Hell And High Water

The lumberjack was a special breed of a man, but the riverman was very special. Like the cowboy, he was a product of his environment, and now that the environment has passed, he no longer exists. He started in the Northeast, where countless streams and rivers come tumbling down from remote and tangled mountains. The lumber was there, but there were no roads, and the only way to get it out was by water. The streams were not suitable for rafting and were not navigable by lumber schooners, so the logs came down loose; and they had to come in the spring, when the melting snows swelled the rivers. Two phrases coined in river-driving days remain in popular usage: “come hell or high water” and “as easy as falling off a log.”

It is very easy to fall off a log, even a large one, as you can prove to yourself by trying not to. The rivermen not only rode logs through rapids, treading them with squirrel-like agility; they also used the slippery, unstable timbers to stand on while they worked.

As they pushed and heaved stranded logs, they seemed to balance themselves automatically. They treaded now one way, now another as the log rolled, instinctively adjusting to the buoyancy of the wood. Townspeople would watch them for hours, fascinated.

It was said that good rivermen were born, not made; at least they had to start early. When they were small boys of eight, they began practicing and were fished out of the river a hundred times. At an early age they took naturally to the pike pole and the peavey, working first in the still waters of the mill ponds and later on in the drive. These men developed an inarticulate love for the river. The work was hard and dangerous, the food was not of the best, there were no women, wages were low—and yet the call of the river drew them, just as the call of the sea draws the sailor. “I want to go back to my little river,” Dan Bosse, the great log-driver of the Androscoggin, lamented to me in his old age.

When the logs had been rolled into the stream and the drive had reached swift water, then the special skills of the “river hogs” came into action. They would work and heave and pry on a tall jam for hours trying to edge the logs out into the current. All at once the apparently solid surface began to creak and settle. The men zigzagged rapidly to shore. A crash and a spout of water marked where the first tier had broken free. The front melted like sugar. A vast, formidable movement agitated the brown tangles as far as one could see. And then, with another sudden and mighty crash that could be heard for miles, the whole river burst into a torrent of motion.

If everything had gone well, the men were all safe ashore, leaning on their peavies, but ready at any instant to rush out and forestall any jamming that might threaten. There were always some men who, out of sheer bravado, jumped from the breast of the jam, just as it was breaking down, to a floating log ahead, thus to be rushed far down the river. A single slip meant death. It may have been foolish, but it was magnificent just the same.

The business of the riverman was to guide, or drive, the logs from the “rollways” alongside the streams, where lumberjacks had piled them during the winter, to the screeching sawmills down-river. The drive might last three weeks, or it might last two years if water was low and the logs became stranded on dry ledges. A riverman spent far more time lugging and prying and lifting the heavy, inert timbers from where they were jammed against the bank and shoving them out into flowing water than in nonchalantly riding a surging log downstream.

Constant heavy lifting made him as strong as a horse and as hard as nails, while the demand for quick action among the rolling, slippery logs kept him from getting muscle-bound. He had to be as agile as a panther and as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Small wonder that one could always spot a riverman among other workingmen. His stagged kersey trousers marked him, to be sure; his little black felt hat and his red shirt, the plug of Climax (“the Grand Old Chew”) in his hip pocket, and of course his spiked boots, armed with “three-and-sixty” casehardened spikes from one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch in length. Those calked (or “cork,” as they were called) boots were the riverman’s distinctive badge. Everywhere in the river towns one could see the traces of those calks; they picked the wooden sidewalks into fine splinters and pockmarked the floors of stores and saloons.

Accustomed to facing death every day, the riverman was afraid of nothing that walked, crawled, swam, or flew. I have known such a man to go into a blacked-out shed stacked with dynamite, fully aware that a grown wildcat was loose in it, and come out lugging the wildcat.