All illustrations by Joey Bruce.
It takes seven seconds to plant a tree.
Simple, right? Wrong.
If you are reading this from somewhere warm, dry, and comfortable, you may be titillated by the idea of spending three months in the beautiful Canadian wilderness. You may imagine friends emerging from the bush wafer-thin, with sun-bleached hair and deeply tanned forearms—a bag of cash slung over their shoulder. Quintessentially Canadian with their dirty plaid shirts, smoke-filled hair, and bear stories.
Where else can you make inordinate amounts of money, spend time in the rugged north, and shamelessly drink Cariboos on a Monday? This idyllic image encourages hundreds of rookies to sign up for tree planting every year. Little do they know about the burning, chafing, searing, bleeding, tearing, drenching, devastatingly rewarding experience that is tree planting.
As a planter heading into my fourth season, here's what I wish people had told me about tree planting before I bought my first ticket out west.
You'll Go From Youthful To Ancient In Two Weeks
Next time you get out of bed, savour it. Peel off your fluffy duvet in slow motion and inhale deeply as the fresh spring air wafts in through your bedroom window. Smile as you stretch your able body from side to side. Yawn. Relax.
Tree planting will wreck you.
Mornings, you'll wake up mummified in the fetal position. Your tent will be flooded and the door flap will have mysteriously opened in the night to allow in an entire colony of mosquitoes, blackflies, and midges. Your hands, frozen into angry little fists, will be victim of "the claw," a classic rookie injury from holding your shovel too tight. To unzip your sleeping bag, you'll have to pry each finger open. It'll feel like rigor mortis—and you'll almost wish you were dead.
Your fit 22-year-old body feels 90-years-old as you unfold and get dressed. Your knees will buckle and your ankles will crack.
All this before 6AM.
You'll Be Disappointed At How Long It Takes To Start Making Money
Rookies, you'll start off making less than a server at McDonald's. Your first shift, you'll nearly keel over and die trying to plant 1,000 trees. Seasoned planters will fly by you easily pounding 3,000 trees a day while you stand on a stump, lost, searching for your cache.
Checkers—equivalent to the dreaded parking police—will be especially hard on you. They'll dig up your trees, find your J-roots (a tree that is planted with a bend in the root) and make you replant for hours. Making money will feel impossible.
If you don't bail after your first day, you can make anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 your first year. Seasoned planters: upwards of $15, 000.
Much of this will be spent on your days off.
Some examples of useless shit bought during past seasons: luxury inflatable boats (the Explorer 200 is a favourite), knives, thrift-store Santa outfits, Ginseng and any other holistic medicine variants, kombucha, milk jugs, puppies, and oversized army watches.
Unless Your Arm Is Falling Off, You're A Wimp For Staying Home
My first season planting, I scratched my cornea with a twig. Distracted by the bear-shaped stumps in my allotted land, I forgot to close my eyes while pushing saplings into the ground.
The next morning, my eye was swollen shut. To see, I had to manually pry the eye flaps from each side—my eye recoiling in pain. My crew boss, of course, thought this was hilarious. He suggested I plant with an eye patch and get a pet bird to perch on my shoulder.
If there's one thing you should know about planting: wounds are rarely taken seriously. And that's probably because they don't believe you. Rookies are notorious for developing mysterious fake limps and proclaiming cases of scarlet fever or whooping cough.
If you're grudgingly granted a day back at camp by your boss, you'll bask in the freedom for an hour before you realize it's almost worse than planting. The bugs are just as bad, the shitters reek, and the active logging road running through your camp sounds like an airplane runway.
At the end of the day, the planters will unload from a day of work, dirtied, sore, and grumpy.
You—like an excited puppy waiting for its family to come home—will greet the crew with an expectant smile. But you'll be disappointed at how few show you sympathy.
My best advice: cut the bullshit and save your sick days for when you're really hurting.
You'll Never Feel So Vulnerable
It was midday. A crew boss had wandered into a patch of trees to pee. She found a comfortable spot, crouched down and relieved herself. Seconds later, something cold and moist bumped into her exposed bottom.
Startled, she snapped her head around: a bear cub.
Curious, the little animal had followed her. Alone, it was harmless. But it was springtime and its mother was likely lurking. The crew boss took no chances and—with her pants barely pulled up—ran to the truck.
If it's not an inquisitive black bear it'll be a horde of ravenous horse flies, sinking their mandibles into the pale and exposed flesh of your ass.
You're at risk of interruption even in your most private moments.
The Scramble of a Day Off
The most common planting schedule is four days on, one day off. Weekdays do not exist. Fridays do not exist. Your life operates on tree time.
After the day-four party night you'll wake up tired and hungover with twigs in your hair to the sound of horns honking at 8:30 AM. You'll have three minutes to gather your belongings scattered around your tent before your ride leaves for town.
There, your scruffy hair and atrocious tan will immediately give you away as a tree planter.
Some locals (the ones who planted "way back when") will stare at you longingly and strike up a conversation. They'll envy your freedom and ask you about the parties, the money, and the trees.
Others will hate you. They'll scowl as you scan the Save-On-Foods aisles for coconut water and shield their children with a protective arm when you stroll by.
You go to town with a plan: buy this, get that, call this person, e-mail someone else. But you always end up at the thrift store, or the hot tub, or playing your ukulele with other dirtbags beside the closest lake or river.
There Will Be Sex
It was the middle of the season and planters were getting tired. We stood in a circle for a morning meeting. The supervisor, notorious for throwing outrageous parties, stood in the middle. Our production levels were low, he said.
His solution: more sex. The rationale? Sex makes planters happy, and happy planters plant more trees. If we didn't start having more sex soon, he threatened to create a mandatory Tinder account for the camp.
I could tell you more, but I'd like to remain employable.
Bottom-line is this: if you're not comfortable being naked, I suggest you find another job, it's a sex positive field.
Naked road trips, naked planting, naked partying—anything goes. One time, my friend shocked his penis on the electric bear fence, just for fun.
If you make it through your first season without dying, I guarantee you'll be back.
The feeling starts to creep back in December, when the sun goes down at four and you have to buy a fake sun lamp to keep your brain happy. You start to reminisce: the friends, the parties, the freedom…the trees—so miniature and cute.
Somehow, your brain forgets about the bugs and the bears and the scratching-until-you-bleed. It's as if you're 14 again and your hormones are twisting your brain out of whack. You really, really miss it. You decide to go back, just for one more year. You've invested this much time already, so why not tack on another season?
You're a slave to the trees—and there's nothing you can do about it.