If you are a young adult in Canada, chances are you have heard of the seasonal job known as tree-planting. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you right now, you are probably imagining the wrong job. This is not the earth friendly student job spent replenishing mid sized maple trees in your local parks. This is the tree-planting that is spent working for the logging industry, in isolated camps found deep in the northern forest. This is the tree-planting where you are covered in sweat and dirt all day everyday, and probably won’t get to shower. You will work harder than you probably ever have, in every kind of weather. In this tree-planting you live in such a remote little society of people, that you go through culture shock every time you come home. This tree-planting will provide you with some of the most exciting and crazy moments of your life, while simultaneously showing you many of the worst, most challenging experiences of your existence. The bugs will push you to the brink of insanity, and the friends you’re with every night will help bring you back to normal…at least until the next day. I personally describe tree-planting as the most bi-polar experience an individual can have.
I planted 6 contracts in four years before deciding to move on. For me, planting trees in the summer has provided me with more lessons and memories than I could put on a list. Planters have become my best friends. Planting memories are some of my fondest. Planting money gave me the freedom to experience many other great things. For me, tree-planting ended up becoming some kind of right of passage, just as it has for many others. Having finally decided to turn a new chapter, it’s hard to stop looking back on how crazy the experience was, and how much I will miss it. For some people planting is horrendously unpleasant and for others it is life changing. As any planter will tell you, accurately describing the experience to someone who has never planted is impossible.
Here are just a few stories from the Canadian tree-planting experience. They still don’t do it justice, but they get the idea across pretty well.
The hallmark of a tree planting day off: Sitting in a greasy breakfast diner, surrounded by your grubby, starving friends. Searching the menu for the largest possible meal for the least possible amount of money. More coffee. More water. Your tree planting appetite combined with your god forsaken hangover is unbearable. In an effort to more quickly pass the time you have to wait for your food, you go to the bathroom. You look in the mirror for the first time in days. Who is that? You look famished. There is visible dirt on your face. That sunburn is starting to peel. You look kind of badass. Nice.
Rain is one thing, but being submerged is another. I was walking along, trying avoid what looked like a big puddle. My foot slid, as the ground gave way and I found myself up to my nipples in swampy water. With bags full of trees, I tried to climb, only to sink deeper. In desperation, I dropped my shovel into the mucky abyss. Once out, I had to dive back in to retrieve my lost shovel. I pursed my lips to avoid drinking the swamp as I reached to the bottom and fumbled around fruitlessly. After several minutes, not unlike King Arthur retrieving Excalibur, I was able to save my shovel and move on from my murky, soaking nightmare. The sole witness to my swim only laughed, and offered no assistance. At least he was able to verify my pain.
One buggy morning the crew boss pulled me aside and told me that I had to go back to the old block and finish up my piece, so I would be alone for a few hours. While I was back at my cache a big black bear started slowly approaching me. I yelled at him and tried to scare him off, but he remained persistent. I slowly backed away from my lunch bag so that he could just take the food if he wanted. As I backed further, the bear passed my bag and continued to follow me down the road. Right before accepting that I was inevitably going to be this bears next meal, a truck came charging down the road and scared it off. That was the only vehicle I saw drive down that road all week.
What comes to mind immediately is the dart race belt fights we used to have on day off. Man, those were a spectacle. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Two guys would try and smoke darts(cigarettes) faster than the other, while simultaneously whipping each other with belts. It was kind of insane, pretty much all the parties in the bush were.
At my camp, we had a tradition of throwing a “bush pageant” every season. It was essentially a mock fashion show where everyone got super drunk and a bunch of the planters did the catwalk in whatever sexy costumes they could find.
One guy at the camp wanted to go “all natural” and refused to wear bug spray because he said it “hurt the bugs”. That guy came home for the next few days with the most bit up skin I have ever seen. He got totally lit up. It looked like a volcano erupted on his face!
Tree planting sucks. This was tree planting for me at its suckiest: I had drank too much the night before and my head was thumping in pain. My stomach rejected anything I offered it, so I had no energy. As a cherry on top of my shit sundae, I had bronchitis so bad it would force me into the fetal position, so I laid on the ground, abandoning my trees, as I coughed, my head thumped, and I resisted the perpetual urge to vomit, as the hot sun beat down on me.
Walking in solo, Nazko area, blew past my turn-off as was enjoying the calm morning. At the crest of a hill, startled a crew of 3 wolves who quickly form a triangle around me. Heart skips and I take a few steps back; the wolf in front follows my lead and takes two steps towards me to my one. I stop, they stop. Silence. The 2 on my periphery start getting nervous, running back and forth between spots with some light cover. I call to them, pointing — “I see you.” This elicits a reasonable reaction as their movements become more relaxed. The one in front stares, so I further occupy myself by going into my bag and rolling up some of my stash. By the time I’ve inhaled most of my goodie, the one in front has turned and sauntered into the tree line. Best bag-up I ever missed.
In my rookie season we had a bear tormenting our camp and it escalated quickly. Every night for almost two weeks the bear would come to camp and sniff everyones tent before ripping open a few. The bear was so heavy you could feel the ground sink when it passed your sleeping space. At the time, we had two dogs at camp and they would chase and bark at the bear every time it came around. Soon after the barking we would hear the supervisor shrieking for her dogs to come back followed by the sound of bear bangers going off (sounds like a gun). It literally sounded like a war zone every night.
Near the end of the contract I was planting across the road from my girlfriend and she walked out of the land with a briefcase. I thought it was hilarious so I started filming it all. When we opened the case and saw that it was filled with little bricks of white powder both of us freaked out. Later we found out it was just a prank from some of the people at our camp, but we have a hilarious video of our genuine reaction to it all.
She arrived at the cache a few moments after me, her eyes welling up with tears. Hey girl, what’s wrong? I looked away for a second. She said “I hit a baby bunny with my shovel by accident. It was wriggling around, half alive. I didn’t want it to suffer. So I killed it.” To this day, we call her the butcher.
After a long day our crew was sitting in the van waiting for the the last planter down the road to walk out of his area. After awhile our foreman got fed up and walked in himself to see what was going on. When he got into the piece, the guy was pacing backwards as a cougar slowly approached him. The foreman ran to the van and called the helicopter to go rescue him before he got eaten.
2006, my 2nd season planting for Thunderhouse Reforestation had an event that stood out. The first day of our heli show, our gear was slung in before us, we waited in anticipation for the chopper to return but it seemed strange that it was taking so long. After what seemed like an hour we finally heard that the helicopter sling had malfunctioned and the chopper was picking us all up to comb the forest for it, as they didn’t know how scattered the gear was. So we all spread out along a kilometer or so of road and started walking, eventually it was found mostly in one spot sunk into the sphagnum moss a few feet. Almost everyone had something that was crushed, work and/or personal gear. After all the gear was reunited with it’s owner we went back out to the road to get flown back to camp. Instead we were informed that the chopper had to leave and we had to walk the 3 hrs back to camp. Oh well the day was shot anyways, didn’t really matter, we chatted and ate our lunches as walked. Then there was some commotion, my foreman was on the verge of anaphylaxis and we were out of radio contact. She had eaten her sandwich that had, unbeknownst to her been sprayed with the Deepwoods that was crushed in her backpack. Someone eventually got radio contact and she was met halfway with a quad and recovered fine in camp. Work resumed as usual the next day and there were no more sling incidents. Thunderhouse gave us shirts depicting the sling story, with the quotations ” what will happen next”, as FUBAR type events were pretty common. About a year and a half later I recieved a cheque for $127 from Domtar, reparations for gear/lost day of work.
This one time, I was planting through some giant slash when my foreman came over to give me some tree feedback. “A few of your trees were a bit shallow. A few of your trees were too deep, don’t plant in red rot!!”. I had just dug a hole, when I stopped to politely listen to her advice. Turns out the hole I had just dug was in the middle of a wasp nest. So I hobbled my way along the top of a giant toppled tree, getting stung repeatedly on the face, legs, neck and hands, before flailing off the end of the log and tumbling down a sandy cutbank. My foreman, having witnessed all this, brought me a freezie from her secret freezer bag. Bless her heart.
On my last contract we had all seen a lot of big paw prints from a big cat all over the block, followed by tons of small prints. On our way to the block the next day we saw a mother lynx crossing the road with her whole litter of kittens. Such a cool thing to see.
At one of my summer plants, we were put up in a camp with unlimited chocolate milk. My friend drank so much that he started convulsing from dehydration and had to go to the hospital.
I was cooking at a camp in Ontario and my supervisor(and good friend) thought it would be hilarious to anonymously order a giant dildo to the camp in my name. I retaliated by putting the dildo in his carry on bag when he had to fly home for a wedding. He had no idea it was in there and in the airport security line they made him empty his bag. He said it was the most embarrassing moment of his entire life.
One day I was planting a piece that was covered in head high poplar trees. It was terrible. I got to the back of the piece and heard some kind of big animal ahead of me in the brush. I sprinted to the side where there was a ten foot boulder and climbed to the top of it. I yelled out to try and scare the animal off and an enormous moose and her calf ran right past the big rock. Good thing I got out of the way.
In my rookie season we had a freezing cold rain day in mid July. To this day, everyone on the block still talks about it as one of the worst days they have ever had. I remember I fully fell in a puddle and actually started crying.
On our very first drive out to set up camp in my second season, it starting dumping snow. It didn’t stop for about two days until we probably had well over a foot. There was so much snow that management couldn’t drive out from the camp, which was two hours into the bush. It got to the point were they were telling us to try and eat as little as possible because nobody had any idea how long it might be before we would be able to get more supplies. Most of those few days was spent having snowball fights, gathering around the fire pit, or shivering in our tents because half of us were instantly sick.
One season we had a really fearless garbage bear that wouldn’t leave our camp alone. We eventually got so used to him we named him Reggie. He eventually got a little too comfortable and starting walking right up to people and messing with their tents and everything. He was definitely going to maul the next person who startled him, and it was getting pretty dangerous. An old local hunter who was as much of a bushman as they come, came to our camp with a shotgun. I remember seeing him point his gun at the bear in the treeline, slowly walk in to the brush and shoot the bear right in the face. The bear ran off and must have died because it never came back.
I became Chapleau Ontario’s first streaker in the summer of 2011 when I streaked down the main drag. I had a police officer cruising around looking for me and luckily a friendly local man offered to lead me to his house so he could give me some clothes so I could avoid getting ticketed or charged — He lead me to his place, clothed me and we returned to the chip stand everyone was at to get a Poutine. That night back in camp there was a meeting called in the Mess Tent to announce the award of MVD (most valuable drunk) for night off. The man announcing the winner decided to put on the party boy theme song through the boom-box in camp and stood on a chair dancing to the music before tearing off his pants, full-out mooning the whole tent and in BIG letters written across his ass was “GABE”.
The first time I planted 7 thousand trees was probably the most painful day I’ve ever had. I had been having skin problems for a few days prior, and this day ended up being a perfect storm for skin abrasion. It was nothing but sandy trenches, with high expectations. I had forgotten my skin powder which kept me dry, and it rained on and off all day. The wet bags rubbed and chaffed my skin as I moved through my piece as fast as I could. I hit my goal that day, but messed up my back and hips so badly that my shirt and pants were soaked with blood by the end of the day. I had to visit the hospital, and struggled with chaffing for the rest of the season. Worth it.
I remember my watch beeping at 6:00PM. I had a hard day, and was completely spent. I waited at the road for awhile before red flags started appearing in my mind. I took a look around and realized I was the only person left on the block and it hit me, I had been forgotten. Trying to stay calm, I occupied my mind for awhile by first building Inukshuks, then brainstorming and planning how I could start a fire/survive the night in case I was going to be stuck until morning. It was almost two hours back to camp driving in the van, so I knew my best bet was to wait and stay hopeful. After a long while I eventually decided I may as well continue planting until it was dark as the best way to pass the time. Hopefully soon somebody would notice I was missing. Near the end of my bag out I heard the honking from a truck as my crew boss and supervisor picked me up. They had a big container for me full of the dinner I had missed as we rolled back to camp in the darkness, several hours later.
This isn’t really my story, but I heard from a friend about a scary moment he had planting in northern Alberta one time. Apparently the crew had gathered in a group when they noticed a mother grizzly bear with her cubs in the distance. As they waited, the mother caught wind of their scent, and immediately started booking it toward them. Apparently the entire crew crammed onto two quads, and drove down to the bus as quickly as they could without anybody falling off.
A few years ago, I worked on a contract that seemed to drag on forever. The contract ended up lasting weeks longer than expected and it was quite a story. A friend of mine from camp ended up documenting it all and actually writing a book about that season. She does a really good job showcasing what it’s like to plant a contract in Ontario, and furthermore has the perfect writing style for this tale. You can find her book on Amazon.
The photos in this article belong to myself.