The summer work season followed on the heels of last season. Once again, we spent most of our time in the old burned area north of Slave Lake. By now, the undergrowth has become so dense that the logging company chose to herbicide large parts of the remaining areas to plant.
A huge challenge this year was just finding the cutblocks we were contracted to plant. By now trees that hadn’t been cut were burnt and fallen to the ground and covered with grass making the outlines very challenging to find by helicopter.
Above: Owner Cal, crew supervisor, Jen J and myself flying around with maps out trying to make sense of the world. Once you land, the underbrush obscures everything making it difficult to know where to get the helicopter to drop trees. I spent much of the summer with a nagging feeling of not being one hundred percent sure of where I was!
For our first camp of the year, we put our entire camp in a sea container during the winter and drove it into our first camp location on an ice road. Then in spring, we helicoptered in and set it up. The sea container then gets driven out next winter. We still have to fly camp out to our next location but it saves us from flying the camp in one way which is pretty expensive. The Bell212 we flew it out with runs 2,000 dollars an hour.
Above: Our first camp with our trusty sea container. Not a very picturesque place really. We’re on a forced day off as the helicopter can’t fly in the fog.
Above: I never remember finding so many eggs before. I could have eaten quite well off these. The brown eggs on each side are the eggs of the annoying Lesser Yellowlegs, a sandpiper that follows you around all day yelling like smoke detector. I nearly broke them out of spite.
Above: As complex as the boreal forest is, it has some governing characteristics. One is disturbance and dominance. Working this massive burnt area for a few years has been an interesting experience to see the waves of colonizers, adapters, infestations, die offs, and emergences. While the forest is in its transition phase, different things explode and monopolize their new opportunities. Incidental to these big scale transitions, it also happened to be a peak year for tent caterpillars. After they ate everything in sight and turned into moths, I watched a swarm of chickadees dogfighting them and devouring them! Chickadees always seemed cute before, but to see them hovering and hunting like attack helicopters, I had a new found respect for them. I’m fond of discovering that every year there is some new behavior and sight to see in the forest.
Needless to say the bugs are pretty bad. They seem to be worse in the burnt areas though I’m not sure why. Exposed skin was impossible. I wore socks with the toes cut out to cover the gap between my shirt cuffs and my gloves. The is no escape except in your tent but as my day starts at 5:30am and doesn’t finish untill 9pm, my tent is a mostly a far off vision in a long day filled with crawling black flies.
When the dragonflies come out, it becomes a reason to celebrate!
As much as the bugs can mentally take their toll on you, we’ve learned from experience to keep ourselves as entertained as best we can in the middle of nowhere. Every end of the shift is some kind of event planned in advance to keep spirits up. Some of these become annual events. Last year when the floods trapped us in Kananaskis, we celebrated “half christmas” on June 25th and it was such a hit we brought it back this year. On June 25, half way till Christmas, we all drew names from a hat and exchanged gifts such as we could muster under a poorly decorated tree. As tired as everyone was, the gifts were all as well thought out as they were appreciated and generated a few weepy eyes.
Above: Celebrating Half Christmas while a welcome breeze keeps the bugs at bay, a christmas miracle! Standing at far left with red shawl, Thunder smiles upon receiving a gift from Jon, wearing the white cap.
Above: Our annual costume party is legendary. Tim, dressed as a giant fly swatter, is chasing Joshua, dressed as a blackfly in a spirited performance piece! More than a chance to let off steam, these events occupy the mind during long hours of toil.
For the most part this year, the weather wasn’t as nasty as some years. A cold spring and warm summer would be the best description. A few storms conspired to make life difficult for me. At one point I had a large crew of 20 people flying deep into the bush during very uncertain conditions. On the first flight in, the pilot and I played cat and mouse with the fog to try and get in only to have him ask me if I thought we could get out. If I wanted him to, he would take the next loads of people in but possibly strand them there at the end of the day. It was a horrible decision to have to make with so little information. We dropped the crew I had on board into the blocks and flew around a bit trying to make a quick decision. Things seemed to be deteriorating and based on what weather was coming in, I didn’t think we could get out at the end of the day. We picked the crew up and returned to the forward staging area. Highballers don’t like missing days so I felt a lot of pressure to make the right call.
The next day came and we all flew in, had a massive day and just finished up as a huge storm came flying in. The last crew and myself waited with a bit of horror as the storm hit just as he returned. We threw ourselves in and pilot Colin pulled up before the door was even closed and fought the machine through the squall. A few strokes of lightning were dangerously close but after 5 minutes of putting the hammer down, we were in the clear and safely on our way back to the highway.
Above: An approaching storm complicates an already complex day with 20 people trying to finish 8 different heli blocks. Days like this are crazy, we woke very early and left at 6:30am and finished at 9pm and got back to camp at 10pm. Lots of complex logistics to keep everything running smoothly but when it all comes together, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Photo by Alani.
Above: There’s no feeling like the last day of the season! Thunder’s crew celebrates the last tree of the 5 million tree season season.
As is tradition, for the last night in camp, everyone dresses in formal wear for a really good supper together and for our awards show and variety night. We actually have rubbermaids filled with dresses and jackets and ties to pull this off. There’s something terribly ridiculous about seeing people who are normally covered in mud and sweat, in semi formal wear even if a bit creased!
Above: Matty takes the official picture of all the ladies dressed up. After a gourmet meal we give out a few awards to people both respectful or ridiculous. Then comes the variety night where people perform songs, poems, skits or performances they’ve been dreaming up all season.
Above: Our “camp man” Brandon, apart from being one the sharpest wits, is also a pretty effective stage designer for the middle of the bush! After living in the apocalyptic looking burn all summer, these living conifers looked to us like jewel encrusted pillars of a Persian palace. He went to great effort to find them and incorporate them into this masterpiece of light and shadow. The guitar player Jonas, is a young German travelling through Canada who was fortunate enough to bump into foreman Thunder who convinced him to plant trees with us. He was a natural and seemed impervious to hardship and suffering. Accompanying him is his fellow greenhorn, Emily who, while not obvious to herself at the start of the season, was also made of a stuff tough enough to withstand anything.
Above: Thunder reads a tree planting poem she wrote. I’m not sure what is more impressive, Brandon’s carved podium or Thunder’s gold lame outfit!
After the performances are done, the evening winds down with a dance party. It feels a bit like a very strange wedding. It’s hard to convey how much joy is expressed here, but after months of being away from home, in the middle of nowhere, going tired and thirsty through cold and heat, mud, bugs and every kind of frustration and exhaustion possible, the realization that we now get to reap the rewards creates an explosion of joy. From here we scatter to all corners of the world to do all sorts of exceptional things. Though perhaps after a long nap…