The Clearwater Spruce

In 1945 or ’46, the Quinault school district extended its high school bus route to Kalaloch in Jefferson County to pick up teenage students from Queets, Clearwater and Kalaloch. Mrs. Aschenbrenner was our bus driver.

On our trip home after the first day of school, the kids were excited and a bit unruly. Mrs. Aschenbrenner quietly asked us to settle down. In a few minutes, the noise level was back up to where it had been. She stopped the bus and said, “I have been hired to transport you safely to school and back home. I can’t drive safely and keep order on the bus at the same time. The bus is going to stay where it is until it is quiet enough to drive safely. If it becomes an inconvenience for your parents to pick you up, they can take it up with you.” She never again had a disorderly bus.

My share of the ride lasted a little over a half an hour. My seatmate was Gardner Genteman. He was an amazing fellow. One time when he was hunting with friends on the Humptulips, the three of them were walking on a logging road. He held out his hands for silence and whispered, “Elk.” “Where?” they whispered. Gardner pointed ahead and whispered, “I smell ’em.” The elk were just over a rise and upwind of them. If I remember the story correctly, they got an elk. He had 20/10 vision. He lived near Bill Hamilton on the Clearwater. They were fishing buddies. If there were fish, Gardner and Bill could get them.

I think I have a reasonably good imagination, but his was better. With an hour and a quarter or more of time together every school day, we began making up the Clearwater Spruce story. It was generally on the order of the stories about Paul Bunyan, who logged trees so tall he had to send his boom men up the trees with pike poles to help push the clouds past.

The Clearwater spruce grew only in the drainage of the Clearwater River. It had needles so big you could use them as broadswords. It grew straight and tall with very little taper. Mature ones might get as big as 30 feet in diameter at the stump.

To harvest them, the cutting crew put in two horizontal cuts about 30 feet apart. Then with a dragline about the size used to dig the main irrigation canals for the Columbia Basin Project, they would rap the log smartly with a specially designed weight and pop it right out of the tree. The tree would drop right back onto the stump and keep growing, allowing a sustained yield forest. Harvest was scheduled for spring to allow the graft to strengthen before the wind storms of the following winter. How the log would be moved to a mill or processed when it got there was the mill people’s problem, not ours.

To impress a cute little eighth-grade girl, Gardner told our tale about the Clearwater spruce. Years later, when she got to college, one of her assignments in English 101 was to write a composition on nature. She wrote about the Clearwater spruce. She said her instructor spent half a day in the college library trying to find information on the Clearwater spruce before giving her an F on the paper. She said he hadn’t specified that it be nonfiction. We thought that wasn’t very sporting of him.

Frank Slater, retired math teacher and Korean War veteran, lives in Vaughn.
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