Tree-planting was not something I had ever considered doing until the day my boyfriend and I found ourselves unemployed at the same time. In April of 1986 Dennis** had just graduated from university with a bunch of letters after his name and I just quit a job I hated. A college friend had told us about how she and her partner had been tree-planting for a few seasons, making such a great pay package that they were able to get on the property ladder in Victoria. All this sounded excellent so we got all the information, made a quick phone call to the Silviculture company, and we were hired.
We headed north to Terrace from our home in Victoria, buying the essentials required for living on the land for a prolonged period of time. A large canvas tent that could sleep a family of 6, two tree-planting bags and a couple of shovels were all tossed into the car
As Dennis and I traveled through B.C, we chatted about how we thought this plan of ours would play out. We really didn't know anything about tree-planting except what our friends had told us. It was damn hard work, you would work in all weather conditions and it was piece work. Dennis was an avid outdoors person and had pretty much done everything from rock climbing to cross country running. I however had a talent for matching my shoes and purse with an outfit and could not so much as run for the bus. Things looked good for him, but honestly I was pretty nervous at my prospects on this adventure.
We were being honest with ourselves, this was totally about the money. There was no grandiose plan of planting a new forest single handed. No we needed money and then the plan was to head to Europe. We would backpack and hitchhike until we ended up on Crete. Once on Crete we would take it from there and live in a cave or something....
We finally arrived at the camp, Dennis had navigated the most dangerous logging roads of our lives. The camp site had been logged and was situated by a river so we at least had water. I had seen logging sites before I had just never thought of living on one. We set about getting our tent up and organized what would be our new summer home. The other planters were arriving as well, most with their trucks converted in to a movable home, others had tents like us.
The seasoned veterans gave us "Rookies" planting tips and what to wear to our new job. Interesting was the concept of "what to wear" we were putting trees in the ground, why on earth did we need to care about what to wear?
The harsh reality was starting to settle in, this was truly roughing it. No toilets, a homemade shower and sleeping on the ground. But at least someone would cook our meals.
In the morning I headed down to the mess tent loaded up on breakfast and made my lunch to take in to the field. Then got on to what was called a Crummy. The Crummy took us out to the planting blocks dropping the veterans off first, then finally us, the Greenhorns. Once I got to what would be my block I was given the run down on how things were done. I was so totally overwhelmed with the sight before me, I had not even grasped the planting instructions.
Laid out in front of me was utter destruction. I had never seen a war zone before but if I had this is what it would look like. The area for miles had been clear cut. A type of logging that removed everything, every single tree was cut down. All life was smothered with debris. It was hell and I had arrived. I would be the only source of colour on my first block.
I had never really given the industry of logging a lot of thought before. I had seen as we drove that there was missing forests along the highways we had just traveled. But generally a buffer had been left to give the illusion there was still some forest around. But standing in this cut block, it looked like a bomb had been dropped and all life had been wiped out.
I had a lot of help that first day trying to get those damn trees in the ground, it was hard, harder then I could ever imagined. First of all there was no soil, the boss said " it's not magic you have to screef" "what the hell was screef?!". Turns out to screef was to remove all the debris from the area you wanted to plant in. The seedling had to go in to soil and I would have to "screef" to find it. I was waist deep in scrub and debris, sticks poked you and ripped your clothes and I now understood the "what to wear " concept.
I stumbled and fell numerous times to the point I didn't want to get up any more. Thank goodness for Dennis. He would come over help me for awhile until I had stopped crying then head back to his block. He really seemed to have caught on to how it was done. Not me, I was a mess, covered in blood and tree debris. The foreman also came over a few times and would also give me even more help. Finally the day was over. After 8 hours the crummy was back and gathered us all up. I sank into my seat exhausted from the day of hell only to hear the foreman call out our names. The crew would shout back the numbers of seedling they had planted "Jane" "1200" "Sam" "1500" and so on down the bus until he called out "Sue" Oh my Gawd I had to tell the whole bus how many I planted "369" I said with shame. Eyes lite up, people patted me on the back "well done" "good Job" Were they serious? It was 10 cent land and camp costs were $17.00 a day I just netted myself $20. Then it was Dennis's turn, he would have a good number after all he was Mr. Outdoors. "Dennis?" ; "79" ; Silence fell over the bus. I nudged him "don't be funny tell him how many you planted". "That is how many I planted" Oh my, he had not even made camp costs. He owed the company money.
We were back at our camp after about a half hour of travel down the bumpy logging roads. I rolled off the crummy grabbed some clean clothes and my shower stuff. Dennis inquired if I was heading to the shower. " Well ya" "But they are co-ed!" he said. "I really don't give a shit" I just wanted to shower, then eat and go to bed because 6 bloody o'clock was going to come quick.
I slept like a baby for 10 hours, then was back at it determined to better my numbers. The next day 550 was my count, going higher and higher day by day. I figured out "what to wear", then had one of the guys file my shovel down and was determined to get up into the 1000s.
Things were not working out as well for Dennis, he couldn't sleep. The forest animals all seemed to gather around our tent at night and kept him awake. One night I woke up to see him swatting the roof of the tent with a shoe while wearing his Standfield long underwear wrapped around his head. " What the hell are you doing?!" I asked "The mice are running on our roof. " "so you decided you make them a trampoline? And why the underwear on your head?" I asked, "My head is cold" he explained
Dennis really, really hated tree-planting and he figured after a week he still owed the company money. I explain that he had to stop thinking so much, just get out there plant the damn trees as fast as he could. When it was time to eat, eat. When it was time to sleep, sleep. It was simple.
But for Dennis it was not simple, when he was out on the cut block he just kept thinking that he had a university degree and look what the hell he was doing. I had the ability to just put my head down and plant and not worry about anything else. I still had energy at the end of the day to wash our clothes in the stream, hang them on the clothesline I put up behind our tent. Constructed a tripod to hold our wash basin and mirror. If time had permitted I would have planted a garden. My evenings were spent hanging our with my fellow planters in the mess tent playing cards and learning more techniques on how to get faster and increase my numbers. I was a woman with a mission.
I started getting up earlier so I could pack both our lunches and set out Dennis's breakfast so he could sleep longer.
After the first 20 days of planting we got our first days off. We headed to Prince Rupert where my mum and Nan lived. Dennis's anticipation of a bed and and shingled roof over his head made him just drive and not worry about how tired he was. Once in Rupert and well rested my Nan had us over for dinner. My Nan knew what real hard work was, she had worked many years in the fish cannery. So when we arrived with our stories of tree-planting she was all ears. I had never heard my Nan laugh like she did as Dennis told her how horrible things were. Nan almost rolled on the floor, her belly laugh was infectious. Poor Dennis didn't realize that he was a little unique for my Nan. He was a university educated softie that could not get his head and body around working on the land. She could have cared less about my stories of success, that was expected. She enjoyed the stories of Dennis's torment so much that she invited her friends over. The ladies arrived carrying baked goods to feed this skinny ginger young man. Perhaps if they fattened him up he would do better as they cackled with glee. I swear those women had a candy gingerbread house in the forest. Dennis would fall asleep on Nan's couch, and these ladies in their 70's would continue on in to the wee hours playing cards laughing at poor Red.
The last 20 days of our season would be the hardest for Dennis, we had moved to just north of Prince George. The black flies were starting to grow to size that would require a baseball bat to kill them. I had drank from a stream that had given me Giardia (aka Beaver Fever) and was pretty sick. I never missed a day though. I even managed to plant while throwing up and got my biggest number 2600.
I was now a highballer, however Dennis had been taken off the planting block and was now delivering the boxes of seedling to the planters. He was also asked to go with the company owner to plant some hard to reach areas that had been missed. This meant he was no longer doing piece work which suited him to a tee. I was now making between $200. and $300 a day after camp costs and loving the whole live on the land life.
The company was moving further north to Mackenzie and I was asked to go on with the crew, however the invite was not extended to Dennis. Which did not upset him in the least. I wanted to go but I didn't have a car and a way to get around so we ended our season in July. I had made enough for both of us to travel around Europe for quite sometime.
We decided to head back to Prince Rupert and see what sort of employment opportunities were there. After all Dennis had a Marine Biology degree and I had nepotism.
It all worked out brilliantly and we would headed out to London in October.
** Names have been changed to protect the sad and weary**
The summer of 1971 was great we had a lot of fun but we were happy to return to our home in Prince Rupert. So when my parents sat us down in January of 1972 to tell us we would be moving out to the cannery in February there was a lot of tears. This was a horrible idea and I was sure my parents came up with it to ruin my life.
After all my school was just meters from my front door how the heck was I going to go get to school?And another thing no one lived out there in the winter why would they do this to us. Well it turned out that the cannery would now be running for the Herring operation and that started in the spring. The Japanese technicians that were in charge of quality control for the company that would be buying the roe (Kazunoko Nigiri Zushi) , came out from Japan to the cannery. Together the technicians and dad set up and ran the operation. Once the Herring was up running at full capacity workers were brought in from Port Edward and Prince Rupert to work the line. The cannery was a very busy place!
Photo Credit:Philippson Family Collection
We headed out to NP as planned but this time with a whole lot more stuff. The TV came with us and dad hooked up an antenna so we could get a channel or two. Mum presented us with our new orange lunch kits. This caused my mum more trauma then us, the thought of us eating food out of a box at our school desks was too much for her to bear. So we ate at my oldest sisters home close by the school.
Photo Credit: The Philippson Family Collection
I never once heard my mum complain about living out at the cannery. She made every effort to make our cannery home lovely. After all it was a 3 bedroom home furnished with antiques, our home in Rupert was a 2 bedroom bungalow. For mum it meant that her family was together, we would all sit down for supper each night around a beautiful oak dining table and this was important to mum. It was important to the other families as well that started to arrive that spring. The company provided housing for the workers and they were not required to pay rent. The families returned to the same houses each season and it was up to them to maintain them. But any investment they made it all still belong to the company.
Photo Credit: The Philippson Family Collection
My mum had the time to paint, make curtains and keep the cannery house rat free. But all the other families had both parents working. The thought of painting the cannery house with your own supplies after a 12 hour shift in the plant was not appealing to most. Since the cannery was built in the 1800s from wood and the site is located in the rain forest damp was a problem. The cannery itself was maintained as were the main buildings but the housing was falling into disrepair.
Photo Credit: The Philippson Family Collection (The Starr home)
The families that came back year after year were just that, families, kids, mums, dads and grandparents. Some came from villages up the Nass and built a community at the cannery. Everyone watched out for each other, there was no social status among any of us. When kids were seen playing on the tracks, the parents were told. If you needed to run into town someone watched your kids, there was always someone to cover you. The friendships that were forged out there lasted a life time and didn't stop when my dad retired in 1974.
Dad had been told by the company CANFISCO to evict all the people that lived at the cannery and when he refused based on the fact that these people were not just workers but his friends and were like family to him. The company threaten him with dismissal and in turn dad resigned and walked away from the place he had known as home for a very long time.
The Native community were our life time friends and were there for my mum when my dad drowned in 1976. It was the Native people that left fish on our door step to feed us and it was the Native people that wrapped us in love and friendship in our biggest time of need. The Native community was always watching out for my mum until she passed away in 2009. Then it was a Native Elder that came to see her two children and remind us that we were still their family.
Photo Credit:The Philippson Family Collection
My years as a cannery kids would teach me more about compassion, friendship and community then I would learn any where else in my life and the lessons I learned out there I would pass on to my own children.