When I reach Anne Clemence on the phone, her accent is unmistakeably English and she speaks with a smile in her voice. I’ve called her because I am collecting stories about the heyday of log salvaging in British Columbia.
Log salvagers also go by the name of beachcombers, or log salvors. They scour the waters and beaches for loose logs, most of which have escaped while being towed from point to point, and sell them to brokers who resell them to be milled.
Decades ago, log salvaging provided enough money and adventure to attract Anne Clemence and many others, even spawning a hit CBC television show, The Beachcombers. Though more scarce today, log salvagers still ply B.C.’s coast. Some 40 scavenge along the Fraser River, one expert told me. But the best days are over, I keep hearing.
Anne is 86 now. I ask her when she first started log salvaging.
“Oh, when I met Sam Lamont!” she says instantly.
Anne had moved to Canada from England in 1960. After training as a nurse in London, she and a friend moved to Ottawa, road tripped through the States, and found themselves living in North Vancouver. Anne heard about a nursing position in Pender Harbour and took it.
There she met Sam, a sturdy man 16 years her senior, with a crew cut and a Celtic look to him.
“He used to bring the nurses oysters or fish or whatever he had,” remembers Anne, who was a short, sporty young woman with a mop of brown curls. “I’d heard about this guy that came in to see the girls. But he was such a nice kind. You never had any trouble with him! He used to take anybody that was off duty out for a boat ride. So that appealed to me.”
Before long, Anne was going out on the boat with Sam regularly. When the hospital that employed Anne closed, she moved in with Sam and they started working together. He was already salvaging logs.
Their boat was called the Vulture.
“The log salvors were always hanging around the back of the tugboats when they were towing logs. You know, hovering. Waiting for logs to come out,” explains Anne, “And sometimes the skipper would call on the radio, and say ‘The vultures are behind me!’”
Sam decided to claim the nickname.
Anne laughs. “It was free advertising because if they ever said that the vultures were here, it was us.”
It was unlike anything Anne experienced growing up in Kent, England, where the only boat she had really known was a small rowboat.
“It was a very exciting life. We never knew when we were going to go out. We didn’t have regular hours. We had to be ready to drop everything we were doing, just to grab some food. And away you went. It was a very higgledy-piggledy sort of a life, I suppose.”
And not one likely to make you rich. Anne says she and Sam didn’t clear $20,000 in a year. They had to make compromises. “We weren’t big spenders. We didn’t travel to Hawaii, we didn’t eat out.”
“But no, it was just something you could do on the coast, and make your grub.”
A friend once asked Anne if she missed the culture back in England. She thought about it. “At one point, we’d almost seen every single play that was on in London.” But go back? No. “Heaven’s above!” Who wants to see another play “with all this country around you with all the wild stuff?”
When Anne and Sam met, Sam already had two sons. “There was no way I was going to have kids, because where are you going to put a toddler on a boat pulling logs?”
Anne pauses, and adds that she was never the mothering sort. “You know, I was much more into doing my own thing.” She pauses again. “I guess I was selfish.”
“No, not at all!” I tell her. “You were just being you.” I can’t help but think she was made to feel selfish because that was an era when a woman was expected to marry and have children.
“Well, that’s right,” she says. “Kids would have been a big inconvenience. It would have completely destroyed our way of living.”
Working on the log salvage boat could be dangerous, especially given that bad weather was when salvagers made money. Storms caused logs towed by tugboats to come free and scatter into the sea.
“I mean, we didn’t pray for bad weather,” Anne laughs. “But we knew when the bad weather hit, we’d have work — and you weren’t paid unless you turned in the logs.”
Sam and Anne had built their own house next to the ocean in Garden Bay and had it organised such that they could drop everything in a second and head down to the boat. They placed radios throughout the house so that they could listen for a turn in the weather — or some captain’s luck.
Sweet words to hear over the airwaves were “something like ‘We’re losing logs!’ Or ‘Oh, we’ve had to drop it,’” explains Anne. “That was from the skipper who was in a bad spot and he had to drop his whole tow to get the boat back into shelter.”
Then Anne and Sam would be out on the ocean.
They had some close calls working those big spills. Anne recalls one time she and Sam were on Vancouver’s English Bay.
“There had been a huge spill of massive cedars down there. And this big west swell had taken the cedars way up the beaches and mounded the gravel and the shingle up against the logs.” (There’s that English upbringing again. Shingle is a British word for small stones.)
Anne knew it would take a lot of power to free the logs from the shingle, drag them down the beach and into the sea. Anne kept the boat in place while Sam rowed ashore and jumped down into the sand. He wrapped a chain around a log and hooked it up to the towline connected to the boat. Theoretically, when the chain was pulled, it would twist and free the log.
“So he did this and I gave it a pull, a good pull, and nothing happened,” says Anne. “So I thought, ‘Oh my golly, ought to give it a bit more than that.’”
Anne backed up the boat, letting out some towline to give it some slack. It was important to have the boat lined up with the towline. “If it pulled off to one side, you’d capsize. You know, pull the boat under. So you had to be careful.”
“So I had everything lined up and I gave it the works.”
Suddenly, the tension ruptured one of the links at the end of the towline, and the line recoiled, hitting Anne down her left hand side.
The next thing Anne knew, she was sitting in the deck bucket against the back wall of the boat’s cabin. She was bleeding from the head.
“Sam, poor Sam, came back looking as if he’d seen a ghost,” Anne remembers. But as she came round, sitting in the bucket, she felt strangely comfortable. She laughs at the memory. “I thought, ‘I don’t know why I haven’t tried sitting here before!’”
Anne was lucky. She and Sam had been working with other boats on that log spill. They had seen what had happened and made sure Anne and Sam got back to the dock, where an ambulance had been called. She was in hospital for a week with the cut on her head and a few cracked ribs. Her bruises blossomed in the perfect impression of braided rope.
While recuperating, she worried about Sam, now on his own chasing logs. “If you’re out working like that by yourself, it’s pretty dangerous,” Anne says.
For a week more, she was on worker’s compensation pay. Then she couldn’t take it any longer. She showed up at the dock to join Sam on board the Vulture. “I couldn’t do much, but at least I was with Sam.”
Anne and Sam gave up beachcombing in 1978. She vividly remembers the decision. “It was very simple.” Sam got off the phone after talking to Gulf Sort and Salvage, the outfit that bought their logs. “They were going to cut our price, or something or other that made him mad,” she says. “And he turned to me and he said, ‘I think we should quit.’”
“I said, ‘sure.’ And so we quit.”
They were ready. There wasn’t enough money in the game anymore because movers of logs were getting better at keeping them. Nowadays, logs are tied up in bundles to be transported, rather than floating loose between boom sticks.
“Another thing was the weather forecasting,” says Anne. “They brought in satellite imaging and the forecasts were getting more and more accurate.” This allowed the tugboats to plan for bad weather, which was when the big spills tended to happen.
“It was the end of an era,” sighs Anne. She and Sam sold the Vulture. Then Sam fixed up a big sailboat, named the Kivak, and the two of them explored the West Coast together for many years.
One day in 1992, they were tied up in a small, remote bay on Princess Royal Island, where they had spent many happy summers. Sam felt a pain in his chest and gradually went unconscious. He’d had a heart attack a few years before.
“I tried CPR and everything,” Anne says.
After “trying to get on the radio to the Air-Sea Rescue,” Anne “finally got through to Prince Rupert. They sent the boat down with a crew. But by that time he was dead.”
“They were very, very good and very helpful and they took his body away. And then I came back on the boat with Sam’s son.”
“We find that we can live through things. I mean, the alternative isn’t very good.”
Among those who came down from Port Clements for Sam Lamont’s funeral was an old log-salvaging friend named Dave Unsworth. Dave told me that Sam was one of the best beachcombers he had known. When I asked him what makes a good beachcomber, he said that it was about being a decent human being.
“And you need to be stubborn to put up with the environment. Sam was really good.”
Anne still lives in the house she and Sam built by the sea in Garden Bay. It’s where she answered my phone call.
Long ago she stopped sailing on the Kivak. But she waited until just last year to sell it. She says it felt like giving a part of Sam away. “I probably had it a couple of years too long. But it took that long to make up my mind.”
Anne has arthritis, a new hip replacement, and a rowboat beached in front of her home. After she heals from her hip operation, she plans to row out onto the water and, as best she can, return to “poking around the coast” — the joy that she and Sam shared.
It is B.C.’s ragged edge that “I always loved,” Anne says.
“I mean, that’s why I came. And stayed.”
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