Wood Walkers

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

As you ascended the hill at dawn off Candlers Mountain Road in Lynchburg, the distant view was confusing: a seeming array of fore-masts and main-masts on a fleet of 19th-century schooners, barren of sails, anchored at port in a sea of greening turf grass and damp ocher.

A closer inspection revealed the masts to be wooden climbing poles, anchored in a field and awaiting the nearly 150 line workers whose skills and determination they would test severely throughout a beautiful early April Saturday. This event, the seventh annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s and Equipment Operator’s Rodeo, drew line workers from seven states, from as far west as Kentucky and Ohio, as far north as New York State, as far south as the Carolinas, and of course from Virginia and Maryland, too.

And while Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, of Nelson County, started the event, and while the electric cooperatives of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware are now the primary sponsors and participants, this rodeo has a big corral, also featuring teams from investor-owned power companies like Dominion Virginia Power, and from municipally owned systems such as the city of Salem, the town of Front Royal, and the cities of Danville and Manassas.

When the team of 50 judges is added into the mix, along with a considerable number of colleagues, family members, friends, and members of the general public, total attendance at this year’s event ranged close to 500 folks. Everyone there was either demonstrating, celebrating or supporting the craft of electric utility line work, the most important, most dangerous, and often the most forgotten element in the delivery of electricity to our homes and places of business.

Line crew workers are so good at what they do that all of us expect electricity to be at our disposal 100 percent of the time, 24/7/365. When the delivery of this hugely reliable daily necessity is interrupted — usually by extremes of weather such as winter ice, spring windstorms, summer thunderstorms, or fall hurricanes — we expect it to be restored as quickly as possible.

And the unsung heroes who restore your power and mine are these highly skilled “wood walkers,” who toil relentlessly in weather conditions that keep the rest of us indoors, save for a dire emergency. So given their status as emergency responders whose services are as vital as those provided by police officers, emergency medical technicians, or firefighters, it’s only appropriate that, one day each year since 2003, their skills have been showcased at this “gaff-n-go” rodeo (a gaff is a metal point on a line worker’s climbing gear, worn on the lower leg, that allows him to plant his feet into the pole and “walk the wood”).

The fellowship and camaraderie among this tightly knit fraternity, the sharing of stories, and the renewal of old friendships and building of new ones are all hugely important to each of these dedicated professionals. For observers at the rodeo, it’s hugely moving to watch a lineman’s small children gaze in awe as their father successfully completes the “hurt man” demonstration rescue of a life-size mannequin “stranded” at the top of a pole.

These scenes embodying pride in their craft and in serving others were repeated over and over again during the rodeo, held this past April 4 on the grounds of Liberty University, on a day whose powdery blue sky, wispy wandering stray clouds, and 70-degree sunshine proved ironic counterpoints to these wood walkers’ usual working conditions.

An added bonus of this very special event is the fact that all proceeds from the rodeo go to the educational scholarship foundation started in 2000 by the electric cooperatives of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Thanks to the 2008 rodeo and other fund-raising events, last year there were 35 high school graduates from electric cooperative service areas who each received a $1,000 scholarship from the foundation, providing them with a helping hand as they began their educational journey after high school.

As you can tell, line workers are special folks, who do extraordinary things under excruciatingly difficult conditions, all to keep your and my lights on. If you’re interested in seeing them demonstrate their skills at future rodeos, please be sure to visit our rodeo site, www.gaff-n-go.com. If you’re interested in learning more about the educational scholarship foundation, or making a tax-deductible donation to it, please visit www.vmdaec.com, or www.co-opliving.com. And next time you see a wood walker, please consider telling him thanks for a job well done.


Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] Cover Story ] Down Home ] [ Editorial ] Food For Thought ] Happenings ] It's Your Business ] Reader Recipes ] Rural Living ]