I couldn't find a thread for Little Smokey on this site. I am going up to Grande Prairie and Grande Cache with them this season. Anybody know what to expect? What kind of PPE do you need up there? I heard the ground was pretty descent.
Overall it was a good experience coming from planting Ontario...but take that as you will if you know what Ontario planting is like.
The camp has a religious undertone to it. I'd say approximately half the camp last year was Christian, and that includes the supervisor, crew bosses, cooks, and accountant. They were open about it, but not pushy or preachy about their beliefs. If you'd wished to talk to them about their beliefs and had questions, they were more then willing to help. I say this because I was unaware of this when arriving and it kind of came to me as a shock due to my experiences from Ontario planting.
There is a predominantly Vet status in the camp. Two rookies quit within the first day? maybe two...but the other three stuck it out. Myself and three others came from Ontario, so we were somewhat rookies to the Albertan quality. The rest of the camp were Vets, some ranging as long as 10 years with the company. This gave me some reference from how previous years had looked in comparison.
Right from the get go we were told that it was not a 'party camp'. The general rule was "out of sight, out of mind". A beer with dinner was fine, but they didn't supply or promote night offs as evenings to get hammered drunk. We were there to plant/work, it wasn't a University Drinking Camp for summer months. We had a few good parties, but don't expect them all too often. There were no hard drugs in the camp.
Shifts were 5-1-5-2. I felt it was an excellent shift system. On the two day offs they'd take the planters into town for rest and relaxation (Prairie Haven is the party/cheap motel to stay at - GP Inn was only a few bucks extra and had a pool/hot tub/much nicer rooms). When working out of Grande Cache they'd run vehicles into town on the one day offs, but not in Grande Prairie.
Internet was in camp. If you were a planter who brought their laptop you'd be able to get access to it. Beware that if you do, you're going to be asked a lot to use it.
Food was awful, and as every planter knows, camp cooks are priceless and food can make or break camp moral. Lucky for everyone the weather was absolutely brilliant last season, or else there would have been a mutiny. You know those torrential downpour days where things just aren't going to well and you're drenched head to toe while also freezing...the added comfort that "hey...at least I can return to a delicious hot and filling meal" didn't cross the back of your mind. Instead you pray that today's meal is slightly better then normal. I guess the cook they'd had the previous years (who got spectacular reviews and the company vets loved) was unable to make it back for last season. As a vegetarian, most meals lacked protein and sustenance, worst meal was when there was nothing but cereal and a few pieces of fruit for the vegetarians one breakfast. The rice needed a knife to cut... and for some reason it continually needed a knife to cut. They didn't change on their mistakes. They began a suggestion box later on in the year, which slightly improved the matter, but if the same cooks return I will hope they have learnt a few culinary skills this past year. Due to the two departure times in the morning, the early crew creams out all the lunch deserts and has first pickings on everything. This leaves the late crews to either wake up with the early crew (and loose that extra half hour-forty five minutes of sleep), or settle for quite a bland lunch. On a positive note: there is an option to make smoothies with breakfast (or as I enjoyed doing, enjoy while traveling to the block as well).
Planting out of Grande Cache was absolutely beautiful. Foothills of the Canadian Rockies. As it was my first time in that part of the country, it surely did not disappoint. Very fortunately we had a three day break between Spring-Summer contracts during our stay in GC and a crewboss took a vehicle (and anyone wishing to go) down to Jasper. A few of us decided to say around GC and did a three day hike of Lightning Ridge and the peaks around there.
I did not see any of the super creamy land in Grande Cache that Krahn was reffering to, but Little Smokey does have some blocks/contracts that do have the super creamy land. The two really big money makers are up at Fort Mac or Ainsworth Fields. Around mid season they split the camp up into three crews. One went to Fort Mac, one went to Ainsworth Fields (hotel show out of GP), and one stayed at the normal camp and planted some creamy blocks in the area. These were the money making contracts for everyone. I went to Ainsworth Fields and it was farmer fields. It's warned that it's a very hit and miss contract, and you better not pray for rain because if it does the fields become hell. We had blazing sunny days of 30+ heat and everyone's numbers rose significantly. The fields went from super creamy, to clay. Like I said previously, hit and miss...but generally hit. If you were thinking about the Fort Mac camp, it's a drug/alcohol free contract, and you are drug tested to see if you want to be accepted for the contract. If you think won't be able to pass the drug test Little Smokey will put you on one of the other contracts.
The planting was run well. There weren't too many gong show days...there's always the few but Brett (the supervisor) did an excellent job at keeping them to a minimum.
I was placed on an excellent crew with a very experienced crew boss, but a few others weren't so lucky. Last year Little Smokey had two first year crew bosses (one having only one years experience planting) and was also semi training another crew boss (sending him on special missions). Usually being sent on those special missions was a deathtrap to your earnings for the day. While they were hit and miss...miss happened far more than hit. Purely not his fault, more the foresters for not checking the land properly and sending 3 people butt fuck nowhere to a certain amount to fill for the day, only to find out it took 10% of the prescription and thus leaving you frustrated and sitting on a thin wallet on the ride home that evening. I had nothing to complain about my crew boss, but others weren't fortunate enough. Many shortened days for them due to the piece sizes they were cut, I heard a few stories about lack of tree's as well. Just inexperience, hopefully won't happen again this year.
The tree prices were quite fair, with only a few of the heliblocks having complaints. As I was coming from Ontario, all the prices were better, and almost all the land was better. The company had a lot of good vet planters, and everyone made decent cash.
I saw a few of the blocks that had been planted in the previous years...and they actually did look excellent. Much better then the land I was seeing...but I guess the grass is always greener on the other side right?
Hope you enjoy the review I can supply from my accounts and experience planting with Little Smokey in the 2009 Spring/Summer Contracts.
And Krahn, rumours of Grande Cache are true from what I've seen. giant flat sandy pine blocks, with a few hairy ones thrown in there to disappoint on the rare day.
I'm well out of the game now, but if I got offered work in Grande Cache, I'd take it in a heartbeat.
There is one big positive about these guys: they have one of the longest seasons in the industry. You can seriously work from early/mid-May until the end of August or into September. Also, the food in their Canfor camp was pretty good. Camp cost was a frugal $25/day at Canfor, and was free in Ft Mac. The prices for the oilfield work are good ($0.15-$0.20-ish), considering the ground. They also have cool company t-shirts.
Now onto the drawbacks:
This is the most disorganized show I have been on in my seven-season career. It is infuriatingly bad. Foreman never seem to know where they are working for the day, and there seems to be no effort put in to minimize partial days or wasted time. Nobody takes the same truck two days in a row, and no one knows who's driving what in the morning. I had a couple of days where hours were wasted because nobody knew what was supposed to be going on, or my crew had been sent on yet another fuckaround. On more than one occasion, my foreman ended up so overloaded with people from other crews that he couldn't get trees to his own people to keep them working. Nothing is ever even close to running on time. They are always behind schedule because they avoidably waste so many work hours during the day.
Part of this may be that they had a new supervisor this year.
They use a $0.02/tree holdback, but nobody bothered to mention it (and it's not in company paperwork) until I'd already finished a shift there. They do pay it out, but I didn't like the surprise.
Their payroll was about a month behind the entire time I was there.
They use those godawful 15-seater vans. Also, expect frequent truck breakdowns and quads in near-unusable disrepair.
A lot of the staff have a really lackadaisical attitude towards safety. There were a few drivers who were terrifying, including at least one who texts while driving. The supervisor made fun of people who didn't want to work in a storm when lightning was striking in peoples' pieces, and trees were blowing down into workspace. In fact, a lot of the staff attitudes remind me of the old "hurr hurr, suck it up and don't be such a wuss" attitude towards safety.
Some of the land was really badly priced at Canfor. This is less Little Smokey's fault and more part of the nature of the beast, though. Also, Canfor specs have changed; instead of 9s, they want 5.5s.
All in all, if you're looking for something for August, give these guys a shot. It still beats the hell out of herbicide spraying.
I’ve seen planters make obscene money at Little Smoky. More money than I’ve seen anywhere in 15 years of planting at many companies. Jules’ grievances aren’t that surprising, some people have that reaction, but there is more to it.
The company started about 25 years ago by a guy who is a serious businessman, and mechanical brain genius. It’s under new ownership now, and they’re continuing in the same tradition but with a lot of new staff, unfortunately. The whole scene is very quirky and unorthodox. They don’t do much for atmosphere, it’s completely geared toward planting lots of trees and running a tight business. This spoke well to some of the more industrious planters. In it’s heyday it had a real following of 5,000k types and it was fun.
It’s unfortunate to hear things aren’t going well. If there are safety concerns and lots of time is getting wasted then that’s totally stupid and it should be fixed right away.
But the higher-ups know what to do. They know the business inside out and if they can get a handle on things again it will be awesome. In that regard it’s a good opportunity for ambitious younger workers. LS has great contracts and at least a few of them really know what to do.
Thank you both for your feedback and input, we would like to respond to a few of the issues that have been raised.
We are sorry to hear that you had a largely negative experience in working for us Jules. As suggested by shakattack, Little Smokey doesn’t appeal to everyone. Even in the “heyday” that shakattack speaks of, there were still people who didn’t connect with “quirky and unorthodox” ways. Regardless of style or personal preference though, your safety should never be compromised. There should never be a “lackadaisical attitude towards safety”. Your input is helpful in identifying wrong attitudes and behaviours that will certainly not be present going into the 2013 season. As an example, Jules has identified a hole in Little Smokey’s HSE. Although we had a policy relating to extreme weather, we hadn’t included a formal policy specifically on lightening. We have gone about amending this, and the staff will assuredly be complying with expectation.
Jules’ proviso did fairly put into context that Little Smokey has undergone growth, and has suffered from growing pains and the transitions of training new staff to meet these expanded demands. The ownership also feels that there was at times disorganization which was needless and self-invoked. However, we feel shakattack aptly identified that Little Smokey “knows the business inside out” and that “if they can get a handle on things again it will be awesome”. We have just finished a season akin to the awkward teenage years of growth, and are emerging a bigger and more mature community.
Part of the growing process has involved a re-thinking of how our crews are built. Within recent years, average cutblock sizes have decreased, as well as the amount of trees being planted per hectare. To better manage this, we are moving towards updated systems of crew management. Our crews will constitute two different sizes: crews with 5 planters, and crews with 10 planters. We feel this mixed crew approach addresses changing work dynamics and will better guarantee full and productive work days.
On a positive note, despite some unnecessary disorganization, planters did have a financially successful year in 2012. As a group, all rookie combined earnings averaged $205 per working day. The average of all veteran planters came out to $299.78 per day.
Equipment did break down, particularly so around the time that Jules arrived in our planting camp. And we would also like to echo their expectation: that “frequent truck breakdowns” and seeing “quads in near-unusable disrepair” is probably always going to be part of the scene where we work. We unfortunately don’t see this changing any day soon. Some of the road conditions and fully deactivated cutblock’s that our equipment is expected to daily perform through, are amongst the harshest in Canada. New equipment or old, there is simply no machinery that will perfectly last a planting season which extends into the 90-100 working day range. Having said this, management is keenly aware of maintaining equipment and repairing any deficiencies with regular interval. At the end of August, one of the clients commented that they couldn’t believe what good shape the ATV’s were in considering they were on their 85th day of bush work.
Although breakdowns will likely not disappear, one of the deficiencies Jules identified which will however be disappearing, is the 15 passenger vans. We are in the process of exiting them from company structure, replacing them with more pickup trucks. This move directly syncs with the above mentioned plan for updated crew management.
On another post, I happened to notice mention of Norwalk virus that did rip through our camp in the 2012 season. For the record, it would be beneficial to note that we weren’t operating a camp during this outbreak. Norwalk virus had recently run through the local town that we were operating from, and the Alberta Health Authority was brought in to advise the situation.
We appreciate your feedback Jules. Hopefully you can sense that we have already set into motion plans which are directed to alleviate our shared concerns. 2013 is lining up to be a great season. Good contracts, solid staff, an excellent core of planters. Little Smokey has broken free of the awkward stages of growth, and an awesome thing is taking root.
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Thanks for the response.
The day I referred to with the lightning was particularly distressing; it was one of the days at the end of the Camp Misery (btw, best camp name ever) portion of the Canfor contract. The sodden day with the two breakdowns on the way to the block. I would've had a crappy day regardless because my planting partner and I got 300 or so trees to split for the entire morning and it was pissing rain, but the wind and lightning conditions were very unsafe. Other planters were working through having poplars blow down around them. People should not be working in those conditions, and they should not be pressured by management (not you, but the supervisor) to stay in a block that has trees blowing down in it. It's lucky that nobody was seriously hurt.
Also, that day was the first time I'd seen someone try to drive a quad with two flats over a deac. Just when I thought there was nothing new to see in the bush.
New organization would probably help. I mean, I had very few full planting days before we went to Hines Creek. I was certainly at work for 10-12 hours, but so much of that was sitting around doing nothing.
Also, I'd suggest not always planting out the front of roadside blocks first. It really sucks being the crew that has to walk 45 minutes to the back of a block to fill a 2000 tree hole somebody else left.
I don't know why I forgot this in my earlier bit, but, eight day shifts shoot crew morale in the face and don't do any good physiologically or production-wise. I know it's tempting when contracts need to finish, but they just contribute to burnout and resentment.
The norovirus outbreak wasn't something you could really do anything about after it got going. It's not like somebody left chicken salad out overnight and gave everyone salmonella. When people started getting sick, there wasn't much you guys could do to stop it; the multi-day break we got was probably the best thing you could've done (even if I did spend half of it puking in the Prairie Haven).
Shakattack seemed to imply that I had a problem with the camp culture, but that wasn't the case. The lack of a party atmosphere was actually pretty good. Camp was actually quiet on nights off, which I enjoyed because I'm an old fart who likes to spend my weekends reading books and sleeping. I liked most of the people I met there, too. I was aware that a lot of the people in camp were religious (lots of Bible camp t-shirts), but it was never really an issue.
I also don't recall hearing of many 5k days. But, it doesn't sound like people made off too badly, from Brett's stats. Recall that these guys have one of the longest seasons in the industry; some of those planters must have had more than 80 days of work.
I think you're a good owner, Brett, and you're obviously very serious about growing your company. The oilfield and reclamation work you guys are doing looks promising, and I hope you have a good season.
Brett Henkel Print
#3, 9401 - 141 Ave
CELL 780-814-0017 * This cell number is your best bet.
Folklore, 2011: http://tinyurl.com/anl6mkd
I worked for Little Smokey July 5th to August 4th. The shift schedule was 4&1, 2&1(move), 4&1, 5&1, 5&1, 4&2(move), 5 to finish. Ostensibly, I think they were shooting for 5&1, 5*2. A planter did a survey and found 90% of the planters in camp preferred 4 and 1's, so hopefully they took that to account and shortened their shift schedule for 2014.
The first 4&1 and 2*1 was in Spirit River, where were at the campground. Unfortunately, the only grocery store closed at 6pm and with 1.5 hour drives and an hour walk, we never saw it except the first night. They were charging 5$ for milk and cereal and campground in the morning, and basically everyone just ate cold food/at the single bar/chinese restaurant in town. Hilariously, the last day in the region we didn't even get in until 9:30pm, putting a rush on the kitchen right before it closed so everyone could get food.
Most of the camp had 1-3 years of experience; a couple had more. The people, including the management, I found to be super likeable, especially the supervisor, Ed Smith (if that is his real name), even if we had philosophical (heh) differences.
It's pretty typical Alberta. 5-6's density, the quality you'd expect, 100% pine, sticker system. Long swamp walk ins, 10-11-12 cents. Some clean blocks where the money was good, some slashier blocks where the money was decent, and some waist high grass + hidden logs and wasps nests to trip over where the money was dangerous and terrible. Camp average in the 200-250$ range, probably. There was a culture of random pounding; people would have 3k+ days then go back to putting in 1500-2k. It was like; good land, pound, meh land, phone it in. It resulted in large numbers fluctuations which I imagine made things difficult for management to predict. But a lot of the planters were super determined, super hard workers, who could realistically make a large chunk of money more in BC if they adjusted to the quality and found a good place. It looks like 330k is done in 6 days with ~28 planters; 11700 per person is less than 2k a day, at a mix of 11 and 12 cents, so camp average between 215 and 235$ for these 6 days.
We then move to camp at the Whispering Pines Ski Hill, using the resort kitchen and common rooms as our mess tent, which was super nice --- they even had wifi. Lots of good chess players in camp. We were supposed to camp elsewhere, but it was apparently just 1-2 feet of sloppy mud across the entire campground, so I'm glad for the switch.
We did tonnes and tonnes of heliwork, and there was lots of problematic fog in the regions we worked. One day we sat until noon, drove halfway back to camp, then drove back to the helipad, then flew out at 1pm or so, planted 6 hours, then got back to camp at 8pm or so. 9Am starts between drive times and helitimes were pretty regular, and planting until 6-7pm with 7-8pm returns to camp were also pretty typical. There was one day where I was pretty worried that we weren't going to be able to be picked up and were looking at 12km walk out, but it worked in the end at 7:15pm or so. “If you don't work 12 hours, how can you make your money?” was definitely part of their motto.
There was some weirdness that they had some oil work, which they started by saying everyone could go on, then realized everyone couldn't. They told me I had a spot, then told me I didn't, then told people who arrived after me they did. End result was me not going, but with 120 days in, I sort of didn't care (I also skipped fall coastal).
Also, there were wasps nests everywhere. One day I hit 10. Another planter hit 10. I'd say the camp averaged 2-3 wasps nests per person per day.
Overall, it was marginally better than Folklore, the next most recent Alberta company I worked for.
The heliwork was better; the camp did 260k some shifts = 2166 trees person/day = 240$-260$ averages.
The final 5 day shift was in a different area. The kitchen trailer had tables in it, and was super cramped for eating. There was a mess tent set up, but it didn't have many tables --- lots of people just sat outside. Apparently the other half of the camp had a month of almost entirely half days, so our messy 13 cent grass-log-wasp forests ended up not being bad by comparison. That half of the camp gets the best of the stuff for the last shift. The supervisor seriously sincerely says “You can't change the prices but you can change your perspective.” which is not a great line to deliver to a camp of tired and grumpy planters. A planter tried to get a lay-off for EI and they refused.
At one point the switch the shift schedule around, but fail to communicate it to 3 out of 25 planters. The water is overchlorinated, which leads to people under-hydrating.
If I was going to provide some suggestions:
Instruct the foremen to ease off when the sticker system doesn't work perfectly. There were sometimes planters grumpy and upset and feeling accused when a sticker was missing, or a quarter didn't line up to a third, or things like that. You're making people angry and upset over cash values in the range of 1/10000th of your budget.
Switch to 4 and 1's; run slightly shorter days. Burn people out less. Respect and understand that tired workers = lower production and quality. There seemed to be an attitude of “everyone should have infinite energy and you're a lazy slacker if you don't” which doesn't help your operations. This will also help peoples moods --- at one point the chopper pilot glibly said “See you later, hopefully” while dropping us into a cloud, which pissed off and ruined the day of a planter on our crew. This would also provide more time in the evening; there was some disorganization with people waking up early but having too many seats/not enough drivers awake in that load (happened to me once). And the staggered leave times worked consistently poorly, which I'd again attribute to fatigue; basically nobody was capable of being ready at the time they were supposed to be. And the foremen all seemed stressed and overtired too, yelling at planters a lot and taking mistakes as insults. Overall, it often seemed as if the camp could have used 1 more logistics person. But more rest and more time in the evenings to get things done I think would have just made things miraculously smoother.
Adjust prices a little more dynamically; there were blocks that would have been acceptable at 10 or 10.5 at 11 or 12, and there were blocks at 11 or 12 that really needed to be 13.5 or 14. The oil work (at 14 cents) was vastly better than anything else, and the burns (also 14 cents) could have had a cent taken off each and used to adjust other things upwards. Obviously, increase prices overall, but I can respect that can't be done.
The chef was pretty good.
They took 2 cents off payroll. Pay roll was ostensibly every 2 weeks, but it generally came in pretty late. The final pay check with the 2 cents was ~1.5 months after the season. Apparently they give most/all of it to people who quit pretty much every time? Either way, I'm ~95% certain it's totally illegal, and told them they probably shouldn't do that anymore. But their accountant didn't have a problem with it, so maybe it's legal in Alberta?
If you're a rookie looking to get a long season start, or a vet looking for a July-August plant, this is a solid place to go, for sure. There isn't a lot of great work in July and August, and this was pretty decent. Some years they have work that can run as late as mid-september, if you want it, and that is really quite an excellent thing.
Brett is legitimately a good guy who is doing his best with far too limited resources. Unfortunately, the "must work as many hours as possible" mindset is utterly crippling and damages his operations far more than he realizes. My portal to portal times are: 49.5 (4 day shift), 26.75 (2 day shift), 48 (4 day shift), 49+7 half (4.5 day shift), 48.5 (4 day shift), 74.5 (6 day shift). There is a 14.5 and 4 13's in there. Only a few days come in short of 12 hours, and not by much. Portal to portal time is misreported on Payroll.
Prices, while weak, were rarely the true problem. Logistics and moods, both of which made more difficult by the insane hours, are the thing that make working at Little Smokey tough.
Folklore, 2011: http://tinyurl.com/anl6mkd
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