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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Planting Trees

Planting trees is probably the hardest thing I ever did for a buck in my life. It is totally exhausting. In the early 1970s I made an attempt at this type of work twice. Once at Franklin River which is between Port Alberni and Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island and a second time in Northern BC at a place called Ootsa Lake. 

It seemed to me, at the time, that those best suited for planting trees were the lean wiry types, people who could do a lot of sit-ups if asked to. A strong back was also a good asset. If you were a bit soft in the middle it could be a bit of a struggle. 

I had a friend in Port Alberni who had done some tree planting and I thought I would give it a try. I went out and bought myself a pair of corks which are basically heavy work boots with nails sticking out of the soles. The nails are for traction. I hated the damned things. First of all they seemed to weigh about 10 lbs. each and secondly you could cut one of your legs if you tripped which I did more than a few times.  

The instrument one uses to plant trees varies depending on what is available or what the foreman of a crew has chosen. One instrument is the old pick axe with a flat blade and another is a thing called a dibble which is a metal pole about as long as a ski pole (much heavier) with a little ledge on it about 6 inches from the bottom that you jammed your foot down on to make a hole. 

Usually a crew would consist of about 8-10 people and a leader. The guy who would run the show was often the same guy who had acquired a short term contract from a forestry company. Each day, shortly after sunup we would drive out to where the day’s planting was to occur and we would pack up about a hundred seedlings in a cloth bag that we slung over our shoulders. We would then spread out about 10 feet across and march forward in a row. We were expected to plant a tree about every 3 yards. Our daily quota was 1000 trees. 

Often the area where we were planting was where a forest fire had occurred or it had been burned purposefully to allow for new growth. We worked in all kinds of weather including sleet and rain. By the end of the day we would be pretty filthy. There were lots of mud and lots of rocks. There isn’t much more futile and bone crunching than coming down with an overhead swing of a pick axe onto a hard rock. 

I lasted about 5 days at Franklin River before telling the foreman to shove it when he was riding me late one afternoon. I swore to myself that I would never plant trees again. 

About a year or so later I was staying out in Gordon Head, a suburb of Victoria, BC. A girlfriend of a friend of mine was house sitting a professor from U. Vic’s place for the summer. And what a gorgeous house it was. It was right on the ocean. Throughout the house there were glass cases with artifacts the prof had picked up on his world travels. Although I never met him, Paul Horn, the world renowned jazz flautist, lived next door.
My 68 Ford Falcon at house in Gordon Head.
One night we were sitting around yacking and a friend of a friend of mine told me he was going up north to plant trees at a place called Ootsa Lake and would I be interested in joining him. I told him about my previous experience and somehow through his convincing and my being short of cash I decided to give it another try. I had just acquired my first car a few months earlier, parked it down the laneway, and a few days later joined a crew in two “crummies”  (a pick-up truck with a backseat) and we caught a ferry to Vancouver and onward up to Northern BC. 

We travelled along Highway #1 and cut north at Cache Creek. I had only been driving for a few months and came up with the bright idea of offering to drive the crummy for a while. I had never driven a big truck before. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I was on some wild amusement ride. The other truck in front of me was doing about 80 MPH and I was trying to keep up. I think there were some eyeballs in the back seat staring at one another. Finally it was suggested that someone else take the wheel. There was no arguing on my part. Did I mention that we had all shared a joint? 
Our crew foreman was a thickset guy named Glenn. He had his bush pilot’s license and played rugby. Not a guy to trifle with. Most of the rest of the crew were hippies who came up every year to make enough cash to buy some pot and basic food staples that would sustain them for a good part of the rest of the year. A few of the guys had ponytails. One guy was a walking authority on the band The Who. 

The month was late May and the warmer weather hadn’t turned up yet. Our sleeping quarters were in trailers. One trailer was where the kitchen and dining room was. The food looked great and there was plenty of it. Maybe this time planting trees wouldn’t be so hard? What was a month out of my life? All I had to do was survive and I would get a nice fat pay cheque at the end. 

Things kind of started off OK, at least for the first week or so. And then I started to wear down a bit. This was really hard work. Most days were overcast and we worked in the rain and light snow. I was amazed that a few of the hippies would keep working for extra cash at a nickel a tree after a full 8 hours and already having planted a 1000 trees that day. 
Loading up our bags of trees for the day.
The camp cook turned out to be a drunk and the quality of the food began to deteriorate. Stuff that had been passed on the day before was offered up again. It is an empty feeling when you can’t look forward to eating. Each morning when we woke up some guy would play and Eagles album. The music was like an ominous warning of the miserable day ahead. It took me quite a while to appreciate the Eagles after that. 

Back in Victoria I would have been chasing women at The Olde Forge Cabaret and working on my tennis backhand out at U. Vic. What had I gotten myself into?  

Well at least the hockey playoffs were on and there was a TV. By 8 o’clock each night everyone was asleep including the hard working hippies. Before one hockey game I drove the crummy over to the lake and cast off a fishing line with 2 hooks and bait attached. I came back and hour or so later and I discovered that I had hooked 2 rainbow trout. I was quite impressed with that. 

We were working 7 days a week. A plan was made that where we would go into Burns Lake some distance away and spend a Saturday night there. There was quite a lot of drinking going on with the crew. Around 4 p.m. I thought I would grab a nap back at the hotel we were staying at and be ready for some real partying that night. As luck would have it, I slept through the whole evening and missed out on everything. I learned the next day that one of the hippies had picked up a stripper the night before.
3 of the crew.
We drove back to camp at Ootsa Lake. There was only two weeks left of this misery and I thought I would survive to the end. We were divided into two groups both led by hippies. These guys could be pretty funny at times. I remember one of them saying something that some might think inappropriate but it sure made us all laugh. One of the hippie leaders stood on a hill ahead of us and yelled “Come on you niggers!” like we were plantation workers. These guys didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies. 

Ootsa Lake is pretty well out in the middle of nowhere. I think the lake was a result of some dam being built and a river being diverted. Eurocan Pulp and Paper had a mill there for a number of years. Later a bible camp was built in the area.

Over the close to a month that I was up there I saw lots of wildlife, often not too far away. There were bears and caribou herds and I had my once only ever sighting of a lynx. 

The guy in our crew that I knew from Victoria was struggling to make it through each day as I was. He also had the handicap of being rather stout in stature. We were kind of at the bottom of the totem pole as far as fitness goes. He was in quite a lot of pain where I was just totally bagged by it all. 

The calendar pages were turning very slowly. I counted the days until we would return to civilization. On the second to last day the foreman came out to check on our work. I don’t think he ever caught on that a few guys were burying a handful of saplings in soft earth by creeks when they weren’t being watched. 

The big no-no in planting trees was a thing called “hockey stick roots”. If you planted the tree at an angle instead of straight up and down the tree would grow at an angle. I think I mentioned that the foreman was a pretty intimidating guy. The long and the short of it was the shit hit the fan when he discovered some  hockey stick roots. I was one of the culprits. It certainly wasn’t intentional. The foreman started to ride me a bit verbally and I kind of snapped. I was fired on the spot, perhaps partly as a warning to the others. 

I quickly found out that being fired meant that I would have to find my own way back to Victoria. No ride in the crummy for me or the Kelsey Bay ferry trip back to northern Vancouver Island. No high fives. No group hugs. Just hit the road Jack! On top of that I wasn’t going to be paid until I got back to Victoria. 

I didn’t have any alternative other than to pack my bag and head down the dirt road that led to the camp and try to get some rides hitchhiking. I lucked out when a guy stopped to pick me up in a dark coloured station wagon. He drove me all the way to Cache Creek which was quite a distance. 

I was a seasoned hitchhiker and the first thing I always did when I got into a car was start a conversation. This would usually give me a clue if I was travelling with a pervert or a serial killer. One of things I asked was what the driver did for a living. He kind of let that slide and we talked about other stuff. A few hours into my lift I asked him again what he did for a living and this time he came clean. He worked for a coroner and had just recently fished a body out of a river. The same body was now behind a curtain just over my shoulder. Yuck! 

It took me about a day and a half to make my way back to Victoria. I met up with some of the crew at a tavern on Government Street and one of the guys had my pay cheque. I peeked inside the envelope and got that peaceful easy feeling if you know what I mean. We had a few laughs and told a few stories and I went on my way. I think I got about 30 bucks when I sold my corks. 

In the past few years I have read stories about people from third world countries living in tents in atrocious conditions at tree planting camps in BC. Apparently the tree planting contracts are now bid on and some of the winners cut as many corners as they can including providing reasonable room and board. In retrospect I probably got off pretty lightly. 

It is now over 40 years since I planted my last tree. Somewhere, far away in northern BC, there are some very mature trees swaying in the breeze that I planted. Actually there are thousands of them and just maybe a few that aren’t as straight as the others.








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