The freezing rain pelts your back, creeping into your boots and soaking through your clothes. You curse yourself for begging for rain during the hot and bug-infested 30-plus degree weather the day before.
Surrounding you is a cutblock where a logging company has chopped down all the trees in the area, leaving behind brush and stumps. You stumble over them before screefing away the foliage with your beat-up boots and pushing your shovel into the earth. You then stick the tree seedling straight in the hole before kicking the dirt to hold the seedling in place.
Being cold and drenched sucks, but you keep going to stop yourself from freezing. Your hands ache, stuck in a claw even when you don’t have your shovel in your hand. Your back hurts from being bent over most of the day. Biting black flies, no-see-ums, and mosquitoes swarm your face and you think you might be starting to go crazy.
You ask yourself, Why am I still here? But you put your head down and keep planting.
* * *
As the hiring process for this year’s tree-planting season begins, rookies and experienced planters alike have to start thinking about applying.
I’ve never been tree-planting, but I’ve always been very curious about it. The experience sounds awful for the most part. Yet when my friends recount these seemingly terrible, physically and emotionally taxing memories, they have a mad twinkle in their eye—almost like they miss it.
Tree planting is an integral part of the forest industry. Logging and forestry rules are strict in BC, compared to other places. A mix of 20 different native tree species, most commonly pine, fir, and spruce, are planted together to help keep the ecosystem diverse and resilient. Logging companies are legally required to reforest the areas they harvest, and the reforestation process is usually carried out by hired private companies.
This is where tree-planters come in.
Tree-planting involves transplanting tree seedlings into the ground by planters who are hired seasonally. Making money through tree-planting is a numbers-based game—the more you plant, the more you’re paid.
Planters are paid on average around 12–14 cents per tree planted. For the first couple of weeks, many rookies make below minimum wage as they learn to plant better and faster. It’s a skill that takes some time to get the hang of; once mastered, tree-planters can make as much as $500 on a good day.
Although that number may seem incredible, there are many hardships to consider. Ask any tree-planter about their experience and their answer will most likely be that the highs are very high and the lows are very low.
Tree-planting is an extremely physically demanding job. You spend eight to 10 hours a day with a hefty weight of seedlings in a pack hanging around your waist, and most of the day bent over as you methodically plant trees. All the while, bugs are constantly biting at you and swarming in your face. You have to be on constant watch so you don’t plunge your shovel through a wasp’s nest and face the dire consequences.
VIU Interior Design student and tree-planter of three years, Solveig Watkins, recounts some of her negative experiences while planting. “It’s really physically hard and monotonous work,” Watkins explains.
“But even more so than the physical element, it can be incredibly draining mentally,” she says. “You are there for three months. By the end of the season you’re feeling the effects of fatigue. It’s getting hot, you’ve been out there for so long being dirty, living in a tent, and you’re all craving home. Getting sick sucks, and the bugs and remoteness get really tedious.”
Megan Kollman, Forestry student and friend of Watkins who has also planted trees for three years—one year with Watkins—mentions the hardships of working on rougher terrain.
“You definitely see people at their best and worst,” Kollman says, “and the land itself can be frustrating. If it’s really rocky, you’re hitting it with your shovel and it hurts your hand. You are paid per tree, so if the land is tough, you can’t get trees in as fast as you want to.”
Jane Coady is a recently graduated Recreation and Tourism student who has planted for two years, working with Watkins and Kollman for one of them. She recounts a time this past August while working on a cutblock in Mackenzie, BC, surrounded by smoke, heat, and smog from the forest fires.
“The fire winds were whistling through the trees so the trees were cracking back and forth ominously,” she says. “The colour of the ground was almost red and sparky because of the rocks. I felt like I was in a weird video game. It was crazy to me that it was something we were working in.”
Coady was disheartened to discover that all the trees she’d planted had eventually been burned by those same fires a few days later.
With all of these downsides, why would any sane person bother with this line of work?
One reason most people continue to tree-plant each year is the money. Many first-year tree-planters barely break even in their first couple of months as they get used to the planting process. Some companies also have camp fees, although B.C. legislation prohibits reforestation companies from charging tree-planters more than $25 per day.
However, like any difficult task, the more time spent dedicated to this work, the more profitable it becomes as planters learn how to plant efficiently. In addition, camps with better contracts, including better pay, are more likely to hire experienced planters.
The land in BC is more diverse than in other provinces; however, BC also has the strictest laws on planter treatment policies and pay, meaning better quality camps and higher wages per tree than more Eastern provinces.
Apex Reforestation, Summit Reforestation, and Folklore Reforestation are three examples of “rookie mills”, or companies that are more likely to hire and are best catered to helping first-time tree-planters. Kollman, Watkins, and Coady worked for Apex Reforestation together in the summer of 2020.
“Working for a company with a large number of rookies, you kind of have this rookie experience together where you are all on the same learning curve,” Coady explains. “The foremen for these rookie mills know how to facilitate that learning experience. It’s also easier to get hired at these companies, and a great way to get started.”
Each year Watkins has been back to tree-plant, she has made about $5k more than the previous one due to an increase in knowledge and skill in planting. She says the planting season works very well for a typical university student, as it falls between May and August.
Another reason for tree-planting is the people you meet. Kollman explains that many people from all walks of life from across Canada, and the world, come to tree-plant each year, creating a unique community.
Intense bonds can form quickly between planters due to the close proximity over three months and the difficulty of the work. Both Watkins and Coady say that they made some of their best and closest friends during tree-planting, many of whom they’re still in touch with.
“I really cherish the connections I made planting,” Watkins says. “We are all doing the same thing, we all understand, and there’s also no distractions. It’s a more genuine way to get to know people even though it’s such a bizarre situation.”
A third reason why tree-planting may be worth all the hardships—and why I personally feel most drawn to it—is the physical and psychological journey tree-planting can take you on.
Kollman states that her first year of planting completely changed her as a person. She felt stronger and more capable, her confidence increased, and she gained a greater appreciation for nature.
Coady remembers the empowerment she felt during her rookie year when she planted 1000 trees in a day for the first time, and then again when she planted 2000 trees. It’s a major milestone for first-timers, providing a sense of accomplishment and the drive to continue.
“There’s this phenomenon when rookies finish their first season,” she says. “You’ll almost see this psychological boost in how much they believe in themselves and what they can do. My first semester back after that rookie year of planting and going back to school, I remember thinking, ‘If I could put that many trees in the ground, I can kick ass on my papers. I can do anything.’”
In addition to the aforementioned pros, bonus benefits of tree-planting include helping the planet, exploring parts of BC that you may not have otherwise visited (particularly small northern towns such as Quesnel), and spending more time in nature, with less time focused on technology and the modern, busy world.
All three women have their own distinct pieces of advice for potential rookie tree-planters.
Kollman says it’s important not to take the job too seriously, and to pay attention to yourself.
“Take it day by day,” she says. “It’s such a tough job and there are so many factors and elements that can impact your day. Just keep pushing yourself everyday, worrying about yourself, and competing with yourself. You have your own limits and abilities, so focus on achieving your own milestones.”
To improve your tree-planting experience, Coady advises investing in good shoes, a great tent, and a waterproof rain jacket, and to focus on taking care of your body, as it’s your money maker.
She also warns that, although there are fun times with other planters and moments of true connection with nature, the expectation of tree-planting should be of hard work, and to focus on grinding everyday to make money. Everything else is just an added bonus.
Watkins was once told, “If you can make it past the first two weeks, you can make it for the season.”
“I know in my first week I really thought about quitting. I was like, ‘This is not what I thought it would be, this is kind of freaky,’” she says. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s cool to see how capable you are if you really push yourself. Also, go to that first bonfire night. You’ll find someone just as scared and tired as you to make the days a little brighter.”
When asked if she would recommend tree-planting to other VIU students, she says that it greatly depends on the person’s attitude and their reason for going.
“I would say it is important if you are money-driven,” Watkins explains. “People who are primarily looking for an experience or to help the environment tend not to have the best time or do the best, either. But if you are looking for kind of a unique way to make money, have a capable body with no real proneness to injuries, and are up for a challenge, I’d say go for it!”
If you are considering tree-planting this year, both Kollman and Coady recommend joining the Facebook group King Kong Reforestation, which has information on planting companies, advice on planting, and plenty of memes. It’s a platform filled with other tree-planters, rookies and more experienced alike, to help you with any and all planting inquiries.
For women or members of the LGBTQ+ community who are interested in tree-planting, the Facebook group Radical Silviculture is a cis-man-free zone designed as a safe space to help provide both potential and seasoned planters with more information, and a space to share their experiences.
To learn more about the day-to-day life and hardships of tree-planting, check out the website Hard Core Treeplanters. It provides an overview on what tree-planting is, the positives and negatives, companies, equipment, and strategies. Kollman also recommends checking out the YouTube documentary “One Million Trees,” which includes information on reforestation and displays the adversities of tree-planting in British Columbia.