I heard about tree planting in Canada whilst having a conversation with a friend. I was catching up with him over the phone and shared my intention of visiting and exploring Canada for a year.
“Why not go tree planting in Canada?” He asked.
Before this conversation, I didn’t have a full grasp of what the process of tree planting entailed. At first, my mind conjured up a romantic idea of being submerged in the vast, Canadian wilderness on a joyful and exciting adventure. I then remembered a video I had watched about tree planting in Canada which depicted a less romantic version of tree planting.
Although I grew up being active and playing sports, I considered myself a ‘city boy’. The idea of camping in the middle of nowhere for 3 months made my mind freeze. My experiences of camping in Southern Africa as a kid were always hot and full of bugs. On these trips, I would often wake up early in the morning with my tent feeling like a sauna. Although I enjoyed time in nature, camping wasn’t my idea of fun.
My partner Kamila on the other hand, grew up in the countryside of Slovakia, near the Polish border. She grew up working on her family’s farm so this style of work and being outdoors for extended periods of time was less of a stretch for her imagination.
A Crossroads That Lead to Canada
During 2018, Kamila and I had reached a crossroads in our lives – I had sold my business at the end of 2017 and spent a year wandering around the world. Kamila had left her job at Emirates Airlines. After 2 years in a long-distance relationship, going to Canada for a year would be the start of an adventure of living full-time together.
Tree planting sounded like a bright idea and gave us some direction to our trip. We could arrive in Canada, meet and mingle with interesting folks, earn money and challenge ourselves in a way we hadn’t before.
Whilst finalizing our visa arrangements we researched how and where to tree plant in Canada. As I hadn’t met anyone who had done this, it was difficult to gauge accurately what to fully expect from ‘tree planting’. My mind wanted answers.
Finding Answers About Tree Planting
We stumbled upon a Facebook group called ‘King Kong Reforestation’. An online melting pot for tree planting in Canada. Through this group, I was able to get a grasp of what tree planting in Canada was about and where to find work. There were answers to almost any question related to tree planting.
It’s an insightful and sometimes humorous place to conduct your research. When newcomers to tree planting, otherwise known as ‘rookies’ ask more experienced tree planters the question: Should I go tree planting or what can I expect from tree planting? A common, deadpan response is “Do not go tree planting”.
Most people that hear the harsher side of tree planting, immediately stop their quest there. If you can make your way through all the doubt provoking feedback and still find yourself prepared to take on the task then you’ve passed the first step. This feedback is a good way to vet out people that might have a ‘romantic’ idea of what the process entails and are not mentally prepared for the full range of the experience.
For many students, tree planting is an attractive way to earn money during their Summer break to cover tuition fees or student debt. For others, it is an entry into a career in forestry or an adventure for those who seek to challenge themselves mentally and physically.
Finding a Tree Planting Job In Canada
Late in 2018, after posting a request on King Kong mentioning that we were looking to join a crew, I was surprised by how many offers of work we received from different companies. After a quick back and forth with various company foremen, we decided on a contract with Spectrum Resource Group. Although the company didn’t have a sterling reputation with the online community, I got a good feeling from the foreman and liked the idea that they offered other forestry work after the tree planting contract was over. They were also happy to take on two, inexperienced planters which other companies were a bit more reluctant to do.
We finalized these plans at the beginning of January whilst still in Europe. The start date was set for the beginning of May and would be based in Alberta near an area called Hinton.
We arrived in Canada at the end of April. I made arrangements to meet our foreman at the local gas station in Hinton, three hours away and close to where our tree planting camp was based. Our first attempt to get there was to hitchhike, with all our gear. This was a complete failure.
We tried again the next day. With bus tickets in hand, we went to the wrong bus station and missed our ride. I had to call the foreman to let him know – not a great way to start.
We did, however, finally reach our destination and met our foreman, along with two other Canadians who would be a part of our crew. After a 1 hour drive along a remote, dirt road we arrived at our camp.
Our First Day At The Camp
While some of the planters, who had already arrived, set up their tents, we went to explore the area. The first guys we met at the camp were Kenyans who were setting up their tents at the edge of the forest. If you grow up in Africa and meet other Africans abroad this always puts a smile on your face. Despite race or culture, you feel a sense of kinship – one that is based on playful humour and camaraderie. Very quickly we were laughing and chatting about the upcoming season. These Kenyans were experienced planters so they ran us through all of the basics and how to best mentally prepare for what lay ahead. They were very helpful in getting Kamila and I up to speed with what it entails to be a good planter.
We found a lovely spot at one corner of the camp to set up our tent. This would become our home for the next 3 months.
The first two nights we were totally unprepared. We didn’t have any mattress nor blanket – only sleeping bags. In early May at high altitude, the temperature at nights can still dip below zero! Damn, it was cold.
Lesson no. 1: Invest in a good mattress and a warm blanket!
I remember on the first day of planting I was given 6 things: a planting bag, a shovel, a plot cord, a book to fill the number of trees I planted for the day, a pencil to write with and a roll of toilet paper for when I needed to go to the loo. Yup, no toilets, just the vast Canadian wilderness!
What Does A Tree Planting Camp Look Like?
Most remote tree-planting camps are equipped with essentials: shower trailer, food trailer, portable toilets, dining tent with tables and chairs and a tent for drying wet clothing and boots. Most planters stay in a tent for the season, others bring their van/trailer/car to sleep in.
Typical Day Of Tree Planting
Our mornings would start at 5.45 am. We’d go down to breakfast at 6 am and prepare our own lunchbox for the day. Trucks would depart at 7 am sharp. One guy would always arrive half asleep at 6.55 am with his dirty plate, to grab a ‘breakfast to go’ and jump into the truck moments before departure.
An hour’s drive would take us to the area of land we would be planting for the day. (some camps transport you by helicopter).
Our schedule would usually be four days on and one day rest. On rest days we would have the opportunity to go into the local town to get whatever we needed. Many would use the night before day off to wind down and party around a campfire. Dinner would take place between 6 pm-7 pm and we’d get to bed shortly after this. You go to bed with the moon and wake up with the sun. It’s a continuous flow of work, eat and sleep.
Learning Curve And Challenges of Tree Planting
On the first day of planting, I made an effort to master my technique and plant as many trees as I could. I think I finished a full day with 600 trees planted. This might sound like a lot to the uninitiated tree planter but it’s not for seasoned planters. The better planters or ‘ballers’ in our camp were planting 3000+ trees from the first day. For the first 2 weeks, anything above 2000 seemed physically impossible to me. However, as you progress in the season, you will be amazed by the level of improvement.
Quick note: The land in different parts of Canada varies. Our contract was in Alberta on terrain that was mostly ‘prepped land’. Depending on the planter – some prefer ‘prepped’ and others prefer ‘raw’ land. The difficulty of the land impacts how much you get paid per tree planted. It also impacts how fast you can plant. All tree planting contracts have a density requirement – in other words, how much space is required between trees that are planted. Generally, you can measure your density by steps or by throwing ‘plot cords’. On each contract, there will be a checker who examines the quality and density of trees planted.
The first few days of planting are a shock to the system. You have to adjust to working outdoors, in ALL WEATHER CONDITIONS until late afternoon. It was often a 10-hour day.
Then it’s the insects – mosquitoes and black flies like you’ve never experienced before. I remember waking up one morning and Kamila wasn’t able to open one of her eyes. It was because the blackflies had bitten her so badly that her face had swollen overnight.
Lesson no. 2: Bring a strong mosquito repellent or a mosquito net for your face.
During the first two weeks, I experienced a day of planting when it did not stop raining. The wind was howling. I had no rain gear and I remember the only thing keeping me from freezing was the constant movement of my body. It was a real mental test. On this day I had to strip down in the middle of nowhere and change my clothes whilst drenched with rain.
Lesson no. 3: Bring a rain jacket.
You cover a large amount of distance when you’re tree planting.
Lesson no. 4: Invest in high quality, comfortable pair of waterproof shoes.
It may come as a surprise that tree planting is mostly a mental game. It’s like running a marathon whereby you have to focus on the moment and put one foot in front of the other. It’s a great way to develop a mental override. There were often moments when we were pushed to our limits or felt exhausted. Despite this, we had to find a way to keep going.
Benefits of Tree Planting
There are a lot of positive aspects that come with tree planting. When people gather in environments like tree planting camps, they tend to look out for each other. Everyone realizes that it’s hard work and the fact that you stick it out together brings people closer. In our camp, people were productive, mostly positive and had a lot more patience than city dwellers that I have experienced in other parts of the world. Here Are Some of The Benefits That We Experienced From Tree Planting:
The lack of internet and cellphone use combined with not having to think about rent or food has a noticeable impact on mental health. There is no time to stress after a day of hard work at a tree planting camp. It’s the ultimate mental detox.
Tree Planting is a production-based job. Your direct effort impacts your results and ability to earn. It’s a job that teaches you self-discipline.
Tree Planting is considered one of the hardest jobs in Canada and for good reason. Making it through a season of tree planting is hard and cultivates resilience. This quality of resilience can help you with whatever you choose to do in life.
Appreciation of the ‘little things’
A season of tree planting will make you notice the things you may have taken for granted. A warm bed, a hot bath and the other creature comforts that the 21st century provides will be (re)appreciated. After a day of hard work, we returned to camp excited about a hot meal waiting for us. On our days off we would go into town for a short trip – to do laundry and buy some of our favourite snacks became something to look forward to.
Being outdoor 24/7
Fresh air, physical activity and regular sleep patterns work wonders for your health. Campfires with your crew are a fun way to spend your days off.
If you’re prepared to work hard it’s a great way to save money. There are not many entry-level jobs in Canada that pay the equivalent without requiring previous skills. With the money we earned from tree planting we bought a beautiful van and financed a road trip down to California and 8 other states in the US. See our 9 essential Van Life Tips for more info.
To sum it all up – Tree planting was a fantastic way to start our journey in Canada. The whole experience was an adventure and allowed us to network, get fit and earn some money. After tree planting, every other job feels like a walk in the park!
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