Tall Tumbler Tales

Like any other profession, heavy equipment operators can often be heard in local watering holes discussing, or possibly arguing about, who REALLY is the best Catskinner, or hoe operator, or graderman, or loaderman or whateverman who ever lived.

In my experience running iron in western Canada from 1971 to now (has it been 35 years already?) the greatest Catskinner in Canadian history almost had to come from a large crop who worked in the rugged Yukon Territory in the second half of the 20th century right after the construction of the Alaska Highway. I was fortunate enough to be a young man learning the trade at the time many of them were old men giving it up. We called them ?gear jammers? because they ran the old Cats with cable blades, pup motors, manual transmissions and the ?Johnson Bar? for forward or reverse. There weren?t any fancy hydraulic lines, tilt blades and power shifts for those old buzzards and they could turn a rock pile into a pool table in no time.

Unlike Cats and graders, however, the best hoe operators are relatively young men because hoes haven?t been around since the 1920?s.

The best hoe operator in western Canadian pretty much has to come from the Whistler area because it has the hardest mountains and the worst weather. They don?t even know what a chuck blade is in the coastal mountains because it wouldn?t last ten minutes in that tough volcanic rock. Four names come to mind from the wet coast?s legion of hoe operators who also build logging roads in places you would have to see to believe: Scotty Hurren, Stue Donald, Mike Thaxter and Al Shelley. In fact, it would be a four-way tie for first speaking in generalities with each one the best in his specialty: Hurren, rock walls; Donald, ditches and pipelines; Thaxter, finish work; Shelley, building high altitude ski runs.

Even Hurren, Donald and Thaxter would tell you they are in awe of things Shelley has done with his hoe and places he has worked. In fact, while safely running bulldozers in the valley far below, I knew Al Shelley for ten years before I even knew he had a last name. He was simply ?Crazy Al? to all the rest of the operators who spent most of the 80?s and 90?s building out Whistler.

With my own eyes, I saw this in about 1990 when they were getting ready to open The Peak of Whistler Mountain. They had a D-9 with a long winch line on the flat top of the mountain which was attached to a 235 Cat Excavator which had its? bucket over the blade of a D-8, holding it in place so it wouldn?t slide down the mountain, and the D-8 had another long winch line which went over the edge of a cliff attached to a 225 Cat Excavator which was dangling and digging a ski run. Inside the machine at the end of this insane daisy chain, of course, was ?Crazy Al? working away as comfortably as if he was digging a ditch down in the parking lot.

He is so good at doing this kind of dangerous work, the mountains wouldn?t award run-building contracts unless the contractor could guarantee ?Crazy Al? as the operator.

For the last year, ?Crazy Al? has been missing in action but clean-shaven Mr. Al Shelley has been working in Tumbler Ridge, most recently spending the past winter loading train cars with coal for Tercon which makes me wonder if anybody ever hired Picasso to whitewash their outhouse.

About a month ago, his old Whistler employer phoned up to say the big push is on for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Whistler Mountain has to install a new chairlift and new ski runs on some terribly steep terrain in the high alpine. It?s a literal and true fact there is only one hoe operator in western Canada with the experience and cojones to do the job and they made ?Crazy Al? an offer he couldn?t refuse.

Clean-shaven Mr. Al Shelley will still be in Tumbler Ridge for a couple weeks loading rail cars with coal for those who want to wish him good luck getting Whistler ready for the Olympics. Then his beard will grow back, his eyes will grow large and wild, his hair will look like a rock star and ?Crazy Al? will come out of hibernation before riding away to reclaim his position as ?King of the Mountain?.

Somebody else will have to load the coal for a while because Canada has put out an emergency call for clean-shaven Mr. Al Shelley.

It?s possible he?s not the best hoe operator in western Canada but he?s definitely the highest.