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Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Drive

Along about April or May of every year when the high county around Hemlock Butte and Rocky Ridge Lake were still socked in and buried in perhaps 10 feet or more of frozen snow at over 5,600 feet in elevation…, Lewiston, ID at barely 700 feet above sea level…, had been snow free for many months and the flower and vegetable gardeners weren’t much worried about any killing frosts.  As we would head east up US 12 along the Clearwater River toward Weippe and home in our old car, my Dad would look across the river at that giant, smoke belching, rotten-egg smelling, Potlatch Forests, Inc. pulp mill and say, “Well…, looks like they are getting mighty short of logs…, guess I better sign on for The Drive this year.”  He never did sign on when I knew him though.  He had been on a couple, or maybe a few, before I was born, or when I was too young to remember.  Strange how those little details never seem to matter…, until it is too late to sort them out.

The Clearwater River Log Drive was an ever present piece of that logging aura and mystic that was as much a part of my life growing up as such legends like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.  But I will never forget being in the fourth or fifth grade when our teacher brought to class a July 1951 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  There was a feature in it about the 1950 Clearwater Log Drive titled “Idaho Loggers Battle a River”.  I was just trying to be funny when I quipped, “I’ll show you guys a picture of my Dad in here!”  The boast got way more scoffs than laughs, but no one was more shocked or surprised than I was…, to see him there on page 120 and 129.
Second guy on the right is That Good Lookin' Al Spence
The guy on the left.

This year of 2016 will mark the 45year anniversary of the last Clearwater River Log Drive.  In 1971, it was most likely the last major white-water sawlog river drive in the United States.  I doubt that the practice would have survived much longer, even if the huge concrete plug…, known as the Dwoarshak Dam…, hadn’t choked off the North Fork branch of the Clearwater.  It was boom time in American back then, it was, build bigger and better roads, bigger and faster trucks to haul those logs, and with the fuel for them measured in pennies to the gallon, The Drive wouldn’t have survived much longer even without the dam.  With diesel fuel over $4.00 per gallon at times these days and environmentalists calling for breaching dams to allow historic salmon and steelhead fish runs to resume…, one wonders if there might not be another Clearwater River Log Drive in the future? 

My days as a working logger are long gone…, with few regrets that those back breaking days are behind me now at age 64.  But I would sign on without hesitation for a future Drive as a camp “flunky”…, swamping out the floating bunkhouses and serving food to those working loggers in the cookhouse portion of the floating camp called the “wannigan”.  Oh yeah…, I’d sign on for whatever menial, low-down, dirty,  job that I had to …, to take part in The Drive.  A two or three week whitewater rafting and boating  vacation, three all-you can eat hot meals a day, being rocked to sleep at night in warm and dry bunk on the water…, and getting paid to do it.  Hell…, I’d do it for free if I ever get the chance.  Oh…, there was some hard and dangerous work involved, but all aspects of logging are that way.

In the early 1950’s, the wanigan was fitted with full swing motormounts and outboard motors instead of just the sweeps. It progressedfrom log rafts to three sections of Army engineered bridge pontoonsmade out of synthetic rubber with air in numerous air compartments.  This wanigan would house the 34-man crew along with a cook, cookhouse, and two bunkhouses, one on each end of the cookhouse. The wanigan was over 117 feet long and 26 feet wide. This photo was taken in 1951 about 3 miles north of Ahsahka.

Working in a space smaller than the average home kitchen, chief cook Harvey Spears prepares more than 100 hot meals daily to satisfy the hearty appetites of the Potlatch rearing crews.

From 1928 to 1971 there were 40 log drives, they generally started 50 miles up the North Fork of the Clearwater River from Isabella Landing.  50 miles of wild, untamed river that ran through a wilderness of nearly uninhabited country.  The few access roads available were there to get the timber to the water.   At the mouth of the North Fork, the logs and their drivers merged with the Middle Fork, and from there rode the main Clearwater River another 40 miles down to Lewiston and the mill pond.  In the early years a series of flumes were used to get the logs into the river.  A flume was like a theme park water slide for logs…, and I’ve been told that some of the poorly designed flumes gave those logs quite a ride. 

In the early years of the drive, flumes transported logs from the woods to the bank of the river throughout the logging season. Tree lengths were skidded to this flume landing and then “bucked” by sawyers into saw logs about sixteen and a half feet in length. Peavy men then rolled the logs into the flume.Water would be released from flume dams as needed to float the logs to the river. There would be severallog landings along a flume depending on different logging sites and available water sources. Each flume design was unique to particular
terrain and water sources. The original length of this particular flume was about eight miles. It entered the river below the Little North Fork, on the opposite side, fed by the waters of Elkberry Creek.  From the late 1920’s to the mid-1950’s, flumes were the cheapest and the most efficient way to handle the logs. Heavy machinery was not yet available to build the roads, handle the logs, or haul them great distances. Water did the work. Flumes varied from one mile to several miles in length and created a capillary system that fed logs into the river. Over two dozen flumes and fluming camps were constructed along the North Fork.

Also in the old days the boats were man-powered and it took a lot of skill to avoid a lot of extra hard work.  The advent of first…, outboard motors…, and later…, jet boats made things a lot easier and safer for all the crew members.

“Head’s Up, she’s a pullin’.” The bateaux crew pulling a small center jam in the North Fork of the Clearwater River. The men in the picture are leaping to the safety of the bateaux as everything is moving and the jam is breaking up.

Boat crews are working the slack water at the lower end of the Clearwater River, close to the Lewiston mill.

In those days it wasn’t so much a drive, as it was a round-up.  The logs were allowed to just float to the mill at their leisure and once a year, or when the logs stopped showing up at the mill, a crew went down to help along the ones that got stranded in shallow riffles, or eddies, or got hung up on islands.  But a couple of huge log jams that blocked the entire width of the river and extended for miles up stream ended that practice.  When a big jam like that cuts loose in mass…, things like bridges are in no small peril. 

So the practice of decking the logs up along the river at various “camp” sites throughout the season and making a controlled drive once a year was established.  Timing was of critical importance.  If the water was rising, the logs would tend to float in the center of the river, if the water was falling the logs would tend to float toward the banks of the river were they were more likely to get hung up.  With a huge snowpack still stashed away in the high country, it was that melting snow that would determine the flow of the river.  Start too early and the snow up high stays frozen, start too late and you are liable to get caught at flood stage, which presents a whole set of new problems.  That happened one year before there were dams built that helped with flood control…, the logs burst through the log boom that was stretched across the river to corral them in the log pond at Lewiston…, and high-tailed it on down the Snake River.  On down the Columbia River.  All the way to Longview, WA before they were recaptured…, by another logging company.  So the decision of when to start The Drive was not taken lightly or left in the hands of just anyone.

Bull O’ The Woods! Potlatch log drive foreman Charles “Red” McCollister sizes up the river before sending his rearing crews onto the frigid Clearwater River.

He worked the drive from 1950 to 1971 and
was foreman for its last 17 years. 

The fellow that made that call for the last 17 years of The Drive, was Charles “Red” McCollister.  “Charlie Red” we called him when I worked for him a few years after The Drive was history.  I wish I could have worked for him on one of them.  I gave it some thought, I was 18 in 1971, but I wasn’t even working for Potlatch at the time.  There wouldn’t have been any chance of me getting on anyway.  I am sure the list was a long one for that Last Drive. I wonder how Charlie Red decided who got the privilege to participate in it?  He said in a 1964 article in The Idaho Forester, “New recruits were chosen carefully from young men with as much consideration given to their safety attitude and individual judgment as to their physical ability.”  With only 34 positions to fill the crew, I am sure Charlie had some tough calls to make…, but there is no man that I would sooner trust than Charlie Red to make a tough call.  But once again…, it is a little too late to ask him about those little details.  He passed away in 2010.  I’ll be writing more about this remarkable man in the future.  For now…, you should check out another link to this Forest History Today magazine photo-journal that was written by Charlie Red and his daughter Sandra McCollister about The Drive…, and I sure hope she doesn’t mind that I “borrowed” some of her and Charlie’s pictures and captions (in italics) for this piece.  I would have asked…, but I lost her email address in one of my computer harddrive crashes. 

There is a wealth of old logging and log drive picture at Forest History Society site…, and I did get their permission to use their photos…, some of which are credited to them in Charlie and Sandra’s story.

There is also a chapter about The Drive in Earl Roberge’s beautifully written and photographed book, "Timber Country"…, and I hope he doesn’t mind if I post a couple of his pictures here.  I have a copy of the book myself…, about the only wise investment I made back in the “hippie days”…, and I bought another as a gift for an old partner not so long ago.

There are several YouTube videos of various aspects of The Drive you can Google up…, or try these links:

“The Company”…, was the moniker most often used to referred to Potlatch Corporation by those of us who worked there…, was foresighted enough to hire a film company to record the last log drive and Charlie Red narrated the film…, but I can’t seem to locate it for viewing anywhere on the Internet.  That is a real shame…, it is a piece of history that should be available for all to see.
Another great film that features a fairly significant amount of footage of the log drive is the Disney film, “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”.  It doesn’t identify in the story that the log drive portion was actually shot in Idaho on the North Fork of the Clearwater River…, but the credits do.  And oh yeah…, Charles “Red” McCollister acquitted himself in the extremely professional manner that he always brought to any job he undertook…,while performing his part in the film.


  1. Thanks for the memories. Charlie Red McCollister was my favorite foreman to keep payroll books for. Great story.

  2. I have both of the videos of the "Last of the Log Drives" My Dad "George Rauch" is who decided to deck the logs and send them down in the spring. I have a video of him telling that story.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Phred :)

  3. Thanks for resurrecting memories of the good old days Scott. I am in Iceland this week and the look and feel of the long cold winters here remind me of Headquarters, Pierce and Weippe back when we had real winters. Spring thaw brought high water and the Clearwater log drive. It was something to see!

    1. Hey Jeff good to hear from you..., and I enjoy looking at the pictures from you world travels..., keep up the good work.