The forests on Vancouver Island represent nature at its best. It’s a rainforest thriving with life! The forests act as a veil and a shelter for its magnificent wildlife, while also providing a resource for local sawmills that rely on it for income. With gov. regulations on reseeding, it’s a sustainable industry that Canadians can be proud of. It will always be there along with its great history and legends that have come from it… but that’s another story.
Today, we are discussing the incredible new TV series Big Timber that premiered on the History Channel on Oct. 8. The series follows the dangerous work of logger and sawmill owner Kevin Wenstob, as he and his crew go to extremes to keep the family sawmill, and their way of life – alive! Kevin logs a remote timber claim high up the steep rugged slopes of Klitsa Mountain, deep in the majestic heart of Vancouver Island. It’s home to some of the best wood in the world and Kevin’s taking a big gamble to get it out. The claim has a thousand truckloads waiting for him and his first goal is to get 200 of those loads off the mountain before winter shuts him down, but the mountain won’t give up without a fight. That’s only his first obstacle, as he finds out closer to winter, that he has to clear his entire claim – all one thousand loads, as soon as he’s able to get back up in the spring. If he doesn’t, he’ll be stuck with millions of dollars in penalties.
With his wife Sarah, his son Erik and his right-hand man Coleman Willner by his side, Kevin will do whatever it takes to get that big timber! I had the great privilege of speaking with power couple, Kevin Wenstob and Sarah Fleming. They are a remarkable pair that left an enormous inspirational impression on me. They have a warm and very neighbourly familiarity about them; the kind that can only come from hard work, good moral fiber and love of family. They take care of their own, which means – their employees have a job as long as they want to keep it. If you enjoy working with beautiful cedar and the great outdoors set on the slopes of the majestic Klitsa Mountain, you can always contact them at Wenstob Timber Resources. If you have the right stuff, we may see you on the next season.
HNM “When I watched the first episode, I noticed a new employee working with your lead hand, Coleman Willner. He was slipping and falling on the logs as they walked until later changing his boots, to ones with metal grips. Is he still on the show?”
SARAH “That’s Gord. He was a short-term employee. You get the short term and the long term. We do have some people that have been with us for 7 years now but it really goes from one extreme to the other. Employee count is anywhere from 11-20.”
HNM “Do the majority of the employees work at the sawmill?”
KEVIN “Yes, that’s our stable employment area and everyone that gets a job at the sawmill is given the opportunity to keep it or lose it. If you keep it, you can stay as long as you want. The logging is more seasonal, so we’ll take people from the sawmill like Coleman our sawyer – he’s energetic and has the logging trade down pretty good. He fits perfectly at the mill and takes the lead on most things when he’s there making products. When he’s out on the hill, he takes that position quite serious and is a true leader – he really shines at it.”
HNM “When you do take on a new employee and they’re put into a new situation, is safety always top priority?”
KEVIN “Yes, always a priority. The first thing that happens when they come, is ensuring they all have the right equipment, because they’re all like ‘I wanna do the job’ and that’s perfect… but we always have extra safety equipment in the truck – cork boots, high vis and hard hats. The next thing you want to do is to make sure they understand what the job is and watch how well they perform the task. It’s important to see how long it takes them to pick it up, it needs to become second nature for them. If they’re compromising themselves then they’re also compromising the people that they’re working with. You need to be sure that they’re going to be able to do the job properly, so you never want to overwhelm a new worker – you need to break them in slowly. You can’t expect them to be a professional on day one or day 10, it takes a while.”
SARAH “There’s a lot of planning and safety practices that need to be in place for these guys to be prepared to do their job.”
HNM “Is there a safety meeting before every shift when you’re on the hill?”
KEVIN “We always have a tailgate meeting when we’re up on the hill because we’re doing new ‘road changes’ where you’re pulling logs from a different area or you’re moving the tower. The terrain is always changing every time things break and come loose – you always have new hazards to watch out for. Weather can be a major issue and making sure everyone is aware of that, is really important.”
HNM “On the show, it’s difficult to tell how many camera operators are out there with you. How many are usually following you around in the field?”
KEVIN “We can have up to 3 and with GoPro’s and other stationed cameras – there could be up to 10 different vantage points.”
HNM “Do the camera operators get a safety course before going out to the field.?”
KEVIN “The nice thing about these operators is that they’re all experienced and have already been on sets and in situations like this and they’re aware of what we do. We’ll go into all the hazards and different problems that could arise and be sure that all the safety is in place. They need to know all the hazards that we’re dealing with before we start anything up and safety is paramount with everyone.”
HNM “One safety hazard that hasn’t come up, is wildlife. Is that much of a concern – having to confront a bear or moose?”
KEVIN “We don’t have any moose but we have cougar and bear. We make a lot of noise so the wildlife knows we’re there. We’ll see elk when we’re driving to work and they’re huge – the size of a big horse; we’ll see a herd of those. You’ll come around a corner and see a bear climbing or jumping off the road… or it might be standing in the middle of the road. They don’t pose a danger because they’re usually running when you come across them. Occasionally you’ll see a deer out there but there’s not very many. The cougars are very elusive – last fall I was picking up some logs with the dump loading truck and a cougar was actually standing on a log above me. The guy I was working with says, ‘did you see that cougar?’ it was slinking across the top log and they’re never running from you. They’re always watching you, like a cat stalking a bird.”
HNM “How big of a factor is the weather?”
KEVIN “Weather is something you make allowances for and we usually know in advance what the weather is going to be like, with advanced forecasting. We have a wet-weather shut down because the ground gets wet and trees become unstable or roads could wash out. The weather is definitely a big factor for safety.”
HNM “Sarah, I read that you were a nurse in the operating room for many years before switching gears and taking over the sawmill 10 years ago, that’s quite a contrast.”
SARAH “I was an operating room nurse for 20 years and it’s been about 15 years now that I’d decided to do a job change for family reasons. I took on an entirely new career and starting working in the office and built on that. It was a huge contrast but I did a lot of reading and a lot of research on my own to teach myself about the logging industry as well as educating myself on computers, because they were relatively new back then. I remember thinking that I should take a course but then everyone said – there’s no course, you just learn it.”
KEVIN “Sarah can probably teach a course now on all she’s learned. She’s become the teacher and is no longer the pupil.”
HNM “You both have a truly incredible story – how you met Kevin, to buying the sawmill using only his pick-up and chainsaw for collateral. That’s quite a risky move… are you one for taking big risks Kevin?”
SARAH “I think I’d like to chime in here – Kevin is fearless!”
KEVIN “No I’m not (laughing), I have so much fear it would make you shake in your boots. Everyday I have to weigh out the ‘pros and cons’ on situations to determine if they’re going to work out. You also have to face reality too… and not stop because you’re afraid but instead ‘face the challenge’ and have accomplishments that everyone can benefit from, which is the most important thing.”
HNM “Can you explain a little about the business of collecting the trees? Do you have to bid on an area of cedar trees?”
KEVIN “We need logs for our sawmill to turn a profit, so sometimes we can get them locally from someone that needs to clear land to build a house or a field. The other thing we do, is bid on timber sales on crown land, with sales designed for the timber industry to purchase. They have an entire information package available that’s hundreds of pgs. long, that includes everything from timber sales to quality of wood, replanting, deforestation and everything else. You fall under the ‘Sustainable Forest Initiative’ which is put into place as a renewable resource. So, we look at the timber sales that are close to our location and also fit into what we do. We’ll then investigate it further to see if it’s a fit and then bid on it.”
SARAH “I’d also like to address your question a little more. We’re a niche industry in the sense that we’re a small company who can go from initial harvesting, right down to the finished product. In the TV series, the audience will get the chance to see a lot of the processes and challenges of harvesting the trees, to the sale of that finished product.”
HNM “How has this show impacted your company? Has it provided more exposure?”
KEVIN “Not yet because it hasn’t aired yet but people have heard about it, have seen the trailers and are very excited about it. We are too, but until it gets to everyone’s TV sets, we have no idea what’s going to happen.”
HNM “Do you see your company succeeding in clearing all the logs in the time allotted?”
KEVIN “Well… that’s something you’ll have to watch and see, whether we get it done or not (laughing).
HNM “Ever see any Bigfoot out there? (laughing)”
KEVIN “Well you know what (laughing), when you go around a corner, he might be there because there are ancient stories of them being out in that area, but I haven’t seen anything yet.”
Big Timber will make you appreciate the value of a family run business, beautiful trees and countryside, as well as nature at its best! Tune in every Thursday on the History Channel and thank me later.