Bomb That Brush

Renegade retirees

powell river—An axe, a machete, and a chainsaw protrude from the backpack Neils Voss tosses into a pickup. “My logging camp in a bag,” the sixty-seven-year-old quips as he jumps into the back seat. It’s 8 a.m. on a sunny spring morning, and a five-truck convoy carrying fourteen seniors starts up a logging road into the rugged hinterland of coastal British Columbia. When the potholed track ends, the occupants don packs weighed down with sledgehammers, weed whackers, awls, and come-alongs, and set out on foot. The Bloody Old Men’s Brigade is on its latest mission: slashing trails and building a bridge, a floating dock, and a picnic table with a roof.

Two ferries and 135 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, the Upper Sunshine Coast is as close as it gets in Canada to retiree heaven. Mountains draped in lush hemlock and cedar tumble toward the sandy beaches of the Georgia Strait. There are three golf courses, miles of hiking and canoe routes, and, as the name suggests, more hours of sunshine than anywhere else on the BC coast. But that wasn’t enough for Tony Matthews back in 1987. The Powell River resident, who a couple of years earlier had leaped at an offer of early retirement from the town’s downsizing pulp mill, got bored trekking the same trails, and began clearing a four-kilometre path through dense bush to his favourite fishing lake. When he needed help building a footbridge over a stream, he called on three retired buddies. Among them was a powerhouse named Roger Taylor, who had been master carpenter at the mill for forty-five years.

Every Thursday morning, the four friends gathered for coffee at the Edgehill, an old-time store/diner on the outskirts of town that serves home-cooked breakfasts alongside shelves stocked with basic groceries. Then they headed into the bush to craft the bridge from downed cedars that littered the forest floor like pick-up sticks. By the time they finished, they had developed such a love for outdoor work that they began forging new trails in the nearby Duck Lake area. Word got out, and they were asked to help with other projects, like upgrading portages along a fifty-seven-kilometre canoe route. As their numbers swelled, they acquired a snappy acronym: the bomb squad.

The squad now has twenty active members, all over sixty-five. Most worked in the mill at one time, but there are also teachers, engineers, tradesmen, and a doctor among their ranks. They are a loosely structured posse: no leader, no rules. The group still meets, rain or shine, every Thursday morning for coffee at the same diner before heading into the forest. They also gather Fridays for breakfast, and get together annually to choose up to twenty projects for the coming year. “We call ourselves an ‘active social club,’” says the eighty-seven-year-old Taylor. “We’re as healthy as hell.”

Over the past two decades, the volunteers have become local heroes; in June, elders at the Sliammon reserve held a special ceremony to honour them. With sweat and centuries of collective experience, they have bushwhacked close to 200 kilometres of new trails into the Upper Sunshine Coast’s forests, constructed more than 100 sturdy footbridges across creeks and ravines, and fashioned dozens of boardwalks—one of them 220 metres long—over swamps. At Kelly Falls, the bridge is Y-shaped; at Koleszar Krossing, it’s curved, with archways at each end. And at Edge’s Way, the gazebo and bench midstream on the bridge deck create a fairy-tale feel.

The current project is rebuilding a section of the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail, eradicated in a recent clear-cut of a woodlot on the Sliammon reserve, north of town. By 9 a.m., the squad has split into groups, each with a different task. Almost all the building materials come from the forest floor; other supplies have been donated by the BC Forest Service; and logging company Weyerhaeuser has kicked in some cash. There is jovial ribbing about the steadiness of the hands on a chainsaw, especially when it’s slicing two-metre-long planks from a huge fallen cedar for the picnic table top. Nearby, on the shore of Little Sliammon Lake, Taylor and friends are operating a come-along to shift a pair of reluctant twelve-metre logs into their new role as a floating dock. Others work solo on trail maintenance. “If you get tired of doing one thing, you just go off and do something else,” says Bruce MacDonald, a hefty retired logger who is hand-cutting shakes for the table’s sloping roof. “It’s all the fun of working outside, without the stress.”

Conversation during lunch at the half-completed table revolves around upcoming hikes and active vacations. But the men don’t linger; they’re keen to get back to work. By 2 p.m., quitting time, the finishing touches have been put on the bridge, and the dock is taking shape. They reckon another month and it will be done. Then they’ll pull a bottle of wine out of a backpack and celebrate with a wiener roast before heading off on the next mission.

Margo Pfeiff