The Pas Manitoba

Tree planters’ survival

Melanie Chambers

Wading through chest-deep freezing cold water holding a shovel above my head, with a 30-pound bag of baby trees wrapped around my waist, I couldn’t feel my toes. It was June in The Pas, about a seven-hour drive north of Winnipeg, Manitoba—the farthest north I’d travelled in Canada.

While most university students had summer jobs in offices, I wanted to be outside. I thought tree planting would be like a long camping trip. I got my wish and more, but it was hard to appreciate nature hunched over a shovel 10 hours a day.

Flooding is common to northern Manitoba, but that season (sometime in the mid 1990s) it was particularly awful. After trekking through a swamp for most of the morning, only to arrive at yet another swamp, our supervisor decided it was to be a ‘day off’ day. That one day turned into a week as the water rose, flooding the forests, making it impossible to plant the little saplings.

Our grunge clad crew—plaid shirts of the 90s—set up tents near Riding Mountain National Park until things dried up enough to return to work. We did what most 20-somethings would do: stock up on Labatt 50 beer and begin drinking shortly after breakfast. But, by day three, this routine was wearing thin. The rain was unrelenting, and our moods were foul. One of the guys decided he’d go fishing, while a few of us decided to go hiking.

The planting crew dispersed that day, everyone doing their own thing.

Those of us on the trail talked incessantly for an hour or more—gossiping and sharing yarns about tree planting; eventually the chatter simmered. With our newfound silence, my senses picked up. I could feel the sweat on my back, smell the pine trees—in a way I couldn’t when I was consumed by black flies day after day. In this moment, on the trail, I connected to nature completely. It was as if all the smells, textures and sounds of the forest were entering my head clearing my head for the first time that summer, and softening the aches and pains I’d accumulated from working.

When we finally got back to camp, the guy who had gone fishing had also returned. Over the bonfire was a cedar plank and four rainbow trout, gutted and filleted. Nestled in the embers was a boiling pot with locally grown wild rice. It smelled salty and earthy. Someone grabbed a pack of beer from the lake, and the fish and rice was rationed out to all of us in the circle. Sitting around the fire, we shared a little taste of Manitoba.

*** Thanks to Kelly Schnieder for the photos!