This story is not about pristine mountain landscapes or crowd-less glacier-fed lakes, no, this is about spending the day felling trees where a chance encounter gave me access to something I've always wanted to see up close as a kid. But first, how did I meet Landon Vipond?
Hungry, my wife and I decided to grab a quick snack before setting up our tent as we arrived one early afternoon in New Hazelton. With food options and store hours always unpredictable in small rural Canadian towns, you can always expect to find at least one Chinese restaurant open. We walked in, “Table for two please” and were greeted by a young waitress. I can’t recall what I ordered as I had come to this town for one reason; to photograph salt-of-the-earth people. I asked the waitress about the area, its residents, and told her about my Back To The Land project I was doing; traveling across Canada photographing people from small towns and remote areas. Sensing hesitation in her voice, I pulled out my phone and showed her photographs of past subjects from other provinces. Reassured, she paused, cocked her head, then curiously said, “I know some interesting characters in town, but I don’t have any way of contacting them. But, my brother works in the logging industry and tree fells for a living”. My eyes widened. Intrigued, I had her explain more. By the time the food arrived, our helpful waitress called her brother and convinced him to come to the restaurant. Soon enough, Landon walks in. A medium built man with the looks and confidence of John Hamm from Mad Men. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, I explained my intentions and the cross-Canada project I was doing. He happily agreed to be photographed and the next morning I was to join him for a day of tree felling.
My wife and I woke up at the crack of dawn, I prepped the gear the night before as to save time in case of a delay, and drove using the directions Landon gave us which in my head translated to: find the makeshift road that you can barely see, no recognizable sign or landmarks, just make a sharp left when you hit roughly mile 30. I checked the speedometer with white knuckles on the steering wheel, both with stage fright and excitement.
We turned onto a road that looked as though a large boulder had rolled through the trees using it's weight by clearing a twenty-foot wide path up the mountain. I could feel the ground below my tires was soft from the mornings early May rain. It led to a small clearing, then immediately narrowed again, taking a sharp turn up the mountainside. Half-way up, we saw a logging truck descending towards us with no visible room to pass. Not wanting to reverse back the way we came, I looked out the passenger side window and with a nervous delight, a 30-degree slope into an abyss of debris and trees; my wife's eyes letting me know she was not sharing the same feelings. I pulled my little Tacoma truck over as far as I could without the possibility of losing traction, or worse, loose topsoil giving out. The semi-truck passed with a load of logs stacked three times the height of my vehicle. The driver delivered a carefree smile and with six inches of clearance, we ascended further where we are treated to a view of the entire valley, thick coastal like fog kissing the tops of the trees.
Big heavy equipment appeared in the distance, men resembling little lego men in comparison. I got out and approached, asking for Landon. The man saying nothing and points in the direction behind me. I see an enormous excavator with an oversized extended mechanical arm throwing trees around like their toothpicks. It stops and out steps Landon. He casually walks over and says, “Morning”. I try to pull myself together as the adrenaline and pressure start to build in excitement as we get started. The terrain out here is not forgiving and walking through all the debris, I realize my hips needed to be more mobile than they were. A simple mistake of foot placement could leave you with a sprain or worse, impalement by a tree branch. I like working in this type of environment. The mosquitos and flies didn’t help matters, but I spent the morning following Landon around on foot cutting trees where access for the large machinery was impossible. My wife, a trooper as always, right behind me with a smile just as big as mine. There is definitely a technique to this line of work, from selecting trees, to the direction of the fall, and where the fall happens to allow access for the heavy equipment. I still remember the sudden crack as Landon steps away from the tree, chainsaw in hand before the falling finale, it’s weight and gravity doing the rest with a crash that echoes for seconds through the valley. It felt like being a kid again, catching myself shouting, “Timberrrr”. Landon making a pleasant smirk. I ask him, “Does the fall of the tree ever get old?” He replies, “Never”.
Landon was born in New Hazelton and has lived here his entire life. “My childhood was always full of outdoor activities, from when I was six years old my dad took me on my first goat hunt up moonlight mountain up the Kispiox Valley. We got up the mountain on quads that took us most of the first day, we spent the nights just under a tarp and laying on balsam limbs for cushion and I remember dad telling me I wouldn’t let him sleep a whole lot that night and we stared at the stars and I had one million questions to ask”. Landon goes on to explain hunting moose as a child and at the age of thirteen bagged his first one. He grew up playing a lot of hockey and got quite good at it where he joined the “Under 16” team, allowing him to travel around British Columbia for two years playing hockey. “We had a small team and we all hung out after school and on weekends. All the visiting teams use to hate coming to our arena as it was always colder inside by at least 10 degrees. We had chicken wire in the corners of the ice instead of glass; The arena had always been called the barn”.
“My dad was a faller and I would go out with him. I guess I really started logging when I was about sixteen, during summer holidays with my first logging job as a choker-man under a high lead tower. I guess I was always interested in logging as my dad was a logger for 30 years. As a child, it just looked interesting from falling trees to running big equipment”... “It’s a dangerous job and always gets my adrenaline rolling. The sounds you hear of falling trees is something that got me excited as a young kid, always carrying my dads' wedge pouch and axe. I have two children now, a son Lucas age ten and a daughter Lyra age seven. In my spare time, I will either be out hunting, fishing and doing the rodeo come spring and summer. If I can do anything outdoors I’m all there. Just something that relaxes me and I really enjoy”.
After a couple hours, we wrap up, not wanting to take any more of Landon's time and we go our separate ways. The generosity of Canadian’s still to this day shocks me sometimes. With this Back To The Land project, I have met so many interesting individuals from all walks of life. People who embrace a stranger and welcome them into their lives and sometimes, even their homes. Every time I pack the truck with a sleeping bag, a tent, my weight in trail mix, and a hundred pounds of camera gear, it’s the people that motivate me. The photographs are the result of the kindness of strangers.