There’s nothing like some old photos to help take you down memory lane.
That’s exactly what happened to Brian Skakun who dropped in on one of his old employers last week. Long before the outspoken city councillor started his current day job at Prince George Pulp and like many who started working in the forest sector in the 1980s, Skakun got his start by piling lumber.
“I started out piling 16-foot two-by-fours, wet ones, at the end of the greenchain” says Skakun. “It was about 40 lifts a day and it was three boards at a time. You had no break until it was coffee time or lunch time, but the shift goes by fast.”
He was in his early 20s when he got hired to work at Brink Forest Products’ portable sawmill set up in the Bowron Lakes area to deal with the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Owner John Brink took Skakun on a tour through his current finger-joint operation on River Road last week and the two enjoyed reminiscing about the old days.
When Skakun started at the Bowron mill, he lived in camp. There were long, 10 hour days and, unlike sawmills today, it wasn’t fully enclosed so dealing with the elements was a challenge.
“Back then it was -35 degrees Celsius and colder,” he says. “We had no roof on the majority of the mill. Most of us, especially with little or no seniority, were out in the extremes … rain, cold, everything. It was hard, hard work. It was good for me to get a job where you had to work your butt off.”
Skakun remembers that, to deal with some of the beetle kill, crews were burning the residual brush left from the logging operation.
“You’d have these helicopters coming along the Bowron River Valley with drip torches, lighting it up on both sides,” he says. “We actually had small tornadoes. The fires were so intense they would create their own weather.”
The portable mill was established specifically to help deal with the beetle-killed timber in the area.
“We were cutting the trees the mills didn’t want because of too many defects,” says Brink. “That’s why the mill was there.”
And that posed many challenges for the mill workers, who were dealing with wood that wasn’t quite the high quality that many were used to.
“What happened with the beetle kill, the wood would be so checked, it would hit the drop-sorter deck and just shatter,” says Skakun.
There was lots of beetle kill wood that was salvageable, but there was also a lot of waste. Skakun says the burner would be so full, that they would have to stop production. They couldn’t burn the waste fast enough. Crews would actually have to try to physically push the wood into the burner.
“We were the only company that had no timber licence and were simply trying to do innovative things trying to live off timber that other people didn’t want or wood blocks,” says Brink.
For Skakun, it was definitely a learning experience, living in a logging camp in the 20s. It was four days in and three out.
“One thing about camp life, the food was incredible,” he says. “But the work was hard.”
The workers called it Brinktown and during down time in camp a lot of the guys went fishing in the Bowron River and enjoyed the outdoors, but a lot of them honed their arm wrestling skills. The millwright was a former national championship.
“He’d call you up to the millwright room and you’d have armwrestling practices at coffee, lunch, and after work,” says Skakun.
Skakun worked his way up in the mill eventually doing just about every job in the mill.
Work came to a halt when a fire burned the mill burning to the ground. Skakun was there the night it happened.
“Someone was knocking on all the doors, ‘the mill’s burning,’” says Skakun. “I looked out my window and there was just this inferno. I thought ‘my job’s gone,” because I knew there was going to be nothing left.”
He did some work helping clean up the mill and, surprisingly, kept his job.
“I had very little insurance because it was in the bush,” Brink says of the mill. “But I made the commitment right away that we were going to rebuild it.”
The rebuilt mill was more modern and built in such a way that it could be taken apart and moved easily. They operated for another six months or so in the Bowron before Brink moved the mill to Fort St. James. Skakun went with it.
“It was tough finding a place to live in Fort St. James,” says Skakun. “A lot of us lived in this place called the Zoo. The Zoo had a reputation province-wide as being a mean, nasty place. We made it through though.”
Skakun says his time at Brink Forest Products helped him get to where he is today.
“When I got out of there, I applied at PG Pulp and it was through the work I did with John Brink and his mill that I was able to get a job at the pulp mill,” he says. “Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have got in at the pulp mill. It was a real stepping stone.”
Brink says that remains true today as many workers get their start at Brink Forest Products and move on to other forest operations.
“We employ 350 people,” says Brink. “A lot of times those are young people who are entrants into the industry, who have never been in a machinery environment, that we are training and they move on to other jobs … It’s another reason that we are really complementary to the primary sector.”
Skakun enjoyed the tour of the Brink Forest Products plant as it has been a long time since has been in a mill.
“The tour was good,” says Skakun. “It’s labour intensive and it’s busy … we have lost so many jobs in the forest sector. Any time you have a business willing to invest to create more of those type of jobs, it’s important because we’re continuously losing those high-paying jobs.”