by Robert Shramek

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John was a skilled timber sale forester. I never had the dubious privilege of working with old John. I talked with several young foresters back in the early years of the 50’s who had, and they assured me that the tales they told were accurate descriptions of the way John trained new foresters. This is what they said.

In those days, timber sale layout was a straightforward job. It included the locating of timber stands, surveying, mapping and marking the boundaries of clear cut units, and cruising the timber for volume and grade. Cruising was done by measuring and/or estimating the individual trees within sample plots within each unit.

The field work was strenuous, and the measurements needed to be exacting and accurate. The surveys and data were the basis for appraisals that set the minimum price required to bid on the timber offered. Timber was valuable and hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake. We carried measuring tapes, Abney levels, staff compasses, clip boards, altimeters and cruise cards to record data. We wore cruiser vests to carry most of the gear, but we were usually burdened with axes, and Jacob staffs in our hands. All that gear slowed up travel, and limited the effective distance that we could walk in for a day’s work.

Since this work was done before the roads were built, or even surveyed, the job usually required staying out in the woods for extended camp outs. It took time to complete the work. Most sale layout crews tried to do the close work from home, and when camping out was called for, it was usually for 10 days at a time, with 4 days off. That schedule allowed us to make the logistics easier, and give the forester some time with his family. Usually, we carried in a good tent, camp stove, sleeping bags and some amenities, like lanterns, plates, cups, silverware, a mirror, and some folding stools to make camp life a little more comfortable.

Not so for John, who prided himself on being self-reliant. I guess he felt that luxuries in camp were an unnecessary burden. In fact, the camp site itself was unnecessary.

This tale took place on the remote North West part of the Olympic National Forest. This was at a time when logging roads were just being built into the back country, and most of the drainages were still roadless and included a lot of rugged territory. Walking was the only travel available, and trails were few and far between. A walk might start along a trail, but a lot of the hiking was cross-country, with only primitive or game trails for most areas foresters worked in.

According to the stories, a new forester would arrive at the District office, and John would be ready to leave. With no introductions, they would pile into John’s pickup and drive to the end of the road. There they would pack up a few supplies in small day packs and begin walking.

After several miles of strenuous hiking, they would arrive at a marked unit. John would then hand the young forester a set of tally cards in a clip board, and start calling off dimensions. This would go on for 4 or 5 hours without any break, when they would stop for a short lunch break.

After maybe 15 minutes, John would get up and announce it was time to go back to work. They would set off again at a brisk pace and continue for another 5 hours, paying no attention to the time or weather. They would break again for a brief supper, typically consisting of a couple of sliced potatoes and some diced ham or bacon, fried up in a filthy old frying pan produced out of the bottom of his old pack and cooked over an open fire.

When the meal was finished, the fire would be put out and cruising would resume until darkness came, making writing impossible. John would look around, find a convenient log or tree root, pull out an old army blanket, roll over and go to sleep. At first daylight, they would be up, and after a short fire and a breakfast of more potatoes, possibly with bacon, they would resume timber cruising. The routine was rigorous and unvaried, and continued until the cruise was complete, or the Junior Forester simply revolted or collapsed. Two or three weeks was a typical period of time to complete a cruise.

They told me that anyone who completed a two week training assignment under John was considered by the brass in the Supervisors office to have proven himself and he was ready to be taken off probationary status!

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