I quit my $65,000-a-year job and went tree planting in rural Canada. I came back a different person.

·4 min read
Tess Harold and her coworkers getting ready to plant trees
A group of planters finishing up for the day.Tess Harold
  • I moved to Canada for a job that I ended up hating. I realized I needed a change in my life.

  • I decided to spend a summer planting trees, making between $0.12 and $0.20 per planted tree.

  • While I was the slowest planter, I was the only one in my crew who stayed the entire season.

I lived in a tent for two and a half months last summer. Nothing fancy, one of those pop-up ones from Walmart that cost under $80. Night after night, I zipped up my sleeping bag — two if it was freezing — and set my alarm for 5:20 a.m.

It was my rookie season as a tree planter in British Columbia. As reinventions go, my transformation from negroni-sipping Vancouverite to tree planter was as total as any I'd experienced.

Like most of us, I'd daydreamed about leaving the comfort of home to go and live another life. My move from England to Canada in 2021 was supposed to scratch that itch. Instead, I found myself in a job I hated in a city I didn't know. I quit after two weeks.

That's how I found myself camping in a gravel pit outside a small logging town in the northern interior of British Columbia. My days started with breakfast at 6 a.m., sitting in a truck by 6:30, an hour's drive up a logging road, and then — come rain or snow or heat wave — the backbreaking monotony of planting.

Before that summer, I'd never done so much as a multiday hike. The months of hard work got me in the best shape of my life, yes, but it's the inner strength that's lasted. Planting showed me that we are all tougher and freer than we think.

Tree planting is a tough job

Each year, about 6,500 planters across Canada plant over 600 million trees. Most people have a romanticized idea of planting, especially if they're not Canadian. When a fellow Brit first mentioned it, I pictured a bunch of hippies digging and planting the occasional sapling — possibly while singing.

Many of the planters were students, working to pay for college or fund travels. A few were career planters, who would go on to other seasonal work like cherry picking, firefighting, or brushing — clearing land with a chainsaw to give young trees a fighting chance.

The truth is Canadian planters are hard-core. The BBC even dedicated an episode of "World's Toughest Jobs" to the gig. From the morning's first bag-up until 5 p.m., when the last tree is planted, planters burn an average of 8,000 calories per day. That's the equivalent of two and a half marathons.

Planters get paid anywhere between $0.12 and $0.20 per tree, depending on the terrain. And when you're getting paid $0.12 per tree, the incentive is to go fast. There was one planter at camp who drank mouthfuls of water with his PB&J. He said it reduced the need for chewing. And less chewing equaled more trees, and more trees meant more money.

During an average day, a good planter can put 2,000 trees in the ground. An excellent planter can manage 4,000. At the start of the season, I was struggling to hit 600.

There was a moment toward the end of the season when I realized I'd done it. I'd stepped into a different life. It was our night off, and as we pulled up to the local bar in a white Ford 350 pickup — the unofficial vehicle of the logging industry — we were greeted with open arms by a group of pipeliners.

"Planters!" one Carhartt-wearing man called out, in much the same way you'd say "presents!"

A few times, I came close to quitting: the two days we planted on a 70% gradient, the hours we spent replanting when a checker found a fault, the morning my closest friend left.

It didn't help that I was a slow planter, or what we call a "lowballer," and therefore failing to make minimum wage. But somehow, I stuck it out. The woman who had quit a new job after a fortnight became the only crew member who lasted the season.

On our final night, my foreman named me crew MVP. I had planted 41,520 trees.

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