Thursday, August 21, 2008

Kemess 2

Most people become tree planters because they don’t want to work in restaurants while putting themselves through college. Those who last in the bush, whether they had a good time or not, tend to see planting as an ‘amazing life experience,’ on par with, say, a trip through Kenya. These people will move on, eventually forced by higher expectations of career and purpose, by their desire to live in a city, by their acknowledgement that they don’t actually like planting, by other opportunities and a need to feel like they are growing up and becoming something or somebody that they were not before.

Some people do not move on. Some of these people, when asked, will tell you how much they like planting: the people, the culture, the camaraderie – the kind of relationships birthed in physical toil, hardship, and mutual dependence. Some love the actual physical act of slashing open soil, and kicking holes closed. Some experience the first modicum of success or triumph in their lives and never want to let it go. Some are just so perfectly suited to it, so good at what they do, that there is never a question of doing anything else. Some do it because they don’t know what else to do.

It is true that I spent Kemmess with members of the latter categories. I was the youngest member of the crew, and had committed far less of my life to the work than the other six members. I was not, however, the youngest member of the camp. There were miners, and contractors, sitting in the lounge room watching Ultimate Fighters on television, chewing tobacco, who must have been culled from the surrounding small towns. I sat with them while they talked to one another, never saying more than a few words between spits. They must have been in their late teens or early twenties.

We worked hard for two days, and then found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. It would eventually provoke the events that finished me off. On the morning of the third day we were told that there were only two possible dates that we could fly out on. We had to either finish all of our trees by the Thursday, four days away, or space them out until the Monday. We were also told that it is not proper to take a day off in camp. We had a decision to make: would we work long hours for six straight days and then, maybe, maybe, finish? Or would we go easy.

On day sixty-eight of my season we decided to go hard. The land was getting flatter and more sandy (sand being the best thing to plant in, the crème de la crème of cream), we said to ourselves, meaning the numbers would increase dramatically. We decided to work from 7:30 until 5:30, but somewhere along the line, Cam got overzealous. We ended up going until almost 6:30, narrowly missed dinner. It was a huge day for production, and my biggest day of the season. As a crew of seven we planted twenty-two thousand trees. If we could keep that up, then, theoretically, we could finish by Thursday. But we were not happy. Simon and Ben fought with Cam over being pushed too hard. I went to bed with tensed muscles, feeling unhealthy, unable to stop visualizing shovel cuts holes and trees trees trees. I barely slept.

We looked weary the next morning in the cafeteria. It was a bad morning, the first of a few for me. The kind of morning where one had to force food into one’s mouth and swallow against the will of one’s guts, knowing the calories would be needed, wishing there was an easier way to get them. My hands felt arthritic: they shook as I lifted my fork. We would have to go hard for four more days to get the contract done. This made me despair. I knew I had to just get my body to the block, and things would take care of themselves. The thought of planting trees, even just one, was concomitant with a feeling of heaviness and dread. Benny describes waking up that morning and just being, like, fuck.

Cam called the push off. There was no reason to ‘kill ourselves’ this late in the season. He had alienated Benny and Simon, who had been told this whole thing would be ‘smooth’ by Rhino’s owner. The new plan was to take it easy. Some of us were to go home on Thursday, and those that wanted to would stay. Knowing I was the farthest down on the totem, I told Cam I would like to stay but will gladly go in the place of anyone else. With a show of hands, everyone else indicated a desire to stay. It would be Jen and I. I was relieved.

We took the afternoon off that day, but my spirits never recovered. Every subsequent morning I dragged myself through my routine activities trying not to think of their motivation or purpose. I spread peanut butter across some bread. I filled my water jug with tropical juice. I carried my boots, my bag, my water, and my coffee awkwardly as I walked by the big trucks, the pile of rocks, the aluminum sided building, and to the truck.

My evenings, too, my time off, went by painfully. I could not enjoy them because they were too close to, and invariably led towards my mornings. Soon, I found myself in my land and out of hope.

And the land got a lot worse. Our second block was a gravel parking lot. Tallies went way down. It got colder. It rained for two days. The others were starting to feel heavy, too.

Two days after expressing a desire to stay, all of a sudden, everyone wanted to go home on the Thursday. I despaired some more. I was low on the totem. I would be the person who had to stay if everyone jumped ship. Jen and I.

Simon and Ben had been getting stoned every night, hiding like high school kids in the forest west of camp, near to an outdoor hockey rink that was falling apart: it’s plywood rotting a deep brown, some of the boards having fallen over. They would say they were going to do some paperwork.

Ben liked to make us laugh: he worked as a grip in Montreal in the off-season. He had the most relaxed attitude among our crew with regards to production. His cache breaks would last for over an hour, and he didn’t seem to feel guilty about it. I tried to pressure him one day into working harder, pleading with him, saying ‘If we don’t get enough trees in by Thursday I’m gonna have to be the one that stays now, and…’ He told me there are things that you can control, and there are things that you can’t, and I felt a little better. He was not motivated by money, he said, already having enough to get him through the fall. He came here to run a six pack, and analogized it to a team sport. ‘When you are kids,’ he said, ‘you have a team that you go around with playing sport. Now you have a team and you work.’ He liked to come and be outdoors for a little while. He also said he used planting as a kind of rehab.

As did stoic Simon: in passing mentioning ‘partying way too much,’ in thick, thick accent during his explanation of being here. I asked him if this would be the end of his season. He told me he would end his season at this time next year. He smiled and there was a silence. He explained: he planned on working on the coast in the fall, up until November, and then cone-picking through February, when the spring season starts on the coast again, and then back to the interior, back to Alberta.

My god, I thought. Cam had once worked a 200 day season and he elaborated: ‘When you work that long you take it easy in the daytime, make your three-hundred and go home. You get tired, sure, but you find a second wind – and then a third and fourth. You just keep going.’

I went. One morning Cam told me I was exhibiting a thousand yard stare. I try not to complain to Cam, so I started talking about Vietnam vets, having seen too much, and how it was such a tragedy that all of those guys came back changed forever, and he wasn’t listening. He interrupted me: ‘I think you’re just done.’ I was relieved.

I said, ‘Yes, I am just done,’ and it was agreed that I would leave on the Thursday.
Jen, warrior Jen, ever-ready and stronger Jen, would stay with Cam and Colleen to clean up the rest of the work. She told me she envied me - that she wished she could leave herself, but I only half believed her. ‘This is where Jen is supposed to be,’ I thought. ‘This is where she is massive. And Cam, free-wheeling, always seeming terrifyingly close to peril, would not find it easy to be this kind of Cam anywhere else. The outside world would not allow him to be productive, would need him to change.’

And me. I knew I had to go.

On the last day we planted until two thirty, and I made sure every single tree was perfection: straight up and down, one finger deep. Still, it dragged. Line planting in a group of five, we pinched the front of a piece and ended up having to walk in bags around a dormant body of grey water, to a green, buggy back corner, full of thick, slimy clay. This is called dead-walking, and it is something that is always to be avoided: a waste of time and energy, and thus - it goes, when one is doing piece work - money. We would plant that back pocket, and then walk back out, up a rolling grey hill, towards the one main cache, where, panting we could see the entirety of the piece. We all took breaks together and chatted, the smokers smoking, me eating. I planted alongside Simon, and we started counting down the bags early in the day. We were going to do five bags of 300. A fifty-fifty split: One-fifty Spruce, one-fifty Pine.

Our pace, already slow, slackened as the day went on. We had four in by 1:30, and decided that fifth should be a small bag. I took 240, and headed back in. Simon took 210 and had a smoke. Twenty trees into my line I saw Jen laboring up the hill towards me, evidently bagged out. I asked her if she had finished with the back pocket, and she said yes. I was relieved. I reached the end of our line and started backfilling.

Soon after, the other four were all around me. We worked well together, nobody getting pinched, everyone knowing intuitively what the other people were doing, where they could plant, what they should do. With a dozen or so trees left in my bag, I started back up the hill towards the cache. Halfway between the back and the cache, where a truck was now parked, waiting to pick me up, I put my last tree into the ground. I sat down on the hard grey slope and watched the others. They were talking and working, laughing. I looked over the barren flat gravel and saw thin green grids, marked by small bits of up-turned soil: the flip. I could hear Simon counting down his trees at the top of his voice. ‘Three…. (step step shovel throw kick) Two…. (step step step throw wiggle kick throw wiggle) OOOONNNNEEEEE!’ His shovel flew up into the air, spinning and flipping in a great arc before falling and hitting the ground. Then he went and picked it up.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Video: Morning at Kemess

Kemess 1

Prince George is in some rolling hill type mountains, spreading flat and shapeless to my eye in the airplane above and approaching from South-South West, and I arrived there at 10 in the morning on the seventh of August. I was instructed to be at the Rhino HQ at around 11, and was the last to arrive, in a large 15 passenger 'airporter' van driven by an obese and friendly native of the city. He was halfway through a sombre discussion of the downtown drug problem when I saw my colleagues and colleagues to be waiting in a parking lot. Cam was glad to see me, as I had not been in touch over the four days off, and he asked me if I had done my WHMIS test, and I said yes, I was all ready. He told me we would be flying out at 5pm, so we had a lot of time to kill.

There was Cam and his pretty, blue-eyed girlfriend Colleen, Jen, Simon: a 32 year old tall Quebecois man with red hair and a raspy voice, Benoit: another Frenchman in his 30's with a thick scar across his eyebrow and forehead, funny and talkative, and Nick Verberne: 'Bernie' a stout, happy go-lucky Ontarian with a booming voice. They were all, or had all been foremen at some point. They were all heavy, heavy smokers. I went from being the oldest person on my crew, all summer long, to the youngest by far, which was a relief.

We got to the airport almost late, and the person weighed our stuff. There was a sign near the door you walked through into the hanger that instructed us that our baggage could be subjected to search - we had previously been told that Kemmess was a dry-camp, that as soon as you were caught with drink or drugs was as soon as you were on your way home. I looked at Benny and Simon as they handed over their bags with a little bit of anxiety and a measured politeness. We walked out and felt a bit like Indiana Jones.

We took off and were in the air for about one hour, flying North, North-West. After a while we saw mountains.

The trees were smaller. We landed on a gravel runway and there were a bunch of other planes lined up. There was no bathroom on the plane, and a few people went straight to a nearby trailer to find one. Outside the trailer three school-buses, orange and black, opened their doors and people with bags came spilling out onto the gravel. Working people in denim and such, having finished their shift at the mine, on their way back into the town to see their families, one could presume. Then, we got onto the bus with all of our things and drove down a very, very wide clay road, on the left hand side, which was awkward, but, it turns out, purposeful (at mines they drive on the left hand side, so that when big vehicles collide head on, the drivers sitting on the left of them are clear of the impact and thus safer). It was much colder here, in the Northern Rockies, than it had been in Prince George, as we got out and moved our things towards a Gazebo bordering six or seven rows of ATCO trailers, each around 300 feet long, each holding about 50 small dormitory style rooms. We checked in, and went for dinner.

The eating area resembled a high school cafeteria, all bubbly frying sounds, linoleum and aluminum; only this one had great food and no cashier. We sat down, all of us planters at a round table, and ate gigantic meals. There was excitement around the table at the prospect of eating so well. There were tons of things to choose from. Three or four main courses, juices, a refrigerator full of different cakes, and pre-made sandwiches all promised to make our stay comfortable. The initial giddiness was slightly tempered by the feeling of being different, being watched. We conversed about what the miners might have thought about us. Our occupations are not that unalike, it was said: we are both primary resource laborers, both stationed in remote worksites. Only there is a difference. We stood out. We had beards and were far skinnier. We had two Frenchman, and two young women in our midst. There was a tension, especially in the eyes of the younger miners. An unstated conflict.

After dinner we explored a little, found a games room, played a little bit of pool, a little bit of ping pong, and then went to bed.
They had us wake up at Five AM, and we walked to the health and safety wing.

We walked past all of the things at the mine: the pile of rocks, continually growing under a large conveyor-belt, crane mechanism, the gigantic trucks, the smaller trucks, the contorted looking backhoes and rippers and other yellow steel structures that looked like giant tropical insects, the piles of 10 foot tall tires, the rocks, etc. Past the insignias and logos in the hallways, the logo of a gold river running through the mountains, the motto: safe production. Our orientation lasted three hours. We watched videos about industrial accidents, with graphic reenactments of the injuries and swearing. We watched the Bear Aware video - everyone had seen it before - and it was great, as usual, watching the big brown and black bears flop around.

We were told there were a couple of Grizzly Bears that liked to visit camp, that we should watch out. One in particular had been seen by many, and the miners had named him Rufus. We all drank coffee and laid our heads down on the table, jesting frequently. The videos were well produced, but their message redundant. They went on and we jested less frequently, laying our heads on the table. After a while we stopped talking.

At 9 we drove, and on the way to our trees we saw Rufus grazing in some grass near a set of pipes, facing towards, his head bordered by his large round shoulders, brown all over, face down looking for something, and swaying to and fro as he gently moved about. He looked soft and cumbersome, like a giant labrador.

Our reefer was on a high road, and overlooked the dam, or rather, the back side of the dam, that we were to plant for the next ten days.

It looked really good, but turned out to be so-so in places and good in others.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Video: Burning Boxes

UPDATE: End of Season Party

The Sun Pines trees near Nordegg went in quickly, partly due to greed and the knowledge that this would be the last chance to make money for quite a while, and also because all of the weaker planters in camp had long since been replaced by veteran pounders from other companies. At the end, the competition bared its teeth unashamedly. Planters 'creamed' each other out, argued over land, and complained about having no trees while foreman bickered over who got the good blocks, who got the shaft and who was to blame. Everybody moaned when they had it tough and then ran as fast as they could when they had it good. And now they are all done, and gone.

On the last day we finished late, coming back to camp to find an open fire pit with a grill above, and people huddled around. There were large slabs of meat we were to prepare for ourselves, as celebration, and boxes of sweet wine. We drank, ate, showered and made another fire in the middle of a field. Wax tree boxes were being added frequently and their heat pushed us away into a wide semi-circle, single file, mostly, with the more popular surrounded by clusters of smiles, occasionally bursting into unified laughter. People were talking about their plans; some swore never to come back, and threw their equipment into the fire: boots, bags, shovel; tents, even.

The Owner came over with a beer in his hand. He approached Jen and asked her what she would be doing next year, listening intently. Meanwhile, the Cook and another Planter were preparing a whipped cream pie, like the kind used by clowns, for a prank of sorts. They asked me if I thought it would be appropriate to pie the Owner, and I said I thought so, not completely sure, because I do not know him that well, but you would have to be kind of an asshole to get angry at something like that, on the last day of the contract. I then compared the pie to the cooler of Gatorade that rains on football coaches whenever they win something important, and the analogy strengthened the Planter's resolve.
The Owner was talking up his company to Jen, hoping that he could convince her to leave Celtic to run a crew on Rhino next year, and she was nodding, flattered, when the pie hit him, square. Everybody around the fire said "ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!" loudly as the Planter shirked into the background with a fearful smile. There was a pause before a few people started chanting "Speech!Speech!Speech!" All eyes beheld the Owner, in silent anticipation, as he used his hand to smear the bright, white whipped cream off of his sunburned face, out of his eye sockets and nose, sweeping it towards his mouth, and then licking at it through a half grin. He had not intended on speaking, or had not brought his notes, and he stumbled through a few lines of thanks. Some of the Rhino lifers were cheering for him, for the words "awesome season," the foremen and those with a stake in the Owner's regards, and that made me feel like I had to cheer, too. So I clapped a little bit and it ended quickly.
Everyone went back to talking. Two girls kissed against a truck and then disappeared. The French drank against the English in a beer chugging boat race. Chairs were thrown into the flames, and cans were discarded about the grass.

The next morning, anyone who had a car left camp early to avoid tear-down; those who needed rides didn't get out until 3pm. People hugged each other goodbye, some making plans to meet up down the road. They are done, and it is a good thing, because they are exhausted, but it is also sad, because things will be different now.

I am not done. Rhino has one more contract: one hundred-thousand trees for seven people at a gold-mine somewhere north of Mackenzie, BC. Five Foremen will be going, including Cam, and two planters: Jen and I. For eleven days we will live in a mining camp and plant the soil on the backside of the dam.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Cam's Greed Crew

Jennifer Foster 27
Jen was a high-production foreman at Celtic Reforestation, whose season was cut short by their inability to acquire a summer contract; who had to make the transition to planter at Rhino. She is unbelievably driven on the block, never allowing herself a cache break, and setting an uncomfortably fast pace for the rest of us to follow. She lives in Edmonton, and has probably impressed the hell out of anyone she has ever worked with or for.

Alexis Darrisse 24
Learned to speak English in his five seasons planting trees in BC. In the off season, he taught physics to high-schoolers. He has worked for Jen for the past two years, highballing her crew at Celtic, and boasts of being the company's safest driver. Alexis' humor gravitates towards the the archetype of the well meaning but embarrassing father figure - he is humble and sensitive and probably a great person to hug.

Adam Babiak 22
Adam is a second year planter from Toronto. He keeps to himself in camp and in the Van, witness to the endless jesting and performing of his colleagues with clear eyes and quiet brooding. He polices his health vigorously using a complicated mixture of vitamins, tonics, and protein beverages - all of which he is happy to share.

Chris Montagner 25
Chris is a comedian, a writer, and a proud transient with a pretty positive outlook on planting. One day, after work, we were waiting to be picked up by a helicopter and he broke it down to me: "I've just always felt like I belonged here. The first year I came out, I was like these are my people. this is where they have been all along. out here in the woods."

Cam Stewart 31
This is the foreman. He has spent the better part of the last ten years in bush camps, once working a 200 day planting season. Like Jen, Cam can be described as hard-core, though Cam is more of a cowboy with a fly by the seat of his pants managerial style. He is happiest when in motion, functioning best with a solid purpose and a little stress - he always wants to work on the day off.