Tag Archives: summer job

Dirty Money: Tree Planting in Western Canada

Tree planters sleep on the ground, work in the rain and snow, battle swarms of insects, and bend over thousands of times a day – all in the pursuit of money. While tree planting is part adventure and part iconic right of passage, the ultimate goal is to earn as much as possible before the season ends. While some “rookie” planters might struggle to earn enough to cover their expenses, a motivated and experienced planter can expect to earn upwards of $300 every day. The very best earn even more still. Many tree planters return to this job year after year in pursuit of a large payout, whether for tuition, travel, or investment.

Known nationally as one of the hardest jobs a young person can do, this story follows a camp of 42 tree planters over a difficult four month season in northern Alberta.

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

A forman studies a map of the day's cutblocks to decide where his tree planters will work. Foremen, also called crew bosses, are responsible for around 12 planters and have to make sure they always have land to plant.

A foreman studies a map of the day’s cut blocks to decide where his tree planters will work. Foremen, also called crew bosses, are responsible for around 12 planters and have to make sure they always have land to plant.

 

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 first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

 

A freshly planted seedling in the dry earth of the Alberta oil sands. Major oil companies employ tree planters in an attempt to reclaim the areas affected by their operations.

A freshly planted seedling in the dry earth of the Alberta oil sands. Major oil companies employ tree planters in an attempt to reclaim the areas affected by their operations

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. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

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. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

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

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block. Alberta has been ravaged by large forest fires recently, and the planters have been tasked with replanting the burn zones.

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 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.

 

A planter struggles through knee-deep mud. Though this block shoud be a planter's dream (open with soft ground), heavy rains have made it treacherous.

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

 

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

 

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 planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

A planter works along a ridge line on a rain day near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

 

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.

 

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.

 

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

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 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 planter looks at a photo of his mother that he found in his tent. Tree planters are away from their families for months at a time, and communication can be difficult.

A planter looks at a photo of his mother that he found in his tent. Tree planters are away from their families for months at a time, and communication can be difficult.

 

The first load of treeplantPlanters work together to dig new toilets for the camp. The hand-dug drop toilets are colloquially referred to as "shitters".ers arrive in camp and set to work digging holes for the camp toilets.

Planters work together to dig new toilets for the camp. The hand-dug drop toilets are colloquially referred to as “shitters”.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

 

A planter shaves on a day off.

A planter shaves on a day off.

 

Canada is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wood, selling tens of millions of tonnes of forest products every year. The forests that are cut down must be replanted, by hand.

Canada is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wood, selling tens of millions of tonnes of forest products every year. The forests that are cut down must be replanted, by hand.

 

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.

 

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

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

The planters celebrate around a camp fire after planting their last trees of the 2013 season.

The planters celebrate around a camp fire after planting their last trees of the 2013 season.

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

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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: 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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