Fantasy Novel: Whistlestop Chapter 12
Last Sunday when Joanne walked through the main entrance of the Whistlestop Station to board the train to the City, she saw that State Forestry posted colourful placards, inviting volunteers to the commencement of the fall silviculture activities beginning the following weekend. A picture of the woods near the Forestry Camp popped into her head, she was again walking among the massive straight tree trunks straining to touch the sky, sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy, the crunch of dried leaves underfoot and an overpowering smell of pine trees. This reminded Joanne of the happy times spent with grandfather Jakes Snr and his Forestry Warden friends wandering among trees.
While sprawling in the empty carriage, she phoned her kids asking them to join her at the Forest Camp the following weekend. Jakes grumbled but in the end agreed to accompany his mother on one of her crazy quests. The last time they went as a family Charles had an allergic reaction, and his father’s spasms frightened the younger Jakes into refusing to go on any other volunteer weekends. Thinking about Charles’ allergic reaction made Joanne realise that as the family embraced their inner wolves, his allergies miraculously disappeared. He was such a stupid liar.
“You want me to go to finishing school, well we are starting class this Saturday,” whined Julia. Even though her friends were excited to go, her dad’s partner took exception to this extramural activity and made constant belittling comments about girls going to finishing schools. He even tried to bribe Julia into not going. When Hollie heard about his interference in what she saw as her project for the pack’s teenage girls, as Wolfville’s Beta Female she insisted on Julia’s participation.
Joanne pretended she did not hear that Julia was still unwilling to participate and asked, “How about I ask Susan to give you a lift to the camp on Sunday morning. Some of your school’s seniors will be helping Matt in the nursery for the day, it will make a change from the usual boring Sundays.” Joanne was unaware that it has become a custom that Paul’s friends spent Sunday afternoons at their home. These visits had become awkward for Julia as the only female, and she hid in her room, pretending to do homework. The idea of spending time away from her home sounded like fun, and she quickly accepted her mother’s plan.
When Joanne arrived at Whistlestop late that following Friday afternoon a Warden was waiting for them on the platform, with a business-like clipboard in his hand. He ticked the names of the City volunteers off against his list and directed them to a collection point in the parking area. The yellow school bus was a welcoming sight when it came rambling around the corner, having just dropped off the Wolfville volunteers. Her stomached churned with anxiety when the bus rattled into forestry camp. The afternoon light was just starting to turn to dusk, and the woods loomed shadowy around the camp. Excited conversations buzzed around her, the people were discussing what to expect from the weekend, for many it was their first trip into a forest. She eagerly scanned the faces of the people milling around on the paved assembly area, searching for Jakes.
“Hi, Joe,” shouted Jakes when he saw his mother got off the bus, the devilment bright in his eyes.
Joanne feasted her eyes on her son and saw how much happier he looked. “Let me get rid of this and then we can see if there are some coffee available in the canteen,” said Joanne, smiling widely at her son’s welcome. Jakes took the sleeping bags and followed his mother to the shelter built in the middle of the camp.
The structure was constructed like an army barrack, thirty single beds were organised on either side of the walls, forming a broad passage between the two rows of beds. There was an army surplus bed with a foam mattress and a foot locker for each volunteer. The ablution block was adjacent to the sleeping quarters and had individual showers and toilets, making it suitable for both sexes.
The large wooden structure had many uses. Sometimes visiting scientists’ hosted biodiversity seminars, school groups used it for their outings, but State Forestry allocated the shelter for its volunteers in fall and spring as part of their siviliculture program.
The flophouse smelled musty and humid as they entered. Jakes dumped their sleeping bags on the only two empty beds on the right-hand side. Either side of their beds was sleeping bags already rolled out. The two of them put their gear in their respective footlockers, covered their foam mattresses with the fitted sheets she brought and rolled open their sleeping bags. Joanne handed Jakes his own first aid bag, the main ingredient, insect repellent and a large bag of his favorite snacks, knowing that the next two days would be grueling for Jakes, who was always hungry.
Experience taught Joanne that there would be the last remnants mosquitos and other flying insects buzzing around, looking for a last feast. Insect repellent was a necessity when working in the forests, especially if you have not been in for a while.
“Ow, this stinks,” moaned Jakes as he lavishly sprayed the repellent on his arms, legs and neck.
“One benefit of being human is my poor sense of smell,” teased Joanne while she also sprayed repellent on herself. On either side of their cots were Wolfville gear, marked and labelled. “Which pack members are here?” asked Joanne pointing to the beds. “Trainee enforcers, trackers and one or two other guys that have been tracking something in the forest,” replied Jakes. Let’s go and get some coffee,” suggested Joanne, suppressing any thought about the animal being pursued.
The volunteers that had already arrived gathered near the kitchen hut, hot coffee and safety gear were distributed. Matt, a tall, big and grisly old man with a booming voice, was the Ranger in charge. He rang a large brass bell that hung in a wooden frame, near the assembly area, its sounds bonged and vibrated through the air.
“People, this is your wake-up call tomorrow morning, the bell will be rung at 05:00 giving everybody an half an hour to get ready. Breakfast will be served at 05:30, and we will leave for the identified area at 06:00. You have all been divided into teams this weekend, and we will focus on clearing away the branches that were cut during the week.”
He explained that the cutters removed the sprouts and branches from the trees to let in more light and to reduce knots in the wood. This ensured that trees grew straight and gave better quality timber. The volunteers would be moving the branches and other litter to demarcated areas. Matt loved this part of the weekend where he talked about the importance of protecting the forests. He held the volunteers spellbound with his lecture on the value to future generations by protecting indigenous trees and the significance of the process of siviliculture.
“The woods can be dangerous people, so take note of where you are and who is near you. If you get lost or get separated for some or other reason, do not wonder around, use your whistle and stay in one place,” Matt repeated this instruction several times an emphasis on what to do and not to panic. “This is the signal that you are in trouble, it is the S.O.S in Morse Code,” and he demonstrated by blowing on his silver police whistle, three short blasts, three long blasts and again three short blasts. He insisted that everybody practice the S.O.S. signal. What a racket, any wild animals in the vicinity must have run for their life.
Both Jakes and Joanne were placed in the Wolfville group, and they greeted like she was a long-lost friend, not in the least fazed about her proximity. The two beds next to Joanne were still empty when they squirmed into their sleeping bags later that night after a spicy supper of chilli, bread, and the ever-present coffee.
It was still dark outside when the brass bell clamoured loudly early the following morning. Moans and groans echoed through the barracks. Joanne poked her head out of the sleeping bag, saw Jake was already dressed, his sleeping bag folded neatly, and he was busy fastening his boots.
“I need coffee, what made me think this was a good idea,” moaned Joanne, after surreptitiously, glancing at the empty bed next her. “Nothing is going to happen, no wild animal is feral, we would not be here if we were in danger, get a grip girl,” she whispered to herself in reassurance.
“I will go and get us some, see you outside,” smiled Jakes, he was such a morning person.
The first red coloured rays of the sun set fire the dark sky, the light then changed into the cool grey of an early autumn morning. The birds and insects welcomed the sun with boisterous chirping and buzzing, the noises amplified as the mist rose slowly from the damp earth. Once outside Joanne threw her head back to identify the familiar smells, a reminder of happier times.
Everybody was dressed in the safety clothes handed out last night, bright orange coveralls, forestry helmets with its visor and hear muffs, gloves, and safety vests. The Ranges wore their green uniforms and branded safety clothes so that they stood out among the bright orange chatterers.
All and sundry ate a hearty hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fried spam and unions, steaming hot coffee and the regulation mountain of bread and jam. Each volunteer was given a packed lunch of sandwich, an apple, dry ration, a chocolate bar and a bottle of water for the day. The water bottle to be filled at the collection points.
“You must stand down wind, you smell horrible,” teased Jake holding his nose.
“Here’s to you bug boy,” laughed Joanne toasting him with her cup of coffee. “Why is it that no cup of coffee is as good as the first one,” groaned Joanne.
By lunchtime, Joanne was exhausted, dragging a thick branch was difficult in normal circumstances, but to do it in a woodland was awkward, it felt if the branches were made of velcro that got stuck on any and everything. Luckily, the gloves she wore protected her hands from scratches. Everybody was industriously pulling and dragging branches to the collection points.
Sometimes small animals were disturbed by the activities, and Joanne laughed at her neighbour’s antics when a hedgehog scrambled away and ran over her feet, the women gave a startled shout and danced around trying not to step on the babies. Joanne’s laughter was laced with relief, Nothing bad was going to happen,” was her mantra as she worked.
Joanne pulled and kicked at a branch that was again stuck in the undergrowth, she positioned herself behind the end that stuck out and pulled and pulled. The branch suddenly broke free with such force that she lost her balance and fell into a mud puddle covering her behind in sticky mud. “Arg, sis, bloody branch,” was the involuntary words that popped out of her mouth.
“I heard somewhere mud is good for the complexion, but not with your clothes on,” laughed Jakes looking down at his mother as she sat in the puddle. “You Okay?”
“Hey, bug boy, your turn will come,” sighed Joanne as she grabbed the stump and pulled the offending branch behind her, muttering something about bad luck and puddles. Jakes laughed softly as he watched her struggles, she was so independent and stubborn.
With a flurry of groans and grunts, Jakes pulled the he branch dropped when he saw his mother slipped. He laboriously dragged what looked like half a tree behind him.
The brass bell clanged loudly from the valley below. “Lunch break,” said Jakes as he sank down on a large trunk on the side of the clearing. Glad for the rest.
They took out their packed lunches and ate in silence, enjoying their view over the valley.
“Mom, I saw a sign saying Jakes White planted a tree nearly fifty years ago,” Jakes took out his phone and showed her the picture of the sign.
“Yes, your grandfather planted that Maple-Leaf Oak when he was about your age. Jakes Snr and his father were the first volunteer Wardens of this forest,” explained Joanne.
“Do you think I can also be a Warden like him?”
She looked at him in surprise, she never thought he would be interested in following in his great grandfather’s footsteps.
“My boy, you can become anything,” she reassured him. “Why do you not register as a volunteer for now, and look at what interest you about the forest. It is such a wide field of interest from the pure scientific research to commercial viability.” She looked at him in all seriousness and said, “Just promise me one thing,” and she stopped for dramatic effect. He looked at her in surprise and said, “Okay?”
“Don’t become a tree hugger!” She laughed.
“Ag, Mom,” groaned Jakes.
The bell rang vibrating through the forest, lunch was over.
“Why is it every time I climb up this hill it becomes steeper,” moaned Joanne as she walked away.
“I’ll get you for that, who’s the actual tree hugger in this family,” shouted Jakes at his mother’s back.
She just waved at him and blew him a kiss.