At 91, Thelma Godkin still queen of the woods

Thelma Godkin, 91, has a beautiful view from her room at Steeples, an assisted-living facility in Chemainus.

The vista is not of the ocean, but the blue-grey hills of the Vancouver Island range: Mount Brenton, Mount Sicker, Copper Canyon and beyond, to the headwaters of the Chemainus River. It brings memories of life in her late teens and early 20s when Godkin was the lone woman working alongside burly male loggers in the woods.

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Before she entered that realm, Godkin, whose maiden name is Emblem, worked at the Chemainus sawmill. It was a job she didn’t enjoy.

“They had me on a great big thing where I had to cut the lumber so it would fit in another thing,” Godkin said.

A close call with a whirling saw blade convinced her to quit and try the log sort. Someone then offered her a job in the woods, and Godkin leapt at it.

It was the start of a story that Vancouver Island entertainer John Gogo heard about when he and fellow members of the Other Guys Theatre Company performed at the Chemainus Theatre this spring. Their show, Good Timber — Songs and Stories of the Western Logger, is a tribute to old-time loggers like Godkin.

Gogo visited Godkin, who grew up in Saltair. He marvelled at her stories — then made sure she got tickets to the show.

“These are the people who paved the way,” said Gogo, whose forefathers were loggers and miners.

“For a woman to do something like this during the war highlights what women were doing … stepping up and doing what was normally considered men’s work.”

During the Second World War, Godkin was happy to take over the job as whistle punk, a key job at a logging site where whistle tweets directed machine operators moving logs from where they had been felled to where they could be loaded onto rail cars.

She often had to rise at 3 a.m. to catch the crummy (a small bus) and then a speeder (small railway car) to the work site.

Godkin was just 17 and had a cloud of curly brown hair when she first went to work in the woods. But she remembers the men on the crew treating her with respect.

“They were glad to get a whistle punk who would work — they were good as gold to me,” said Godkin, who admits she was good at “punking the whistle.”

“I knew I had to be right,” she said. “If I saw anything unsafe, I’d shut the whole thing down. It’s a responsible job, actually.”

She remembers girlfriends and their mothers being flabbergasted that Godkin would choose to put on cork boots and heavy pants every day to go work in the woods.

“My girlfriends would say, ‘What are you doing, working in the bush? You should be a stenographer or something,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘I’d shrivel up and die if I had to do that.’ ”

She felt free in the woods, and happy.

“We logged near Copper Mountain, and the trees were so big and beautiful, and when they fell I felt like crying because I could hear them sighing as they were going down,” Godkin wrote in a letter to the Cowichan Citizen published in June.

There were dangerous times, too, such as one incident when men from another logging site came running by, screaming at Godkin and others to move fast.

“They said ‘There’s a forest fire coming! You’re going to get killed!,’ ” Godkin recalled.

She and the men ran through a clearcut to safety. The fire stopped at the edge of the standing timber.

Godkin left the woods after five years, with the next phase in her life bringing marriage, a son and a daughter. A house in Saltair surrounded by trees later became her home.

Today, she often sits back and smiles as she looks at the hills.

“I remember how you could see Vancouver and all over everywhere. I really liked it up there, felt like I was queen of the woods.”

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