The Beachcombers

Erik Hammond, B.C. beachcomber | BCBusiness
Thanks to a new co-op that challenged the reigning monopoly and won, beachcombing is more profitable than ever for Erik Hammond.

Long thought to be a relic of a bygone era, beachcombing is now a growth industry, thanks to one enterprising outsider who challenged the status quo and won

Keats Island is swathed in mist as Erik Hammond maneuvers his fibreglass tugboat slowly out of the Gibsons marina. The scene is familiar to him; he’s been boating on these waters since his parents took him out in a bassinet. But his companion Paul Craddock, who is visiting the Sunshine Coast from London, England, where he lives with Hammond’s sister, is astounded. He watches as Hammond, in green fleece and hip waders, swings down the ladder from the upper deck to grab a bottle of hydraulic oil. “Erik,” he says, “you must never get bored of this.”

It’s true. Hammond works hard for his young family, building docks and operating a water taxi, but his favourite job is the time-honoured trade once pursued by his father and grandfather: beachcombing. Properly called log salvors, Hammond and his business partner, George Moore, pick up logs that escaped from the booms of forestry companies, and sometimes naturally fallen trees, and sell them for lumber or chipping. Both of them love the independence of their work and know that they may be the last of a dying breed. In fact, B.C.’s storied beachcomber might easily have gone the way of the blacksmith had it not been for a lone crusader who took on the forest industry and a regulatory system that nearly choked the salvaging industry out of existence.

Hammond rounds the long dock of Hopkins Landing and spots Moore, who has already dug out the gravel under a 30-metre red cedar and looped a chain around its top. The two of them usually pick up low-grade hemlock and fir logs, which fetch on average $20 to $30 each from a pulp mill. But an uncut trunk like this, with a bulging root buck, could be far more valuable.

The cedar lies perpendicular to the water, obstructed by a clutter of alder and maple logs and cottonwood debris on the beach. (Those get left; no mill will buy them.) Moore hands up the rope, and Hammond knots it around the tow post. The boat pulls against the weight—a dead tree this size could weigh 7,000 kilograms—but the force is only evident when Hammond releases the engine and the boat lurches forward, forcing Craddock to grab a railing for support.

Hammond urges the boat forward, and with a mighty crack, a section of the tree breaks off and lunges into the ocean. They’re not concerned; Moore will collect it and later cut it and the remaining tree into smaller pieces. He reattaches the chain to the beached trunk. Seven times Hammond’s boat heaves against it. On the next try the cedar nudges the smaller logs, and as they slide one by one into the water, the pulling gets easier. Finally the cedar dips into the ocean and bobs obediently behind the boat. Hammond pulls it up and hammers in a “dog”—an iron spike with a ring—to which is tied a shorter tow line. “Jesus, Erik!” says Craddock with a smile. “I’ve never met anyone so manly.”

“It’s not only brute force,” says Hammond, laughing. “There’s strategy, too.”

In fact there are a lot of skills involved: later Hammond will take the salvaged cedar to his water lease near Keats Island, where he and Moore are storing about 700 logs. The cedar will wait; it’s a higher grade and could be sold for lumber. They will separate the other logs, bundle them with a crane and by the time they tow the boom to a chipping facility in Port Mellon the toil will represent a few months’ work done on random mornings when the tide is high and the weather is good. Hammond and Moore will divide the $14,000 cheque in half. Although Moore is several decades his senior, Hammond has a bad back and appreciates his partner’s work on the beach. He also respects Moore’s meticulous bookkeeping and how he gets so much out of his old boat with so little money.

Hammond says that his father Dick, whose West Coast Gothic collection of stories called Haunted Waters was shortlisted for a Roderick Haig-Brown book prize, would laugh at the size of logs he’s picking up now. Back in the glory days of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when lumber companies were logging first-growth forest, beachcombing was a Wild West: stories abound of sketchy characters and boat sabotage. Those times are documented in his mother Jo Hammond’s lively memoir, Edge of the Sound.

Now far fewer logs are lost in transit, and most beachcombers of his father’s generation have quit. (Dick died in 2008.) Dogged inventiveness keeps Hammond going. He bought his tugboat—a 35-year-old beat-up gillnetter—in 2006 for $8,000. He built a fly bridge with a steering station and put in a new 180-horsepower diesel engine. The log-sorting crane is on loan from a high-school friend; Hammond also works for his friend’s marine construction company. When the crane isn’t there, he and Moore use an antiquated swifter machine with a double-drum winch, which they bought from a logging company closing shop, to bind wires around logs. Hammond spends about $500 a month on fuel for his boat. His water lease costs about $1,700 a year, but he tows and stores docks for other people there, too. “I make it work,” he says.

Image by: Peter Holst


Image by: Peter Holst
A dead tree the size shown here
could weigh 7,000 kilograms.

Over the last 20 years, Hammond and Moore have held on through a series of price-depressing crises: the softwood lumber dispute, the market-flooding pine beetle and the U.S. housing market collapse. Added to the dire market conditions was a crippling regulatory framework that would surely have done in the log-salvaging business had it not been for the efforts of one lumber-industry outsider who took a personal interest in their trade.

In 1996, Mitchell Anderson visited a beach on Annacis Island, in the south arm of the Fraser River, in Delta, B.C. He had a master’s degree in water and soil conservation, and had previously worked with farmers to reduce their energy costs and environmental impacts. Now he was a researcher for the fishermen’s union, which had organized a beach cleanup. The shoreline was strewn with cut logs, a threat to fish habitat, and more kept coming. He wondered why the beachcombers weren’t picking them up.

“Obviously that wood was worth something to somebody: they cut it down and transported it,” he says. “Why, when it ends up on a beach, is it worth nothing?”

Image by: Peter Holst
Another day, hard at work in the office.

Anderson, who writes and performs country music in his spare time, speaks in technical terms and a detached tone punctuated with surprising occasional laughter. He began to look into why apparently valuable logs were abandoned to litter the coastline and found that, in short, the beachcombers weren’t paid enough to pick them up. Anderson also learned about a long and prickly history between the log salvors and the co-operative that paid them.

In 1954, the Ministry of Forests set up the Vancouver Log Salvage District, an area that included shorelines on both sides of the Georgia Strait and up the Fraser River as far as Hope. Every salvor needed a permit and the system protected the ownership of recovered logs. Owners of logs stamped with company identification marks had to be notified. Unmarked logs would be measured and graded by an independent scaler. The salvor would deliver them to a log yard operated by Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative, whose membership included representatives from the timber and marine insurance industries. The co-op set the prices, based on species and grade, paid scaling and stumpage fees, found buyers and shared profits among member forestry companies.

“It was really the forest industry that was buying logs off beachcombers, and the forest industry arguably has an incentive to buy logs at a low price rather than a high price,” Anderson says. “They’re selling logs to their own facilities.”

A Beachcomber is Reborn

1954 The Ministry of Forests sets up the Vancouver Log Salvage District, an area including shorelines on both sides of the Georgia Strait, and up the Fraser River as far as Hope. Salvors who are granted permits can collect stray logs and sell them to Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative, which sets the prices, finds buyers and shares profits among member forestry companies.

1996 Mitchell Anderson, a researcher for the fishermen’s union, participates in a beach cleanup on Annacis Island and wonders why beachcombers aren’t picking up stray logs. He concludes it’s because beachcombers aren’t paid enough to do so.

2001 An audit of Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative done by the Ministry of Finance finds that the co-op hasn’t complied with several regulations, resulting in underpayment to salvors of $295,000 over 21 months.

2005 Mitchell Anderson quits his job and begins lobbying the provincial government to issue a second license, which would allow him to start a co-op with the authority to buy and sell salvaged logs.

2006 Anderson gets his license and Western Log Sort and Salvage Co-operative is born.

February 2010 Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative closes its downtown Vancouver office. The volume of logs Anderson sells increases 51 per cent that year.

December 2012 Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative’s license expires, leaving Anderson’s Western Log Sort and Salvage the sole body selling salvaged wood.

2013 Anderson expects to process sales for about 25,000 cubic metres of salvaged wood, compared to 15,000 cubic metres in 2012.

Beachcombers had long complained about Gulf Log’s pricing and lack of transparency. Mike Forrest, a salvor and co-owner of Forrest Marine and a Port Coquitlam city councillor, explains the tension: “We all felt that we didn’t get recognition in monetary terms. In the salvor’s mind, ‘I did all the damn work picking up this log, holding it and towing it, and you weren’t caring enough to take care of it, so it’s my log now!’ Except that it never changed ownership. We just handled it.”

There had also been repeated court actions between forest companies and beachcombers over log theft. About the same time that Anderson began learning about beachcombing, Sylvia Corning, who had previously operated a log sort yard for the now-defunct Fletcher Challenge Ltd. (which counted a forestry company among its holdings), wrote a comprehensive report on log salvage for the Ministry of Forests. Co-authored with Ben Parfitt, it employed surveys, interviews, submissions and workshops with salvors and representatives from forest companies, government, Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative and towing companies. It described a system that didn’t seem to work for anyone. The lumber companies felt that the quantity and value of timber lost was not sufficient to support the significant costs of sorting and selling salvaged lumber. Among the 36 recommendations were many that would have helped the salvors, such as including them and other stakeholders on the board of the log-salvage co-operative, improving pricing and increasing marketing efforts for logs. But a group of salvors called WASH (Western Association of Salvors and Handloggers) did not support the report, and it went nowhere.

A 2001 audit of Gulf Log Salvage done by the Ministry of Finance vindicated the beachcombers’ complaints about pricing. It found that Gulf Log had not complied with several regulations, resulting in underpayment to salvors of $295,000 over 21 months.

Anderson was working at the time as a staff scientist for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund when he got a call from Shirley Weishuhn, a log salvor. She had researched constitutional law and she wanted to challenge the province’s jurisdiction over marine log salvage. Anderson agreed with her argument—that the provincial regulations discourage salvage—but not her tactic. “I wanted to work within the existing system,” he recalls, “and she wanted to blow it up.” The Sierra Legal Defence Fund took on her case and as it dragged on Anderson thought about starting his own co-op for beachcombers. One day in 2005, during a long meeting at work, he decided to quit his job.

With seed money from Vancity and sponsorship from the Labour Environmental Alliance Society, Anderson lobbied the provincial government to issue a second license, which would allow him to start a co-op with the authority to buy and sell salvaged logs. “The case we made to the province was essentially about free enterprise and competition. This was an unfair monopoly and beachcombers should have a choice about where they deliver their wood.”

Anderson didn’t really know what he was getting into. He envisioned a log sort yard and even bought a hydraulic log-sorting machine, which he stored for years and eventually had to sell for a $10,000 loss. His bloated business plan was a target for several forest industry groups, which argued there weren’t enough logs for two receivers. During the public review process, they sent a letter to the ministry and several of Anderson’s funding sources encouraging them not to support him.

Nevertheless, he got the license in 2006 and Western Log Sort and Salvage Cooperative was born. His co-op, with a board of three salvors, was now a bare-bones operation in direct competition with Gulf Log Salvage, the co-op controlled by the province’s major forestry corporations. “The membership of my competition basically included everyone that I wanted to sell wood to,” he says. “So it took a long time to try and find pulp mills that would be interested in buying the wood.”

Several times Anderson was told by brokers or sorters that they couldn’t do business with him. Hammond and Moore say that they had an agreement with a log-yard operator to bundle wood for them, but when the operator found out that they were selling to a mill through Anderson’s co-op, he backed out. Even worse, lumber prices sank: the U.S. housing market crashed and the pine beetle thrived. Anderson persisted, supplementing his income with consulting work and writing. He had a few significant customers, including a pulp mill on Vancouver Island and a log yard on the Fraser River.

Image by: Peter Holst
Maple and cottonwood have little value, and get left on the beach. Cedar, however, commands
a decent dollar.

In February 2010, he got a call from the ministry telling him that Gulf Log Salvage had closed its downtown office. That year, the log volume he sold increased 51 per cent. A log-yard operator used Gulf Log Salvage’s license for a while, but its directors let it expire in December 2012, leaving Western Log Sort and Salvage the sole body selling salvaged wood. In 2012, Anderson sold 15,000 cubic metres. His revenue was $634,000, of which $516,000 went to the district’s 31 beachcombers. This year he expects to process sales for about 25,000 cubic metres of wood, the volume of about 600 logging trucks.

It was a long and exhausting journey, but Anderson finally succeeded in replacing a monopoly controlled by the forest industry with a market-driven business model controlled by the salvors. But while he likes to think of his log-salvage co-op as the successful marriage of environmental values and fair-market forces, not everyone shares that view.

Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of Coast Forest Products Association, which represents many coastal lumber companies, was a board member of Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative. He sees Anderson’s co-op as a relic of a bygone era and scoffs at its environmental claims. He explains that with better booming practices, a full-time river patroller and just-in-time delivery, there are far fewer logs to be salvaged today. “Put it this way: a group of the salvors didn’t like the pricing and purchasing policies of Gulf Log, so they formed their own co-op and they sort of wrapped it up in this ‘Oh gee we’re concerned about the environment’ argument, and the Ministry of Forests bought it and gave them a license. So now you have two people competing for a declining volume of logs, so one went out of business.”

Mike Forrest, the Fraser River salvor, responds with slight exasperation. “The challenge with log salvage generally is it’s the biggest single log cleanup on the river and the coast, but it goes on under the radar.” He was not involved with the earlier organized efforts against Gulf Log in the ’80s and ’90s, and felt during that time that some of his contacts in the forest industry were unfairly targeted by the more outspoken beachcombers. He’s glad those combative relations are history.

“I don’t think Mitch [Anderson] has got any crystal ball as to how to glean more dollars out of the circumstance,” Forrest says. “But he does have more push to try. Gulf Log folks were only interested in their own large organizations. So at least Mitch is trying to get something out of it from the salvor’s point of view. And maybe that’s better because if more people are able to make a dollar in this process you may be able to clean up what’s around.”

Image by: Peter Holst
Fewer logs are lost in transit now
compared to lumber’s glory days,
but for many, beach combing is still
a way of life.

After picking up a few more cedar logs, Hammond, Moore and Craddock head to Molly’s Reach, the Gibsons café made famous by the 1970s CBC drama The Beachcombers, for breakfast. It’s been a good morning; they joke about starting a beachcombing tourism business—taking out clients and setting up the same beached log every morning.

Later they will get 100 per cent of the value of the red cedar, rather than the 40 per cent they’d get for a similar cut log. If everything goes really well, Moore says, they could sell it for $1,000. “But nothing ever goes really well,” Hammond adds.

“Cedar’s goin’ up all the time,” Moore says. “Mitch figures he can move it.”

The difference for them is simple: they get paid quicker now and Anderson is an agent rather than an adversary. Technically they could have sold directly to a mill before, but when they tried, the manager of Gulf Log used to tell them that he couldn’t do the paperwork.

“You know what it was?” Moore says, arranging a salt shaker between two plates. “This is Gulf Log, here’s the outfit they’re sellin’ to, here’s the beachcombed parcel. So the market’s at $40. They sell it at $10. And they all meet at the bar. And you have no control over it.”

“We could stop beachcombing,” offers Hammond.

“The trouble is, it’s sort of a way of life,” says Moore. “It’s not an occupation. Probably a curse.”

They laugh. Hammond recounts that even on a trip to Europe with his wife, he was scanning the shores for logs. He often jokes with her that he’ll be the last beachcomber. His little son, fourth in a line of independent West Coast men, might soon have something to say about that.