KEEPING A MEMORY AFLOAT
Though he doesn't come across them often, when Joe Bernert spots a tree at the edge of the Willamette River that looks like it had been lightly slashed with a chain saw, it reminds him of his brothers.
While guiding timber rafts to the saw and paper mills that once lined the river, they would take a break, tying the rafts to riverside trees with rusty wires and rope and fishing from atop the logs, against his parents wishes.
In short: "It reminds me of a time gone by," Bernert says.
Now an anachronism, Wilsonville City Councilor Charlotte Lehan is hoping to preserve the memory of the once-popular timber rafting trade, which consisted of tying logs together into a raft and floating it to nearby mills. Those scarred trees that served as the anchor for the rafts during respites are the symbols that will carry home the story.
After Lehan's nomination, the Oregon Travel Information Council accepted a cottonwood and a fir tree located in Memorial Park that were once used by log rafters as official Oregon state heritage trees, making them the second and third trees with that distinction in Wilsonville (along with a fir tree in Merryfield Park).
Lehan will host a commemorative event with the OTIC at 2 p.m. Friday, April 26, at the river shelter in Memorial Park.
Similar to Bernert, Lehan recalls her parents dissuading her from meandering onto the lografts — so as not to fall and be crushed between the logs — and watching the tugboats lug the timber rafts across the river throughout the day.
But she has noticed that those who weren't around during the heyday of log rafting are hardly aware of it, so she nominated the Memorial Park trees to inform younger generations. Lehan found the trees in Wilsonville with the help of the Wilsonville-Boones Ferry Historical Society and city Parks staff.
"I think from my side, it's because we are at a point where there's a pretty distinctive age line below which you don't remember this," Lehan says. "It's around 55-60. If you're younger than 50 you probably don't remember the log rafts. If you're older than that — 60, 65 — it was a significant part of your memory. There were massive log rafts wherever you went."
Storing rafts for profit
The Bernert family's river towing company opened in the 1920s, and their business grew exponentially by the time Joe Bernert came of age.
Though his brothers were more involved in log rafting than he was, Bernert used to navigate the rafts through the Willamette Falls Locks and to the mills as a summer job in college, and says the experience helped build a strong work ethic.
"It's hard work, but it was fun too," he says.
Though she didn't participate, Lehan admired the skill of those manning the tugboats.
"It took a fair amount of skill to pilot those," Lehan says. "Some of the log rafts were half a mile long and were being pulled down river. You have to have enough power in your boat and enough skill to go faster than what the river is going."
The tree scars were formed when log rafters tied their rafts to riverside trees to safely store them before continuing their travels down the river. Bernert says his family frequently would pay property owners for the use of trees and that the state later required the payment of a moorage fee for such storage.
As for the two trees in Wilsonville, Lehan surmised that the Boozier family might have owned the trees at one time, and she was told that a few families on the Wilsonville side of the river used to frequently charge for raft storage.
Though Bernert says there once were a few dozen tugboats transporting the logs to the mills every day, the timber industry eventually transitioned to other methods.
"From the '20s to '40s and starting into the '50s it was pretty widespread. After the '50s it started to move over into trucks and into barges," Bernert says. "By the '70s or '80s it was starting to become uncommon to see log rafts, and demand for timber was down and the industry changed."
Trees 'good' representatives
According to the OTIC website, "accessibility to the public, tree health and historic significance" are among criteria for determining whether a tree is deemed acceptable as a state heritage tree.
Lehan says she was looking for a tree that represented log rafting and picked those two trees not because they are the only scarred trees on the river — she found two more near the Willamette River Water Treatment Plant — but because they are located in an accessible spot. She also says that because the trees reside in a City park, they receive regular treatment from the City arborist.
"The nice thing about the location to tell this story is the public dock is right in between the two trees. One of them you can see from the dock and, in any case, you can get a feel of what the riverfront looked like from the riverside," Lehan says.
"All of those things made these trees a good candidate for inclusion in the program to represent cable trees on the Willamette and to tell the story of log rafting."
Lehan says she likely will emcee the April event, and Bernert will give a talk about the tugging business and officially retire the family's boat "Rainbow," which he says was built in 1937 and is one of the last remaining tugboats along the upper Willamette River.
"We're going to bring out cables and tools (used for log rafting) and bring some of those logging things that were used in the timber industry that you don't see as much anymore," Bernert says.
Lehan also is planning to invite timber industry representatives as well as retired captains or crew members of the tugboats to the festivities.
Along with the event, Lehan says the OTIC will place plaques commemorating the cottonwood and fir trees, the City will redo the interpretive panel at the boat dock to include information about the trees, and the trees will be included in the OTIC's Guide to Oregon Historical Markers and Heritage Trees.
If all goes according to plan, they will help keep the memory of log rafting along the river afloat for generations to come.
"That (log rafting) was a job they grew up doing. People on the river would teach their kids how you would get boats through (the river)," Bernert says. "As I've grown older, it becomes an important memory of childhood."