Out of the Bush: What I Learned While Tree Planting

I am who I am today because of five summers spent living in tents in Canada’s northern forests. As a tree planter I learned what it meant to work hard – harder than anything I had experienced before. And while it nearly killed me during my torturous rookie season, I came out a far, far better person.

Tree planting taught me how to make due with limited resources in a remote location. Over the years I gained the ability to deal with huge amounts of personal discomfort and focus on the task at hand. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that self-pity was a waste of time – everyone was having trouble carrying 50 pounds of trees through mosquito infested swamps, they certainly didn’t need to hear me whining about it. In short, tree planting toughened me in a way that made it possible to work as a photojournalist today. Had I not set out for the bush nearly a decade ago, I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now.

In an effort to bring together the two jobs which have had the most impact on my life, I spent nearly four months in a tree planting camp last year trying to capture the experience with a camera.

Right now thousands of tree planters across Canada are starting their seasons, replanting Canada’s forests by hand. For them it will be as it has always been – simultaneously one of the best and worst possible ways to spend a summer. And while can’t say I’ll miss the job itself, every Spring I feel a powerful nostalgia for the truly unique lifestyle.

For those reading this from a destitute hotel room somewhere in the Canadian north, good luck and happy planting.

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A foreman checks his map, trying to decide where to put his planters.

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Tree planters walk to work, carrying all their gear, food, and water down a 4 km muddy trail.

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A planter moves through the aftermath of a forest fire, replanting the burned zone with new trees.

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A tree seedling, recently planter in the cracked soil of northern Alberta oil country. A good planter can plant thousands of trees per day.

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A planter works an especially good piece of land on a rainy day. He will go on to make over $600.

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A planter’s face is covered with soot and charcoal after working to replant a burnt forest.

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A planter falls up to his knees in soft mud. The ground, open and flat, should be a planter’s dream, but heavy rains have rendered areas of it unworkable.

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A planter drinks water from a gas container. The vessels are common among tree planters because they are high capacity, tough, and can be used as a stool if necessary.

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A planter silhouetted agains an oncoming rainstorm on the oil sands of northern Alberta.

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Planters work to dig toilets for the camp. Each time the camp is moved, which typically happens multiple times per season, the camps need to be rebuilt.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off. There is little privacy in a planting camp.

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

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

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The camp’s cook hangs from a log deck. Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of forest products.

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The camp sits around a fire on the last night of the season. Some planters will go on to other jobs, but many will head back to their province of origin.

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Planters watch the northern lights.

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