July 23, 2019

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A new leaf

Tree planter offers insight into the sometimes-seedy world of silviculture

SUPPLIED</p><p>Greg Nolan provides readers with a glimpse of what it took to reforest clear-cut areas in Western Canada in his book, Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life.</p>

SUPPLIED

Greg Nolan provides readers with a glimpse of what it took to reforest clear-cut areas in Western Canada in his book, Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life.

A tale of thrills, chills and spills aptly describes former tree planter Greg Nolan’s memoir, Highballer. The author, who now lives in Victoria, B.C., writes about the 27 years he spent in Canada’s silviculture industry.

“Thrills” relate to the breathtaking landscape of northern Alberta and coastal B.C. that the Calgary native saw, and the many adventures he had while working in this remote wilderness. “Chills” were part of Nolan’s daily routine in more than one tree-planting camp, where only a blazing fire and a fearless dog stopped roaming grizzly bears from attacking. “Spills” happened when incredibly strong windstorms came out of nowhere, forcing Nolan and his co-workers to run for shelter as large trees surrounding them were snapped in half.

The way Nolan tells it, working as a tree planter — especially in the 1980s, when the silviculture industry was largely unregulated and worker safety wasn’t a priority — wasn’t for the faint of heart. But the opportunity to earn a year’s worth of income in a few months, to see natural landscapes rarely visited by humans and to experience the camaraderie that the tree-planting camps offered hooked him.

He started planting in 1983 when he was 19 years old, primarily because he had an older sister who was in a relationship with a tree-planting contractor who gave Nolan his first job.

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A tale of thrills, chills and spills aptly describes former tree planter Greg Nolan’s memoir, Highballer. The author, who now lives in Victoria, B.C., writes about the 27 years he spent in Canada’s silviculture industry.

"Thrills" relate to the breathtaking landscape of northern Alberta and coastal B.C. that the Calgary native saw, and the many adventures he had while working in this remote wilderness. "Chills" were part of Nolan’s daily routine in more than one tree-planting camp, where only a blazing fire and a fearless dog stopped roaming grizzly bears from attacking. "Spills" happened when incredibly strong windstorms came out of nowhere, forcing Nolan and his co-workers to run for shelter as large trees surrounding them were snapped in half.

The way Nolan tells it, working as a tree planter — especially in the 1980s, when the silviculture industry was largely unregulated and worker safety wasn’t a priority — wasn’t for the faint of heart. But the opportunity to earn a year’s worth of income in a few months, to see natural landscapes rarely visited by humans and to experience the camaraderie that the tree-planting camps offered hooked him.

He started planting in 1983 when he was 19 years old, primarily because he had an older sister who was in a relationship with a tree-planting contractor who gave Nolan his first job.

Supplied</p><p>Author and tree planter Greg Nolan.</p>

Supplied

Author and tree planter Greg Nolan.

Admittedly naive, Nolan had his eyes opened in many ways over his first summer. He fell in love with one of his female co-workers, and observed the sexual antics that many others indulged in when they were hundreds of kilometres away from a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend.

This "work hard, play hard" attitude also meant drinking and drugs were often part of the after-work agenda as long as they didn’t stop the planters from getting up at the crack of dawn to travel to the cutblock, where they spent the next 10 or 12 hours lugging heavy bags of seedlings, digging holes and planting the young trees.

Right away, Nolan decided to make a name for himself as a tree planter, and struggled to reach the 1,000-trees-planted-a-day mark that earned him the coveted designation of a "highballer."

In addition to detailing the unique social aspects of the camps he lived in and the many unusual characters he worked with, Nolan gives an intensive view of the industry.

Loggers looked down on those who signed on to replace the trees that were cut. The rules that planters had to follow were fairly strict, with financial penalties levied against contractors whose workers failed to meet the standards. Planters were often working in extreme weather conditions with weeks of rain or heat, but were expected to keep up a steady pace and meet the contracted deadline.

In Highballer, Nolan also reveals the complex logistics of transporting machinery such as ATVs and trucks, kitchen equipment and weeks’ worth of food, tents and the planters by truck, boat and aircraft into very isolated areas.

After being promoted to managing a camp, he also discovered how difficult it could be to actually find the cut sections where his crew was to work, because the maps provided were out-of-date and didn’t show the roads the logging companies had plowed through the wilderness.

Nolan’s tale of the adventures and accounts of the almost-unbelievable trials and tribulations of the young tree planters — many of whom were recruited each spring on Alberta and B.C. university campuses — is interesting. While the book is mainly his personal story, he also includes an explanation of the silviculture industry as it was then in Western Canada.

"Despite the gruelling pace, the adversity, the setbacks, the injuries and the omnipresent risk, I adored the life." Nolan’s appreciation for being able to experience adventures that most of us can only imagine shines through and makes his book a good read.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
Community journalist — The Headliner

Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at andrea.geary@canstarnews.com Call her at 204-697-7124

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