Benwell spent 25 years with service – a quarter of the service’s 100 year history that it is celebrating this year
At the Columbia Forest District office last Monday, about 50 former and current forestry workers gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the B.C. Forest Service.
They enjoyed snacks and cake and exchanged stories. Jim Doyle, the former NDP MLA for the area and Minister of Forests in 2000, was on hand to speak. So was George Benwell, who has spent nearly 60 years in the forestry sector, including nearly 25 years working for the service from 1955 to 1979.
While I was unable to make it to the celebration, I sat down with Benwell on Friday morning so he could share some of the stories he told at the celebration earlier in the week.
“There’s a couple that I don’t dare share,” he told me. Still, he was able to relate several tales from his decades of work.
Benwell joined the B.C. Forest Service in April 1955, following in his brother William’s footsteps. Before that George had worked in the bush for a logging operation and he had spent some time in Bella Coola, where his brother was posted.
When he saw an opportunity to join the service he jumped at it and was brought on board as a compassman on a cruising crew in the Nelson Forest District. Part of his motivation for joining was so he had steady income to marry is fiancee Myrtle – after two months on the job, they got married.
Not long after he joined, he and another man sent to examine a timber sale deep in the Skookumchuk area near Kimberley. They were air dropped in and expected to return to civilization in 10 days.
“This was in October – there was snow on the ground,” he said.
The job ended up taking 15 days and they were down to one last potato and some butter, Benwell said. “We managed to kill a blue grouse about the third last day we were in there and that just about saved us from starving.
They walked out of the forest on a Saturday and was told if they hadn’t shown up by Monday, a search party would have been mobilized. Of course, they finished the job.
“There’s much more to that story but that’s the guts of it.”
A year after joining the service, Benwell wrote the assistant ranger exam and was offered a job of an air observer for the forest service. He flew about on a DeHavilland Beaver, doing air drops, packing parachutes and helping out around the aircraft, he said.
In 1957 he was made an assistant ranger in Castlegar and later that year he was transferred to Golden. In 1961 he went to Ranger school and upon graduation in 1962 he was offered an administration job in Nelson. He was in charge of dealing with everything that went on in crown forests.
In June 1963 Benwell secured the position as Ranger-in-charge of the Lardeau Ranger District – an area that encompassed some 1 million acres, he told me.
“Our primary job was cruising and appraising crown timber, doing logging inspections,” he said. “Fire fighting was a major part of our job.”
At that time, there was no dedicated firefighting crews with the service. Rangers would fight the fires with support of a couple of aircraft from Castlegar. If things got bad, they could impress the local men into service. They would walk into a bar or restaurant, accompanied by the RCMP, and draft eligible men into service.
“A lot of the fellas we impressed were excellent. Some were adequate and some were terrible. There was a wide range but they weren’t all bad.”
Benwell’s second story involved the 1971 fire season – one of the worst he dealt with. A lightning strike started a fire just below the fire lookout. “It was a very awkward spot to get in and get at,” he said.
They called in an aircraft from Castlegar to drop fire retardant on the lookout in order to save it. “The pilot came over the lookout, he let the load go but he was a little too low,” said Benwell, chuckling. “He knocked the lookout ass-over-tea-kettle off its foundation down the side hill.
“Fortunately we had got the lockout man out beforehand.”
In 1972, Benwell transferred from Lardeau – with it’s permanent population of less than 100 – to Revelstoke. “It was a little more civilized,” he remarked.
Benwell said he loved the freedom and discretion he had as a ranger. “If you like an outdoor life it was an absolutely wonderful life,” he said. “I can’t emphasize what a wonderful career it was right through. If I had a choice of jobs again, I wouldn’t change it.”
Benwell left the forest service when it underwent a major restructuring in 1979. The changes, along with an opportunity to start up a wood lot near 3 Valley Gap, made him decide to leave. He has operated the wood lot with his son George Jr. for the past 28 years, he said.
I asked if he missed the position.
“I did for a while but after the re-organization of the forest service in 1979 a lot of things changed and I don’t think I would have been happy in that organizational structure,” he replied. “While it hurt to leave, I think it was the best decision. I don’t think I would have been happy in the new set up.”
The Columbia Forest District is planning several events this year commemorating the centennial of the B.C. Forest Service. Check the Revelstoke Times Review Community Calendar for listings as events are announced.
To learn more about the B.C. Forest Service history, visit www.bcfs100.ca.