Old growth stump with Crosscut Saw, part of David Ellingsen’s current exhibit, The Last Stand, currently on display at the Museum at Campbell River. Image courtesy David Ellingsen

A look back at hand logging on Cortes Island

David Ellingsen explores his family’s logging roots with the help of his camera

By Beth Boyce,

Museum at Campbell River

Whenever I walk in the woods around Campbell River, I encounter large old stumps amongst the trees, many sprouting new growth, acting as nursery logs for the next generation. Depending on how much mist and rain is in the air my imagination takes flight.

The moss-covered and worn slots, originally cut to hold springboards, resemble eyes and the weathered wood and gnarly bark form recognizable features. I wonder about these giants, how long they stood, and when they were harvested. What did they transform into after floating down to the mill behind a weatherworn tug? Who felled these grandmothers that were saplings when Rome fell?

I know of at least one other person who has had similar thoughts when wandering the woods of Cortes Island.

David Ellingsen, a professional photographer who grew up on Cortes, went one step further. He took portraits of the large stumps he encountered. Assembled together into a series the portraits form the exhibition The Last Stand now on display at the Museum at Campbell River.

For Ellingsen, there is a unique twist. He knows exactly who cut down these old growth trees because they were his relatives. George Freeman, and George’s son Wilf, Ellingsen’s great-grandfather and great-uncle, felled the trees whose stumps are seen in the photographs of The Last Stand.

On the family’s property on the south end of Cortes, they harvested the old growth forest by hand with a crosscut saw. Slots were cut into the stump to allow the hand loggers to get above the widest part of the tree using springboards.

Once mounted on these flexible planks, the hand loggers, often working in pairs, would cut out a deep angled notch to (hopefully) control the direction the tree would fall before using a crosscut saw to slice through the trunk.

This method of logging continued until after the Second World War, when chainsaws began to gain in popularity. Initially, the loggers hated the chainsaws as they completely changed the atmosphere working in the woods. The earliest models were massive and required two burly men to wield them, to say nothing of the noise.

Once the tree came down it was moved out of the woods with the assistance of a tool developed by one of Ellingsen’s other ancestors. Sigurd Ellingsen, another great-grandfather, developed and patented the design for a jack to compete with the commonly used Gilchrist Jack.

The Ellingsen Jack was lighter and had a gear system giving it more torque to shift heavy logs out of the dense undergrowth of the pacific rain forest. Incidentally, the Museum at Campbell River has an Ellingsen Jack on permanent display in our logging gallery, originally donated to the museum by Sigurd’s son Elmer, David’s grandfather.

When describing his exhibition, Ellingsen notes, “from falling old growth trees to creating local sustainable harvest initiatives, five generations of my family have been involved in the forest industry here in B.C.… It was in this familial context, filtered through contemporary environmental issues and thoughts of my own responsibilities, that the seeds of this series were sown.”

The Last Stand will be on display at the museum from June 21 to Nov. 10.

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