Monthly Archives: June 2013

Always Be Planting: Getting Wet

Tree planting is, in of itself, an extremely demanding job – both mentally and physically. University studies have estimated that a shift of tree planting is equivalent to the effort of running two marathons. There is enough for tree planters to deal with on a daily bases without battling the elements.

Yet planters are expected to, and generally want to, work in nearly every weather condition. Snow, hail, rain, and extreme heat are all obstacles to overcome, and each offers its own set of challenges for planters. The heat can be a killer, and save drinking copious amounts of water and wearing light clothing, there isn’t much to be done except sweat through it and take breaks as needed. Snow is probably they easiest to overcome. As long as the planter wears layers of clothing and keeps moving, they will stay warm and relatively dry. But rain can be miserable. Some planters thrive in the wet, but for many, including myself, rain is utterly depressing. Clothes become saggy and chafe in embarrassing places. Trees become heavier as their dirt pods soak up the water. What was once solid ground becomes soupy and unstable, and feet rot inside soggy boots. And as soon as it lets up the mosquitos rise out of the earth in maddening swarms.

The spring/summer of 2013 has been unusually wet in Alberta, with cities in both the north and the south experiencing heavy flooding and in some cases evacuation. This causes all manner of problems for tree planters, both direct and indirect. Roads have become impassable which halts production, and therefore affects earnings. The tree deliverers have often been unable to access the work sites to bring the trees to the planters, getting ATVs and heavy equipment stuck in thick mud, also stopping the planters from making money. The wet clay ground has repeatedly dried and been soaked and dried again, forming ankles twisting ruts.

Even for those who don’t mind getting wet, the rain has undeniably been this camp’s enemy.

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A planter waits to go to work on a rainy morning.

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A camp foreman tries to stay dry.

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One of the camp’s deliverers works in cramped and wet conditions to secure a load of equipment.

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Planters work together in the rain to load broken equipment on a trailer, hopefully to be repaired in town.

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A planter struggles through knee-deep mud. Though this block shoud be a planter’s dream (open, and with soft ground), heavy rains have made it treacherous, and the numerous sinkholes are unpredictable.

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A planter pauses between bag-ups under a light rain.

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A planter stands in the flooded entrance to the camp, contemplating the best way to drain the water. Heavy rains have trapped the planter’s vehicles in the camp and only the heavy duty 4×4 trucks are able to get out.

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Planters stay dry at the end of a work day in the camp’s dry tent – a propane heated shelter where wet clothes can be hung overnight.

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Always Be Planting: Camp Life

Though tree planting is fundamentally just a job, in reality it is much more. An all encompassing lifestyle, planters live together in remote areas for long stretches of time. Camp life is as much a part of tree planting as the work itself and the social bonds formed are what makes tree planting such an addictive experience.

The camp's head tree deliverer attempts to build a fuel shelter but is intercepter by Jasper, a camp dog.

The camp’s head tree deliverer attempts to build a fuel shelter but is intercepted by Jasper, a camp dog.

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

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Planters and a camp dog try to chase a bear away from the camp site. Bears, drawn to camp’s food, can become a serious problem.

A foreman's legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

A foreman’s legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

Jasper, a camp dog. Dogs are common in planting camps and provide bear security as well as entertaintment.

Jasper, a camp dog. Dogs are common in planting camps and provide bear security as well as entertaintment.

One of the camp's tree deliverers takes a break from cleaning up the camp.

One of the camp’s tree deliverers takes a break from cleaning up the camp.

A planter shaves on a day off.

A planter shaves on a day off.

The camp's cooks prepare dinner. Cooks work the longest hours in the camp and cooking for more than 40 people in a remote environment is a constant challenge.

The camp’s cooks prepare dinner. Cooks work the longest hours in the camp and cooking for more than 40 people in a remote environment is a constant challenge.

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

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Always Be Planting: The Beginning

After countless technical issues – a catastrophic water loss, faulty equipment, and broken vehicles, among other things – the tree planters put their first trees of the 2013 season in the ground.

The contract is a somewhat unusual one. Massive forest fires devastated large areas of northern Alberta in previous years, and the planters have been tasked to reforest the area. The blocks are covered by the charred remains of burnt trees, which weave together and make moving through the land a sharp and dirty nightmare. The planters are constantly getting poked in the eyes by the skeletal trees, and they are coated in ash and charcoal from constantly rubbing against the blackened branches. The moving is very slow, frustrating, and often painful. The temperatures soar to unseasonable highs and many planters, unused to the elements so early in the season, are incapacitated by heat stroke and exhaustion. To make matters worse, a stomach virus spreads through the camp and many of the planters miss days of work as they are crippled with diarrhea and nausea.

Despite the adverse situation, the planters in the camp are mostly experienced ones, and morale remains high. People are starting to make money, which is what tree planting is ultimately about.

A planter sits in a vehicle in camp, waiting to go to the planting blocks.

A planter sits in a vehicle in camp, waiting to go to the planting blocks.

A tree planter moves through burnt trees. Forest fires burned across large areas of northern Alberta and the planters have been tasked with reforesting the burn zones.

A tree planter moves through burnt trees. Forest fires burned across large areas of northern Alberta and the planters have been tasked with reforesting the burn zones.

A veteran planter of 13 seasons drops a piece of flagging tape. The coloured tape allows her to see which areas of the overgrown land have already been planted.

A veteran planter of 13 seasons drops a piece of flagging tape. The coloured tape allows her to see which areas of the overgrown land have already been planted.

A planter emerges from his land to get more trees.

A planter emerges from his land to get more trees.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

Extreme heat takes a toll on planters early in the season as their bodies aren't yet in peak planting shape.

Extreme heat takes a toll on planters early in the season as their bodies aren’t yet in peak planting shape.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block.

A foreman drives planters back to camp at the end of the day. With walks of up to 5km to and from the active planting blocks, a ride home is treasured.

A foreman drives planters back to camp at the end of the day. With walks of up to 5km to and from the active planting blocks, a ride home is treasured.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother's hands at the end of a work day.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother’s hands at the end of a work day.

Blisters form on a planter's feet, so painful that she is unable to work for several days.

Blisters form on a planter’s feet, so painful that she is unable to work for several days.

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Always Be Planting: Preseason

Treeplanting is a job that often takes place far away from the comforts of cities, but the last month has been truly remote. Known as a “fly-in”, the first stages of this treeplanting season have been spent well off the grid with the camp and planting sites accessible only by helicopter. It has been extremely difficult, therefore, to post regular updates. Though I have been shooting continuously for nearly four weeks, for the sake of continuity and storytelling I will limit these first images to the pre-season: the setup time before the actual planting of trees is done. Following posts should be much more regular and will start to examine the job itself.

Members of the management teams from various treeplanting camps re-unite for the first time since last year's season.

Members of the management teams from various treeplanting camps re-unite for the first time since last year’s season.

Two senior management staff escape the heat before resuming their preseason jobs.

Two senior management staff escape the heat before resuming their preseason jobs.

Management staff check that they have all the necessary equipment. Since treeplanting camps typically operate far from cities, missing gear can be disasterous.

Management staff check that they have all the necessary equipment. Since treeplanting camps typically operate far from cities, missing gear can be disastrous.

Members of the camps management team arrive five days in advance of the planters to dig out snow caches. The trees were airlifted into the camp the previous fall and have been frozen in these mounds of snow during the winter. It is critical that the trees be thawed before the planters arrive, otherwise the trees would be unplantable.

Members of the camps management team arrive five days in advance of the planters to dig out snow caches. The trees were trucked into the camp along an ice road the previous winter and have been kept frozen under mounds of snow. It is critical that the trees be thawed before the planters arrive, otherwise the trees would be unplantable.

The camp supervisor keeps in radio contact with the helicopter pilot, arranging delivery schedules.

The camp supervisor keeps in radio contact with the helicopter pilot, arranging delivery schedules.

An arial view of the Alberta oil sands, en route to the fly-in camp.

An aerial view of the Alberta oil sands, en route to the fly-in camp.

The first load of treeplanters arrive in camp and set to work digging holes for the camp toilets.

The first load of treeplanters arrive in camp and set to work digging holes for the camp toilets.

Camp foremen rush to receive a load of fuel barrels which will be used to power the camp's generator and all terrain vehicles (ATVs).

Camp foremen rush to receive a load of fuel barrels which will be used to power the camp’s generator and all terrain vehicles (ATVs).

A member of the management team receives an ATV by helicopter drop. The ATVs are the only vehicles in the camp and are used for many purposes, but mainly to deliver trees to the areas the planters are working.

A member of the management team receives an ATV by helicopter drop. The ATVs are the only vehicles in the camp and are used for many purposes, but mainly to deliver trees to the areas the planters are working.

One of the camp's tree runners uses a chainsaw to cut wooden benches from a fallen tree.

One of the camp’s tree runners uses a chainsaw to cut wooden benches from a fallen tree.

The first day of production, the planters walk to their work site. On a fly-in contract there are no trucks to shuttle the planters so they must get themselves to work, sometimes walking for up to two hours before planting a single tree.

The first day of production, the planters walk to their work site. On a fly-in contract there are no trucks to shuttle the planters so they must get themselves to work, sometimes walking for up to two hours before planting a single tree.

 

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