When he was 11 years old, Sawchuk remembers gathering as many fallen cherries as he could carry from an orchard. It sounds like an idyllic image until you understand that the entire orchard had been felled by a chain saw. The faller was Sawchuk's father.
In the late 1960s, British Columbia was aggressively tapping its hydroelectric potential, and Sawchuk's father, Mike, a Seventh-day Adventist with a work ethic Noah would have admired, had a contract to dismantle one of the towns that would be flooded by the Keenleyside (Arrow Lakes) Dam. The job took weeks to complete, so the whole family relocated to the doomed town of Burton.
On weekends young Wayne helped his father with the demolition, and during the week he went to school with the same children whose homes, barns, and orchards his father was bulldozing into heaps. At night those towering piles would be set ablaze. "The fires of those burning houses would light up the whole valley like it was day," Sawchuk recalls. "I remember the kids at school looking at me like I was some kind of devil. I saw their faces through the window in the school bus: They looked like war children—like refugees."
Today that lost world lies at the bottom of one of the largest man-made lakes in North America. "It just makes you cry," Sawchuk says, "when you think of all the places that went under." And yet, at the time, few people questioned it, and they certainly didn't question the jobs that put food on the table.
As soon as he was old enough, Sawchuk went to work as a logger alongside his father and brothers. But as he saw the forest denuded by chain saws and log skidders, Sawchuk began to question the ethic he had inherited from his father. Doubt metastasized into torment. "It became harder and harder for me to get back on that skidder," he says. "There were mornings I would throw up before going to work."
The final straw came in 1990, when one of the last untouched watersheds around his hometown was slated to be logged. Sawchuk committed what in the eyes of some was an act of treason. Still working as a skidder operator, he started a campaign to protect the Mountain Creek Valley. He became a charismatic speaker and, with the aid of a compelling slide show, he rallied many to his cause. That contested valley is now a source of local pride: the 100,000-acre Pine Le Moray Provincial Park.