Highballer: Tales from a Treeplanting Life is a memoir following Greg Nolan’s 27-year career in the forestry industry—from superstar treeplanting rookie to operating one of the most highly regarded treeplanting companies in BC. The book is available now.
On the night before our final scheduled day off, as I was relaxing outside the Quonset hut and sipping beer, a fellow named Nigel came over and tapped me on the shoulder.
Nigel worked part-time with Search and Rescue. He brought his two work dogs to camp, a German shepherd named Char, and a black lab named Kora. They followed him everywhere, but at this moment they were nowhere in sight.
I immediately sensed something was wrong, and when he asked me to follow him, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for what he needed me to see. Both dogs, secured in the box of his truck, were riddled with porcupine quills around the mouth, throat and snout. Many of the quills were buried in their gums, noses and the roof of their mouths. Some appeared to be broken off below the surface of the surrounding tissue. Nigel asked if I knew what to do.
We were at least three hours from the nearest vet, assuming one could be located at that late hour, and both dogs were in absolute agony. I was puzzled by why Nigel had chosen to come to me in particular. But as luck would have it, I did have a few insights: I had once skimmed over a magazine article that was applicable. As a kid, I had a subscription to Field & Stream magazine. One memorable issue included a centrefold instructional guide explaining what to do in the event your pooch ever tangles with a porcupine. I had taken the time to scan the centrefold instructions, briefly, as any curious nine-year-old kid would. I caught the gist of what to do and somehow managed to retain that info.
I recalled that the dog in the magazine had only a few quills protruding from its snout, though. Nigel’s poor dogs had apparently tried to ravage the creature. The first thing we needed was sedation. I ran back to my tent and grabbed the bottle of Valium my mother had sent along with me at the beginning of the season, for nights when sleep was elusive. My flurry of activity attracted attention, and by the time I arrived back at Nigel’s truck, a half-dozen people were gathered around offering their help. While Nigel and I forced the dogs to swallow the tiny blue pills, not having a clue if Valium was even safe for dogs in the first place, I instructed everyone else to scour the camp for burlap sacks, rope, bungee cords and as many pairs of needle-nose pliers as they could find. After twenty minutes, the sedative seemed to kick in.
Both Char and Kora appeared somewhat calmer, less agitated. We carefully inserted each dog butt first into the burlap sacks, which were tripled up for strength. We pulled the material up to their napes, leaving only their heads and necks exposed. We then carefully tucked both their front and rear legs into their chests and began tightly binding their bodies with rope and bungee cords. The process was difficult and required the effort of a half-dozen people as the dogs struggled desperately to free themselves. The result, however, was two completely immobilized bundles with only the dogs’ heads exposed.
Onto the next step. We worked on each dog for no more than 10 minutes at a time, allowing them to rest and settle back down between extraction sessions. While several people balanced and secured the dogs on the tailgate of the truck, Nigel and I worked on pulling quills with hastily sterilized pliers, starting with the easiest extractions first, gradually working our way along the teeth, gums and snouts. There are hundreds of tiny barbs located along the first four millimetres of a porcupine quill, so each one took a surprising amount of force to extract. The deeper they were buried, the more brute strength was required. The quills that were broken off and embedded below the surface of the skin or gum line were left until last.
All the while, the poor dogs cried out in agony, eventually exhausting themselves, whimpering as they exhaled. We managed to extract every last quill. The entire procedure took two hours from beginning to end. When we finally declared victory, people erupted in spontaneous applause. Hugs were exchanged, tears were shed, people were high-fiving and cans of beer were swapped. For my efforts, Nigel pressed a fat doobie into my palm, along with a beautiful Cuban cigar he had been saving for a special occasion. I gratefully accepted the gesture. I was looking forward to cutting loose after such a traumatic ordeal.
Later that evening, someone yelled out a warning that our two neighbourhood grizzly bears were lurking on the road just outside of camp. My tent was in the immediate vicinity of the sighting, but I was too amped up from dealing with Nigel’s dogs to really care. After chugging a couple of well-deserved beers and smoking my cigar halfway down, I asked my good buddy Kyle if he’d be interested in joining me back at my tent for a few puffs from the doobie Nigel laid on me. Kyle simply nodded, wide eyes, gaping smile. What I wasn’t aware of—something I wished I had known in advance—was that the weed circulating around Ryan’s camp was from a rogue grow-op hidden somewhere in the deep recesses of the West Kootenays, near the town of Nelson, a region that would eventually become world-renowned for its high-potency bud. The spliff that I held in my hand had a THC component that was far more potent than anything available on the market at the time—that is how it was explained to me the next morning when I was seeking an explanation for the hallucinations.
As Kyle and I sat in my tent, with the door flaps tied wide open in order to fully appreciate the sun that was just beginning to set behind a snow-capped ridge, we sparked up the spliff and inhaled its toxic fumes. Still vibrating with excitement and a profound sense of accomplishment, I took one careless pull after another. And then something very strange began to occur: rather than the usual rush of excitement, elevated heart rate and fits of laughter, both Kyle and I stopped talking. Our expressions froze and we began furtively surveying our immediate surroundings. It didn’t take long to realize we were in big trouble.
The last rays of the setting sun highlighted the anxiety written all over our faces. These last rays, which were fractured and splintered by a thin stand of conifers out in front of my tent, began to appear denser, more liquid-like. Before long they appeared to act as a conduit, transporting colours and shapes down from the sky, spilling them out onto a lush carpet of moss that encircled the entrance to my tent. Then, incredulously, I watched as the colours and shapes began to take form. They began to morph into cartoon characters that proceeded to march into my tent, right past Kyle, over my lap, and out through the meshed screened window behind my bed. It wasn’t just one or two animated characters sauntering on through; it was an ensemble, a long procession of critters, saluting me as they filed past one by one.
When I looked over at Kyle, I could see that he was fixated on something else entirely, something that was higher up in the trees but equally mesmerizing. It took a while before I was able to regain control of the speech centre in my brain, and when I finally did, blurting out something completely nonsensical, Kyle startled as if he had been zapped by an electric current. That was when the laughter kicked in as we both realized just how far outside of our comfort zone we had been transported. The laughter slowly helped us dial things back. We gradually latched back onto reality After approximately one hour, the effects of the THC had largely worn off. We were in control of our faculties once again, able to examine our experience from a slightly less “animated” level.
It was at this time, in the blackness of night, that we both heard a rustling sound coming from an area behind my tent—an area I couldn’t see due to the scarcity of windows in my tent. When we heard a similar disturbance several minutes later, we both agreed that it had to be something large, perhaps an elk or a deer. I then remembered the grizzly sightings, the warnings that echoed across our camp only a few hours earlier. I was suddenly forced to shake off the haze, sharpen my senses and focus. As I pondered the potential aftermath of one or more hunger-crazed grizzlies shredding the walls of my tent and gaining entry, I reached for my 870 Wingmaster, a weapon I had slept with ever since my ordeal at Bute Inlet three years earlier. Pulling my shotgun out from under my foamy, I instructed Kyle to position himself up against the back wall of my tent with me, facing the ruckus emanating from the gloom outside. Incredibly, the threat began to escalate.
A series of low-pitched growls was followed by the outline of a claw that began to scratch the side of my tent in one long downward motion, stretching the fabric to the point of tearing. Without hesitation, in a cold display of self-preservation, I savagely pumped my shotgun, clicked off my safety and was on the verge of unleashing a hail of unimaginable violence when I heard a voice suddenly cry out, “No, no, no—it’s me—it’s only me!” With a lantern in hand, we ran outside and discovered my cousin, the Bone Crusher, lying on his back, staring blankly up into the night sky. He was hyperventilating. It turned out that this was Crusher’s idea of a practical joke. Apparently, he forgot that I slept with a cannon. Realistically, I was one exhalation away from blowing him in two. The damage my three-inch 00 buckshot would have inflicted upon his body, at close range, would have been catastrophic, unsurvivable. I’m not sure how the local constabulary would have treated the crime scene. Any number of charges could have been laid against me. The one positive to come out of that whole ridiculous episode: Crusher appeared to have himself a little accident when he heard the pump on my shotgun.