A Shepherds Tale






Downward Float the Rafts

A Proud People


To the southeast of Ivan's country, the hilly Verchovina, the mountains are higher and wilder, the forests more vast and dense. The further eastward one goes the more impenetrable become the woods; beyond Sinovir are great expanses which are almost completely uninhabited and thickly covered with trees. Some parts of these forests are indeed primeval. Many of the oaks and spruces, beeches and pines, ashes and firs are veritable giants with the steady growth of ages. They die only when uprooted by gales or struck by lightning, or when their mighty roots can feed them no longer; and they lie where they have fallen, while upon their rotting bodies young trees, ferns and mosses thrive unconcerned. Masses of foliage form a canopy so thick that in places the sun cannot penetrate. In these virgin forests the bear has his home; they are the hunting ground of the lynx and the wild-cat, of the boar and the wolf.


But there are other parts where the mysterious rustling of the swaying tree-tops is punctuated by the stroke of the woodman’saxe or the rhythmic rasp of his saw. You may hear the shouts of the men preparing for the moment when the tree will fall, or the tearing sound before an age-old giant comes crashing to the ground.


Many thousands of the men are employed as whole-­time workers in the forests; there are villages whose entire male population earns its living in this way. Those who live within reasonable distance come back home every night, but others spend the whole week in the woods, living in rough wooden cabins. These shacks are half sunk in the ground, and there is a hole in the middle of the roof to allow the smoke from a huge open tire to escape. All along the walls are several layers of pine boughs, serving as bed, table and benches. Here the men stay from Monday to Saturday; they go home to their families at the weekend and then return to their makeshift shelter to carry on the weekly round.


There is a variety of jobs to be done in the woods. The branches of the felled trees which are to be cut into shape must be lopped off ; and then comes the heaving and dragging of the mighty logs to get them ready for their eventful journey into the valley.


The distance the logs have to travel is often very great and the means of transport are varied. In some places they are loaded on special ox-carts which take them to a local saw-mill or to the nearest forest railway. For this purpose numerous roads had to be cut through the vast woods, many bridges were built and hundreds of miles of narrow-gauge railway tracks were laid when the country had a Czechoslovak administration.


The traditional and most exciting journey made by the logs from their native surroundings is, however, down the slopes and along the rushing streams. First they have to be dragged from the spot, where they were felled, to one of the chutes. Once there, their own weight carries them down. It is thrilling to see them slide, at a rapidly increasing speed, down the track made of tree-trunks and banked up at the edges. The ground along which they glide is s o me times steep, some times only slightly inclined. Where the gradient is mild, the trunks require a flow of water to help them on their way. At places where they might get stuck men arc posted to move them on. At the bottom of the chute hundreds of logs pile up and await further despatch.


Where the streams are broad enough, the trunks are lashed together Into rafts. But the rushing mountain torrents are mostly shallow, and the rafts would not be carried far. Native ingenuity has overcome this difficulty. In various parts of the Carpathian forests one finds wooden darns which hold up the water trickling down from the mountain-sides into the narrow valleys. When the rafts are ready for their journey, the dam is opened and the released water keeps the stream in flood for one day.


Down shoot the rafts in the swirling torrent, steered by skilful oarsmen. Past treacherous snags and boulders, they sail swiftly between the winding banks, where every bend is dangerous. The eyes of the steering raftsmen are fixed on their course and every muscle is tense. Extreme vigilance is needed. A little slip, a slight error of judgment, and the wooden float might founder in the treacherous rapids.


The native raftsmen are skilled and tough. Many youngsters in this land of forests are eager to grapple with the perils of the turbulent streams. Steering the rafts is an adventure; there is none of the toil and drudgery which is the lot of the lumberman, no dragging of giant trees, no heaving arid sweating.


It is no joy-ride, but there is the sport and thrill of sailing bravely into a vast new world.


East Slovakia Genealogical Research Strategies