Hell And High Water

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To ferry from one side of a stream to another was more difficult. Of course, one could always paddle with a peavey, or push one’s way across with a pike pole, if the water wasn’t too deep. But that was slow and commonplace. If the stream was narrow, the riverman, by means of a violent running jump, landed with both feet on the rear end of the timber. The bow thereupon rose in a flurry of foam, the rear was depressed, and the log was forced violently ahead. At the proper moment, the riverman ran forward to the center. If scattered logs were adrift, he propelled himself across by hooking his peavey into one after another and pulling himself along.

On the river, skill of this sort was presupposed, as skill in horsemanship is taken for granted on the range. Without it a man was useless. And just as a cowboy likes to show off, or compete in a kind of horsemanship that can have no practical application to his trade, so the riverman had his little tricks. Some Bangor Tigers—as Penobscot River drivers were called —would do a handstand on a peavey stuck into a floating log; others could perform a somersault; most any of them could lie down on his log while floating with the current. A riverman has been known to float twelve miles down a stream on a piece of timber he could pick up and carry across his shoulders. Dan Bosse could go out on a big four-foot stick of pulp wood and play with it until he had it standing on end in the water, and then stand on top of it.

A favorite amusement of the riverman was logrolling, or “birling.” Two men got on the same log and each tried to throw the other into the river without touching him in any way. If one was much superior to the other, he did this quite simply by rotating the log faster and faster until the other man could no longer keep pace. But when the opponents were evenly matched, more strategy was employed. The log whirled one way, stopped abruptly, started rolling the other way, checked again, blurred into foam, and suddenly stopped moving entirely. Contests like this are still engaged in by professional birlers at woodsmen’s jubilees, but they would look rather wan and pale if pitted against some of the old-time river hogs.

Not only strength and agility were essential to a riverman, but also a special kind of instantaneous decision and response. In the spring of 1915, the Berlin Mills Company was driving the Little Magalloway River, a tributary of the Androscoggin. A foreman named George Anderson had a crew of fifty or sixty men up there breaking out rollways, rolling the logs down into the river over a steep bank ten or twelve feet high. The water was high and fast, of course, but below one rollway was an eddy that kept the logs inshore instead of letting them float down with the current. They were piling up pretty deep there, so George told the crew to wait while he took two men and went down to pole them out into midstream.

They were working away and had got them fairly well cleared out when the men on the bank let out a yell. Anderson and his companions looked up and saw that all the logs on that rollway had got loose and were starting to come down on top of them. They turned and ran, over the floating logs, for the middle of the river. The two others made it safely, but it looked as if George wouldn’t.

On his first jump he landed on his left foot on a big spruce, but before he could bring up his right foot, another log bobbed out of the water and caught it between the two logs. He stuck his peavey into the log and pulled for all he was worth, but his foot was stuck there as if in a bear trap. The logs from the rollway had just got to the edge of the bank, and it seemed that old George’s time had come. Just then a miracle happened, or at least a good example of what I mean by instantaneous decision and response. Dan Bosse was working up on that rollway, and the instant he saw the fix George was in—even before the logs came thundering down off the skids—he ran to the bank, jumped ten feet straight down, and landed on the log that had trapped George, forcing one end of it deep into the water. George’s foot was free then, and he sailed clear one second before that rollway landed where he had been standing, filling the river ten feet deep with logs. Dan was right behind him on the same big spruce.