In his ambitious novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey used the spelling shittim for Cascara sagrada trees—I knew, know these trees as chittims, with the English <ch> sound versus the Spanish <sh> sound (as it is in chaps or chaparral) beginning the name. Perhaps the <sh> sound should be used because of how the sap of the tree affects people, but the fellows I knew used the ch pronunciation as in chips as we searched, each spring, coastal Oregon hillsides for stands of the small hardwood.
I started high school, Taft High in now Lincoln City, Oregon, fall 1959. I was twelve, and there weren’t many ways to earn cash when too young to work in the woods. There weren't newspaper routes that could be run by bicycle, or delivery jobs for grocery or drug stories. There weren't berries or beans to pick as there was for kids in the Willamette Valley. There weren't any of those things we saw kids do in the naïve sitcoms of early television. There were the rivers and hills, salmon, deer, and lots of trees. There weren’t many people, and the ones in Lincoln County were too poor to hire a teenager to do work for them. So when parents don’t have money for allowances—I didn’t know anyone who received an allowance—and jobs aren’t available, there was little to do but pick brush and peel bark. Picking brush (ferns and salal) required having a buyer in the Portland area; adults had buyers in Portland, not kids.
I made a few dollars trapping; I made a little selling sand shrimp to a local bait shop; I made a few dollars watching customers (to deter shoplifting) in a local gas station-tackle shop. I made more dollars splitting ricks of firewood. I even made a few dollars winning contests about world or American records for this or that: I won dinner at Pixie Kitchen for knowing that Ribbon Falls is the highest waterfalls in North America. But I made the most when sap ran and chittim bark readily slipped.
Peeling bark wasn't hard work, wasn't limited by age or experience. Anyone could sell dried bark when there were buyers, and most of the local grocery stores bought for two or three months each spring.
I peeled bark while in high school, peeled once in a while after high school, but it was the spring following the 1973 Gas Shortage that I relied on the money I made from selling bark to feed a growing family.
When war in Israel stopped Arab imports of oil, I was renting a house and a hundred forty acres for $45. a month. I was building muzzleloading rifles, and I had orders for all the rifles I could build during the next two years, but the Gas Shortage changed the economic dynamics of Oregon's Lincoln County: the shortage began to effect me just after hunting season, when business was usually slow. I relied on customers to pick up and pay for their completed rifles within a few weeks of when I finished their guns. While I had very low overhead, I had very little cash reserves. I was a classically under-capitalized small business. Not by choice. Building muzzleloading rifles wasn't a vocation valued enough by lending institutions for bankers to extend me either capital or credit. So after a couple of months of the Gas Shortage preventing customers from claiming their completed rifles, I couldn't pay even the low rent I had.
Although I was living along the Siletz River, my neighbors, all loggers put out of work by the Gas Shortage, were already heavily trapping the Siletz by the time I fell behind on my rent. I received a few dollars from one of my neighbors who sold the pelt of a bobcat I shot (the bobcat was after my turkeys). And when he paid me for its pelt, he said that I, too, should be trapping. I agreed, but the next nearest river system not being trapped was the Yaquina. Getting there required more gas than either they or I could buy from local stations.
The Gas Shortage must have set some sort of record for the most contrived commodity shortage this nation has ever experienced. Distributors had full storage tanks, but they were prohibited from selling that fuel to local stations, some of which were out of fuel for two and a half months.
I was then living five miles upriver from the town of Siletz, living fifteen miles from Toledo. I felt that for me to continue building rifles, I would have to move closer to a city—I needed to set up shop where I was more accessible. But moving seemed just as impossible as staying where we were. We were living on venison, eggs (I had a small flock of laying hens), and what we had put up from the previous summer's garden.
One of the local ranchers had filled his above-ground storage tanks with gasoline before the shortage became severe. I traded him work for gas, traded (in a roundabout way) deer antlers for traps, and I began hanging iron along the upper reaches of the Yaquina River.
When I ran my trapline along the Yaquina, I passed a vacant house, owned by Publisher Paper. The house was built in the 1870s along Abbey Creek. It was a nice house: three bedrooms, two baths, cork tile floors, flagstone fireplace. It was also closer to Toledo than I was then living, and it was along my trapline, thereby eliminating driving and the need to buy gasoline. Plus, it was a place where I wanted to live.
The covered bridge in the movie Sometimes A Great Notion was the end of the mud road that lead to that house at Abbey Creek.
After inquiring about who owned the place and who I had to see to rent it and after passing the I-am-not-a-hippy test, I rented the house for $350 a year; I immediately moved. I got Frankie Hunt, Don Lynch and Wayne Hodges to help me. We used George Connors' skiff for most everything. Wayne brought one load of furniture in overland, but the road was really impassable. Any vehicle less able to negotiate its way through mud than was his four-wheel-drive International pickup couldn't have even reached the creek, let alone cross it and get up the hill on the other side.
When I was all moved in, I don't think between the four of us we had enough cash to buy a beer.
The house was all it promised to be. The hundred year old magnolia bloomed early that spring. Some of Elk City's retired loggers watched me pack, one on each shoulder, two eighty pound sacks of chicken feed down the railroad tracks to the house. After that, I was accepted by the community. I was one of them, only younger. And they told me stories of what the woods were like when a fellow headed to work with a gunny sack of steel wedges and a gallon of turpentine slung over his shoulder. They told about brazing together three ten foot crosscut saws to reach across the larger stumps; they told about falling trees larger than today's world records.
But despite how nice the house was, there wasn't an outbuilding I could use for a shop on the nine hundred acres there at Abby Creek so when fur started to slip because of spring warmth, I needed another source of immediate income. Most of the gyppo loggers hadn't yet recovered from their forced winter layoff. They weren't hiring. All that was available to me was peeling bark.
Although I still had the use of George's skiff and despite having a four-by Bronco, when we went in or out we usually walked the railroad tracks rather than cut deeper ruts in the road or fool with a balky outboard. And while walking those tracks, I noticed that no one had peeled bark for years along a ten mile stretch of the Yaquina River's north side.
The hillsides on that north side of the Yaquina had been logged during or before the Depression. They weren't replanted, but were allowed to naturally reseed themselves. In places, there were patches of large Douglas fir, but most of those hillsides were still in the deciduous phase of the two-phase growth cycle of the coast range. And among the alders and maples were the largest chittims I had ever found.
An acquaintance who paid attention to these things said the world's largest chittim at the time was fifty-three feet tall and twenty-six inches in diameter. I had, a few days previous to being told this, fallen a chittim that was twenty-six inches across its foot-high stump. Wondering if that tree would have been a new record, I hiked back to where it lay, and I measured its log and limbs. They were at least fifty-three feet long. The tree had probably been fifty-six or more feet tall. The bark on its trunk was nearly three-quarters of an inch thick, and I had fallen it so I could peel even its small limbs. I didn't want to leave any of its bark in the woods; didn't want to waste any of it.
Bark is stripped from growing chittims, dried and broken into pieces roughly an inch square, then sacked and sold by the pound; the going rate that spring was thirty-five cents a pound. Stems that are stripped obviously die. Their roots send up suckers which in four or five years will be large enough to peel. So chittims with trunks eight inches or more in diameter are rare even where no one has peeled for decades.
A week after peeling that probable record tree, I sat in a stand of chittims growing on the railroad right-of-way, eating my lunch and thinking about having fallen a record (along the Coast a person falls timber, not fells it). I had already peeled nine sacks of green bark that morning, about ninety dollars worth, and as I admired that stack of sacks I wondered what records are for. Was nine sacks of bark a record for a morning of peeling? I didn't know of anyone peeling an amount even close to that. And was that tree a record? What should I think of having fallen it?
Why do we keep track of the largest or the biggest or the fastest? A kid on the Skeena River broke the record for the largest sport caught Chinook when I was in high school. Roughly thirty years later that record would be broken by a fisherman on the Kenai River.
I would, nine years after that morning peeling chittims, catch a line class, world record Dolly Varden. But the fish wasn't even the largest Dolly I caught that day, and certainly was not as large as the Dolly I caught on Kodiak’s Salmonie Creek two years earlier.
Records are a way of remembering, a way of keeping score, a way of immortalizing ourselves that only proves our mortality. Ken Kesey's novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, seemed like his attempt to elbow his way into the literary canon. If I’m lucky, perhaps somebody will say something similar about my scribblings, but what I remember best about that morning I peeled those nine sacks of bark—I peeled thirteen sacks for the day—is what happened after I ate my lunch without washing my hands.
Coastal Natives brewed tea made from chittim leaves as a remedy for constipation. I don't know how much more sap was on my hands as I sat among those white, shiny trunks and ate two sandwiches than is in a chittim leaf. A thousand times as much. Perhaps ten thousand times as much. What I know is that for four days I couldn't leave the bathroom. Whereas I had made so much money that one day, I made nothing for the following week. So much for records.