Alaska for Real: The secret life of logging dogs

If you stroll down Clay Street in Portland, Oregon’s Central Eastside District you’ll spy an odd looking, small sculpture: a steel spike with a circle on top. One passerby thought it was a female symbol of some sort, so it was strange to find that it had been put in place to celebrate the Pacific Northwest logging industry of bygone days.

 

The sculpture is, in fact, a logging dog — a raft dog, to be exact.

These dogs were indispensable in keeping huge log rafts together as they were poled or towed down rivers, on the ocean, and up and down Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Some of the rafts were formed by chaining boom sticks together through holes drilled in either end of the boom sticks with a ring and toggle on the chain connecting the booms. These huge rafts often had several sections within the corral of boom sticks. On the ocean rafts, swifters (pieces of small diameter cable) were run over each section of the raft, threaded through logging dogs, and attached to the booms on either side by dogs.

In Alaska, logs were more frequently banded or cabled together into bundles and they used the dogs to keep the bundles in place while they kept adding more bundles to the raft. My dad was telling me that the swifter cables for the Alaskan rafts were 7/8 inch in diameter and 80 feet long.

“Can you imagine someone carrying a coil of cable that big and running across the logs with it?” he asked.

The boom man Tim Lindseth (who also operated the boom boat) was 5’ 2,” and watching him do his work had made a big impression on my dad.

When I was a kid, a tug towing one of these rafts up the strait was a common sight. Even more common were the rafts anchored in front of Thorne Bay’s sortin’ yard where my dad worked as a scaler-bucker. Now when I go to this small city, the logging industry having long since pulled out, it almost seems eerily silent without the sound of constant back-up alarms and heavy machinery sorting the logs and the little tender tug, the boom boat, running about separating the dogged rafts and chasing down any stray logs that had gotten loose.

A lot of the logs in these rafts broke loose in storms and washed up on the beaches around my home, much to our delight. Sometimes the dog was still in place, which made this gift of firewood that much more welcome, since we used the dogs in our firewood hunting forays, and in building the rafts under our floathouses.

Nowadays, with these log rafts a thing of the past, it’s much harder to find good firewood and we have to re-stock our store of logging dogs by actually—gasp!—buying them. Some of the ones we have, I’ve found, especially the oldest ones made of iron, are now considered collectibles on e-Bay.

I can see why someone would collect them and choose the dog to be a symbol of past logging glory days — there’s something evocative about them. When I find an old dog in a half rotted log high up on a beach that’s sat there for decades, I wonder what stories it could tell, where it started its journey to get here, and how old it is.

Could it have been one of the logging dogs that was a silent observer of the bad old days when log rustlers worked under cover of night to separate prime logs from a raft? In response, the logging companies took to branding the ends of their logs, but the log rustlers found a way to “de-horn” the brand, as it was called. To thwart them the owners branded the side of a log where any attempt to deface or alter the brand would leave a tell-tale scar.

A really old dog might even have been used in the days of horse/mule/oxen logging days. “In this day of skidding tractors and power loaders,” logging historian Robert F. Collins notes, “it is really amazing what those men and animals accomplished. In many cases logs were snaked down from the slopes in tandem, tied together by dog or coupler chain, by crotch grabs, by ring dogs, and even by rafting dogs or boom chains.”

At least one fortunate logging dog, after a lifetime of hard, uncomplaining duty, was adopted into a loving family.

When my dad lost his beloved companion Molly, a fat little Beagle who followed him everywhere — except when the Siren scent of a barbecue caught her sensitive nostrils — he decided the only dog he wanted from thence forward was one who wouldn’t die on him.

One day he stepped inside the house with a logging dog on a leash and introduced us to “Rusty.” My mom made a bed inside a small basket and put a dog bone in it for Rusty to enjoy. Although a bit on the quiet side, he was a paragon of a pet, never peeing on the floor, or stealing food when no one was looking, or shedding hair on the furniture, or baying hysterically at strangers.

When we had kids visit they were instantly enthralled with Rusty and would fight and argue over who got to take him for a walk. “You had Rusty last time! It’s my turn to walk him!”

Last summer, two of the kids asked where Rusty was. They had fond memories of taking him for long, jouncing walks over the rocky beaches and through the woods. One time they took him on a picnic and shared pieces of their hot dogs with him. It’s unclear in my mind whether they really believe he’s a live dog or not. I suspect the former.

At any rate, the girl staying with us took Rusty on a walk recently, dragging him encouragingly through tide pools and making sure he had a bath, since “He needed it,” as she told me.

Most logging dogs have probably never had Rusty’s range of experiences, but you never really know, when you find an old dog in a log, what kind of secret life it may have lived.

To see more photos and learn more about logging dogs, go to www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com.


• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.


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