Deep in the Vancouver Island wilderness, it is clear why coastal tree planting is for veterans. The land is rough, steeply slanted and strewn everywhere with the collective detritus known as ‘slash.’ If the work that preceded was hard on the land, tree planting is equally hard on the bodies that replenish it. The hazards of the task are many. And yet summer after summer, many planters return to ‘bag up.’ A day in the life of the forest keepers
The alarms go off at 4:30: electronic morning birds chirping at each other across the camp. On the other side of the river an owl hoots at snooze-button interludes, perhaps echoing an interval learned from several mornings’ worth of tired campers. The slow-running water is dense with pink salmon and even at this hour their splashing filters to ears through trees and tent nylon with a sound like heavy stones tossed carelessly from the bank. The rain is late and the fish, held here by the shallow stream, are frustrated, occasionally throwing themselves onto the rocky shore to thrash frantically before bouncing back to the water. Inside their tents, camped out along the Salmon River near Sayward, B.C., on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, 30 tree planters are also concerned by the lack of precipitation, but their aggravation is much more lethargic. The crew is on “fire hours,” a cruel adjustment to the typical workday schedule imposed with good reason by the region’s overseeing foresters: fire hours keep planters out of the forest during the hottest and most dangerous part of the day, but require crews on the cut block by 7:30. Tent zippers slide reluctantly open and a collection of heads, illuminated under the cool glow of headlamps, float toward the promise of coffee and breakfast.
In the dim light of the mess tent the bodies become visible—young men with an assortment of beards in intensities ranging from “demonstration forest” to “old-growth,” and young women with sprouts of frizzy hair tufting up from headscarves or down from knitted toques. Their attire betrays a mosaic of considerations—or perhaps a handful of conflicting weather reports—from moisture-wicking athletic tights under tatty board shorts to abrasion-immune thrift-store sweaters and ubiquitous fleece. Many have already laced up their “corks”—the steel-toed, heavily spiked orange caulk boots that are the chief identifier of those working in the forest industry—while others circle the breakfast buffet in sandals and socks, saving the discomfort of stiff soles for the cut block.
Breakfast and lunch are served together and the selection wants for nothing: eggs to order, bacon, hashbrowns, granola, fruit salad, yogurt and cereal for consumption now, the wherewithal for sandwiches and wraps—meat-heavy or vegetarian—and leftovers from last night’s dinner (to be packed in Tupperware for lunch later in the woods), supplemented with trail mix, vegetables, hummus, homemade cookies and energy bars. Corrine, the cook, a veteran planter herself, specializes in high-energy fare and is loved for it. “Planters can eat between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day,” she explains.
Simon, the company supervisor, wears a ball cap with two LEDs shining from the brim. Even in the pre-dawn gloom he is efficient and precise, his generator-powered laptop and printer pinning forest management area maps to his office table in the corner of the mess tent. “This is the big leagues,” he explains at the morning’s shift meeting, referring to coastal planting contracts’ tendency to hire only experienced planters for such steep terrain. “It pays less than the little leagues, but there are plenty of locals who want this work, too.”
Being offered a job on a coastal contract is a recognition of one’s skill and dedication as a planter (they typically don’t hire a tree planter for the coast if they have less than a couple of years of interior planting experience). Though it pays less—likely due to the high costs of coastal harvesting—if a planter declines the job it could mean never getting hired by the same company again. The crew grumbles half-heartedly about the difficulty of the terrain, the dismal payment of 23 cents per tree, the early hours and the requirement to wear brain-baking hard hats in spite of the heat. They drain their coffees, load roll-top vinyl backpacks into waiting crew cabs and head off to the block, heads rolling gently in opportunistic snoozes as the trucks rumble up the logging road.