Category Archives: Tree Planting

Tree Planting in Rural Cambodia

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

After around five months of careful (and at times frustrating) planning, the first of ten thousand new trees are in the ground in the rural Cambodian province of Takeo. Funded by the Canadian clothing company Tentree Apparel, the project seemed like it would be relatively simple when I proposed it, but ended up being several orders of magnitude more complicated to pull off.

I first heard of Tentree when they reached out to me in the fall asking to license some of my Canadian tree planting images. After sending off the files, I had a quick look around their website to see what they were all about and learned of their eco-oriented business model – for every item sold, ten trees are planted somewhere in the world. To be perfectly honest, the cynic in me immediately thought the whole thing sounded like a gimmick to capitalize on the wave of going-green culture.

So I decided to reach out to Kalen, Tentree’s media officer, and feel the brand out to see if they actually practiced what they preached. Since Tentree had active planting operations in Asia already, I asked, why not start up in Cambodia as well? In a country with a roughly 75% deforestation rate from illegal logging and development projects, if anywhere really needs reforesting, it is Cambodia. In retrospect it was perhaps an overly bold move to ask a company with which I had no working relationship other than a one-time transfer of images if they would trust me to establish, supervise, and document a rather expensive new operation from the other side of the world. I pretty much wrote the whole idea off as unlikely from the moment I hit the send button.

But much to my surprise, the next morning there was an email from Kalen, expressing interest and asking for more information. Having worked in the forestry industry for six years before transitioning into media, I was immediately suspicious: would they want to plant a huge swath of a single, cheap species of tree simply so they could add the total number of tree planted to their scoreboard? Would they insist on planting a non-native species to cut costs? Were they going to micromanage the whole thing according to some sort of established corporate doctrine?

Anticipating the worst, I sent back a proposal to plant a mix of endangered native hardwoods (far more expensive than many fast-growing softwoods) in a variety of locations – meaning the planting would take substantially longer than if they were all dropped into a single location. With a pitch that featured such selling points as high cost and a slow execution, I fully expected that to be the end of our correspondence.

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Students at a primary school in Takeo transport tree saplings to the planters using a small wooden cart.

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A Buddhist monk volunteer carries a sapling to a suitable planting location. Monks have a strong connection to environmental issues, believing nature to be sacred, and dozens volunteered their time to join the project.

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A group of monks work together, digging holes, planting, and watering the saplings.

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A monk’s hands after a few minutes of panting. While many monks are spared from the labour intensive livelihoods of most Cambodians, these volunteers had no problem getting dirty.

Within a few days, however, I got an enthusiastic response from Kalen, telling me to go ahead. Since we had never met, or even talked on the phone, this was quite a leap of faith from the guys at Tentree, and somewhat of a shock for me, who now found myself in charge of the logistics for a complex operation in a foreign country as well as all media production. Now that the project is on its feet and running smoothly I can admit that at the time I was in way over my head.

The realities of government permissions, negotiating with tree nurseries in a language I was barely functional in, finding the manpower to physically put the trees in the ground, and somehow transporting and feeding hundreds of people for multiple days of hard labour in a remote area sunk in all at once. It’s not worth mentioning all the ways I tried and failed to get this project going on my own, but suffice it to say there were quite a few botched attempts.

Yet just when it seemed I had made a huge mistake in taking so much on, I was introduced to a group of  student activists from Pannasastra University of Cambodia called The Model Teens. Practically overnight these hugely ambitious volunteers turned the operation from a well-meaning but ill-planned pipe dream into a reality. Without their help in securing a fair price for such a large order of trees and their local contacts in the rural provinces outside Phnom Penh, securing us protected and fertile ground, I doubt a single tree would have been planted.

Together with hundreds of student and monk volunteers, the Model Teens and I set out from Phnom Penh last week to plant the first few thousand of the ten thousand tree total. With much of Takeo’s population scraping out a subsistence living from the increasingly desertified land, it seemed like an ideal place to put new life into the ground.

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High school students plant trees around the perimeter of their campus.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

 

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Students and monks work together to transport the trees to the planting areas.

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Girls collect water in plastic bags from a pond on their school ground.

More than anything it was great to be a part of actually creating something lasting rather than only observing and documenting other people’s lives and achievements. While I am still first and foremost a documentarian rather than an operations manager, as the Tentree operation in Cambodia expands in the coming years, I have no problem setting aside my camera to take an active role in seeing it succeed.

I’m off to Nepal for the next few weeks for a mixture of commissioned humanitarian and personal work, but at this stage the project is running so smoothly that I suspect my managerial oversight would be more of a nuisance than a benefit to the hundreds of planters. But with a dedicated independent tree nursery already under construction to expand the operation for next year’s planting season, I can leave Cambodia in the knowledge that I was able to contribute to something bigger than myself.

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Water is carried by student volunteers to each of the newly planted trees.

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A monk takes the opportunity to wash his hands as a newly planted tree gets its first watering.

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Hundreds of volunteers work together throughout the day to make sure the trees are properly planted.

Updates from Nepal to come.

 

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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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Always Be Planting: A Season in Pictures

For most tree planters in Canada, the 2013 season is finished. Some planters will find spots on smaller summer plants, and some will branch out into other forestry related jobs, such as working as an attendant in a forest fire fighting camp, but the majority are headed back to wherever home is.

The following is a visual summary of the three month season, more or less in the order things happened. Overall it was an incredibly tough season to be a tree planter in northern Alberta. Equipment failures and heavy rains plagued the camp at every opportunity, and most planters did not make as much money as in previous seasons. Despite the constant adversity, camp morale stayed high throughout the season and many planters were already talking about their plans for the next summer’s plant as they said their goodbyes. Full of highs and lows, both physically and mentally, the 2013 was certainly a memorable one.

Click here to look back at the complete collection of posts about tree planting.

A member of the camp's management team sits in a housing trailer in the  company's regional equipment yard. Arriving several weeks before the planters, the management team works to gather all the necessary equipment to ensure a smooth start.

A member of the camp’s management team sits in a housing trailer in the company’s regional equipment yard. Arriving several weeks before the planters, the management team works to gather all the necessary equipment to ensure a smooth start.

Management staff dig frozen trees out of a snow cache, where they have sat buried since they were trucked in along an ice road the previous fall. If the trees are not dug out far enough in advance they will be frozen and therefore unplantable.

Management staff dig frozen trees out of a snow cache, where they have sat buried since they were trucked in along an ice road the previous fall. If the trees are not dug out far enough in advance they will be frozen and therefore unplantable.

A moose skeleton is surrounded in fur after being picked clean by forest carnivores and insects.

A moose skeleton is surrounded in fur after being picked clean by forest carnivores and insects.

A foreman and a planter shield their eyes from the winds of a helicopter rotor.

A foreman and a planter shield their eyes from the winds of a helicopter rotor.

A planter expresses frustration during a slow and wet camp move. The camp must be moved several times over the course of the season and the planters are unpaid for this mandatory work.

A planter expresses frustration during a slow and wet camp move. The camp must be moved several times over the course of the season and the planters are unpaid for this mandatory work.

A planter walks past a reclaimed tailing pond. Tailing ponds are large resevoirs of the toxic byproducts created by the extraction of oil from sand in northern Alberta. Working for a major oil company, the planters are tasked with reclaiming these former industrial sites with trees.

A planter walks past a reclaimed tailing pond. Tailing ponds are large resevoirs of the toxic byproducts created by the extraction of oil from sand in northern Alberta. Working for a major oil company, the planters are tasked with reclaiming these former industrial sites with trees.

Two planters work together to set up the camp's "dry tent", a small shelter where clothes can be dried after a wet day.

Two planters work together to set up the camp’s “dry tent”, a small shelter where clothes can be dried after a wet day.

A planter watches Raven, a camp dog, from inside his tent. Tree planters, unlike other resource based workers, are required to sleep almost exclusively outside and must provide all their own gear.

A planter watches Raven, a camp dog, from inside his tent. Tree planters, unlike other resource based workers, are required to sleep almost exclusively outside and must provide all their own gear.

A planter drinks water out of a gas container. These are common water vessels for tree planters as they are easy to carry and hard to break, and can be used as a makeshift stool.

A planter drinks water out of a gas container. These are common water vessels for tree planters as they are easy to carry and hard to break, and can be used as a makeshift stool.

A planters works past a log deck on a rainy day in northern Alberta.

A planters works past a log deck on a rainy day in northern Alberta.

Two planters, who have been friends since high school, wait to be driven back to camp at the end of a long and muddy walk.

Two planters, who have been friends since high school, wait to be driven back to camp at the end of a long and muddy walk.

A foreman smokes by the fire after the camp's final tree has been planted. For most tree planters, the 2013 season is over.

A foreman smokes by the fire after the camp’s final tree has been planted. For most tree planters, the 2013 season is over.

Click here to see the complete collection of posts about tree planting.

On a personal level, my time documenting this iconic summer job is finished for the time being. I am working on a final post as a response to numerous emails, in which I will attempt to explain the mechanics of the job a little more clearly and, with a combination of words and pictures, describe the addictive allure of this truly weird job. 

 

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Always Be Planting: Late Season Mud and Cold

For most tree planters in northern Alberta, the 2013 season is drawing to an end. Though some exceptionally motivated people will continue on to work on special contracts, for most planters the last trees of the summer will be planted over the next few days.

This season has been arduous by anyone’s standards. Heavy rains, erratic weather and unexpected delays have worn down even the most experienced planters in the camp. And in true tree planting fashion, the last shifts of the season will be some of the most difficult. Rain has ruined the access roads to the blocks, meaning that planters have to walk up to 10 km through thick mud that sticks to their boots and drains both energy and morale. Even though planters are motivated by money, there are many who would rather the season be over than struggle through these conditions. But tree planting is a job of endurance, and for the most part the planters will see the job through to the end.

Planters are trucked into the block as far as the vehicles can drive before being stopped by thick mud.

Planters are trucked into the block as far as the vehicles can drive before being stopped by thick mud.

A planter works a thick section of land, overgrown and littered with debris referred to as 'slash'.

A planter works a thick section of land, overgrown and littered with debris referred to as ‘slash’.

A planter drinks a mixture of water and electrolytes to try and replace the minerals and salts lost from sweating.

A planter drinks a mixture of water and electrolytes to try and replace the minerals and salts lost from sweating, despite the low temperature.

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult.

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult.

A planter huddles with others on a cold and wet day.

A planter huddles with others on a cold and wet day.

A planter tries to sleep on a cold drive out of the blocks.

A planter tries to sleep on a cold drive out of the blocks.

Planters wait to be picked up after a muddy walk.

Planters wait to be picked up after a muddy walk.

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Always Be Planting: The People You Meet

When people find out you are a tree planter, they often seem to mentally classify you as some sort of new age environmentalist hippy. A common first reaction is along the lines of “Oh, it’s great that you do that for the planet.” But people who know the industry understand that it is only an eco-friendly job in the most indirect of ways, and that the people who do this job are more likely to be well educated and athletic than dreadlocked dumpster divers. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with living off the grid, but rather that tree planters are a diverse tribe of people and can’t be generalized as easily as others may think.

Ranging in age from as young as 17 to well into their 30’s, tree planters find their way to this iconic Canadian summer job in different ways and with different motivations. Ironically, those who take the job with the intention of trying to help the environment are usually some of the least productive and often the first to quit. Likewise, people who come tree planting in pursuit of some sort of life changing “experience” are usually among the least successful. The very best planters are more akin to competitive athletes and are motivated by money – whether for school, for travel, or for debts.

Tree planting is unique in the sense that it has a white collar work force – mostly middle class and university educated – performing the most blue collar of jobs. Not many other labour intensive industries in the developed world require workers to sleep on the ground, carry out a multitude of unpaid tasks each day, and demands that they provide all their own equipment. Most tree planters would also, strangely, refuse most other resource related jobs (such as oil field work or mining, for example), even if they were higher paying. There is something special about the combination of hard work, good money, and remote living that brings these groups of people together each summer. Regardless of their motivations, tree planters are more than a stereotype.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

A planter's face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A planter’s face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience and has  around 8 more years of school before reaching his goal of  becoming a doctor.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the Southern U.S. and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the southern United States and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits in a "crummy", a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She is a graduate of environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits in a “crummy”, a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She holds a degree in environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

For the complete collection of posts about tree planting, click here.

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Always Be Planting: The Mid-Season Grind

A single production day of tree planting is a tiring experience, with some university studies estimating that a male planter can burn up to 8000 calories during a 10 hour day. While most people could struggle their way through one day on a cut block, a “professional” tree planter works five to six days a week for the entire summer. As the days and shifts pass, the rugged living and intense physical exertion can wear down even the most motivated people. A good tree planter needs to be able to keep up a rigorous pace of work for not just a day, or a week, but for several months.

Over time injuries and equipment failures increase in frequency. Personality clashes in the camp can escalate. First year planters can get frustrated and quit. Once the excitement of starting a new season wears off, tree planting can become a battle of attrition.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a "reefer". Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a “reefer”. Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day. The summer of 2013 has been one of the wettest in Alberta’s recent history, forcing evacuations in the province’s biggest city, Calgary.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses and planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

The camp's tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp's technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

The camp’s tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp’s technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

A foreman takes a break in from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A foreman takes a break from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

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Always Be Planting: Hurry Up and Wait

One of the most attractive aspects of a tree planter’s job is the fact that, other than physically planting the trees, they have virtually no responsibilities. Logistical problems fall under the purview of the supervisor and tree runners, daily transportation and block management are handled by the crew bosses, and camp cooks make sure there is always food ready. At the end of a work day a planter needs to make no decisions more complicated than whether or not to eat a second helping of dinner.

With little responsibility, however, comes a loss of control over their lives. Everything from the prices they will be paid per tree to the items in the breakfast buffet is determined by someone else. Planters often have little to no information about big picture issues, such as when a contract will end or when they will have a day off. So when there are no trees to plant and no one is telling them what is happening, planters have no choice but to wait. Sometimes they wait angrily, sometimes happily, or sometimes introspectively, but in the end they are simply sitting idle until someone tells them otherwise. A good management team can minimize this unprofitable down time, but ultimately patience must be among the virtues of a  good tree planter. When confronted with delays, the best planters will simply wait harder.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits for his crew's vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

A planter waits for his crew’s vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter's day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter’s day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters tage refuge from the rain inside their crew's vehicle.

Planters take refuge from the rain inside their crew vehicle.

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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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