The chainsaw, sledge and wedges are back in the woodshed. The winter wood is split and stacked.
Steve and Dave have headed home to their busy lives; Johnnie and James have promised to redouble their efforts to attend next year.
And I’m once again pondering the strength of a growing tradition: Wood Camp at Skelhp.
For six years, on the last weekend of October, a group of lifelong pals have assembled at my house in the bush to cut our family’s winter wood supply. I provide accommodation, meals and libations, and the cut rounds of cedar, spruce and hemlock that we render into split firewood for the Robinson fireplace.
My four old friends supply muscle power (for logging, splitting and stacking), homemade bread (Steve is an accomplished home baker), desserts (Steve’s Sooke Parish Hall apple pie is a staple), enormous double-yoke eggs (Dave finds them on a farm near Ashcroft in the B.C. interior) for breakfast omelettes, and we all contribute varying amounts of ancient Highland Scotch whisky and local B.C. craft beers.
Wood Camp is an all-male event. Our female partners have always been respectfully present in spirit and reminiscence, but they’ve always been absent (for various good reasons) from the weekend camp.
And so it has modelled itself on Steve’s bachelor great-uncle Jabez’s wood camp on the banks of the Yukon River. Jabez and a small band of Newfoundlanders supplied the paddle steamers with cord wood to stoke their boilers as they yarded men and supplies to the gold fields on the river portion of the Trail of 1898.
Somehow in conversation almost a decade ago, Steve and I cooked up a focused weekend version of this concept and the rest is now becoming very local history.
Our gang of labourers all share the same high school, St. George’s School for Boys in Vancouver. My grandfather was the head of the junior school and, as a consequence, I’m a lifer; a veteran of 12 years of a very English form of private schooling that drew heavily on First World War British Army values. The school motto: Sine timore aut favore (Without fear nor favour) said it all.
Steve, Dave, Johnnie, James and I all graduated from Grade 12 there 50 years ago this year.
While I would argue that the school didn’t define us, it certainly bonded us in friendship.
The camp is rigorously scheduled, egalitarian, task-focused and bathed in a bonding humour. We talk at length on the first Friday night about family, faith and politics.
The 2019 faith discourse focused heavily on Steve’s learned practice of Tai chi and the Way of Qigong.
This year’s political discussion was especially lively. It included everything from B.C. Premier John Horgan attending Vital Vittles at Sooke’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, to federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s legendary two months of insurance industry training, to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proroguing parliament and the Brexit idiocy, to U.S. President Donald Trump’s trashing of the Kurds in Syria.
We headed off to bed at 10 p.m. Breakfast on Saturday started at 7 a.m., and was purposeful, focused and done by 8. Work commenced shortly thereafter.
My preparatory work includes felling, limbing, cutting sections and stacking the wood to be cut.
On Saturday morning, splitting, wheelbarrowing and woodshed-stacking crews are formed. The work proceeds without discussion. Tasks are completed and repeated until noon.
Lunch is served in the house, and consists of homemade bread sandwiches, tea and fruit. By 1 p.m., the crews are back at work.
The recent heavy rains made splitting some of the green cedar hard going but we persevered. Slowly the wood shed began to fill. By 5 p.m., we were done.
Dinner on Saturday night is a group effort. This year I barbecued wild sockeye salmon with maple syrup that I bought at a street vendor’s table in Montreal.
We added kale, carrots and sweet potatoes from the Skelhp vegetable garden and had Sooke Parish Hall apple pie for dessert.
Townsite Brewing’s Zunga craft beer was the featured drink this year, and Dave explained to us all how he now cuts his beer, “To two per cent alcohol by pouring a half a glass of water in first!”
“I wonder how long that practice will last?” was a response.
“We will find out next October,” I replied.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. He has also chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.