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Environment : A Way of Life Drifts Away Along Canada's Gatineau : Quebec's river log drivers, known as draveurs , will soon be out of work. Recycling has made them obsolete.


LOW, Canada — In the American West, it was the cowboy who served as the long-lasting pillar of legend: A popular faith in his grit, resourcefulness and rugged individualism lived on long after the open range was fenced off into farms and the "cowboy" found himself, likely as not, behind the wheel of a Ford pickup, tending to chores on a feedlot.

In New England, it was the seafarer, in Appalachia the wily moonshiner--any number of regions have their heroes, their incarnations of the local ideal, the archetypes who have eventually been displaced by progress.

Here in Quebec, it's the draveurs .

A draveur is a river log driver, a slightly larger-than-life backwoodsman who shepherds felled logs downriver to the pulp mills. Even in an age of advanced forest management, when engineers turn out reports on the aerodynamics of lumber trucks, draveurs can still be found on the rivers of a summer's day here, stepping nimbly atop log booms in spiked boots, prodding hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of wood downstream with 10-foot pikes.

So celebrated are river drives in Canadian folklore that the Canadian dollar bill used to depict booms of logs being towed down the Ottawa River, just out of sight of Parliament. There are folk songs about draveurs, and a hoary landmark of Quebec literature--the novel "Menaud, Maitre-Draveur"--tells of an elderly Francophone draveur appalled by his daughter's flirtations with a nasty piece of work who sells out to the English-speaking timber barons.

"If you talk about our country here, we've got no mines, no big factories, nothing but wood," says Maurice Mantha, a 45-year river veteran who now supervises the 225-mile drive on the Gatineau River. "The river drive is one of the things that opened up our country. It's a big story of the past-- l'histoire de notre passe, we say in French."

Today the Canadian bank note with its river-drive engraving is gone, replaced by a coin that Elizabeth II shares with a loon. And few expect the draveur to last much longer. The drive on the Ottawa River ended three years ago, and the one here on the Gatineau is in its final summer. The last log drive in neighboring Ontario is also winding down this year.

There are a few remaining drives in Quebec, but the informed guess is that draveurs won't survive as an occupation past the year 2000. Their nemesis: paper recycling.

"Right now, you can't hardly sell a stick of pulpwood," complains Oliver Picard, a draveur who has stopped for morning coffee in a Low diner whose walls are hung with painted sawmill blades. The smell of cut wood clogs the air; there is a sawmill just across the street. "I blame a lot of this on recycling," he says.

In his plaid shirt and orange hard hat, Picard looks very much the part of the draveur. He has been working the Gatineau for 33 years, knows its bends and shoals, has his favorite seasons and skiffs. He has pulled half a dozen suicides from the river over the years and tells of two fellow draveurs who were swept to their deaths over the dam's spillway at Low. Picard started out as a lowly "flumer," a man who guides logs through a flume, bypassing the dam. Over the years, he has worked his way up to foreman on a 20-mile stretch of river. His two sons are both draveurs.

Last month, Picard's employer, Canadian Pacific Forest Products Ltd., told him that he, his crew and all the other draveurs of the Gatineau would be replaced by a fleet of trucks. Canadian Pacific offered the older draveurs retirement benefits and promised the younger ones lessons on writing resumes and handling job interviews.

At 53, Picard isn't sure which group he falls into. He has avoided finding out.

"The company didn't give me any notice yet if I'm finished, or when I'm finished," he says. "Most of the guys feel let down. I guess they figured they were going to be there for a lifetime's work. Now it looks pretty grim."

No wonder the draveurs expected a life of work on the water: Here in the Gatineau Valley, and along other water systems of rural Quebec, jobs on the river have been passed down, father to son, for generations. It wasn't all that long ago that for young male Quebecois the first winter spent in "the bush" was a rite of passage.

In the folklore of this woodsy and picturesque region, the draveur was a hardy breed, undeterred by brutal winters, bad food, mean bosses, hungry blackflies, white water or the hazards that come with dynamiting logjams sky-high. In the early 1800s, when river driving got its start, odds were that he was an impoverished, French-speaking farm boy, recruited by an Anglo-owned timber company.

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