But I am ashamed to say it was 11 o’clock when we reached the shake cabin.
Macdonald was working hard on the fire. Flames and started to run up the bark of the trees and I thought with horror of the possibility of crown fire. Holmgreen and I got busy. We worked all night, chopping roots, digging and packing water in the canvas buckets. I burned an expensive pair of cork boots. Came the dawn. We made strong coffee, boiled in one of the craters the fire had eaten in the humus. We ate canned corned beef and bread for breakfast, a man’s meal.
We went to work again we packed hundreds of buckets of water from the creek and flooded the fire. At about 10 o’clock in the morning the fire seemed to be out. I returned with Macdonald to Shield’s second camp. Holmgreen had gone back to the city, where he has a job. I arrived at my lookout, very weary, at 2 in the afternoon.
I sent Macdonald back to the shake cabin to see that the fire was really out. Walter Macdonald is lean and tough, a young coureur de bois. He runs through the bush as effortlessly as a cougar. Victor Holmgreen, in spirit and sinew, is a fine specimen of the Nordic race. They would take no credit for having done so well, but their pluck and muscle certainly prevented a devastating fire in the splendid East Lake forest. What they did does high credit to them and is an example for others.
First Lake ski jump, Hollyburn Ridge, 1928 (Walter Kennedy Collection)
Oscar’s New Ski Hill
October 27, 1928
Three thousand feet on a mountainside, the trees begin to have some of the characteristics of the alpine timber higher up. They grow very slowly; they are seldom straight in the grain; the wood is so hard and tough that it soon dulls an axe; it is almost impossible to split a log for a puncheon. The green logs are almost as heavy as metal.
Building a tower trestle, a split-log chute and a timber take-off for a big ski-hill on Hollyburn Mountain, the Swedes at the ski-camp have found out how hard and tough and heavy the mountain hemlock. the balsam fir (Abies amabilis) and the western cypress (yellow cedar) are. Cutting and shaping the timber, raising the logs by muscle power alone to fit and mortise them into the giant frame of the structure has been heavy labor even for the sturdy Swedes. The top of the tower at the head of the chute is over forty feet from the ground. The trestle is built on the steep sidehill about 200 feet above the lake, on the opposite shore from the ski-camp.
It is constructed of strong timbers, posts and beams and girders. solidly joined together. There is nothing rickety about Swedish construction, The chute and the take-off are floored with puncheons, split logs. The slant of the chute is that of the steepest roof you ever saw.
The structure was correctly designed for safety and efficiency. It looks something like a lofty roller-coaster. It’s dizzy steepness has a hazardous look. From the starting platform at the top, the broad skidway slanting down to the take-off is a shear declivity. Naked and bare, without snow, it looks now a giddy slant indeed. But snow will give it a far less perilous aspect.
Starting from the top the ski-jumper will gain a velocity of about fifty miles an hour before he reaches the take-off platform, about five feet above the ground. The take-off slopes upward slightly to shoot the jumper off. From this he volplanes, soaring over the level “knoll” in front of the take-off and landing on the lower section of the side-hill, a sharp slide about 200 feet long. This is very steep, and if the jumper falls in landing he rolls head over heels down the slope, turning, spinning, gyrating in the air and showing to the thrilled gallery the waxed bottoms of his aids, until he reaches the bottom with a spill almost as spectacular as the crash of an airplane.
I think it will be possible, on the new Hollyburn ski-hill, to jump 150 feet, perhaps more. It is what the experts call a small hill. It is the best hill in the Vancouver district, one of the best in British Columbia. From the top of the chute to the bottom of the hill the distance is about 500 feet
If the jumper does not take a spill in landing after his glide through the air, he slides swiftly out on the level concreted snow that covers the ice on the take. His momentum will take him almost to the ski-camp porch. Or he may make the beautiful Telemarken turn to check himself with appropriate grace. Do not suppose that experienced ski-jumpers frequently finish their glides with a bad spill. They usually make a good landing.
Down in the city most people are not praying for snow and cold weather. But the ski-riders and jumpers are looking forward impatiently to winter on this mountain. Already there has been a fall of snow on the high meadows. Soon the snow will come on the big plateau of Hollyburn, a ski runners winter paradise.
Then the hard, clean, steel-nerved athletes of the Hollyburn Ski Club, the jumpers, will be making their gliding flights over the new jump, rushing down the chute, leaning forward with arms extended as they take off, and swooping through the frosty air as if their eight-foot skis were wings.
It will be thrilling sport. Winter weather is magnificent on Hollyburn. The great fire at the ski camp will be full of blazing yellow cedar; the big camp will be crowded with ski riders, men and women. The only trouble will be that the camp is not big enough to hold them all. But there’s always plenty of room outside.
"Walt Kennedy at First Lake on Hollyburn demonstrating how not to do it." February 26, 1928 (Buddy Barker Collection)
“The Craft So Long to Learn”
November 30, 1928
An Irishman it has always been told, was asked if he could play the fiddle, and answered that he didn’t know because he had never tried to. Chris Johnson, captain and skiing instructor of the Hollyburn Ski Club, is not an Irishman; he is not even a Swede or a shipwrecked Swede: Oslo is his home town. He says: “If the Irishman said he could play the fiddle the firs’ time he tried I might believe him, but if he said he could ski de firs’ time he tried I would say he’s a svell liar.”
Chris knows all there is to know about skis and skiing, but he started learning about them when he was eight years old in old Norge. He has been captain of the Hollyburn Ski Club since it was organized. At least a hundred men and women have learned how to use skis from him on Hollyburn. He and Uno Hillstrom (one of the best jumpers for both style and distance in America) have taught the boys on Hollyburn how to jump, and have correctly designed their jumping hills. Johnson has done this not for money, but for love of ski sport. He is a healthy old sportsman, who loves the snow and the pure sharp air, the crystal days of winter sunshine, blue shadows on the white meadows, the large free wind of the mountain top; the sculptured peaks that enclose the high plateau in a pattern of violets and silver, the nights of white moon and icy stars.
The Hollyburn skiers have also received training in the art of skiing from Rudolf Verne, who laid the foundations of skiing on Hollyburn by starting the ski camp four years ago. Verne, as a ski-runner is a model of style, a graceful figure on long thin blades. He Is an enthusiastic ski sportsman who insists on the nice points of the game. He knows every punctilio of the art, and is an exacting judge of style. Skiing is a delicate art, a finished grace wins more points in a competition than distance run or jumped. I have no hesitation in saying that it is impossible for a man to become a master of skiing unless he learns the rudiments when he is quite young. 1 did not begin until I was 60.
At the ski camp there are Oscar, Ole, Axel, Anders, all ski experts, who will, any day of the week, set your foot in the right path, if you are a beginner. At the First Lake clubhouse you are in an atmosphere of skiing. Even Hagen, the ski-camp cat, knows something about skiing, and will view you with a critical eye when you make your first hesitating movements on skis in the camp clearing. Your instructor will first show you how to fasten your harness. Then he will send you on an easy glide down a little slant. He will tell you to keep your feet, knees and ski close together. Don’t try to walk, or lift your skis off the snow. Slide the skis along the surface. Do not raise them, like feet, he will say, but push them along. The Swedes will not allow you to use ski-poles when beginning. Stand erect. Push each leg alternately as far as you can forward, with your weIght resting on the bent knee that’s ahead. Slide each ski alternately ahead with the forward knee bent, of course. Soon you will get the trick of it. You will be pleased with yourself. particularly when you notice that Hagen the cat, and the half-tame whisky-jacks that are hangers-on around the camp, are now looking at you with approbation.
You have made a beginning.
"George at work", Hollyburn Ski Camp rental cabin, Hollyburn Ridge, March 11, 1934 (Brownie Morris Collection)
December 1, 1928
I sat by the fire in the ski camp at First Lake, watching Oscar waxing skis. There were no hikers or skiers at the camp that night, but we were not lonesome. Ole had built in the big fireplace such a bright blaze of yellow cedar that no other light was needed in the room.
The dry cypress burned with a continual pleasant snapping, and the firelight washed like a silent intangible immaterial surf across the floor and against the walls of the big room, and sent the shadows climbing and running like scared pixies over the great smoke-brown ceiling beams.
Oscar held the runner of an eight-foot ski in the heat of the fire, warming the black wax he had applied to the shellacked smoothness of the runner. The grooved undersides of skis are resurfaced now and then by massaging them with fine sandpaper, shellacking them, rubbing down the shellac and applying ski wax, which should be burned in, by heating the skis. A coating of wax, properly applied, makes the skis the slickest things on earth
You can buy several kinds of ski wax, some imported from Europe. The Swedes at the ski camp make their own wax.
The real purpose wax is not to make the ski slide more swiftly, as many people suppose, but to make them run better on soft snow. The slicker the runners are the more freely they glide over damp snow, of course.
But all ski-riders now grease their skis with wax whether the snow is soft or not; naturally the wooden blades move faster over any kind of snow if they are greased. It takes a lot of wax and as the best wax is sold at rather high prices, the thrifty ski-runner soon finds out how to make his own. It is rather easily made.
As I sat there idly watching Oscar slicking his skis I decided that the characteristic smell of the ski camp is the odour of hot wax.
If ever I leave Hollyburn Mountain and the ski camp and wish to conjure up memory pictures of the winters up there, it will only be necessary for me to take the lid off a can of ski wax and warm it a little.
Then I shall see the big room at the camp full of skiers waxing their skis before daylight on a winter morning, some heating their skis at the fireplace, some using gas cooking lamps, some carbide trail lamps, and others lighted candles.
Tar is the chief ingredient of most kinds of ski wax, so that its aroma is balsamic and agreeable. Many kinds of gums are used, and so is paraffin. Some skiers glaze their runners with candle wax smoothed on with a hot iron.
Some kinds of ski wax compounds are intended to make hill-climbing, herring-boning upgrade. easier by making the runners stick on a snow slope. All the ski-rider needs is frosty snow, a downward slope and well-greased ski to attain the highest speed possible to man on his feet with mechanical aid.
If you are on the Hollyburn trail in winter, when the trail is a trench with breast-high walls of snow, owing to hikers walking single file, you may hear a distant shout: “Alley-oop-oop! This is the ski rider’s warning cry, something like the golfer’s “fore!” But there is a more definite urgency in the tone, and you immediately step out of the track, perch up on the side of the trail. There is a sudden whizzing crescendo, like the swift approach of something that makes little sound, but is travelling at a speed of greased lightning. A shriek of ski blades grinding on hard snow, and a blur of color, a wild yell, and it is gone.