The athletes who danced on trees

Ardy Wickheim, right, and brother Jube birling in Sooke Basin on Vancouver Island. The brothers won 14 word titles in 15 years. | Sooke River Museum

Ardy Wickheim, right, and brother Jube birling in Sooke Basin on Vancouver Island. The brothers won 14 word titles in 15 years. | Sooke River Museum

Between 1955 and 1967, the Wickheim brothers won every professional world championship for log birling, one of the sports of the working class. Jubiel won one more in 1969 to bring the total to 15. A reflection by TOM HAWTHORNE*

ARDY WICKHEIM’S job was as easy as not falling off a log.

The British Columbia lumberjack won four world championships as a professional log-roller. He and a younger brother dominated the sport through the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. Wickheim, who has died at 83, was a rugged, quiet man who preferred physical labour to a desk job. He rarely spoke to reporters, even after winning world titles.

The brothers – Ardiel and Jubiel, known as Ardy and Jube – also displayed the peculiar skills of log-rolling in performances at a trade show in Tokyo in 1965, at Expo 67 in Montreal and at the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds in Vancouver. An audience of city slickers whose daily exertions were no more dramatic than running for a bus marvelled as the brothers skipped atop a log floating in a pond.

The venerable sport, which traces its first world championship to a competition in Nebraska in 1898, demands quick wits and nimble feet. In 1955, Ardy Wickheim became the first Canadian to win the world title when he flipped his American opponent into the water in two consecutive falls. Jube Wickheim won the following year. The Wickheims claimed 14 world titles in 15 years, with Jube winning 10 to Ardy’s four.

Their success gained them notice in newspapers and magazines such as Sports Illustrated. The consecutive world titles earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The sport, also known as log-rolling, or birling, and dubbed “roleo” to rhyme with rodeo, even made a cameo appearance on television’s Wide World of Sports.

The Wickheims earned barely more in prize money than their travel costs to competitions in such woodsy locales as Hayward, Wis., Spokane, Wash., and Priest River, Idaho. In 1957, the world championship was held in their hometown of Sooke on Vancouver Island. (Jube won.) As many as 12,000 spectators gathered to watch annual log-rolling competitions at Sooke.

In July, 1971, B.C. premier W.A.C. Bennett designated logger sports, including birling, axe-throwing and pole climbing, as the official industrial sport of the province. It was about then that the sport began a long decline, not coincidentally at a time when fewer workers earned their living as loggers.

“Logging used to be dangerous, hard work,” Ardy Wickheim told Erin Kelley of the Sooke News in 2005. “It used to be a respected industry. People forget this is where most of the wealth came from in B.C.”

Ardiel Wickheim was born on July 8, 1929, at the family farmhouse at Saseenos, a townsite established only a few years earlier about 30 kilometres west of Victoria. His father Mikael, known as Michael, had been originally lured from his native Norway in search of gold along the Klondike. He found none, returning home empty-handed. The Bergen farmer married Karen Alterskjaer of Narvik and, after their first child was born, the family immigrated to Vancouver Island in 1922, living at first in a tent on a four-acre stump ranch.

lumberjacks.Loggers_klaralvenEven before he left school, Ardy began working atop log booms in Cooper’s Cove in the Sooke Basin for Eric Bernard, a logging entrepreneur who supplied cedar utility poles as tall as 25 metres for use throughout the continent. The still waters of the basin were ideal for booming and birling, though in winter the loggers had to break ice on the salt water to practise.

Jube, five years younger, eventually joined his brother on the booms. Of similar height and weight, they spent hours after work trying to knock each other off a log through clever spins and counterspins. By 1953, they had won enough local contests to travel to Albany, Ore., to compete at their first world championship.

“It was an education,” Jube Wickheim said. “We were just a couple of kids off a farm who had never seen a major city.”

The farm they left behind had neither running water, nor electricity.

Soon, the Wickheims were a force in the sport, known for their balance, their determination and their concentration, a necessity in a sport where an opponent can legally kick water in your face.

“One little mistake,” Jube Wickheim said, “and you’re in the water.”

(The competitions were not without risk. The 1956 contest included the death of a competitor, who was believed to have suffered a heart attack after falling in the water.)

The Wickheims won their share of prize money, including purses worth as much as $500 – “better than wages” – returning home at the end of each summer to work as loggers.

The Wickheim brothers travelled to Japan in 1965 to demonstrate their sport – and to promote B.C. timber – at the International Trade Fair at Harumi Pier in Tokyo. The sight of the lumberjacks in trademark dungarees, checked woollen shirts and caulked boots caused a sensation among the Japanese audience. One of the tricks shown by the brothers included Jube standing atop a chair at one end of a floating log while Ardy used a pole and his feet to maintain balance.

Ardy Wickheim returned to Japan five years later to give more demonstrations at the Canadian pavilion at the Osaka world’s fair. He won the birling competition there and was presented a trophy by a visiting premier Bennett.

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

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

Many thousands of Canadians also saw the brothers perform at Expo 67 in Montreal, as they put on four shows daily on Dolphin Lake in the shadow of Old Fort Edmonton at La Ronde.

Both brothers had a reputation for being taciturn, so they faced a dilemma when the announcer hired to work as ringmaster for their summer show at the Vancouver fair pulled out at the last minute. They chose lots. The younger brother lost, unhappily adding emceeing duties to his daily routine.

Later, Jube formed the Wickheim Timber Show to travel the globe, including a 1992 performance at the opening of Euro Disney outside Paris. (Among the log-rollers employed by the show over the years were the four Herrling brothers, known as the Birling Herrlings. One of them, Paul Herrling, died in Sooke on Jan. 27, at 54.)

Ardy retired from the sport to work on his acreage, building trout ponds on his land. He also helped to build many homes in his community, always preferring to work based on a handshake instead of a contract.

Ardy liked to attend events hosted by the local Sons of Norway, where he was known for his nimbleness on the dance floor, especially during a waltz.

Ardy died at his home in Sooke on Jan. 20 after a diagnosis of leukemia. He leaves a son, two daughters, five grandchildren, two sisters and two brothers. He was predeceased by a sister and his wife, Barbara, who died in 1981.

Despite his many victories, Jube considered Ardy the superior birler, both as a competitor and an entertainer. So, during long demonstrations, it was left to Ardy to pronounce an end. He would say, “Time to take a flyer,” before allowing himself to be hurled backward into the drink.

*Tom Hawthorn is a freelance newspaper and magazine writer who lives in Victoria, B.C. He writes a twice-weekly column for the Globe and Mail, in which this article first appeared. He is finishing a book about the war experiences of the McGill University football team. It is “A Greater Share of Honour.” His website is http://tomhawthorn.blogspot.ca/

Related reading

Tom Hawthorne, “A pioneer at balancing work and life,” September 2, 2008

* * *

Remembering the athletes who wrestled with trees

World champion log birler Ardy Wickheim was a hero in his day

BY STEPHEN HUME, VANCOUVER SUN COLUMNIST, FEBRUARY 1, 2013

‘Ardy’ Wickheim (left) and ‘Jube’ Wickheim practise in Coopers Cove in Sooke | Sooke River Museum

‘Ardy’ Wickheim (left) and ‘Jube’ Wickheim practise in Coopers Cove in Sooke | Sooke River Museum

THERE WAS A TIME in British Columbia, before the grapple-yarders, skidders, feller-bunchers and fibre farms swept away logging jobs by the tens of thousands, when the forest industry depended upon the traditional physical skills of men who were as conditioned and agile as any professional athlete.

One famed high-rigger was known for topping his spar tree, then climbing up and dancing a jig on the swaying butt for the entertainment of the crew below. Some amused themselves hurling their double-bitted faller’s axes to stick quivering in a target on a handy stump.

High-balling crews competed with one another to see who could get out the most board feet in a shift. The prize was glory, not cash. One crew on Vancouver Island which set a record asked for a tub of fresh ice cream when the foreman asked what the company could do to reward their efforts.

So the logger’s skills with an axe and saw, his strength and agility, were both prized and honoured. Among the most specialized of these skills was the ability not just to balance on a floating log, but to stay upright on it while birling — rolling it in the water.

In the days of A-frame camps, before truck logging carved the forests into a patchwork of clearcuts and the big timber that everyone thought would last forever dwindled to a pathetic remnant, most logs moved to the mills by water.

They went into the chuck, were assembled into booms and then towed to market by tugboats, a practice that still goes on but is less visible because it often occurs in remote coastal areas where there are no road links to the outside.

But once, in coves and bays and float house camps up and down the coast, every kid would watch the boom men dancing across the bobbing, rolling logs, their calked boots both gripping and twirling the slippery surfaces, maintaining their precarious balance with a long pike pole.

It was dangerous work, to slip into the icy water between jostling logs weighing tonnes each was to invite a crushed limb — or worse.

In Eastern Canada and the United States, log drivers would ride their rolling booms down the turbulent rivers between lakes.

The National Film Board’s John Weldon commemorated what was once embedded in the national consciousness with a short, charming film based on the folksong The Log Driver’s Waltz, which you can see at the NFB’s website and which provides a sense of the intricate skills involved.

So the other day, with that peculiar combination of sadness at a life lost and nostalgia for a life well-lived, I noted the death notice for Ardy Wickheim.

It’s a milestone only for readers of a certain age. His fame has little currency in a time when sports values have been coarsened by television and too much money.

But in his day, a day more than 50 years ago when the forest industry still defined B.C., a day when logger sports could still make the front page, Ardy and his brother Jubiel were not only world champion log birlers, they owned that podium.

They were the sons of a hardy Norwegian couple who homesteaded near Sooke, a small fishing and forestry town about 30 kilometres up the rugged coastline west of Victoria. They learned their skills as kids, working the log booms in Sooke Basin to earn pocket money.

Between 1955 and 1967, the Wickheim brothers won every professional world championship for log birling. Jubiel won one more in 1969 to bring the total to 15.

I saw the Wickheim brothers in action as a kid more than 50 years ago, taken to All Sooke Days by my father, who after the war had logged west of there in the late 1940s — one of the last guys to fell a stand of spruce with hand axes — and who wanted me to witness something he thought was passing and deserved a bit of respectful awe.

Well, industrial eras wax and wane. Tastes and expectations change. The tides of time and forgetfulness close over once-famous men and the world moves on. There are still world log birling championships — they date from 1898, older than the Grey Cup — but in a time of Super Bowls and Olympiads, they are seldom noticed by urban sports editors.

Maybe the best tribute to Ardy Wickheim was in his own modest obituary. It said, “Ardy’s pioneer spirit and values of hard work, honesty and integrity have influenced all who knew him … Carried home on the wings of the Valkyrie.”

As true heroes should be.

shume@islandnet.com

vancouversun.com

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