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.