Category Archives: treeplanting

Creatures in the Night

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Continuing my nostalgia for our summer of cooking for planters and living in the woods:

One night as I was walking to the outhouse I was overcome with a random, harrowing thought: cougars stalk their prey. Random, right? Perhaps not. Just as the thought was being birthed, something moved in the bushes. I pointed my headlamp in its direction and saw two eyes, wide set and a couple of feet high. Could it be one of the dogs? No, they were both in the trailers asleep. Could it be a deer? No, too short. Could it be a fox? No, too tall. I yelled for Mike and jumped inside the outhouse. I peed quickly and then realized that I had two options: a) make a run for it and hope that whatever it is doesn’t get me, or b) sit in the outhouse until I came up with a better idea. I chose option b. I tried to laugh it off and convince myself that it couldn’t possibly be anything scary. I heard Mike’s voice outside the outhouse and made a quick dash toward the campfire, dragging him along with me. The last thing I wanted was the stalking cougar to get Mike whilst he was trying to save me. Sheepishly I returned to the campfire and tried to act as if I didn’t care about the lurking beast in the shadows. I started peeing beside the trailer after that.

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Paranoid

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Mike and I cooked for a treeplanting camp a few years ago and despite writing this post during that time, I had yet to post it until now. Here it is:

Due to low production in our camp, two crews of strapping young men arrived to help finish the contract. These boys were large, muscular, strong and hungry. We went from feeding 50 people to feeding seventy-five. What had seemed like a daunting task before now seemed calm and quiet compared to the overwhelming number of mouths that were suddenly present. In a kitchen trailer with only 2 ovens, somehow we were meant to satisfy the insatiable hunger of all the planters. The week began as a gong show. Mike had to visit an emergency dental clinic due to a nerve problem in his front tooth, so I spent the first day constantly second guessing myself and regularly forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. Whilst standing on a milk crate in order to reach a pot of spaghetti sauce I suddenly felt like a witch stirring my brew. With both hands on a long wooden spoon, the idea wasn’t too far from reality.

With Mike gone, and I being left to my own devices, fear that the spaghetti that we had made in the morning hadn’t cooled properly began to creep up. In a panic I put  numerous pots of water on to boil and prepared to make another 20 lbs. of pasta. I felt pressure on my chest as the panic grew and despite knowing that I was probably just being obsessive and compulsive, I couldn’t shake the gnawing fear that I was going to give everyone food poisoning if I didn’t make a new batch of spaghetti. Although Mike had made enough pasta in the morning to feed all 75 people and had cooled it and put it in the fridge, I felt that something must have certainly gone wrong. Looking back on it, I laugh at the ridiculous thoughts that were running through my head, but at the time all I cared about was feeding the planters food that wouldn’t make their stomachs hurt. I was about to throw all of the spaghetti in the garbage and make a new batch when Mike returned. Despite looking like a character from a Dr. Seuss book because of all the swelling, he was ready to help.

“The spaghetti is completely fine. I made sure it was cooled properly before I left. Stop worrying,” he said patiently.

“But, what if…,” I began.

“It’s fine.”

We dipped the old spaghetti in the water that was finally boiling, and began to serve supper to a group of people who had no idea about my inner meltdown. Of course, the spaghetti was completely fine, and all was well in the end which resulted in the first glimmer of my personal revelation: I’m nuts.

Similar scenarios happened throughout the season. “Are you SURE that the raw meat didn’t touch the salad? Are you POSITIVE that everything is the correct temperature? Are you absolutely CERTAIN that it hasn’t gone bad?” were phrases often uttered from my lips. Thankfully Mike is on the opposite side of obsessive behaviour. If he was ever worried, he didn’t show it. In a completely laid back manner he continually assured me that the meat was still good, it hadn’t touched the salad, and it was absolutely cooked properly. I had always thought of myself as a laid back individual, but the summer that we cooked for the planters was demonstration that I, very clearly, am not.

Re-emergence into the Real World

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A long time ago I wrote about treeplanting and Bush Goggles. I wrote that one day I would write about what happens when a group of bush-goggle wearing planters emerge from the woods into a world of non-bush-goggle wearing individuals. This is that blog.

It is an unfortunate thing to return to the real world while still encamped in a bubble of planters. When everyone in your cavalcade has prescribed to the freedom of a life in the wilderness, one can easily forget that the outside world often has a very different view. Imagine a group of dirty twenty-somethings dressed in tattered clothes lounging on the grass outside of a shopping mall. Their clothes are of the kind that would usually be reserved for yard work, their facial hair channels wanted criminals of all kinds, and they are sprawled on the lawn as if it were their own. Surely, many of them of smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of club soda often mistaken for beer. Now, picture a small, well dressed family enjoying an afternoon of shopping. The bewilderment that appears in their eyes as they cross to the other side of the road is perhaps the most straightforward reaction one can imagine. Thus proving that although the planters may be in a state free of judgement and are oblivious to the surrounding world, the surrounding world is certainly not oblivious to them.

Bathrooms: When you live in the woods, the world becomes your toilet; you can pee pretty much anywhere, anytime you want. Upon re-entry to the real world, one must learn to control her bladder until the proper facilities can be found. It was not uncommon for planters to express that they felt like they were going to pee their pants. This makes perfect sense, of course, because when one is suddenly thrust back into a society that frowns upon public urination, one must learn to control themselves all over again.

Clothing: What is acceptable in camp is not always acceptable in town. Running around in boxers, or sporting ripped, muddy overalls might seem like completely normal choices for days around camp, but unfortunately, regular folks don’t shine to semi-nude bearded men with clouds of dust trailing behind them, so one must make the necessary changes.

Language: Even the sweetest treeplanter has been known to vent via a plethora of colourful curse words once pushed to their limit. After being submerged in difficult situations for weeks at a time, many planters end up swearing (or coming up with words to replace swears) numerous times per conversation. This presents a difficulty when one is no longer surrounded by like-minded people, but instead must interact with clean-languaged individuals of all ages. No one wants to be the one to introduce four-letter words to toddlers, but it takes a while to get it out of the system.

Bush Goggles

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bush goggles: noun
1.      referring to a state of mind that occurs after one has been confined in the woods for a prolonged period of time with the same group of people

Bush goggles affect us in a few different ways: how we view ourselves, how we view others of the same sex, and how we view the opposite sex.

How We See Ourselves

There aren’t many mirrors in camp, so it is easy to forget what you look like. And since you can’t actually see what you look like it, it is easy to pretend that you look much better than you do in reality. This is one of the best things about bush goggles – you see how filthy and unkempt everyone else is while still maintaining that you yourself are quite well put together. You couldn’t possibly look as filthy and exhausted as everyone else, so you imagine yourself in a much more sympathetic light. What looks like a dirty bird’s nest to those around you is imagined as a sexy, voluminous mane in your own mind; a tired face made streaky from a mixture of dirt, sunscreen and sweat is believed to be fresh, youthful and glowing; and ripped, bleach-stained clothing is pictured as laid-back and cute.

How We See Others

Beauty is not something a girl can paint onto herself in the woods – she must earn it. A girl is not beautiful because of how polished she is; she is beautiful becauseof how unpolished she is – dirt and grime are marks of beauty that one can be proud to wear. If a girl spends time each morning putting on makeup, fixing her hair and creating her outfit before she ventures out onto the block, she is thought ridiculous by the other women in camp. On the other hand, if she crawls out of her sleeping bag into yesterday’s clothes and migrates to the breakfast table in a matter of minutes, she is highly regarded by the other members of her sex. In a sense, disheveled women love company much in the same way that misery loves company; the more ragged those around you become, the more ragged you yourself are allowed to be.

How We See the Opposite Sex

Despite knowing that the men look sun-wrecked, tired, and overly too hairy, most of the women in camp can’t help but feel that many of the men are attractive. Men aren’t restricted when bush goggles are present. It is somehow socially acceptable to look like a patchy criminal when in the woods. The men appear to unite in order to convince the women that a sketchy outward appearance is completely normal. Women begin accepting wild beards, unwashed bodies (for weeks on end) and terribly unflattering clothing as the norm. In fact, they soon start believing that these men are not only tolerable, but handsome! Rather than shunning men that one would literally run away from in the real world, one instead finds them to be surprisingly attractive. I can only describe this to be the result of careful acts performed by a mind-ninja (read: a veteran treeplanter).

One day I will write about what happens when a group of bush-goggle wearing planters emerge from the woodsun into a world of non-bush-goggle wearing individuals.

An Introduction to Treeplanting

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After a year of academia, my husband and I decided that it would be wise to seek a change of pace and scenery for a while. As a seasoned planting veteran, Mike could think of no better way to spend the summer than surrounded by good friends and trees (despite having already “retired” from planting). So, we took on a cooking position as a pair – we would share the responsibility of cooking supper for 50 planters. We bought a small Boler, packed it full of books, musical instruments, sweaters, and food, and set off on our adventure only hours after my final exams.

Four days of driving finally brought us to our destination: the parking lot of a small, run-down motel in Northern Alberta. In a matter of 48-hours,  the parking lot changed from a barren wasteland to a colourful carnival of  nearly a hundred young adults garbed in woolen sweaters, bandanas and gaiters.

Most treeplanters, I observed, are twenty-somethings who enjoy the outdoors, want to give their minds a rest, and are not afraid of hard work. Each prepared for the planting season in his or her own way; shovels were shortened, bags were beaten, and boots were equipped with spikes. Nearly all of the planters accepted the job in hopes of making a large amount of money in a short amount of time. Unfortunately for all of us, however, the snow had not yet melted and we were stuck waiting around the motel until the ground was thawed enough to be sown.

Since most of us were on our last five dollars, standards and expectations became quite low. What would normally be thought of as a hole-in-the-ground establishment suddenly became a comfortable, cushy home for an undetermined number of days. Several planters crammed themselves into four-person rooms in order to save as much money as possible and I learned that if there is a television and small space on the floor on which to sleep, everyone is quite content.

During these couple of weeks of limbo, our friends kindly consented to letting us to use their washroom in their already cramped hotel room, allowing us to happily live out of our 13′ Boler. Each night brought new entertainment: the “hippie” planters from another company moved in for a few nights and entertained us with their circus theatrics (literally – fire juggling, flashy clothing and a unicycle), while other nights were seasoned with dramatics put on by the locals. A camp in the middle of nowhere was a very welcome change once we finally got there.

We set up our camp beside a beautiful lake surrounded by forested islands: a place of beauty and bugs. Small black flies were re-named “Sky Wolves” in an attempt to describe the terror they were unleashing on all of us. It was not uncommon for planters to return home at the end of the day covered with so many bug bites that their faces had taken new shape. One planter in particular – a tall, slim girl with delicate facial features – turned into a female Quasimodo at the unmerciful chomping jaws of the bugs. Her eyes swelled nearly shut, the sides of her face puffed so much that she had no distinguishable cheekbones, and her neck looked as if it had succumbed to a tropical disease.

Despite the changes in comfort that were taking place, camp life very quickly became normal. Outhouses (as well as holes in the forest floor) soon became just as comfortable as washrooms with indoor plumbing; meanwhile, laundry was contentedly washed by hand in an old bucket and hung in the trees to dry. Hairy legs became not only acceptable, but encouraged, and unwashed hair ceased to be a good indication of one’s general cleanliness. Dirt, Watkins and sunscreen became the new makeup that slowly transformed the girls into outwardly filthy, yet inwardly confident, women. I will discuss this phenomenon as well as explain the glorious concept of “Bush Goggles” in my next post…stay tuned.