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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Port Alberni, BC 1974

You drive about a ½ hour north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and turn left at the seaside town of Parksville onto another highway going west. Or you can take another cut off just north of the Parksville cut off that will take you through the village of Coombs with its famous thatched roofed restaurant with the goats living on top. Either way, you are on your way to Port Alberni. You’ll pass through Cathedral Grove where you can see 1000 year old Douglas fir trees. Then you climb up a very steep hill locally known as "The Hump" with Mount Arrowsmith off to the side. After reaching the top of the hill you will start to descend into the Alberni Valley. If it is a clear day you might notice the smoke stacks up ahead. On your way into town you will pass a few big box stores like Wal-Mart that have opened in the last several years.
Goats on roof in Coombs, BC
Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove.
The highway will take you into Port Alberni and down to the Somass River where salmon fishing is in high gear in the late summer. At this point you have to make a choice. You can either turn left and visit the 2nd of two downtown areas that are in Port Alberni (you have just passed through the 1st one) or turn right and travel west for 1-1/2-2 hours to Pacific Rim National Park. (Some people just call that area Long Beach.)
I lived in Port Alberni for about 9 months in the 1974. Like a lot of other things in life, it was a bit of a fluke that I ended up there at all. I was living in Vancouver and needed a job. I wanted to go off somewhere where I could save up enough money to buy a car. In Vancouver I applied and was hired for a job in a mill that was located at a place called Thasis which is near the small town of Gold River on northern Vancouver Island. With a packed duffle bag I caught a ferry to Vancouver Island and hitchhiked my way to Gold River. It was there that I discovered that the only way to get to Tahsis was by boat. There was a scheduled boat trip every several hours. I was sitting on the boat waiting to pay my fare when a crew member asked me where I was going. I told him about my new job. He in turn told me that the mill was shut down due to a strike. Shit! I wasn’t counting on that.  What a bummer!
I had to do some fast thinking. I had some friends who I knew from Banff who had moved to Port Alberni. He was from Columbia in South America and she was from Calgary. In fact I kind of went to their wedding. At least we made an attempt. We got pretty wasted on tequila in Banff the night before and got to Calgary where the wedding was held too late for the wedding but in time for the reception. The gal’s mother took one look at my sorry looking face and made up a bed for me. I have pretty well avoided tequila ever since. For a few months I shared an apartment with this couple in the west end of Vancouver.
So I set off for Port Alberni. Maybe I could find work there? Somehow I managed to find my friends. They were living in a two bedroom suite on the main floor of a small house. Both were working on the “green chain” at a local sawmill. The “green chain” is where workers used to (it is now mostly automated) separate newly cut lumber into piles of planks that are the same size. The lumber is delivered by a conveyor belt. The job can be quite hazardous. Kind of like the I Love Lucy episode with the candy conveyor belt but with a far more harmful product.
The couple was saving up their money for a visit to South America, a trip they planned to do by car. They hoped to trade in their Isizu Ballet sedan (you didn’t see many of those cars) for a van in the coming months. Renting their spare bedroom to me was quite OK with them as it would save them even more money. Now that I had a place to stay the next thing to do was find a job.
I’m not sure if just the guy or both of them had tried their hands at tree planting and I thought I would give it a go. I lasted about a week. The big industry in town was the pulp mill and most of the forestry operations close by including the mills were owned and run by a company called MacMillan-Bloedel. (They no longer exist but were one of the largest forestry companies in BC for decades.) I walked into the pulp mill and was hired on the spot. Getting a job that easily would not be believable to many young people living in Port Alberni today.
The Columbian guy had quite a temper which got him into difficulty when he was planting trees and working on the green chain. He ended up working as a deck hand on a salmon trawler where he only had the captain to deal with.
Columbian guy tossing salmon.
The house where we lived was at the top of a steep hill in Port Alberni. I didn’t have a car but was fortunate enough to be able to use the gal’s bike which I used to get back and forth to work.. I pretty well took my life in my hands with that bike. I would go screaming down the hill and then coast a good part of the way to the mill with the speed I had built up. If any car had ever decided to cross my path I would have been toast.

When I first started at the mill I was assigned to work with some millwrights who looked after the maintenance of the machinery. Apparently somewhere in the union agreement I was supposed to carry around the millwright’s toolbox. Unions had a fair amount of power back then. Only certain people could perform certain tasks. One union job that confused me a bit was that of the "oiler" who would go around squrting oil into various pieces of machinery. I'm not particularly mechanical but I think that there is only 2 choices of oils for this endevour, 10-30 or 10-40. Not exactly rocket science.

All new employees at the mill were hired on a trial basis and after 30 days they would get their union card if things worked out. I kept a close eye on the calender that first month.

MacMillan-Bloedel pulp mill 1973.

There were a number of different departments involved in the process of making pulp. Each station had a little room with a control panel that monitored production. The panels had the usual stop/start functions and things like flow charts. The stations were run by " the operators" who understood what was going on and an assistant who would do the grunt work away from the control room. The main plan always was to keep things running smoothly. Every now and then the shit would hit the fan and the operation would be shut down. I was an assistant or "helper". Part of my job was to clean up messes. I also had to do some testing.
1974 was forty years ago but I will try my best to describe the departments I worked in back then. I may not be totally accurate but at least you will kind of get a picture of what goes on in a pulp mill.

The Recaust Department. This is where the lime kiln was. A lime kiln is about a hundred yards long. It looks like a giant pipe. The pipe is about 15 feet across and rotates. The pipe is also tilted at a slight angle. The inside of the pipe is coated with special fire clay bricks that can withstand extremely high heat. Basically, what was going on was the lime was being cooked. It would get into chunks that would have to be broken up before they stuff could go through the grates at the lower end of the pipe. My job was to break up the chunks with an iron bar with a kind of rubber fire hose piece at the end of it. The rubber was so I didn’t burn my hands. The residue from this process are called dregs which I soon learned were very acidic. From time to time I had to shovel up the muck which is what dregs look like. One day I was eating lunch in the control room and the operator pointed at my work boots and said “Nice boots you’ve got on”. I looked down and saw that the acidic stuff had eaten holes in the leather.

Me getting the lumps out of the lime kiln.
Next up the ladder was the screen room where the wood chips that had been turned to mush were redirected further up the ladder.
Next were the digesters. In Port Alberni there were 7 of them in the mill. Each one had a 35 ton capacity. Digesters are kind of like giant pressure cookers. They were filled with woodchips and cooked.
There were other operations up the ladder like the bleach plant and the washers but I never made it up that far. At the top of the heap was the paper cutting machines. The operators here had their own small union and were paid a small fortune for their expertise.

To someone not familiar with a pulp mill it can appear to be a bit intimidating . Motors are humming away all over the place. There are metal ladders and catwalks leading to different equipment. There are all kinds of ways to get injured or be killed. Probably the most creepy thing was sewer gas. Apparently if you smell it you are moments away from death.

I remember two chores at the mill I fortunately only had to do once. One of the chores was cleaning some screens by soaking them in an acid bath. The yellow acid liquid literally gurgled and bubbled. You could see the fumes rising off of the liquid surface. The stuff could eat the skin right off of you. The other scary chore I did was being dressed up in a suit that looked like a deep sea diving outfit and blasting crud off of the walls inside a tank with a high pressure gun that could cut my feet off if I wasn’t careful. I got into the tank through a small opening and did the chore by myself. They used to put tags on things that were dangerous and this job had all kinds of tags. My safety net was a couple of co-workers some 20 feet below me. I remember wanting to get them to turn off the gun and not getting their attention because they were facing the other way and having a smoke while they chatted.
One day I was asked to do another chore that after a few minutes I decided I wanted no part of and refused to continue. It was using a water to hose down the sulphur dust in a room at the other end of the kiln. I realized that there were all kinds of electrical wires in the room and the chance of electrocuting myself was not very appealing.
One of the things I remember the most at the pulp mill in Port Alberni is the people I worked with. It was in some ways like the Foreign Legion. Pretty well most of the employees were from other parts of Canada. I wondered a few times if some of them had just run out of highway being that Port Alberni is almost the end of the line when it comes to travelling across Canada.
Spending 8 hours with another person (the operator), you kind of get to know their habits and their idiosyncracies. Some were a little more severe than others as far as their temperaments go but even they would open up at times and tell a few stories.
I spent some shifts working with a guy named Ernie in the screen room. He was a stocky middle aged guy who always wore a ball cap and had one of the deepest voices I have ever heard. He didn’t talk, he bellowed. On afternoon and graveyard shifts Ernie would bring his stamp collection to work. I remember him dipping the stamps into a plastic bowl of water using tweezers. The stamp thing could distract Ernie from keeping an eye on the gauges on the panel that controlled the flow of the pulp mush. A few times they had to shut down the operation for a few hours and I thought at the time it was because he had screwed up. It didn’t bother me. Hosing pulp down a sewer was a nice way to spend a shift. Ernie was the guy who told me about the tsunamis that had come up the Sowmass River to Port Alberni in the 1960s that wiped out a number of houses.
Another operator I worked with was a guy from Montreal who had been in the US Marines. He told me about being in the Philippines or somewhere like that on a survival kind of thing and how they threw rocks at the monkeys and the return fire was coconuts. He also told me about being a guard in a military prison and being beat up by the inmates and ending up in the hospital after he was caught on the inside during a lockdown.
There was an operator who was from Calgary that I absolutely couldn’t stand. He was constantly talking about what a “real man”was. He could be quite derogatory. He enjoyed the power he had over me. I remember him telling me a story about how he had gone into a hardware store and wasn’t getting the help he wanted from a young guy so he told the young guy to get him a “real man”. What an asshole!
The guy I liked working with the best was a guy named Don. I was quite impressed with his ability to do the New York Times Sunday crosswords. He was a really bright guy. Don introduced me to early morning beer drinking. Back then the taverns opened at 9 a.m. and Don liked to have a pint or two every now and then after completing a graveyard shift.
Sometimes the operator would have a radio on during a shift. Particularly at night when things were less busy and senior supervisory staff weren't around as much. One song that I couldn't get out of my mind was The Night Chicago Died. Other tunes from that year were Tin Man, Hooked On A Feeling, Cat's In The Cradle, I Shot The Sheriff, Bennie And The Jets, Feel Like Making Love, Ricky Don't Lose That Number, and Midnight At The Oasis.
Working the graveyard shift in a pulp mill was both eerie and mysterious. The main goal in this shift was just to keep things running. Once in a while I would take a walk around the site. I remember standing on the dock and seeing these giant rolls of newsprint that had Van Nuys, California stenciled on them. The rolls would be taken by barge up the Somass River and down the coast to California. I remember the lights from the mill flickering upon the water. I also remember the sounds of unseen motors whirring away in the darkness. 3 a.m in a pulp mill is spooky.

So what was Port Alberni like back in 1974? For starters it had the 3rd highest per capita income in Canada at the time. The pulp mill was running 3 shifts a day. Things were good. It was quite common to see a Corvette or some other flashy sports car parked in a driveway. Young guys would often get summer jobs at the mill through their dads who worked there and between the decent wages and not having to pay rent at home a shiney new car was a possible goal.

At the top of the hill stood the Woodward's Department Store. (Similar to The Bay or Eaton's) They also had a large grocery deparment. The 1950s group, The Platters, made an appearance that summer at the original Barclay Hotel. (I'm not sure if it burned down or was demolished years later.) The Exorcist and The Sting played at the local movie theatre. (Not the new one that was built years later.)  If there was going to be a strike mosr preferred the fall hunting season as the time to do it.

I believe I started working at the mill in February. I pretty well mostly hung out with the couple I was living with.
We would have a few beers every now and then and even though this was the peak of the hippy era, for whatever reason we didn't get into smoking pot. As the weather warmed up we would sometimes go out to Sproat Lake a few miles away for a swim. Sproat Lake is the home of the large Mars water bombing planes that have helped fight California's brush fires numerous times. We never made it out to Long Beach that year and that may have been due to the questionable reliability of the Isizu Ballet.

Sproat Lake.
One weekend the Columbian guy and his wife invited me to go swimming with them to a place by Nanaimo called the Jinglepot potholes. It was where the old Jinglepot coal mines had been located. What they didn't tell me beforehand was that where we were going was a nudist hangout. It took me a few minutes to become somewhat comfortable without clothes on with my roommates. The wife offered me some Noxema to protect my privates from the sun and I was good to go. Some guy up on a ledge started playing a flute on the whole scene seemed a bit surreal. I had images in my mind of Greek satyrs (goat boys) for some reason.
At the end of the summer my roommates sold their Isizu and bought a van and headed off to South America. It seemed like a risky thing to do at the time but they managed to make it there and back in one piece. I still have some bronze looking bookends that they gave me when I next saw them several months later.


Rooming house in Port Alberni.
I had to find another place to live and managed to get a room in a rooming house. The guy who owned the house worked for Household Finance (remember them?). He was kind of full of himself and gave the impression that he had it made at HFC. He had a divorced girlfriend with a kid who was kind of demanding. Sometimes she would phone and ask for him and I would make out like I didn’t recognize who she was asking for. Just before I left a couple of guys came around to the rooming house. They repoed the Household Finance guy’s car and slapped some kind of court order on the house. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
I became friends with one of the other tenants who was a steamfitter in the mill and was about my age. He later moved down to Victoria to take some university courses. I hitchhiked down to see him a few times and he was sharing a house on the waterfront in Oak Bay with some other students. The house is no longer there but I would guess the property today is probably worth about 3 million bucks.
On one of those trips to Victoria I got a lift from an old guy who told me an amazing story. He said that he had been working in the coal mines near Nanaimo around 1915 and that there were a lot of strikes. The mining companies would hire strike breakers who would beat up the union guys fairly frequently. The old guy’s younger brother became a target and fearing for his life he took off to Australia. They never saw one another again.

One day I decided to bike up to Mount Arrowsmith. I took the highway up the huge hill until I came to the dirt road that led to the mountain. I ditched the bike in some bushes and started hiking. I stopped to take a break and was taken aback by some very strange birds that seemed to have no fear of humans and came within a few feet of me. I later learned that they are called Moose Birds and are part of the jay family. I kind of lost track of the time and suddenly realized that it was getting dark fast. Fortunately, I found a small unoccupied cabin and lit myself a fire in the stove. I ended up spending the night there.

I think it was sometime in late November that I inserted my last time card into the time clock thing at the mill. I had done my time. I had saved enough to buy a car. I flew back east and bought a 1968 Ford Falcon and drove it back out to BC. It wasn’t the last time I would see Port Alberni.

Car Insurance for my first car, a 1968 Ford Falcon.
A year or so later I made a sales call on the mill for a company I was working for out of Victoria, BC. I had told a few guys at the mill that I planned on getting into sales. I had the feeling that they never really cared about hearing that kind of stuff. It kind of went against the grain for those that believed in the comradery of being one of the “lifers”. I was always an outsider at the mill.
Later on I was working in Vancouver as a sales rep and invited my old friend Don out for a beer one weekend when I was in Port Alberni. Don had a bit of a twisted sense of humour and brought along a guy we worked with who was from Alberta and who I really disliked. Sure enough, the other guy got a bit insulting after a few beers and I could see old Don was enjoying it all. The conversation came pretty close to a fight happening but it didn’t. I rented a boat that weekend and went Salmon fishing in the Somass River. The fish were jumping out of the water all over the place but I never managed to catch one.
Over the next number of years I would pass through Port Alberni on the way out to Long Beach. For a few years my kids and I would spend a week in the summer camping out there. We always stopped in Port Alberni on the way home at the Dairy Queen. By this time we had had enough of campfire food. About 7 years ago my son played in a weekend hockey tournament in Port Alberni. He had little interest in seeing where I had lived in the town years ago or hearing my stories. I guess that's to be expected from a 17 year old.
Port Alberni has seen some very hard times over the last 20-30 years. The forestry industry has diminished drastically. Nowadays the town is more of a mixed economy that includes tourism. It is also an affordable area to retire to with lots of outdoor activities available.
Last fall we were poking around Port Alberni and Mount Arrowsmith on a Sunday drive and I decided to check out the old pulp mill. I parked my car near the administrative buildings and some guy with a red vest came out and asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for a plaque that used to be on one of the buildings that described how the first mill in the area that produced a paper type of product was one that used old rags imported from the UK and not trees. We also learned that the mill now employed a fraction of the people it used to and that a number of years ago the paper making equipment was dismantled and shipped off somewhere. It was probably sent to the US or China. We also learned that old Don had retired in the past year.
We found a monument that was made from the original grinding stones that had been imported from Scotland in the 1890s. Unfortunately the monument is located in an area that tourists or even the locals will ever see.
Original mill grinding wheels.
You can tell the town is struggling. There are quite a number of empty storefronts. A few years ago they built a pier with a number of small shops and cafes but it is kind of out of the way from tourists headed out to Long Beach. For a number of years there was a boat that took people up the Sowmass River for day cruises. The boat was called the Lady Rose. After 70 years of service it is no longer in operation.
Photos of pier area
I remember Port Alberni as town of hard working people. Times certainly have changed but here’s hoping things get better. It is well worth visiting if you are in the area.



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