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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