WALLY'S WORLD: Career loggers are rare species

By Wally DuChateau

Jim Willis is a good ol’ boy in the best sense. He’s a down-home, good-looking, humorous, very sociable, 55-year-old, short and sinewy fellow, who I’m proud to call my friend.

In these parts, he’s an endangered species. He’s a logger.

That’s all he’s ever wanted to be. He graduated from Hoquiam High School and was setting chokers by the time he was 21. Jim simply loves the work; trudging through the snow in winter, the colorful wildflowers each spring, the scent of freshly cut trees, the herds of elk and other animals, the fresh, invigorating air and even the hard, physical labor.

Everything about the environment seems healthy. Though he may have accumulated a few aches in his back and hands, once he gets out in the woods, fills his lungs with a deep breath and bounces around for a few minutes, such pains quickly subside.

Jim moved to Enumclaw in 1986 and started working for Don Walker Logging. Walker’s operation employed 12 or 14 hard-working, profanity-rapping, hard-drinking son-of-a-guns, who were really into weekend blowouts. Loggers have traditionally been hard drinkers and Jim does what he can to sustain that legend. But he insists such drunken buffoonery doesn’t interfere with his work. No matter how hung-over he might be, he says “a few deep breaths of pure, mountain fresh air will always straighten me out.” (He’s been hanging around the Ski Inn for roughly 20 years, yet I only met him in the last few months.)

During his 34 years in the woods, Jim has only carried out two co-workers. One was injured when part of a tree fell on him, breaking a hip, an arm and other odd joints and bones. Still, he eventually recovered and returned to work. In the second case, the jobsite was so far back in the mountainous terrain, it took an ambulance more than an hour to arrive. That fellow died.

Jim has always worked for small, independent logging operations – the so-called “gypo” outfits – owned by small-business entrepreneurs like Walker, Bill Bremmeyer and Kelly Kahne.

“I’ve never worked for Weyerhaeuser,” he says with a subtle grin. “Weyerhaeuser wouldn’t like me.”

While working for Kelly Kahne, he met Kelly’s son, Kasey, the famous NASCAR celebrity. “He was a quiet kid,” Jim recalls, “who was always tinkering with cars and trucks.” In fact, on more than one occasion, Kelly desperately needed a truck for work, only to find out Kasey had torn it apart.

On Friday afternoons, loggers in crew buses are understandably anxious to get back to town. Sometimes they race one another, side by side, down 410. On one occasion they even forced a park ranger off the highway. Strange enough, there were no official repercussions from this event. I guess the Forest Service knows it shouldn’t tangle with loggers when they’re hell bent for the local saloons.

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