Tag Archives: oil sands

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 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: 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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