Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A pioneer at balancing work and life

Jube Wickheim (centre, in red shirt and cowboy hat) with his timber show

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 2, 2008


Jube Wickheim's old job was as easy as not falling off a log.

Motivation to master the vocation came easily.

“I fell in an awful lot at first,” he said. “It was awful cold when you fell in.”

Mr. Wickheim spent much of his working life as a birler, at first on booms near his home on Vancouver Island and later in competitions that took him around the globe.

He won 10 world championships and earned a spot in the Guinness World Records for an incident about which he does not hold fond reminiscence.

He is 74 now, long retired from what premier W.A.C. Bennett once officially declared to be the province's official industry sport.

Logging sports grew from lumberjacks showing off their skills in competition against other woodsmen. The contestants came from the forests. Nowadays, a handful of professional shows display the venerable skills made redundant by machinery.

The sport lives on at logger shows at Gibsons and Campbell River, Sooke and Squamish, and Libby and Darby in Montana. At the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, the West Coast Lumberjack Show put on four performances yesterday at the Spirit Plaza, bringing the hinterland to Playland.

Mr. Wickheim wowed crowds at the Vancouver fair for more than a quarter-century in axe-tossing, tree-chopping displays in which fallers and sawyers pay homage to homesteaders like his father.

“I doubt there's anybody who grew up in the woods doing it any more,” he said.

He is the son of a Norwegian fortune seeker who left the family farm outside Oslo to prospect for gold in the Yukon. His father found only heartache in the Klondike, before settling on a four-acre stump ranch at Saseenos, outside of Victoria.

Jubial and his older brother Ardy made money after school and on weekends during the Depression by working on the log booms in Sooke basin. Pushing logs into a mill pond with a pike pole at night without lights turned out to be excellent training for a logroller who did not want to be a log-faller-offer.

What's the secret to birling?

“Balance,” he said with a laugh. “Determination is the main thing. You've got to put everything you've got into it.”

His single-mindedness was on display when he won his first world championship in 1956. Crowds lined both banks of the fast-flowing Rock River at Rockford, Ill. The duelling birlers stayed upright even as their log caught the current, floated under a bridge and continued downriver until they were out of sight of the spectators. Only his opponent was on hand to see him win.

In 1967, he put on four daily shows during Expo 67 in Montreal. The log-rolling was held on Dolphin Lake in the La Ronde amusement park.

The Timberland display was sandwiched between the flume ride and Pioneerland with Fort Edmonton, where crowds flocked to the Golden Garter Saloon. Airborne gondolas cruised overhead.

He birled at Expo 70 at Osaka, Japan, later performing in Australia, Chile, Romania, and even in his father's homeland. The Wickheim Timber Show became a staple of American summers, also performing at the PNE and at the opening of Euro Disney outside Paris in 1992. He taught the secrets of the tippy-toe trade to his son, Fred, who performed in a tuque, checked shirt and blue jeans torn below the knee in hillbilly fashion, the pants held up by suspenders.

Old Jube is just about the last of his kind.

Another of the old-timers, Art Williams, can be found at Likely, the gold-rush town on Quesnel Lake in the Cariboo. For years, he dressed entirely in dark clothes to compete as the Black Knight. He later won fame by donning a wig and a dress as Copper Canyon Sal, whose act included a stunt in which Sal's undergarments slip as a pole is climbed. The climax came when Sal reached the top, where a handstand allowed gravity to return the underwear to its proper place.

(On some rare occasions, the act ended not as intended. The wig once snagged in a wire and a ladder crew from the fire department had to rescue him.)

Accidents were not unknown when cash prizes were on the line in contests such as the underhand chop and the springboard chop. More than just wood fell victim to the axe. “I've seen lots of toes chopped off,” Mr. Wickheim said. “We'd wrap the toe in tissue and send it off to the hospital.” He retired in 1994, all 10 fingers and all 10 toes still attached.

After operating it as a Christmas-tree farm, he sold the family homestead four years ago and now lives in Cobble Hill. He spends weeks each summer at a remote cabin in the Chilcotin, where he fishes rainbow trout and hunts for his supper.

Once upon a time, he had his own entry in the Guinness book between ones for “litter collection” and “milk-bottle balancing.”

The log-rolling champ earned a citation for a marathon contest at a Fourth of July logging show at Albany, Ore. His opponent was an ex-Marine named Chuck Harris. They stepped onto the log in caulk boots in the late afternoon and began twirling. An hour passed. Then another. Still, the stubborn pair continued birling. “The crowd had all gone home,” Mr. Wickheim remembered, “supper was over, and we were still out there.”

At last, after two hours, 40 minutes of log-spinning, his legs numb from the exertion, Mr. Wickheim fell in.

“I was just so darned hungry,” he said.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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