LifeStories

A Tale Of Two Tree Planters: Surviving A Bear Encounter In The Backcountry

Lunch for tree planters is hurried.

The more time spent chewing, the less money made planting. Every third bite you twist your wrist to see the time. You pack food that’s easy to eat: spaghetti wraps, bags of meat and sweaty cheese, pre-peeled boiled eggs. You swallow your last bite as you bend to plant your first tree.

Isaac and I sat in the dirt eating PB&Js and soggy veggie wraps. We threw almonds at each other and gulped water out of four-liter milk jugs. Between bites, we talked about everything and nothing: about ex-lovers and a cat named Pumpkin, about Cape Breton and Halifax and how soft the moss was. We moaned about the heat and wiped stinging sweat from our eyes.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing some wildlife today,” I said, as we clipped on our 50-pound planting bags loaded to the gills, slid our shovels out of the dirt and headed into the land.

Tree planters operate in some of the most remote forests in Canada. The job, which awards planters anywhere from seven to 25 cents per planted tree, consists of planting thousands of saplings per day across logged land. The trees, about the length of your forearm, take anywhere from three to 20 seconds to plant. Every summer, thousands of Canadians sign up to enjoy three months of tent living, wild parties, complete emaciation and, for some, a booty of over $15,000.

While at work, running into moose, bears, wolves, and cougars is common-—if not expected. Bear encounters are especially frequent. British Columbia, Canada’s tree planting hotspot, is home to 25 percent of the North American grizzly bear population—about 15,000 bears. In southwestern Alberta, the grizzly bear population has grown by four percent every year since 2007.

Most planting companies equip their trucks and first aid kits with bear spray and offer individual canisters for planters upon request. Other precautions include setting up bear fences around camp or working in pairs.

Isaac and I had been planting together for a month. We were finally getting a rhythm, communicating with hand gestures, nods and “yeps.”

At three o’clock the hot Alberta sun drilled into our backs. We were in the northwestern corner of the province, close to the British Columbia border in an area google maps describes as “Clear Hills No. 21.” One hundred kilometers to the east was Manning, a tiny town with a population less than 1,500. To the west: Prespatou, a community of around 300. South, one of the largest towns was Fairview, a place which, as the name suggests, boasts a mediocre landscape of yellow and brown prairie, an all-you-can-eat buffet called “Cafe Vlad,” and a population of around 3,000. On foot, it would have taken us over 24 hours to get back to civilization.

The yellow moss exhaled humid air in great bursts as our shovels sliced through the ground. It was too hot to talk, and the birds and squirrels had long ago escaped to the cooler, darker underbelly of the forest. The land was dead-quiet, save for the light clicks of our shovels digging dirt.

A crack in the treeline. We were no longer alone.

Two black figures, their coats startlingly pure in a world of mottled green, ran after each other into the land. They stopped short in front of the treeline and, hugging each other, launched onto hind legs.

They pressed their faces together as if to tell a secret. It looked like a neighborly embrace.

And then, a strike. Claws the length of matchsticks flung hair and skin as open jaws flashed pointed canines. Chunks of muscle jiggled as thick legs pounded into the ground.

“Holy shit,” I whispered. A hundred sirens blared in my ears. “They’re fucking fighting.”

The bears tore at each others’ flanks, backing into trees and easily knocking down full-grown spruce. Their growls and barks sounded like car doors dragging across cement.

“Let’s get out of here man.” My voice was quick and shivering, knowing full well that there was no such thing as “out of there.”

Isaac stared at the bears, grinning and fascinated.

“It’s like watching the Discovery Channel.”

He planted another tree into the ground. Casual.

Horrified and scared to be alone, I stayed close—my trees going into the ground sideways.

Every morning planters are shown their piece of land on a map. Bleary-eyed and barely feeling the jolt of the cook’s jet-black coffee, they nod with a vague understanding, hoping somebody else is paying attention. That particular morning, I was lethargic, with not nearly enough energy to pay attention to where I was on a map, or, most importantly, where anyone else was.

A few minutes and about 50 trees later, I glanced over my shoulder. My eyes widened and my knuckles turned white around the shovel: the bears had moved closer, and they were watching us. With an eerie confidence, they peered over the dead-still grass. Eyes locked. Two sets of black ears perked in our direction.

Slowly, the alpha wove its way towards us, its back rippling with adrenaline from the fight. The lesser bear followed.

“They’re coming,” I said.

My backpack was about 40 feet away, a can of bear spray deep in the front pocket. With one glance Isaac, I knew what had to be done: get to the bag before the bear got to us. It felt like someone poured liquid nitrogen into my blood.

We tried not to run. Bears charge and kill when you run. But the last few steps were impossible, and we let ourselves rush. With shaking hands, I reached for my bag.

As I unzipped the pocket, feeling for the pressurized canister that could save my life, the alpha bolted in our direction. Three-hundred pounds of vibrating muscle—its ears popped up and out of its skull.

Isaac and I were hysterical.

Screaming “from the top of your lungs” is a lie. When something horrifying happens, you scream from the deepest, darkest, most guttural part of your insides. I sounded like a dying animal, like a thrashing deer in the locked jaws of a wolf. Primal.

The bear stopped short, 12 feet away with its front paws on an overturned stump. Enraged, it flared its nostrils and smacked its jaws together. Bone on bone. Its ears flicked back and forth and saliva hung from the top of its mouth. You could see the details of its face: the hollow of its eyes and the light brown fur around its nose. A slash mark from the other bear left on its side a line of fresh blood.

The screaming was shredding my throat. I tasted blood. Isaac and I climbed onto a pile of tree boxes.

A million thoughts surged at once:

How fast can a bear run?

How many teeth does it have?

Will today be the day that I die?

It can’t possibly be…can it?

If it is, will Isaac try to save me?

Will the bear eat through my shirt?

What does it feel like to have a bear tooth sink into your skin?

The fear was all-encompassing. It was pure. It radiated out of my pores like a Saturday morning hangover. You could smell it, like burnt hair.

The fear did something special: it gave clarity and precision. Without faltering, I removed the safety from the bear spray and pointed it directly at the animal. One wrong move and Isaac and I would be blasted with ten seconds of capsaicin, the brutally hot chemical found in chili peppers, at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. The spray ranks somewhere between 2 million and 5 million on the Scoville Heat Scale. Jalapeno peppers, a common spicy cooking ingredient, are a measly 2,500-5,000.

A misfire and we would be temporarily blinded, burned, and totally out of control.

The bear needed to be several feet closer, otherwise the spray was useless. As Isaac blew on a broken whistle attached to his planting bags, I grabbed a flattened tree box and flapped it at the bear, screaming desperately for help.

Nobody answered. We were the most alone people in the world.

Unbeknownst to us, one planter was no more than a few hundred feet away, on the other side of a cluster of trees. When he heard the screams he crashed towards us through the brush.

“It sounded like someone was getting their guts eaten by a cougar,” he recalled, later.

After a few paces, he came to an abrupt halt, running directly into the path of the lesser bear, watching us intently through the bushes. By some stroke of luck, it hadn’t heard him.

He tiptoed backward out of the bush.

Two minutes passed and it felt like a lifetime. The bear circled us. It was low to the ground and moved with exaggerated slowness. Was it honing in or taking off? The pauses in my screams seemed to bring it closer.

Our crew boss ran into the clearing. His hat, periwinkle blue, flapped madly at the sides of his face. He held his shovel above his head and shook it at the bear, screaming, until he reached our post.

The second bear, timider than its opponent, took off. The alpha stood its ground. Soon, the planter on the other side of the treeline joined us, and a handful of others came rustling out of the woods. It was like Lord of the Flies. We chased the bear with sticks and shovels, screaming and whipping logs at its backside. It took ten minutes before the animal gave a final, nonchalant glance, snorted, and loped off into the thick brush.

We took big breaths and wiped our brows with dirty gloves. Our friends hugged us and rubbed our shoulders. None of it was real. One planter came to me with tears streaking down his freckled face.

“I’ll never forget the way you screamed,” he said. “I was crying for you.”

Waiting for the chuff-chuff-chuff of the helicopter at the end of the day, we laughed about the ridiculousness of it all. About Isaac’s broken whistle and the hysterical screaming and the fact that I thought a flattened cardboard box could actually save my life.

As the helicopter took off, I looked down and watched the land shrink. It wasn’t until we were above the treetops that I totally lost it. I shook and heaved and wept as my freckled friend held my hand.

It was an experience so distant from the sterile, city world. A world where common fears don’t involve dying. When, if ever, does one fear getting mauled alive? I had been thrown into alien territory. There was no delete button or backspace or “power off.” Human beings are bred to believe we are alpha. That day, I learned there was something more powerful. Unloading from the helicopter back at camp, the world had shifted a little.

Little things became blessings. I was thankful for the solid ground, for my two feet and my two legs, I was thankful for the sunshine and the smooth bark on the birch trees that surrounding my tent, and the soft squishy paw of Kibbles, the camp dog. I was thankful for the reeking Porta-Potties and the acrid smell of cigarette smoke, for the way the dust stung my eyes when the helicopter took off and the incredible functionality of a fork.

The most precious thing in the world, I realized, is being alive.

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