The land is different than you’d expect- bigger and bleaker and more lovely. A clear cut is not the barren scar upon the land you envision when activists rant and rail. Trees straggle through in ragged residuals, lean poplars and larch and spruce. There’s wildlife, too; moose and bear being the most prevalent, but foxes and wood ducks and more varieties of frogs and toads than I’d thought existed. One can, of course, see where the objection comes from. The land is torn up in great muddy tracts where oversized logging equipment has driven through the soft peaty ground. The left behind detritus, trees too small to be desirable and fallen limbs and twigs and dust and bark is culled and piled into vast slash piles that pose an obstacle between a planter and their land. I watch my crew boss climb gracefully and confidently over a hundred feet of slash, stepping from log to log with as much ease as walking down a city sidewalk. I clamber behind him with fifty pounds of baby trees strapped to my hips, my shovel impeding my progress, hardhat slipping down over my eyes. Later I will learn to use my shovel as a tool to balance, almost like a third leg, learn to tuck my hardhat into my backbag until I hear the roar of the assessors ATV nearby, avoid the infuriated shouts of “Where the fuck is yer hardhat?” The town is not so foreign, if you grew up in Northern Ontario, like I did. Cardlocks and motels and truckstops populate the main strip, a highway where the concrete has heaved up in protest and cracked during the relentless winters. The lines have faded into non-existence. I can only assume there are four lanes. None of the stoplights work. All are flashing red, assumed to be a fourway stop. Transport trucks rumble down the four lane, kicking up dust and slush. “It’s a small town,” the woman who hires me warns. But having grown up in a town of 800, Hearst is littered with amenities. A Tim Hortons, a dollar store, a Canadian Tire, a McDonald’s, a handful of restaurants ranging from Greek to Chinese to pizza and poutine. A bar, that isn’t the Legion. Yes, I could get along nicely here. The train tracks that stretch the length of the town and carry on resolutely even further north are lined with piles of cut trees, several stories high. Giant yellow cranes bustle slowly back and forth, pinching huge piles of the pulp trees into slat sided train cars for transport south. This is why we are here; to replace these trees.
Logging companies are responsible for replanting the trees that they harvest and contract out that responsibility to forest management companies. We are planting 4 million trees in the Hearst Forest this year and are not the only company here. Tree planting companies are working in Hearst, Kapuskasing, White River, all around Northern Ontario. The vast tract of Boreal forest stretches from Quebec to British Columbia, and all throughout it you will find both logging operations and the planters that follow. Days off are unpredictable; sometimes we find ourselves in Hearst with another treeplanting company on a night off. The atmosphere is competitive but friendly. We have one thing in common. We all shit talk Onterrible planting. B.C is the promised land of planting, the cream show, the real deal. We’re all here getting our rookie years under our belt to be accepted into the vaguely frat-like, exclusive club of British Columbia planting. We dream of mountainsides and tree prices that rise above 12.5 cents, of helicopter fly-ins and the most lusted after of all- coastal planting. Two worn-out looking school buses are parked in the lot behind the Esso. One is blue, the other orange. Both paint jobs are flaking and messy. A sunglass wearing garden gnome is glued to the hood of the blue bus. As per the e-mail, gear goes on the blue bus, the inside covered in the graffitied complaints and jokes of the year prior. The back of the driver’s seat proclaims “Feel free to smoke up the driver.” Planters who arrived on the three a.m bus sleep in crumpled heaps on the other. Around six a.m, a vet arrives and does exuberant donuts in his red car around the sleeping buses, leaning on the horn and screaming out the window. At first light, a shirtless yogi sits on top of the bus, meditating. There’s a contingent of vets arriving. Something about their attitude and dress gives them away. There may not be obvious clues; they simply seem comfortable with the idea that they are departing into the bush for months. They are slouchy and casual, lying in the grass ditch behind the Esso and smoking, departing to the Beer Store and buying smokes and snacks. They lament the thrift stores arbitrary opening hours. A silent, gaunt fellow wearing glaring polarized sunglasses and relentlessly chain smoking sits in the driver’s seat of the ‘people’ bus. The season is off to a good start- the bus won’t turn on. He eventually wrangles it into compliance and we lumber out of the parking lot toward the bush.
Rookies; we don’t know north from south from east nor west. We don’t know the surrounding towns or camps that have been previously inhabited. The Hearst forest is 12,000km squared of Crown Land, of vast, uninhabited taiga. An hour down the highway, we turn off onto a logging road marked with long garlands of neon pink winter flagger tape. “Piss break, Dan the Man!” a vet calls out to the driver. He stops the bus and idles while those in the know depart to relieve their bladders. “International waters,” the same vet calls out as he reboards the bus and cracks a beer. Where am I? What is going on? An exuberant third year vet starts a game of Never Have I Ever, another outgoing girl with a shock of curly hair begins to get everybody to introduce themselves and say something about themselves. Ice breakers, community, friendship. The land around us is as alien as Mars, stretching off in tracts of scrubby wood and swamp. Water is everywhere; some enterprising beavers have washed out the road in places where the silent driver has to slow to a crawl and carefully circumnavigate the streams that cover the clay road. “A bear!” somebody calls out and we crane our heads to see a black bear lumbering away through a clearing. Dan hangs on the horn, tooting merrily at is as we drive by. You have ridden in the back of a schoolbus, I am sure, but never down logging roads. The suspension is fucked. Every small bump jolts you to and fro. The noise is unbelievable, of laboring engines and bouncing struts. Another hour down the logging roads and we turn a corner to a sandpit occupied by a blue bus, a large tan mess tent and a handful of outhouses. Home. Waxatike, year one. The Waxatike camp is a cold, damp sandpit that dips down into the ‘Thunderdome’ in the middle; a deep depression with a makeshift firepit in the middle. It is probably the biggest camp we ever stay at. Various little towns and villages form. There’s Al’s Peak, the shirtless yogi, where he has set up his tent alone on a sandy precipice that looks out over the entire camp. The Peterborough crowd has decamped to the top of a narrow path that cuts through the treeline and widens out on top of a hill that overlooks endless miles of bush. The staff has set up by the beaverpond, in a loose ring behind the staff trailer; a makeshift office made of a decrepit camper trailer. I set up in a shallow depression on the side of the narrow path, nicely away from crowds and noise. Thankful for my childhood growing up in rural Ontario and frequent extending camping trips, I fold my tarp up so that it will just just out a few inches all around the base of my tent. I set my tent up on top, roll the edges of the tarp up and tuck them in. If they stick out too far, rain and condensation will just gather and roll under your tent and soak through the canvas floor. I string up my paracord between two trees and hang my second tarp over it, securing it over my tent. I don’t know that this camp is notoriously windy, or that it is likely to snow at least once. I don’t know that this season will be the rainiest season in anybody’s memory, or that curious animals may interfere with my set-up. This is a lesson I am still learning, second guessing my tarp set ups to this day and judiciously securing them with rocks and bungee cords and ropes.