Tag Archives: summer jobs

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.

Posted in Blog, Canada, Tree Planting Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

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.

Luc_Forsyth_Canada_treeplanting_alberta_fort_mcmurray_summer_job_photojournalism_photography_20130528-0337

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.

Posted in Blog, Canada, Tree Planting Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

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.

Posted in Blog, Canada, Tree Planting Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Always Be Planting: A Personal History of a Treeplanting Career

ABP. Always Be Planting. The rookie trainer explained this acronym to a large group of us on one of our first nights in a tree planting camp. The idea was simple – never walk more than two steps without planting a tree, otherwise we would not be maximizing our earning potential. And although we enthusiastically mocked him behind his back for the cliché motivational speech (one I’m pretty sure he borrowed from Vin Diesel in the movie Boiler Room), his words turned out to be truer than I could have imagined at the time.

I started my tree-planting career eight years ago as a student in desperate need of a summer job. A classically Canadian experience, I had known people who had known people who had planted their way through university and decided to fill out an online application – the bare minimum of effort needed to start looking for employment without actually leaving the comforts of my bedroom. During the dark winter months I all but forgot about it until I received a call telling me that I had been hired. I wonder if I might have done something differently had I known then the powerful effect tree-planting would have on the next half-decade of my life.

Having never done any sort of manual labour before, I was totally unprepared for the realities of what awaited me. I excitedly told friends about the vast quantities of money I was sure to make and spent hours shopping for outdoor gear online. After all, I was a reasonably experienced camper and was in relatively good shape, so surely all I had to do was turn up and wait for the cash.

A few months later, sitting in the large mess tent listening to the trainer deliver his Always Be Planting speech, I looked down at my feet and tried to comprehend what I had gotten myself into. It was only a few days into the contract and I had already torn the skin off the tops of all of my toes and much of the surface area of my heels. My palms were blistered, split, and bleeding. My knees and shins were crossed with a myriad of wounds, ranging from superficial scratches to semi-dangerous infected lacerations. My lower back was vigorously protesting the 50 pound loads of saplings I forced it to carry on a daily basis and I could barely get out of my tent in the morning without swallowing a fistful of painkillers. The high-tech quick-dry pants I had diligently shopped for months earlier had torn from the knee to the crotch, and my underwear and thighs were plainly visible to any who cared to look. I was completely miserable, and out of my depth both physically and mentally. The only reason I didn’t quit was the presence of two close friends from university, hired onto the same crew as me, who would have abused me without mercy for the duration of the following school year for my weakness.

The contract ended just six weeks later, our camp having planted all 7-ish million trees assigned to us. Though six weeks may sound like a short time, there was no power on earth that could have persuaded me to sign on for additional work once we were given the option to leave. I wanted a bed and a shower and a week’s worth of sleep.

I had been an average first year planter.  Though I was nowhere close to matching the production numbers of the best in our camp, I was deeply relieved not to have been one of the worst, one of the “pussies”. I had done what was asked of me and came out the other side feeling decidedly manlier than at any point previously in my life. I had seen bears in the wild, slept on the ground, grown the thickest beard of my twenties, and drank beer like a lumberjack on nights off. I was in the best shape of my life and had more money in my bank account than ever before. I felt hard and tough and alive, full of youthful bravado like I had accomplished something great, even though I had been gone less than two months. I knew without a doubt that I would be back the next year.

And I did go back, every summer for the next five years. I logged more than 15 months of total nights living in a tent and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. The money, much more than I could have earned at almost any other unskilled labour job, allowed me to travel widely. I began to refer to the time in between tree planting as “the off season”. I began so many stories with “this one time, when I was treeplanting” that my non-planting friends eventually forbade me from talking about it. The experience was so immersive and engaging, not to mention profitable, that it was hard to imagine stopping.

But a string of injuries, culminating with a broken arm in my fifth season, led me to throw my planting gear on top of a bonfire and publicly announce my retirement. I left the bush behind and began to travel more seriously, moving to Asia where I began to pursue photojournalism and writing full time. But even while living abroad and visiting some of the most overwhelmingly sensory places imaginable, I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t thought of treeplanting, even if only fleetingly. Some days it will be a fond memory, of drinking cheap lager around a fire and telling war stories about hordes of mosquitoes or massive earnings. Other days they will be “thank God I’m not treeplanting right now” memories, usually brought on by particularly nasty weather when I am deeply grateful to have a roof over my head. Terrible speech aside, that training instructor was right: in my head, probably for the rest of my life, I will Always Be Planting.

_______________________________________

Recently I returned to Canada for the first time in several years, exhausted and emaciated from 9 months of non-stop intense work and travel. Directionless and searching for a new project, when my photography mentor (Zoriah Miller) suggested that I focus on something that I had a personal connection to and document it extensively for a long period of time, there was really only one subject that made sense. So after a frenzied email exchange, and the generous support of friends still in the industry (John Holota and Matt Hudon especially), I find myself once again going treeplanting – though I will be joining the camp in a working embed capacity, and thankfully wont actually be planting any of the trees myself.

Over the coming days, weeks, and months (probably about five of them) in the forests of northern Alberta I’ll try to get as up close and personal as possible and document the experience that influenced me, and many other young Canadians, so profoundly. It is a truly epic visual environment and one filled with intense human drama, so it promises to be an interesting few months.

I’m sure there will be a direct correlation between my level of misery and your enjoyment of the posts (this is almost always true), so at the very least you can be glad you aren’t there with me!

ABP.

Luc

Posted in Blog, Tree Planting, Writing Also tagged , , , , , , |