Just Another Day in the Wilderness

A summer spent as a Re-Forestation Specialist—or tree-planter in the common tongue—yields many wonderful discoveries:

  • Getting back to nature (black flies, deer flies, hungry bears, and coyotes) 
  • Group dynamics after living in the bush for four months (think: Lord of the Flies) 
  •  Your own character (under adverse conditions, you may not be as nice a person as you thought you were) 
  • DEET: breakfast of champions
  • The daily fire-pit ritual: a cozy circle of steel-toed work-boots, lined up toes-in (cold steel boots + feet = pain like forty bears) 
  • Breaking a hole in the ice-covered lake to wash your hair (rinse and repeat – is that a joke?) 
  • 14-15 hours per day shalt thou work, six days a week, come sun, rain, or snow 

One fine morning – sunny with blue skies and high temperaturesI found myself staggering and dizzy in the midst of the planting zone, shovel in one hand, and a metal carrier with 100 baby trees in the other. The planting zone had been devastated by a forest fire some years earlier, causing it to resemble the surface of, say, Mars.

Dizzy? Staggering? Whatever for, you ask?

Our crews supervisor, the previous afternoon, had driven our work van at speeds usually reserved for those fleeing in abject terror from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Logging roads are notoriously unpredictable, and when we hit ... something ... the back of the van lurched sharply up and then powerfully down. As the sole occupant of the very last seat, I was thrown against the roof (no seatbelts available in steerage the back row), and cracked my head on the exposed frame. As it turns out, the van’s framework was made of sterner stuff than, say, my skull.

A two-inch gash was my reward, and I'm reasonably sure I actually saw stars. Someones t-shirt was sacrificed to stem the bleeding. Tylenol helped me sleep that night in spite of a pack of coyotes doing laps around our coyote-proof nylon tents.

But the Morning After ... Have I mentioned deer flies? They have radar ability to scent blood like Ring Wraiths chasing Frodo through Mordor. So here I was, staggering and dizzy in the field, trying my best to ward off strafing runs from blood-crazed insectoid alien life forms.

After four months in the bush, I thought I was losing my mind.

And, just for fun, picture what it must’ve looked like: A dirty, sweaty 21-year-old in ripped and filthy clothing, in the middle of a burned-out lunar landscape, swinging a shovel over his head at tiny but murderous insect assailants.

To even the most casual observer, it probably looked like I’d already lost my mind.

And then it hit me, a revelation of almost biblical proportions: I wasnt a prisoner, held against my will. I could quit. Escape with my life and most of my sanity intact. Get my head examined (the two-inch gash, remember?). And so, still swatting deer flies away with my shovel, I began to hatch an escape plan.

  • Id have to hike a couple of miles back to our base camp for my personal gear. 
  • It was a further 15 miles (24km) from base camp to the nearest town. With my gear. 
  • My winter gear was still stored in yet another town, 60 miles north. Id have to get that, too.

An A-ha moment:  I remembered the additional van back at base camp, not in use because it needed repairing.

I informed my supervisor I was quitting, and hiked back to the base camp. My supervisor expressed a certain lack of confidence (to put it politely) in my ability to repair the van, but she under-estimated just how desperate I was to escape return to civilization.

As Id suspected, it was a carburetor problem, easily and quickly fixed. Shortly thereafter, I pulled into the nearest town, bought a bus ticket – buses come only once per day, so the pressure was on – asked the gas station attendant to watch my stuff, and drove north to get my winter gear.

A couple of hours later, I was back at the bus station/gas station/post office/general store, adding my winter gear (and guitar) to the pile the gas jockey was responsible to safeguard.

Before heading back into the bush, I filled the van with gas (seemed like the right thing to do), drove back up the logging roads, and parked it at the base camp.

And started walking.

Despite (a) my ambitious escape plan, (b) successful repair of the van, (c) bus ticket in my wallet, and (d) gear awaiting me in town, Reality began to rear its ugly head.

The once-per-day bus would arrive in about 45 minutes.

I was on foot, with at least fifteen miles (24km) to go.

Although it was still mid-afternoon, I’d probably have to spend the night sleeping in the bush. Pack-of-coyote memories from the previous night popped uninvited into my mind.

Prayer seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of returning to base camp, nor was I certain if my supervisor – repaired van with a full tank of gas notwithstanding – would even allow it. I had to face the truth: there was no way I could make it back into town in time.

I’d barely said amen, when I heard a loud engine approaching from behind. I glanced over my shoulder ... A pickup truck came bounding over the hill, raising a huge dust cloud as it careened down the logging road. As I was about to learn, a work crew from a nearby hydro-electric dam was knocking off early and heading into town for beers.

I stuck my thumb out in the time-honored tradition of Escaping Re-Forestation Specialists everywhere. They only had space for me in the cargo area, but as far as I was concerned, it looked like Elijahs Chariot of Fire.

The next thing I knew, I was dragging my gear to the side of the highway, just as the daily bus appeared over the hill.

I stretched out my dusty and aching body as best I could in the bus seat, swallowing a few additional Tylenol for my van-frame headache. Two thoughts came to mind:

And Im grateful for both.

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