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The Waste Coast - Barbara Roberts: The Pioneer Hippy Tree Planter of the West Coast

Compared to the way tree planting works today, the 1970's was hell on earth.

by Mish Way
Mar 1 2012, 5:00am

Tree planting is not an easy summer job. I mean, who wants to trudge up a mountain with a sack full of baby trees and heavy tools hanging off their hips while bugs build nests in their hair and the rain turns their boots into swimming pools? Who wants to sleep in a tent every night next to a pile of dirty rocks with a bunch of strangers? Not most people. Sure, you can make decent money as a tree planter, that is, if you are any good at it. Tree planters works on commission, except it's not about up-selling trees back to the land, it's about how fast you can plant and how little you complain about doing it.

Back in the 1970's, there were not many women who were tree planting as there are today. In fact, it was pretty much unheard of on B.C.'s coastal region where hippies and draft dodgers were just getting into the field. Maybe this is because compared to the way tree planting works today, the 1970's was hell on earth. No electricity, no showers, no phones, no toilets, no nothing for season after season after season of grueling outdoor work. However, there was one woman who called this hell her bread and butter.

Barbara Roberts is now a 57-years-old mother of two, working as a homeopath living happily in Vancouver. She hasn't had a drink, a toke or a piece of meat since she was 19-years-old and she likes it that way. Back in 1972, when she was just 17-years-old, she was one of the first female tree planters to work her way up to be a Charge Hand and team leader for some of B.C.'s most prominent logging companies. Barbara planted in the good old days, the days when the camps were filled with hippy dudes just trying to get back to the land, escape the war and make a few bucks. Days when it was totally cool for white guys to re-name themselves "Moon Dance" or hitch a ride with a stranger down to San Fransisco. Days when tree planting didn't involve weird chemicals or fancy, hand-held machines.

I went over to Barbara's house to ask her about being a pioneer female tree planter, roughing it as the only girl with her male hippy counterparts and what it was like getting her period out in the bush.

How did you get into tree planting?

I came from Toronto to Gabriola Island when I was 17-years-old. There was no work but I got a waitress job in 1972. One day I was working at the cafe and a hippy comes in and sits down. My boss looked at me and said, "If you serve that hippy, you are fired." There were a lot of hippies who moved to the Sunshine Coast. It was the first inflitration of all the draft dodgers from California, home-streaders and back-to-the-landers, so some people were threatened by them. Needless to say, I got fired. I served the guy. I actually ended up traveling with him later in life with my first husband, Moondance. Anyways, I needed some work, but there wasn't much and I thought I should try to get onto a [tree-planting] contract. Growing up, I was a competitive figure skater so I was very athletic and doing something physical seemed appealing.

Hey! Me too! Skating was my life until I was sixteen.

Ha! Really? I skated with Tolar Cranston. I could do a triple-sow. I was serious, but I didn't like the people.

It turns into a beauty pageant the minute you step into the dressing room. Sorry. Go on about the tree planting.

There were a few local guys who had tree planting contracts so I approached them saying I would like to try doing it too. They told me that women just don't do this. I asked for a reason and they said, "You're out in the bush, it's all men and we just think that it's not for women." I was miffed. Later, I connected with this woman Joan and we decided to ask MacMillan Bloedel, which was one of B.C.'s largest logging and re-forresting company, to take us on. I'm not sure if I was the one of the first women in Canada, but we were in the first gals in B.C.

Was it hard to convince MacMillan Bloedel to hire you?

Those were the days where you were legally obligated to hire people that were of difference races, ethnicities... and the whole gender issue, so it wasn't too hard. It ended up being Joan, Patty and myself. We were hired at Sprout Lake by Port Alberni.

Was it just the three of you ladies?

No, we worked with some men, you know, "local boys", but we were good so MacMillan Bloedel couldn't fire us. After that, the other contractor folks had to hire us because we were experienced. It ended up that I had more experience than most of the men who came to plant so I was the only woman on most jobs except for the cook. It was always the cook and me. You are really out in the bush on these contracts. We lived in tents. There was no electricity. No privacy. Nothing. We cleaned ourselves with a Inipi-

What's a Inipi?

It's an Indian Sweat Lodge. You put canvas over some branches and a fire with hot rocks. You pour water on the rocks and let the steam clean you and then you jump into the cold river. Imagine me! I'm 18-years-old and I'm from Toronto, to me it's a total adventure, I love it. I'm surrounded by all these beautiful men. [Laughs]

Did you ever feel uncomfortable being the only girl?

Sometimes I did. One time we stayed at a logging camp with other loggers, that was hard.


Well, mostly because I was going through some emotional things at the time. I had just gone through something big and barring your soul to a bunch of guys on a mountain is not what you want to do. I felt lonely.

Did you ever feel like you were judged for your gender?

Not from most of the guys I planted with. They were all alternative hippy guys, you know? But the loggers were not. I had some bad experiences. I remember this one contract where we were just coming back from a day of planting with a bunch of loggers and we see this moose. It's huge. One of the loggers immediately yells out, "Look at that wrack! I'm gonna shoot it!" I didn't want him to because at this time I was becoming vegetarian - all our camp sites were vegetarian - so, I'm begging him please don't, over and over. But, he did. It took him five or six shots.

Why did he want to shoot it?

He kept bragging about "the wrack". He came back to the logging camp with the thing strapped to the roof of his truck. I hope he ate it or else...

How did things work when you became the boss of a team of men?

That was hard being the Charge Hand! It was 1973, I was only 19-years-old and I approached tree planting very seriously. As women, we care about the trees or at least I did. I wasn't into stashing them or planting them on an angle. I wanted to do it right. Of course I wanted to make money - I wasn't going to waste half an hour planting a tree - but I wanted it done right. I was a high-baller. I knew what I was doing but still, some guys didn't like it when I would make them re-plant things or when I caught them on mistakes. I had to deal with some real egos. I wasn't trying to man them up or anything. They just didn't like to be told what to do by a young girl. The European guys were the worst!

Were you ever scared to stand up to them?

No, I had more experience, I had sonority and I knew what I was doing. Some of them couldn't deal with. I remember a particular Sweed. [Laughs]

Did you ever get hit on?

We all did a little flirting come on, now.

Was there any hooking up on the camp sites? That's what I would have been doing.

[Laughs] You're tricky! I'm not telling you all our little scerets! [Laughs]

Plus, you were the boss.

I was doing my own thing. I wasn't into having a relationship. Why mess around? Why do it? Not to say that it wasn't tempting, but you could see where an all-male crew would have it's advantages.

What do you mean?

Like you say, the whole man-woman sexual thing.

I have friends who say that there is a lot of that at camp in today's tree planting world.

I was planting in a more innocent time. It was totally different. I was the only female for at least four or five contracts, except for the cook of course. You just don't go there. You don't go and be the only woman sleeping around. They were my brothers. We traveled together, slept in tents together and we just didn't go there. I've always had male friends and had the ability to keep it at that. I haven't been with anybody since my husband died ten years ago, but I have a spirituality that I practice which helps.

What do you practice?

Science of Spirituality. It's a yoga practice. We focus on the inner light and sound because, you know, we are all kind of asleep here.

Have you always been spiritual?

For the most part. The kids used to tease my son. They called my house The Hippy Mansion.

That's not so bad!

Yeah, I thought it was okay. My kids were always proud of us because we were cool parents. It's not like we were loser hippies [laughs].

I think as long as you are open-minded. A lot of people who are deep into something can be a little narrow.

Well no kidding, hey? Sometimes hippies are more Nazi than the Nazi's. It was supposed to be about being open! That's what I find with the younger ones. We weren't like that. Peace and love.

I forgot to ask! What the hell did you do with your tampons when you were tree planting?

I would use my Maddick or my shovel thing, to dig up a hole and bury the tampon. I didn't want to attract any male bears. [Laughs] Seriously, I suppose I could have.

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