Section 06: Camp Life

If you're interested in what tree planting is all about, or you've been offered a job as a planter, this forum will give you a great head start on learning the ropes.
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Section 06: Camp Life

Post by Scooter » Fri Feb 13, 2015 4:44 pm

Many first-year planters, perhaps as many as eighty percent, will be working for companies that run tree planting bush camps in BC. I'm not sure if anyone knows how many separate planting camps operate in British Columbia every summer, but my estimate is approximately seventy. Camp sizes vary considerably, and sometimes two camps will merge during the season, or a camp will split into two, so it would be difficult to get accurate numbers. Regardless, if you're a first-time tree planter, there's a good chance that you need to be mentally prepared to spend your summer in a tent. In this section, we'll talk about the equipment and facilities that you might expect to find in a typical bush camp, and we'll also touch briefly on alternative lodging arrangements for jobs where a bush camp isn't practical.

Upgraded video, released in 2017

Overview of Basic Structure

Most camps are organized as tent camps, although in a few camps, ATCO trailers are used on a slightly more permanent basis to house camp facilities or even to act as housing units for planters. However, ATCO Trailer camps are quite rare in the tree planting industry, and not really that mobile. Most planters will experience mobile bush camps where all facilities are either contained in tents, or in mobile trailers with wheels that can be moved to a new location by a relatively small truck.

The kitchen is often the heart of the camp. This is the domain of the cooks. Sometimes, the kitchen will be in a large mobile trailer, and at other times, a large tent will be set up. Either way, the kitchen will probably contain two or even three stoves and ovens. These items are usually commercial units powered by propane rather than being household ranges powered by electricity. There will be counters used for food preparation. There will be some storage space for basic cooking supplies, such as pots, pans, trays, and utensils. There will be some shelving for food prep items, things like spices and baking supplies. There will be a fridge and a deep freeze, although those items might alternatively be located outside the kitchen. And there needs to be a three-compartment sink for dishwashing, plus a hand-washing sink. The water supplied to the kitchen will be potable, and there will probably be a propane heater to ensure that both hot and cold water are available.

The mess tent is the main social area of the camp. The mess tent will contain tables and chairs for dozens of people. There will probably be a couple tables used for setting out lunch supplies each morning, so the planters can make their own lunches for the block. There may be another table with a charging station so people can charge phones and laptops. A generator outside the mess tent will supply power for the charging station and for lights hung within the tent. And finally there will be a bulletin board which has dozens of publications that various government agencies mandate to be made available to all employees.

There will be some sort of shower facilities. They may not be very fancy! Usually, water is drawn from a non-potable source, such as a nearby stream or pond, and a gasoline-powered pump sends water into the showers through a series of garden hoses. The water will be heated by a propane-powered water heater. In many camps, a professional shower trailer may be in place, with anywhere from two to four shower stalls. In other camps, a mid-sized tent may be used, again with two to four separate shower sections, and the shower heads may be as simple as common gardening spray nozzles hanging from the roof.

There will be a dry tent of some sort. This tent may be heated by any number of means. In the old days, planters would have air-tight wood stoves, and would need to gather kindling and firewood at each camp site, and various people would be responsible for keeping a fire hot. Nowadays, thankfully, it's more common to see propane blast heaters or large kerosene heaters. After a rainy day, if you enter the dry tent, you'll see dozens of jackets and other items of clothing hanging from a series of clotheslines within the tent, and hopefully, by morning, they'll all be dried out.

There will also be a first aid tent or trailer. This facility will have a full set of supplies to meet basic emergency needs and treatment needs for any number of minor ailments. The provincial WorkSafe regulations dictate the contents of each first aid room. Planters who are not designated trained first-aid attendants should not be using supplies. Always find a designated first aid attendant. These persons will treat you, notify the company about supplies that need to be replaced, and ensure that the proper paperwork and first aid records are filled out and submitted to their head office and WorkSafe BC.

Finally, there will be several outhouses. Each outhouse should always have a large bottle of liquid anti-septic hand wash solution or gel. The outhouses are generally dug at each location in high and dry ground, where water can't collect during a rainstorm, then filled in after camp is broken and ready to move to the next spot. In some locations, port-a-potties are rented by the licensees responsible for the reforestation contracts, in which case a septic vacuum truck may visit the site once every several days to maintain the outhouses until the contract is over.

The Daily Routine

A tree planting season starts for most people in late April or early May. May is all about cold mornings, freezing rain, and lots of enthusiasm. By mid-June, however, things are heating up, light misty rains are welcome, and after thirty days of planting, most people are starting to talk about time off. Most planting camps work for three or four days, then have one day off, in a cycle called "three and one's" or "four and one's." You'll probably also have four or five days off each month due to unexpected downtime from vehicle hassles, frozen trees, fog days while using helicopters, or snowstorms, or from planned downtime between contracts when moving camp. When this happens, don't complain. Take advantage of the downtime to get some rest. At other times during the busy parts of the season, you'll wish you had more free time. The trick is to bite the bullet and take advantage of planting when it's available. Incidentally, it's often traditional to have a forced week or so off around mid-June, due to the gap between some spring and summer contracts.

On a typical day, you'll wake up between 5am and 6am, get dressed, and stumble into the mess tent. A huge breakfast awaits you, which you'll have difficulty forcing down. Breakfast is a critical meal! Although some planters will want to skip this meal, the energy you get from a strong breakfast will be critical in ensuring a productive day. After you've finished eating, you'll make your lunch from materials provided by the cook: sandwiches, granola, cookies, juice, fruit, vegetables, trail mix, and other items. Smart planters get up early to get the best selection for their lunches. After breakfast, you'll go to your crew truck, make sure your planting gear is loaded, and head off to the block.

Once you get to the block, you'll grab your planting gear and day-bag, and be directed to your piece. Mornings are usually cold. On the block, you'll have to get out of a warm vehicle, and bag up with wet trees that you've packed into a heavy set of planting bags. On a nice day, the sun will soon come out, and the temperature will start to warm up. Keep your head down, and keep planting. If the planting goes well, you'll be happy. If your land is bad, you'll become frustrated or unhappy, but you should realize that a certain amount of bad land is inevitable. The foreman will hopefully try to distribute the good and bad land evenly, or at least, if someone gets obvious preferential treatment for a day or so, there will be an obvious reason for it, and the advantage will shift to other members of the crew a day or so later.

Bad weather, bugs, steep blocks, slash, and other challenges may affect you, but remember, there's always beauty everywhere, even though you may not have much time to look around. At the end of the day, everyone puts their equipment away, and you grab your day-bag and head back to the trucks. Everybody stinks of sweat, and the truck is generally filthy, yet people are happy. Even if you've had a bad day, at least it's over. You give your foreman your numbers for the day, and you probably fall asleep on the way back to camp. Once you've started to drive home, put planting out of your head. If you can try not to think about it again until you arrive back on the block the next morning, you'll enjoy your summer more. When you get back to camp, you'll wash up, and then eat a huge meal. For many planters, this is the best part of each day.

After dinner, it's all up to you. Some people head straight to the showers. Guitars may appear in the mess tent, emails may get written, and there's lots of conversation. The smart planters will head to bed well before nine o'clock, to get a good rest for a productive day starting the next morning.

On the night off, which refers to the night before the full day off rather than the actual evening of the day off, you'll quit planting anywhere between noon and 5pm. This usually depends on the state of the block you're on, the distance from camp to town, and crew dynamics. I've always told planters in my own camp that on the last day of a shift, we always work a full day. That extra half day of production on every fourth day of work leads to a 14.3% increase in productivity and earnings. Quitting at noon on the last day of the shift made more sense years ago when the shifts were always six or seven days long, but with much shorter shifts right now, you need to maximize your planting hours for each day that you're on the blocks. Anyway, when you're done work, you'll go back to camp and have dinner. If you're going to town right away, you'll need to grab your laundry and clean clothes. Your crew might have to load up empty fuel barrels or propane tanks that need to get filled in town, or maybe hook up the garbage trailer, then you can head into civilization. Town has a laundromat, restaurant, liquor store, bar, and hotel. A large number of crews will stay in camp on the night before the day off, and wait until the next morning to make the trip into town.

It used to be that the stereotypical routine for many planters was to drink as much alcohol as quickly as possible, then to act like a fool, including vomiting, getting kicked out of bars, getting beaten up by local red-necks, or getting arrested. However, times are changing, and this is not the norm anymore. Nowadays, many Interior planters realize that they only work for about fifty to sixty days per year, and they need to make the most of this time, so they get as much rest as possible on days off. A lot of planters go to bed early on the night off, because the focus for their summer is on working, rather than partying. No matter what your preference is, you'll spend the day off doing your laundry and running around town, picking up supplies.

Planting feels like different things to different people. I personally find that I completely zone out, except for paying some attention to the process of planting. Once I've bagged up and planted the first bundle or so, it usually feels like I'm bagging out about two minutes later. Some people find planting to be an exciting, competitive kind of racing activity. Others find planting to be frustrating, boring, or physically exhausting.

Your Cooks and Meals

Obviously, with several dozen people needing to eat large breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, it wouldn't make sense to have an open kitchen where everybody prepares their own food. That would be chaos, and would also cause all kinds of food safety problems. It's much more cost-efficient and time-efficient to have staff devoted specifically to food preparation and service, and it also helps to do a better job of ensuring that planters have access to a balanced, nutritious diet.

Some camps have a single cook, although I've rarely seen this situation if there are more than 25-30 people working out of the camp. More frequently, there are a pair of cooks. Sometimes, they're equivalent in seniority, but more often, one is designated as a head cook and the other is designated as an assistant. In some of the largest camps, it's even possible to have a head cook with two assistants, although this isn't common.

What you eat depends mostly on your cook. I've seen camps where one quarter to a third of the planters were vegetarians. Because of this, most planting companies now offer vegetarian food, and cooks are able to provide tasty vegetarian meals that still contain lots of protein. If your diet is more restricted, you should talk to your potential employer before accepting a job. A cook making dinner for forty other people might not have the energy to devote to a top-of-the-line vegan or gluten-free dish for only one or two people. If you have allergies to anything, tell the cook up-front, right at the start of the season. If you only have certain preferences, such as not preferring mushrooms or onions, it would be selfish to force a cook to make meals without such ingredients, as the rest of the camp would also suffer. But don't worry, there are usually lots of choices at each meal, so you should be able to work around your preferences without limiting the diet for others in the camp.

Planters are the key component in the generation of revenue for a planting company, and planters need to eat unbelievable amounts of food to remain productive. Most companies are very aware of this. No matter what else happens, you should get lots of food. If you don't, there's a serious problem with the cook or the company, and you should let your supervisor or the company owner know immediately.

If you have allergies to anything, tell the cook. If the food lacks variety, or if you'd enjoy something that hasn't been on the menu, ask the cook about it. Usually there are very valid reasons why an experienced cook will stay away from certain dishes, but occasionally it's just a lack of awareness that there would be an interest. Remember that most cooks take enormous pride in what they do. If you have specific suggestions for more variety, talk to the cooks directly rather than just complaining to other planters on the block. Of course, some types of meals are just impossible from a logistical point of view. Think about what it would be like to have to have fifty friends over and try to cook them dinner, in a kitchen that isn't much larger than you'd find in a typical house.

You're charged for camp costs, which are generally $25 plus GST per day. This money covers part of the expenses for your meals, the cooks' wages, the use of facilities such as showers, and transportation to the work site and to town. In BC, legislation prohibits the employer from charging more than $25 plus GST per day for camp costs, in a bush camp situation. No such legislation exists in Alberta, so camp costs are generally higher in that province. For a crew working out of motels, if the employer has arranged for your room and pays for it up front, the $25 per day limit is not applicable, and the company is allowed to charge you any amount up to the actual cost of the room.

Some planters wonder why the company charges you to work for them. It's a complex situation. It would certainly be possible for companies not to charge camp costs, and just pay the planters a slightly lower price per tree. If they did things that way, the net result to the company could be exactly the same. They could theoretically just figure out the reduction in tree prices that would be needed to exactly offset the loss of revenue from collecting camp costs. However, if they did that, the most experienced planters would end up shouldering a greater portion of the costs of operating the camp. Let me use a detailed example so this makes more sense.

Let's assume that the average planter at a specific company plants 2500 trees per day, and the camp costs are $25. The company would therefore need to reduce the price per tree by one cent across the board if they wanted to eliminate camp costs. On average, each planter would make $25.00 less from their planting each day, because they're getting a cent less on each of their trees. But if they didn't have to pay $25.00 in camp costs, then there wouldn't be any difference in the end, right? Well, the problem is that this is based on average production. The fastest planters would be losing a cent per tree on larger tree numbers. So a good planter who planted 4000 trees in a day would effectively be losing $40.00 from their paycheque in return for not paying the $25.00 in camp costs, whereas a slow planter who plants 1500 in a day would only lose $15.00 from their paycheque. This doesn't seem fair, since the two planters probably eat roughly the same amount of food. The fastest planters are the most valuable employees, so a company wouldn't want to penalize them more than a slow planter would be penalized. With the current system of charging camp costs, each employee pays exactly the same amount per day.

Other Equipment

I've already mentioned the basic structures that you'll find in a planting camp, things like the kitchen, the mess tent, the dry tent, the first aid tent, the showers, and the outhouses. But there will be many other pieces of equipment that you might also run into. I'll try to describe each of them briefly, so you'll get a better mental picture of how complex a mobile tent camp can be.

Earlier I mentioned that there would probably be a refrigerator, or a couple fridges, either inside the kitchen or just outside the kitchen. A much better alternative that I use is a complete walk-in cooler structure. This small insulated structure will probably be about eight feet per side, and will have a cooling unit installed, plus lots of shelving. A walk-in cooler can handle the volumes of food required for a mid-sized planting camp much more easily than a couple of fridges can.

For a water supply, it was common in the old days to have half a dozen 40-gallon water drums in each camp to supply safe potable water, and empty barrels would get re-filled in town from a garden hose at a gas station. Thankfully, most professional planting contractors now use a couple of large water reservoirs, perhaps of around a thousand gallons each, and have potable water trucked in. This is more time-efficient and cost-efficient, and let's be honest – the water that came from garden hoses at random gas stations probably wasn't always safe.

In some remote locations, where it's difficult to have water trucked in, a company will use a professional water filtration system. Water will be pumped out of a stream and run through the filtration system into a reservoir for the kitchen. The filtration system will ensure that the water passes through a series of perhaps three filters of decreasing size, to filter out large debris and then smaller debris and then really fine sediments, although these filters don’t necessarily make the water look clear. The water then goes through some sort of chemical or ultraviolet filtration stage which eliminates all biological contaminants and ensures that the water, even if discolored, is safe to drink. The only problem with these systems is that they're difficult to keep running, and if they're not set up and maintained correctly, there's a risk that the water doesn’t get filtered properly and people could become sick.

There's usually a fuel depot in camp, also called a fuel cache. This will probably be built in an area where sheets of plastic or containment flooring can keep any spilled fuel from leaking into the soil, and they'll be surrounded by a protective ditch and berm. The ditch is another protective measure to contain any potential spill. The berm helps protect the fuel cache from getting run into by a truck. If the cache is in an area where a vehicle could conceivably back into it, a crew might also place logs around it to serve as another barrier. There will probably be poles erected around the cache with bright orange snow fencing or flagging tape, to help visually identify the danger. The cache will probably contain barrels of diesel and gasoline, plus jerry cans, smaller containers of things like kerosene, and items like motor oil. Many camps also have one or two large fuel containers called tidy tanks mounted in the back of pickups. These are easier to fill and more efficient to use to dispense fuel to other vehicles. Don't allow people to smoke around the fuel cache, or around trucks with tidy-tanks. Make sure that the tidy tanks are properly grounded before use.

A dish pit will need to be dug behind the kitchen. This is where the gray water goes. Gray water is the run-off after washing dishes, so it's basically a mix of liquid wastes with no human waste. This pit will be dug several feet deep and several feet wide. It gets covered up with a few sheets of plywood, and then gets fenced off with high-visibility flagging tape, as a safety precaution. You wouldn't want to fall into this pit! Unfortunately, the dish pit is sometimes an attractant for bears, so I usually put a generator pretty close to it as a possible deterrent. Many camps will also require a gray-water pit for shower run-off. The terms black water and night soil refer to human waste, and are handled separately from any gray water pits.

Your camp will need garbage cans. Often, a camp will have several traditional garbage cans scattered throughout the mess tent and nearby, and these will be emptied out by the cooks each morning after breakfast, and again in the evening after dinner. The camp may have some temporary bear-proof garbage containers, which are used on an interim basis until the garbage bags can be moved to a garbage trailer. The garbage trailer should be enclosed, rodent-proof, and bear-proof, and needs to be taken to a landfill to be emptied at the end of every shift, before the garbage really starts to rot and crawl with maggots.

Your camp will probably have a number of VHF mobile radios. Every truck should have one. The kitchen should have one. And finally, most foremen and checkers and supervisors will carry handheld VHF radios that communicate on the same system. I've also seen some crews where a foreman will buy several small two-way radios from The Source and always have one of these radios in a waterproof container at each cache, besides carrying another on their radio harness beside their VHF handheld. This way, if a planter comes back to a cache and needs anything, they can always contact the foreman quite quickly. These radios are also great if there's a first aid problem and the foreman needs to be alerted very quickly. It wouldn't completely surprise me if there came a day eventually when every planter was required to carry such a small radio with them on the block. This would also be an improvement to current communications between crew members. The only headache would be to keep them all charged every day.

If the camp is located on a logging road, signs should be posted a few hundred meters away from the entrance to camp, in both directions. These signs can warn road users to slow down in case there are vehicles entering or exiting the camp.

The camp will probably have three or four gasoline-powered generators, each capable of generating perhaps three thousand watts. Sometimes, a camp will have a much larger diesel-powered generator instead, that can generate in excess of six or seven thousand watts. We use the generators to power the kitchen, electric pressure pumps (for water), the supervisor's office, lights in the mess tent and other structures, and to charge the batteries for the handheld radios. Some companies even use propane powered generators. No matter whether you're using gasoline or diesel generators, only a limited number of people should be allowed to refuel this equipment, and they should be thoroughly trained in fuel-handling procedures to ensure that the wrong type of fuel is never added to any pump or generator. If you put diesel into a gasoline powered engine, or vice versa, you will usually ruin the engine.

Most modern camps have a satellite internet system, used for an internet connection in camp. Just don't make the mistake of setting the camp up in the trees in such a position that you can't pick up the satellite signal! Most camps will run the internet into a wireless router that gets set up in the kitchen or mess tent or some central area, so everyone can access the internet from their laptops if they're in the immediate area of the router. Satellite internet systems are typically quite a bit slower than the broadband that you're used to from a residential connection. Couple this with the fact that there may be a dozen or more people trying to use it at any given time, and you'll quickly get really frustrated with the internet speed. It's a wise idea for the entire camp to have a rule that people aren't allowed to run torrents or watch video on the shared internet, because it really makes the internet connection quite useless for all other users. In other words, assume that the connection will be suitable for reading emails or viewing sites with mostly text content, but not much else. In areas where there's decent mobile network coverage, the internet problems are often alleviated because a lot of planters will just use their phone to go online, or to create a private hotspot for their own laptop. But don't count on this either, as a lot of camps are set up well outside the range of typical mobile coverage areas.

Propane tanks are used to power a lot of different heating sources in camp. A large propane tank, which is about four feet high, is often called a "hundred-pounder." A large camp may have as many as a dozen or more of these, or it may have a single large propane tank capable of carrying several hundred litres, mounted on a mobile trailer. The propane is used mostly by the kitchen, to power the stoves and hot water heaters. Propane may be used for a smaller residential-type stove & range-top that allows planters to make tea and coffee without imposing on the cooking facilities. Propane is also used for things like heaters for the shower facilities, and heaters in the dry tent. Propane tanks need to be labeled carefully as dangerous goods, and shouldn't ever be stored in such a manner that a vehicle could back over one. It's also wise to dig them into the ground and to tie them off to something solid, so there's no risk that they could tip over and hit the ground. Don't allow people to smoke around propane tanks.

Some camps have more than one reefer. A reefer, or refrigerated trailer, is often used to store as many as a thousand boxes of trees. Some camps also have smaller refrigerated trucks that can carry several hundred boxes. A full-sized reefer trailer can be forty, forty-eight, or fifty-three feet long, and gets pulled by a standard large truck like a Freightliner tractor. This tractor has what's called a fifth wheel to use for attaching the tractor to the trailer. When a reefer trailer doesn't have a refrigeration unit, it's called a dry trailer, but these aren't used as commonly by planting companies, because if they're ever used for tree storage, they need to be refrigerated. A tractor with a reefer or dry trailer attached is known as a tractor-trailer, or an eighteen wheeler.

The reason why a camp may have more than one reefer, or possibly a dry trailer, is because it's an efficient way to move a full camp around. Once the camp structures and equipment are disassembled, they take up a very large amount of space, and a reefer is sometimes barely large enough to store and move the entire camp. The driver of a tractor-trailer unit needs to have a special license known as a Class 1, so it's very rare that you'd see a planter or foreman driving one around.

When You're Not in a Tent Camp

Sometimes you may find yourself working in a logging camp. You stay in logging trailers, which usually come complete with one bed per room, hot showers and running water, laundry facilities, a heated mess hall, and television and/or internet access. The advantages are comfort, but sometimes at the expense of higher camp costs. Although BC has regulated camp costs, rates for staying in logging camps are very expensive. If a licensee is covering the costs of providing logging camp accommodations, then the tree planting contractor doesn't have to pass these costs along to planters. If the planting contractor is required to pay the logging camp operator for the room-nights, you'd better hope that your planting company bid high enough on the work to absorb that significant expense.

You may also be working out of motel accommodations, or staying in guest cabins in wilderness resorts. Usually, you buy and cook your own food, or sometimes eat in a nearby restaurant, depending on what arrangements the contractor has been able to work out. Depending on the size of the room, your roommates, and their habits and cooking skills, this can either be a great or a horrible experience.

If your planting company is arranging for the rooms and pays for them up-front, the maximum that they can charge to the planter is your share of the actual cost of the room. For example, if there are two people staying in the room, then the maximum you can be charged for camp costs is 50% of the cost of the room, plus the GST and provincial sales tax associated with that amount.

There's also a hidden component to camp costs for people working out of motels. You're almost always responsible for providing for your own food, so there's a cost of perhaps around $20 or more per day to eat. So if you're also paying $30 for motel costs, your effective total living costs would be around fifty dollars per day (motel plus food). That's one of several important things to compare when debating the pros and cons of living and working out of motels versus a bush camp, if you have a choice in the matter, since your food is included in the daily camp costs when working out of a tent camp. Also, when working out of motels, remember that you have to pay the camp costs for the room even on days off, whereas in a bush camp, you aren't charged camp costs on days off. Working out of motels is significantly more expensive than working out of bush camps.

Here's an audio version of this section of the tutorial series:


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