Bears of Pickering Lumber

The Black Bears of Pickering Lumber

By Lars Sanders

By the middle of April in 1951 the Pickering Lumber Company had opened its logging camp at Skull Creek for the summer. Some people called it the Standard Lumber Company, but that was only because their mill and office were at the town of Standard in Tuolumne County. My partner Lea and I were on the first crew of six sets of timber-fallers that went to work on the logging-side on upper Griswold Creek. We stayed in camp and rode the crew truck (called the crummy) till the roads dried up some, then we drove (taking our turn) from our homes in Avery and Paradise Lake.

There was still a lot of snow on the ground in shady places, and we started seeing bear tracks, and once in a while a bear. I believe they were still in hibernation when we started, but the sound of chain-saws and trees falling woke them up and they were hungry. Not for a bite of a lumber-jock, but some scraps from his lunch, or all the lunch for that matter. Each day the bears became braver and soon some of us had our lunch-pails smashed and our lunch eaten up before lunch time. That didn’t make the men very happy. We couldn’t leave our lunches in the crew truck because it was too far to walk back. So we started hiding them in piles of saw-dust, that worked for a day or two, but the bears soon wised up. Next we tied our lunches to a bent-over sapling and then let it spring up again, that worked for a few days too, but we soon started losing our lunches again.

The next spring I went back to work cutting timber up at Skull Creek, and my partner’s name was Dale. He was a big redheaded Irishman that weighed 270 lbs., but by fall was down to 240, I worked him so hard that all his fat was gone by that time! If the woods was still and he had something to laugh about you could hear him for a quarter mile. Also he was so strong and had a quick temper, and if he wasn’t careful when he got the saw stuck in a log, he could break that big saw in half at the trans.

When he and I went to work that spring, the first strip of timber that Charley Martin gave us took about two weeks to finish. The day before we would finish (if we had no breakdown) he told us that if we could finish by noon, or a little after, he would wait for us at our pickup and show us our new strip of timber so we would be ready to go to work early the next morning.

That day we worked harder than usual and were almost done when it was time to eat. There was one large leaning pine tree left and I told Dale that while he finished his tree, I would go down in this draw and see where we could try to fall that leaning pine without breaking it. I said we would fall it, then eat our lunch and head for the pickup with our tools.

The hillside draw was filled with chinky-pin oak brush, almost as hard to climb through as manzanita. There also was a couple of big alder trees there too, that I had to try to miss. I was almost down to the first alder tree when a large bear raised up out of the chinky-pin, where it had been laying down. It was only about 75 or 80 feet from me and then I saw 2 cubs stand up on their hind legs. Then I knew that it was a big black mother bear with cubs. She gave a grunt and the cubs started up that closest alder tree and she stood up on her hind feet and hit the tree with her front paws.

Two of my brothers, as we grew up in Minnesota, had had a very exciting meeting with a mother bear and cubs. Morton, then two years older than I and Oscar, four years younger than I, had these happenings years apart, but I remembered what could happen, so I shagged out. I looked back once to see if she was after me, but I could still see her looking at the cubs up in the alder tree.

When I got up to where Dale was, he had finished the tree and was sitting on the log waiting for me. Dale said in his big voice, “Who is your buddy?” I looked back and there about 50 feet back was that big old bear. She had stopped though, maybe because she heard or saw Dale. Anyway, she stood there and watched us, and we sat there and talked about her and what we should do. I could see the cubs up in the tree, and showed them to Dale. I told him that we couldn’t fall the pine with those cubs in that alder because even if we missed it the limbs could hurt or kill them.

Our tools and lunch was right there by that last big pine, so we decided to eat our lunch and maybe she would go out and get her babies and get out of there. The only problem was that she must of known about lunches, because when we started to eat she came up within about 20 feet of us and sat there licking her drooling lips. She was a beautiful bear, the blackest that I had ever seen, there was almost a blue tip to her fur because it was so black. We each threw her a piece of sandwich and a cookie and she even moved a few steps closer.

We decided that we had to fall that pine and try to miss those cubs because we had to go down and meet Charley, so we could get our new strip. I put in the under-cut and then looked things over before I started the back cut. I took a piece of the undercut and used it as a kicker (also called a Dutchman) to push the tree as far away from the cubs as possible. The mother bear was still there, but very nervous, walking back and forth in front of us.

I started the back cut, hoping for the best, I cornered one side and started back around and kept an eye on the bear and also on the back-cut. I sawed the cut open a little, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her turn and go tearing down the hill toward her cubs. I shut the saw off and we watched her head into the brush and soon heard her grunt and slap the tree with her front paws. The cubs started down fast and in less than a minute we saw all three of them cross a ridge down the hill and safely go into some timber. I said to Dale, “Mothers are fantastic,” and he said, “I agree.”

I started the saw and in about 20 seconds the tree headed for the ground. It brushed the alder tree a little and could have hurt or killed the cubs. I don’t know how she knew that the pine was falling and why she thought that her babies were in danger. She could of possibly heard the fibers in the tree pop, over the sound of the chain saw. The only way I figure is that she has had trees fall near her in her life in the world and felt the vibration in the roots under her feet as the back-cut opened up. She was close enough that the ends of the roots were under her.

We were a little late getting down to meet Charley Martin, but when we told him about the mother bear and her cubs he was real glad that we had taken the time to try and save them. This might just be my imagination, but it seemed to Dale and I that Charley watched out for us the whole season and gave us the nicest strips of timber he could, without it being obvious to the rest of the crew. He and I always did get along good though.

Dale and his family came from Medford, Oregon and on his way home that fall he got a job working on the landing cutting limbs and bumping knots near Redding, CA. The heel-boom loader operator was swinging a log over to the truck and he didn’t see Dale cutting some limbs and the log hit him and killed him instantly. I can count on one hand, the nicest men I have ever worked with and he was one of them.


  1. Lani Rodinsky Says: August 27, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    I was born in San Andreas in 1952 My father worked the green chain. My father was James Rodinsky. My mother was Aganes Akoni Rodinsky. She was from Hilo Hawaii. Me having a twin sister Lei and older sister Dequita and baby sister Patty.

    I had relitives The Leck & Mary Hectors I think they live in Hathaway Pines.

    I was so thrilled to see your website. I had a lot of great memories of the mill and white Pines.
    If you find any more pictures, please put them on your website. I asked my husband last year to take me to see your place but it was closed for the season. I am coming up there this weekend for a day trip.

    I hope to see more and remember my childhood.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Lani. I hope you enjoy your visit to our museum. I think you will. We are getting pictures up on the web site as we get time to do it.

    We have a lot of pictures in scrapbooks laid out for people to look at.

    John Hofstetter

  3. william spratt Says: August 30, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Great story lars ! I lived in camp curry on beaver creek
    when I was a boy,I remember a bear breaking in to a
    cabbin and tearing it up pretty good.

  4. Willie,
    Thanks for the comment. Lars has been gone a number of years now, but his stories are still with us. Lars was a real man, worked hard, drank hard, storied hard, threw bowling balls down the lanes like they had been shot out of a cannon, and genuinely was everyone’s friend.


  5. I wanted to write to say how very much I enjoy reading stories like ‘The Bears of Pickering Lumber’ William Russell Pickering founder of the Pickering Lumber Co. was my Great Uncle.
    I collect many things connected with the company, and reading this story was just wonderful.
    Jill Pickering-Ball

  6. kevin austin Says: August 16, 2009 at 5:58 am

    anybody know where i read about and get pics of the guys that used to climb and top-out big trees back in the “day”?

  7. I spent a good many summers at Skull Creek. Stayed with family friends, LaVerne and Manuel Nebes. He was a Fireman on the Sierra Railroad train that would take the logs down to the mill in Standard. The last few years we were there Manuel had number 1 seniority so we got the cabin across the tracks from the blacksmith place, overlooking Skull Creek and next to the trestle. Only cabin in the camp that had a shower. Still had an outhouse. Remember the first time we sleep out on the summer porch and the train let off steam. Now that was an alarm clock.

    I think it was in 1947 when I was able to go up to Skull Creek on the train to open it up far the year. Could not take the roads as they were still snowed in or so muddy a car could not pass. We all were in the caboose. It was a great adventure and really didn’t know what a great life it was at the time until I now look back at it.

    I have been trying to find the exact location of Skull Creek. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Bruce Foster
    Modesto, CA

    • Delano Bolter Says: January 11, 2011 at 11:57 am


      I read your comments about Skull Creek Camp. My aunt and uncle (Frank & Marie Bolter) lived in the cabin just above the one you described and they had a shower too. Of interst the shower was built around a fir tree and as the years passed the entrance to the shower became smaller. All was constructed by my uncle and he also built the double car garage that both cabins used and was on the entrance road to both cabins and just above both cabins. The cabin you speak of was originally occupied by Bill & Dolly Mills and it had been moved from previous camps of Stawberry, Sourgrass, Growl Meadows and then to Skull Creek Camp. I spent the summers at the latter three camps through 1949. As I remember Mr. Nebes he finally got to be an engineer, but he was a better fireman as he did not appear to be able to operate the steam engines with the same skills as say Bob Proctor. I planned to become an engineer, but as Bob Proctor had predicted the trains would be gone and I would have to do something else.

  8. Bruce,

    I just e-mailed you a link to a map of the area between Highway 4 and Highway 108. That map will show you Skull Creek’s location there.

    The road up from that area follows the old Pickering RR grade. Interesting trip but definitely not blacktop.

    Both the Feds and the State have fire guard stations down there., one on Skull Creek and the other near there.


  9. Marlys Sanders Says: February 1, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I loved reading my father- in- law.. Lars Sanders .. stories . He always could write exciting tales … He has been gone now for 11 years and we miss him. He was a real logger.

  10. John McGovern Says: March 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Hi there, boys. In 1956 I was at Beardsley Flat with my dad and my brother. My dad, Harry McGovern was a smoke chaser on the railroad for many years starting in the late 40s, my brother set chokers and I worked on the bridge gang for George Colt. The following year I got moved down to Soap Creek and my brother, Charlie McGovern got sent down to Skull Creek. My brother and I only worked there for a few years and left. Harry got pneumonia and died on a park bench in Sonora one winter, brother Charlie got drafted and wound up in Viet Nam and got killed there. In the winter sometimes, I worked in the box factory in Standard. The only people I remember in Standard were Bunker Hill, the boss, and Pat Metcalfe, a gal in the office who was very helpful to me when I arrived there. I also remember Mr. Hauk, big boss in the camp where I worked. Maybe his first name was Fred.
    When we would be out changing shims under the batter posts of the bridges or tightening up the bolts and repairing the ties where the chains fell off the flat cars and ripped up the tracks, we would sit out there an eat lunch and the bears would start garthering around waiting for a handout. I remember we had t sit really quiet because if you laughed or made a loud noise of any kind, the bears would head out. I also remember clocking a bear down the haul road one night, just a ball of fur and dust; he was clocked at 30 mph. I never knew they could run so fast. These bears were black bears and were pretty timid critters unless with their cubs We worked 11-1/2 hours a day six days a week and 8 hours on sunday. We got to go to town on July 4 and Labor day, otherwise, just work from April to November. I also remember the IWW union. We went on strike one year when the woods was supposed to open and were out for nearly a month. Mr. Mizner, the owner, was in Florida fishing. Didn’t bother him any. We finally took a nickel cut so he would let us come back to work. I was making $ 1.85/hr all summer; rocking chair all winter. Life was pretty good.

  11. John McGovern Says: March 8, 2011 at 12:03 am

    I menat to add: The haul road from the logging side where the fallers were working to the camp where the logs were loaded onto the train was a one way road and these Peterbuilts were heavy loaded with 12 foot bunks. I rmember one guy name Art who drove off the road and road that thing clear down the canyon and survived. Also, one year when I was setting straps on the landing, loading the logs onto the flat cars, a load of logs came in and the drive, a very young guy whose name was something like Spangler or something like that knocked in the pins and the bunks dropped on the downhill side toward the tail cars on the landing but the logs would not move off the truck. Gut wrappers were off, bunks were down and the logs just set there. Spangler jumped in the truck and started rocking it and the logs still wouldn’t come. Then he made a huge mistake. He walked alongside the load of logs between the truck and the landing and suddenly the logs all came flying of and down the hill. Spangler died instantly. I think this was in 1957 or so. He was yeoung and had a family somewhere. Didn’t want my post to end on a sorry note but that was a couple of hard incidents that happened.

  12. John,
    Thanks for the stories about your family’s experiences in the Pickering era. Enjoyed reading all the parts except for the tragic deaths of your father and brother. Hard to imagine a man like your father who had worked so hard dying on a park bench in Sonora.

    I’ll check and see if we have Mr. Spangler’s name on our list for the memorial wall. His story makes us ever more aware of how fickle are the forces of life and death.



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