Responding to a recruitment ad in the local newspaper back in 1954, this young but experienced logger embarked on the journey of a lifetime
Irecall seeing the following headline in News Chronicle of Port Arthur, Ont., back in 1954, but little did I know at the time just how much it would change my life: “The Largest Hand-planted Forest in the World, Harvesting to Start With Canadian Loggers.”
Actually, it was the subheading afterwards that really caught my eye—“experienced Loggers Wanted by the New Zealand Government.”
Having experience with several Canadian logging firms, I went to find out the details at the Port Arthur unemployment office in late November, and soon found myself hired to go work in New Zealand. I also discovered that there were a lot of things that had to get done to get there: obtain a passport, clear any outstanding debts, assemble the necessary personal effects, and bid farewell to family and friends. My parents were not too enthused about my plans, so my two brothers arranged a going-away party for me and invited almost 100 people.
The train to Vancouver left the Port Arthur station at five minutes after midnight on January 1, 1955, with stops in Winnipeg, Calgary, Hope and Kamloops, arriving in Vancouver early in the morning of January 3. I had time to enjoy a sightseeing bus tour of the city and Stanley Park.
As part of the travel arrangements, I spent the night in a hotel close to where I was to board the ship the following day. Excitement was running high as 125 Canadian loggers boarded the SS Orcades, the largest ship that had tied up in port at that time.
Departure was at 4 p.m., and it was smooth sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge and past Stanley Park. Lights were already twinkling in the growing darkness as we passed Victoria and, after the harbour pilot was taken off the ship, we soon started to gain speed, heading for the open ocean.
For the next two days, as the ship rocked and rolled (no stabilizers back then!) along the coast toward San Francisco, there was no activity allowed on the decks; even though the deck chairs were tied together, they still slid around on deck. So, I found a book on New Zealand in the library that contained outdated statistics of no interest to me, but inside the back cover was a map. When unfolded, it covered two tables and contained great details of both islands, as well as nearby Stewart Island.
As I gazed at this, I was joined by other passengers who would tell me where they lived, what the area was noted for, where the best places to vacation were, and the history of the settlement of the country by white men. I was told of the great earthquake and volcanic eruption in the mid-1880s that devastated a large area in the central part of the North Island. This covered the native trees many feet deep with pumice, in which not even weeds grow. With its final efforts, however, the volcano spewed forth a black ash so fertile a person could grow several crops in one year.
During the Depression years of the late 1920s and 1930s, the government used unemployed persons and people in jail to hand-plant trees of
different species in this vast area. It was to this very area that our group of Canadians had been recruited to harvest the first of these trees. Pinus radiata is the name of most of the trees imported from Oregon, U.S.A. These grew so fast in the moderate climate that my crew cut down trees that were 48 inches in diameter at the stump and 120 feet tall at the tender age of just 28 years.
Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was thrilling and with the whole day ahead of us in this beautiful city, there was much to do and see. On one bus tour, we were taken to Muir Woods National Park, which hosted redwood trees ten feet or more in diameter A story about John Muir appeared in the July 1972 issue of National Geographic.
Our journey took a turn for the better as we sailed the calm seas towards Hawaii, where again, we had a full day to explore this paradise, including a bus tour of the island. When we departed at midnight, the sight of the island gradually receding in the wake of the ship brought tears to many.
Travelling then for many days with no sight of land was very restful yet full of activity. Continuing on smooth seas to our next stop at Fiji, we crossed the equator, viewing the North Star and the Southern Cross each evening. Fiji was a lot different than Hawaii and has its own lifestyle; there was much to see there.
Our entrance into the harbour at Auckland was guided by a dolphin, a species that had first undertaken the job during the Second World War, when there had been a shortage of men to guide the various ships bringing in supplies.
Our introduction into the New Zealand lifestyle was complicated by the currency in use at that time. Being of British origin, it had coins of halfpennies, pennies, sixpence, shillings worth 12 pennies, pounds worth 20 shillings, and guineas worth 21 shillings— a calculator would have come in handy while making purchases.
For the single men, there were a number of promised working conditions that were not fulfilled and change was required. Too much mutton on the menu led to a switch of catering firms. A chef from a hotel in nearby Rotorua was brought in and he soon recruited four girls from the hotel to replace the locals who lacked experience in serving. Conditions gradually improved in our work area as well.
In spite of being an immigrant in this amazing country, I still felt very much a Canadian, so I took Friday, July 1, off work to visit Rotorua, some 40 miles away by bus. A Scottish girl from the catering firm had the day off as well and joined me on the bus journey to do some shopping. We later met for dinner and then took in a show called “Three Coins in the Fountain.” This turned out to be our first date and led to our marriage three months later. The rapid growth of the trees in the region seemed to reflect our rapid romance, which has lasted more than 60 years and expanded to a family of four children and many grandchildren.
That inconspicuous ad in the local newspaper so long ago had a far-reaching effect on my life, taking me around the world and then full circle back to Canada. Upon our return, we spent a year in Britain visiting my wife Margaret’s family and friends, and then we crossed the rough seas on the Queen Elizabeth I, and took a train back to my hometown of Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay. ■