Pretty Good if you’re stoned and drunk the entire time…
The first contract was finished, and the planters all had three days off in Slave Lake Alberta. Maria had packed up and shipped off to Banff within the first week of Planting, I guess the $300 plus-per-day as a Massage Therapist was no match for the $7.50 an hour a first timing tree-planter could make. Also she’d never seen the TV show M*A*S*H* which I’m convinced could bring out the wanderlust in anyone having arrived at a camp like this. Everything in natural colours, everything underneath giant mobile tents So with a night to my own liability, I walked into the first bar I saw, where I found 5 or 6 veteran planters… None of whom I’ve ever really talked to before.
Tim, a tall, built fella probably a few years older than me with over a decade of planting experience recognized me and asked what I thought of it so far. ‘I think I like it in the same way that everyone else seems to’
‘You mean you hate your entire life every minute of every day?’ Exactly. And why not? It used to be a prisoner’s job up until 1978.
Treeplanting, in my own experience, is a bit of a paradox. The lifestyle is alluring, the camaraderie is second to none, but the actual planting of trees can be an indescribably miserable venture. Like a bad drug, a knock off drug that you’re not sure if you enjoy but keep taking everyday and surrendering yourself to a ten-hour trip full of ups and downs, self realizations and self loathe. You come home at the end of the day, met by peers who have just taken the same drug, gone on their own trip with their own experiences, all unable to explain anything more when asked of their day than “Pretty good I guess.”
The typical day of a tree planter in Northern Alberta goes something like this:
Breakfast is called at 6:30AM, the Boss has a booming, ringing voice heard all through the camp, as folks are trickling in from every direction towards the kitchen and mess tents.
By 7:30AM we’ve eaten, packed a lunch, filled our water bottles with diluted gatorade and are sitting around waiting for the next bellow of the boss. “Lets Get Loaded” he calls… Not Load ’em up, or Lets Go… I’m convinced, after his several decades in the biz, it’s a morale booster to remind the workers that now we plant, but soon, we party. Especially if it’s a day 3. And it if is a day 3, The boss himself is running around wish a wish-list before work making sure everyone has signed up for whatever substance their little heart desires. Liquor, Wine, Beer, Smokes. That’s pretty much it, but they’ll have it waiting for you after your shift. The boss is great for that, He understands the party. He once told me he’s thinking of introducing drug tests indicating “THC Mandatory”.
The shift-schedule of this particular camp goes 3 days on, 1 day off… And on that 3rd day, there is a wish list being passed around camp. Check off what you want, and the staff will pick it up from town and have it waiting for you by the time you return. The list has beers, wine, liquor, smokes, you name it. Of course they take the cost of the goodies off your final pay check, but they don’t up-charge you in the process. And before you can party on that third and final day of a shift, you must first go to work.
So we get loaded on to several different old school busses, and in this particular example, drive 5 miles down an old logging road to a cut in the trees where a helicopter is waiting to fly us to the spot. These spots are unaccessable by road, but only during the summers. In the previous winter when they chopped all the former trees down, they drove along the frozen rivers.
You may wait up to a half-hour for your ride in the helicopter, and be in it for 2 or 3 minutes, just enough time to check your cell phone as that’s the only place we would get service, half a mile up. Once the helicopter lands, you’re pointed to your chunk of land, thrown a few boxes of trees. 270 count. And you begin finger banging the earth. The highballers give mother earth a good 7000 finger bangs before the day is through. I gave er about a seventh of that.
The trees planted, (piece work) were worth atleast $.11, and at most, $.13 per tree. And if you planted them with a crooked plug, or too many, or not enough in any given radius, you’d be sent back to replant. That never happened to me. I didn’t seem to have the drive, imagining each little tree as a dime and a penny like so many of them are able to. I did like the parties though.
For on that third day, getting off the bus after work, your body is tired, your mind is exhausted, but this wishlist has arrived, from someone who’s recently made the trip back to modern civilization, like souvineres for their children. Everybody eats a good big meal and most get to partying soon their after. And these aren’t the parties that our generation have regressed to. Out in the bush there is no cell service. There is no TV. There’s you, your peers, all the alcohol you can afford, the occasional planter has brought a musical instrument of choice, and hundreds of miles in forest in each direction. it’s a freaking hoot. The day off, hungover. But not as bad as you’d think, it seems with all that physical exercise, ones body learns how to heal itself faster.
I left tree planting in favour of fruit picking on June 15th, after the camp had moved from North of Edmonton, to South of Calgary, just beyond the pearly white tipped gates of the Rocky Mountains. Kananaskis Country. The camp was set up on the spot of an old Prisoner of War camp from WWII. It was beautiful. And though I had realized after a month, that I don’t have the mindset for a successful piecework jaunt, I had found my place on the camp that made sense… Delivering the baby trees to the planters. This meant ripping up and down mountain sides on quads and side by sides with a trailer full of boxes full of trees. It was a tough decision to leave, but I’ve been too curious about this other great-Canadian seasonal position Fruit Picking. Before leaving I made sure I was good with the boss, and the company, and ensured my spot ripping quads for next years season.
Since then, I found Maria in Banff, where she’d been wracking coin, and we took off the to the Okanagan valley. When we realized we were way too early for fruit picking, we took to the back woods, and have been giving Simba the Truck a good run for his money taking us wherever his 4X4 deems possible.
And now? (July 3rd) We’re in Osoyoos, waiting for that first cherry. We haven’t been able to find Jobs yet, but have been assured by fellow pickers that come busy season, the owners will be knocking on our truck asking us to work. That sounds good. Stay Tuned.