A Lumber Camp by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Essay

I have just returned from a little impromptu farewell tour in the lumber camps toward Lake Superior. It was my idea to wade around in the snow for a few weeks and swallow baked beans and ozone on the 1/2 shell. The affair was a success. I put up at Bootjack camp on the raging Willow River, where the gay-plumaged chipmunk and the spruce gum have their home.

Winter in the pine woods is fraught with fun and frolic. It is more fraught with fatigue than funds, however. This winter a man in the Michigan and Wisconsin lumber camps could arise at 4:30 A.M., eat a patent pail full of dried apples soaked with Young Hyson and sweetened with Persian glucose, go out to the timber with a lantern, hew down the giants of the forest, with the snow up to the pit of his stomach, till the gray owl in the gathering gloom whooped and hooted in derision, and all for $12 per month and stewed prunes.

I did not try to accumulate wealth while I was in camp. I just allowed others to enter into the mad rush and wrench a fortune from the hand of fate while I studied human nature and the cook. I had a good many pleasant days there, too. I read such literary works as I could find around the camp, and smoked the royal Havana smoking tobacco of the cookee. Those who have not lumbered much do not know much of true joy and sylvan smoking tobacco.

They are not using a very good grade of the weed in the lumber regions this winter. When I say lumber regions I do not refer entirely to the circumstances of a weak back. (Monkey-wrench, oil can and screwdriver sent with this joke; also rules for working it in all kinds of goods.) The tobacco used by the pine choppers of the northern forest is called the Scandihoovian. I do not know why they call it that, unless it is because yon can smoke it in Wisconsin and smell it in Scandihoovia.

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When night came we would gather around the blazing fire and talk over old times and smoke this tobacco. I smoked it till last week, then I bought a new mouth and resolved to lead a different life.

I shall never forget the evenings we spent together in that log shack in the heart of the forest. They are graven on my memory where time’s effacing fingers can not monkey with them. We would most always converse. The crew talked the Norwegian language and I am using the English language mostly this winter. So each enjoyed himself in his own quiet way. This seemed to throw the Norwegians a good deal together. It also threw me a good deal together. The Scandinavians soon learn our ways and our language, but prior to that they are quite clannish.

The cook, however, was an Ohio man. He spoke the Sandusky dialect with a rich, nut brown flavor that did me much good, so that after I talked with the crew a few hours in English, and received their harsh, corduroy replies in Norske, I gladly fled to the cook shanty. There I could rapidly change to the smoothly flowing sentences peculiar to the Ohio tongue, and while I ate the common twisted doughnut of commerce, we would talk on and on of the pleasant days we had spent in our native land. I don’t know how many hours I have thus spent, bringing the glad light into the eye of the cook as I spoke to him of Mrs. Hayes, an estimable lady, partially married, and now living at Fremont, Ohio.

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I talked to him of his old home till the tears would unbidden start, as he rolled out the dough with a common Budweiser beer bottle, and shed the scalding into the flour barrel. Tears are always unavailing, but sometimes I think they are more so when they are shed into a barrel of flour. He was an easy weeper. He would shed tears on the slightest provocation, or anything else. Once I told him something so touchful that his eyes were blinded with tears for the nonce. Then I took a pie, and stole away so that he could be alone with his sorrow.

He used to grind the coffee at 2 A.M. The coffee mill was nailed up against a partition on the opposite side from my bed. That is one reason I did not stay any longer at the camp. It takes about an hour to grind coffee enough for thirty men, and as my ear was generally against the pine boards when the cook began, it ruffled my slumbers and made me a morose man.

We had three men at the camp who snored. If they had snored in my own language I could have endured it, but it was entirely unintelligible to me as it was. Still, it wasn’t bad either. They snored on different keys, and still there was harmony in it–a kind of chime of imported snore as it were. I used to lie and listen to it for hours. Then the cook would begin his coffee mill overture and I would arise.

When I got home I slept from Monday morning till Washington’s Birthday, without food or water.

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