Here's an article I wrote on tree planting. I wanted to include a lot of this in my book but the publisher thought otherwise.
One, two, three, screef!
While descending over the Rocky Mountains into Vancouver, a quick glance from the flight deck catches sights of rectangular tree plantations checkering the terrain below. Because of arduous hard work of tree planters, they are now rebounding from the scars left by loggers. It’s hard to imagine over twenty eight years ago I was one of the many planters busting my back throwing thousands of trees in the ground making money so we could chase our dreams. Many people looking back, and reminiscing of their summer jobs, considered some to be unique, or laborious, or paid lots of money, or adventuresome, monotonous, dangerous, dirty or back breaking. These all depict the job of a tree planter.
The call came precisely the time my new foreman said he would call. This was enough to convince my mother to allow her nineteen year old son to leave the east coast and show up for work the next day in Mackenzie, B.C traversing the country on a student stand-by ticket. While waiting at the bus stop at the end of this trek, wondering what I have done, sat native Indians seen for the first time by this Haligonian. They too queried my presence. A dilapidated, beat off, dent infested pickup (a typical tree planter’s truck) arrived with beaming smiles from the Maritimers I worked with as a house painter in the past summers.
Into the woods we go to meet the others of our group of Mountain Reforestation. I set up my 'one man pup tent' and arrange my newly purchased tree planting gear naively bought for the job at hand. A good pair of boots sat at the top of the priority list because a planter’s feet were one of the tools used to get the trees into the ground. (After returning home from a tree planting season, while getting a pilot medical, the doctor thought I had a rare foot disease, reluctant to believe it was a result of two months kicking the ground).
Gloves were also a necessity, but only one. The glove was for the shovel hand to cushion the impact of the shovel penetrating the earth. A bare hand was found to work better for grabbing the trees. A calloused shovel hand was another trophy of tree planting with many suffering from the ‘claw’. Through repetitive pounding of the shovel the hand was reluctant to rebound from the shape of the handle. While waking up, some tree planters had to roll over onto their hand to open it up to alleviate the painful ‘claw’.
The next day we drive to the plantation only minutes down the temporary road created by loggers. An experienced planter can quickly judge the site to determine whether money will be made. Roadsides and clearings were considered ‘cream’. Some sites made one feel like a mountain goat. Sites were remote with some requiring a helicopter operation or special all terrain vehicles to gain access. It’s here my foreman, Spud, teaches me the art of tree planting. “You pace off three steps, stop, screef the surface with your boot, throw a shovel into the ground while simultaneously selecting a seedling from the heavily laden bags on your hips, open a hole, throw the tree in and stomp it snug.” Do this two thousand times today and you will earn two hundred dollars tax free at ten cents a tree.
It wasn’t all that simple because there was a long list of rules to abide by. The tree couldn’t be too deep, or too shallow, must not have roots showing, the soil has to be right…no rotting wood or too wet. Eight to nine trees must be found in a three meter radius. A quality test was performed by a checker (even tree planting had "checkers," I can’t escape them) either employed by the company responsible for the reforestation or appointed by the provincial government. The trees were planted based on a gamut of specifications, if not, the pay would be divvied on a percentage or worst yet entailing a replant.
(Since payment was based on the amount of trees planted, the obvious question arises, “do planters bury trees?” Burying trees is like masturbation, everyone does it but no one admits to it).
Many envision the job as a tree planter casually walking around in forests wearing Bermuda shorts, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, taking the time to plant the odd tree. Those that have, didn’t last. The truth is, one has their head down for hours on end, bundled up ensuring no skin is exposed to combat fly bites, only to stop to reload with more trees, consume some food or the gallon of water needed to overcome heat stroke. For the weight gaining baby boomers this is the perfect job to shed those pounds to regain your school day look. The appetite of a tree planter was ferocious. For me, tired of the alfalfa sprout mentality of the cook for lunches, I was up to five peanut butter and jam sandwiches. You also learned to eat fast. The guys joked they were going to set up a race between myself and the foreman’s black Labrador dog to see who quaff down dinner the fastest.
The tree planter lives in a tent sometimes weeks on end, battling the thick relentless swarms of flies spring brings, the heat of the day, hours of solitude, lacking a shower until the next visit to town. Bug dope was a must and it sat on the skin in layers. Sure there were rivers and the odd lake to wash in but running into frigid spring runoff with snow still on the banks made one check to see all parts were intact after leaving the icy water.
Because of air lifting due to the rising terrain, showers were frequent. It was a challenge to get the rain jackets on only to have the bug dope wash off, making it mandatory to get the dope back on when the sun came out. Having wet feet made the job miserable. Planting with wet feet then returning to a mud infested camp and slide into a damp tent with drenched clothes and soggy skin had to be similar to warriors battling in the rainy season of foreign countries.
There was also the threat of bears. At one campsite three bears had to be terminated. One evening while driving back to the camp, we saw the cook frantically running down the road to greet us with a bear in tow.
Tree planters are a certain breed. The parties at the end of each gig, the heavy celebration after the season comes to a close, gave a reputation of promiscuous endeavours. I’ll never forget the time driving back from Prince George, B.C to Banff, Alberta racing down the winding highway with the other vehicles. A Swiss born heli –skier by winter now living in Banff, drunken and drug laced, decided to crawl out onto the engine hood and moon the world travelling at sixty miles an hour. One nudge with the steering wheel would have meant an instant catastrophe.
Yet on the other side of the scale, tree planting built a person’s character. (If it didn’t, it would crack you). Many claimed if you survived this job, you would go on to successfully achieve life’s goals. Two others and I became airline pilots from our group. Other groups saw many become doctors, lawyers, businessmen. Recently, I met one ex-tree planter smartly dressed at the Vancouver airport enroute to a meeting. He became the lawyer he dreamed of.
As this state of the art airplane nears the airport I make a few comments on the plantations below only to get an insincere “oh really” from my partner. I have been all over mainland British Columbia and northern Alberta as a tree planter. There are places I have forgotten about during the five years of planting. In fact, I had to reread letters I wrote to my girlfriend at the time (now wife) while cleaning the basement for a garage sale just to remind me of the blurred past. It’s a shame the beauty and ruggedness of the land was never really appreciated. All I was concerned about was learning to fly and getting a degree under my belt. It’s hard to believe nearly 350,000 trees below are growing because of me. There are no regrets, but I thank my lucky stars I will never wake up to see another canvass roof over my head waiting for a wake up call to start another twelve hours of tree planting.
At least it makes money! I have been working with my dad doing landscape stuff to pay for my flight lessons and everything needed. I hate it since its boring but I need to do it.
Have a good one!
Daniel. That it did. Even at today's standards, two hundred dollars a day is pretty good coin when it's tax free. Keep in mind there were days when
you made very little because of weather, moving camp, or dismal planting conditions.
To think of it, it's the only time I beat the tax man. :)
P.S I better not say that too loud, he may show up at the door looking for money owing 28 years ago. :)
Omigosh! I salute you for doing this and surviving. I know many people who tried tree planting and didn't last long.
Thank goodness there are other ways one can build character...ways that have clean bathrooms and less bugs. ;)
Giulia. It's true, tree planting is not for the faint of heart.
Again the "P" word for perseverance comes to mind as it parallels pursuing an aviation career.
For the new pilots, "P" for patience could be another word.
Clean washrooms and less bugs? It's probably why I'm never in a hurry to go camping. I've overdosed on living in a tent. :)
Always enjoy your take on things. :)
Gone flying (Cozumel and back)
Been away on vacation, and have just finished catching up. Can't say I'll be running out to find a job like that. I'm not sure if you've uncovered the meaning of Air Canada's J-class, but I found this article that may help.
You have a great and inspiring piece there. I personally feel saddened by how airlines have seemed to take advantage of pilots by lowering their wages knowing all too well that pilots will fly for just about "anything".
It looks like it will be a late night for you tonight, 0125 arrival in CYYZ, but heck your doing what you love and enjoy.
HI Andrew thanks for the link. Great article! I did find more info on this but you'll have to wait until October's edition to find out. :) Actually, another reader sent in some detailed info on it.
Nehal. Yes, we touched down at 1:20 a.m. We had to have a special curfew number to do so.
In theory, the CYYZ airport closes at 12:30 a.m.
I hear you about companies riding the backs of pilot's dreams. It's a fact of life and it's not going to change in the near future. Some pilots want to establish a professional pilot guild to avoid stuff like this. It will work for plumbers, but not for pilots.
We are a rare breed and there will always be a few crossing the line to chase their dreams.
You are correct, it's what I enjoy. In fact, in a few hours I'm packing my bags destined for San Diego.
Thanks for your comments.
Now, I understand why you're a pilot because you can sleep in beautiful hotel instead of a tent. :)
Thanks to have taking care of our forest.
Thinking about tree planting makes me realize how good my job is. I also know there are many "new" pilots out there working hard living in bad conditions building time. But their turn will come!
Thanks for the comments, Nadia!
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