Jack James always had a story.
James worked for more than 50 years in the woods of coastal British Columbia, and he collected stories as much as he did knowledge of forestry. He loved the woods, and he could always be encouraged to tell a story about the characters he met along the way. His exploits were legendary, and he could make any “normal” activity seem like it was a good time, from washing dishes and lighting woodstoves in a camp kitchen to complicated yarding techniques out in the bush.
Jack was born Dec. 3, 1931 in Love Siding, Saskatchewan, some say with tree sap running through his veins. His father worked in sawmills while Jack and his brothers were growing up, and forestry was in Jack’s blood.
Oldtimers say Jack learned so much about logging from living in camps that he wasn’t your typical “greenhorn” when he started. He worked for decades in remote camps on Vancouver Island and up the Sunshine Coast: his work ethic meant he was in demand while at camp. Jack worked hard, and played hard. He and his wife Donna raised their family in and around camps,
I feel privileged to have heard so many of Jack’s stories over the years. I learned a lot about logging from him too.
One of my favourite experiences with him was sitting next to him while on a speeder run from the Port Alberni Train Station to McLean Mill.
It was a new experience for me, but it was like stepping back in time for Jack. He hiked himself up to the bench, his thermos of coffee in one hand. As we followed the No. 7 steam train along the Alberni Pacific Railway to the mill, I could barely hold on to the bench, the speeder was tossing around so much. Jack, on the other hand, calmly opened his thermos, poured himself a small cup of coffee and proceeded to drink it without spilling a drop.
Jack was a humble man who would never ask someone to do a job he wouldn’t do himself. He started as a spark chaser when he was 12, graduated to whistle punk, and worked his way up to woods foreman. He counted some of the most influential people in the logging industry as his friends.
He experienced some of the most significant technological changes to the forestry industry in half a century of logging, from the “Golden Age” of steam logging in the 1940s to diesel, and spar trees to steel spars. He took the changes in stride, and learned all he could about the next piece of technology that would allow him to continue doing the job he loved.
Jack’s knowledge of old-time logging practices was the envy of forestry professionals throughout the Pacific Northwest, and he was often asked to talk about his experiences. The old-time logging show that Jack and his crew put on at McLean Mill was unique, and drew audiences of logging enthusiasts and spectators from around the world. Where the steam mill showed tourists how logs were cut, the JJ Logging Crew completed the picture by showing visitors how logs were felled, yarded and loaded onto trucks to take to the mill.
Jack tried to retire from his show—twice—but there was always something to draw him back to the woods. On the final day of his “re-retirement,” June 9, 2017, Jack came full circle. While supervising the JJ Logging Crew one final time, Jack spent some time with the crew’s youngest member—whistlepunk Dylan Grieder, who at 11 years old was already something of a pro.
“He knows a lot of stuff,” Grieder said at the time. “He teaches me a lot of things.”
Jack James died Nov. 1, 2020, at home in Port Alberni, with his family around him.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.