A Mere Outline Against the Blue Sky (1921)

By Oswald  J. Smith
Canada Lumberman – April 15, 1921
(Images were not part of the original publication)

A High Rigger performs many marvelous aerial feats and seems to defy death at every move in his poised position.

It was a marvelous feat. Even for a “high rigger,” it was considered unique and out of the ordinary. Never will I forget the shiver that ran through me as we gazed at that reckless, nerveless, daredevil figure poised between earth and sky. It was an experience that one is forced to remember.

The tree had been chosen the day before, a great three-hundred-foot-high Douglas fir, almost five feet through at the base, straight as a die and bare almost to the top. Not an unusual tree, at least for British Columbia, but a tree especially chosen and well-fitted for the “high rigging.”

The “high rigger,” a young fellow about nineteen, with a merry face, a sort of happy-go-lucky expression on his countenance, was the center of observation for that day at least. After weeks of special practice, he had developed into one of the best “high riggers” on the coast.

Springing at the trunk of the tree with spikes on his shoes and a belt around his slender waist, he tore up the first fifty feet like a squirrel and was far above the group of sturdy lumbermen standing around almost before they realized he had gone. Throwing his rope above him, planting his spikes firmly in, with head thrown back, foot after foot he made his way, the muscles of his body readily responding to his every movement.

Was There to do his Best 

Up and up and up, higher and higher and higher, not a pause, while the great top of the tree swayed and rocked back and forth under his actions. Our necks ached, our eyes became blurred with the strain, and we lay down on our backs to watch. Exclamations of delight and admiration were heard on every side spurring him on. Spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm were heralded skyward at every step. No wonder he worked! It was his day, and he was there to do his best.

Presently he stopped. Two hundred feet up! It was enough. Now for work. Wrenching his ax from the place in his belt, he began to chop. Round and round he went, swinging back on his belt and taking long, heavy strokes, while a shower of chips rained down on the crowd below.

Two things he must watch, two possible accidents avoid. Should he miss his mark and cut the strap that held him, all would be over. That had happened only the week before on Vancouver Island, and the mangled, crushed body of the careless Finn had been picked up at the foot of the tree two hundred feet below. Then, too, he must be sure that the trunk is well cut all around, lest in breaking the tree should split, and his body be cut in two by his belt as the falling pieces tore away from the rest. That, too, had happened, and its memory was still fresh.

Facing His Real Last Danger

But he was on his guard, and all went well. The tree, cut through, came crashing to earth. Lumbermen to spring on either side to avoid it. Then that the “high rigger” faced his last real danger. From fifteen to twenty feet, the trunk springs back and forth with the vibration when the top breaks. If he is not on the watch, he will fail to go with it, and as a result, his face will be pounded to a jelly. Neyer will we forget the incident we heard on the coast of a “high rigger” whose face was broken and beaten into pulp as the tree struck him again and again before he was able to throw himself into motion with it, so violent was the rebound.

Suddenly he paused. What now? We had watched him loosen his belt, jerk out his spikes and drop some twelve feet to avoid a possible split, then plant them again, throw himself far back on his belt, brace his feet, set himself and wait, while the great top one hundred feet above his head, cracked, broke and fell. We had seen him like a statue sway back and forth, nerveless powerless, motionless, until the mighty vibration ceased.

And now by all the laws of the “high rigger” it was his business to go to work and make ready the rigging. There was the iron pulley, weighing five hundred and fifty pounds, that must be hauled up by the “donkey” and hung on the top of the tree. Through this, the big cable, an inch and a half thick, must be passed, and the other end fixed to a similar tree nearly a quarter of a mile away. Along the cable the logs, great, mighty giants, not the toothpicks of Northern Ontario, must be hauled, sometimes lifted clear up in the air. Truly, there was much to do. But he didn’t do it. Instead, he did a thing that made him the talk of the woods for months after.

Now, the diameter of the tree at the place where it had been cut was just two feet.

Poised Between Earth and Sky

He had paused. We waited, and the next moment — did we see a vision? Were our eyes deceiving us? No, there he was, poised between earth and sky, standing upright on a twenty-four inch tree trunk, two hundred feet above our heads.

We held our breath. There was a hush on the crowd of reckless lumberjacks as with upturned faces they watched the fearless “rigger.” Save for the heavy breathing not a sound was heard. My heart thumped madly, then almost stood still, while a cold shiver left me weak and trembling, yet fascinated, I could not withdraw my eyes.

There he stood in unmistakable outline against the sky. Would he fall? Could he balance long enough to regain his position? Presently he lifted his axe, three feet from where the limb of another tree swayed back and forth in the breeze. What is he doing? Are his senses leaving him? What madness?

But see! The axe has fallen. The limb has been struck, nay, severed, and hurled to the ground. He bends. Our breath comes in gasps. Slowly his body recovers its equilibrium. And five minutes later he steps firmly and victoriously on the ground, while a great cheer goes up from the excited lumberjacks as they throng around. The “high rigger” has won his spurs.


  1. Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
    – Canada Lumberman, April 1921
  2. Library of Congress
    – American National Red Cross photograph collection