We met Annie in the hot springs. Literally in the hot springs. I'm talking full-tilt nipple commitment to the 104 degree sulfur pool. I was roasting. Cooking myself. Liard Hot Springs, heralded as the best hot spring in Canada, was shedding stress. And dirt. It was the first time I'd washed in five days. The Alaska-Canada highway is one lonely stretch of road. She was sitting up on the boardwalk, toes dipping into the heat, watching us closely.
"Hey. So you four are obviously together," she said.
"Oh? And what gives us away?"
She drew a hand across her upper arm. "Tan lines."
And so we met. Annie was our age. How nice. Our trip has been defined by our interpersonal relationships - we spend 20-22 hours a day within five feet of each other - and interacting with the people kind enough to let us sleep in their basements. In the context of Keys to Freeze, to have a basement is to be much older than us. We crave peer interaction. Poor Annie didn't know what she was getting herself into by reaching out to us.
We drug ourselves out of pool and sat around Annie. Except Brady. He took it upon himself to sit in the hottest part of the springs, the pool inlet, His goal was to remain conscious for five minutes. Sitting with heavy lidded eyes, big beard dripping, Brady looked like an emaciated chipmunk that was thinking mid-soak Oh yeah. I could die happy right now.
In talking with Annie we got pieces of her story. She is a Halifax native. Halifax is in Nova Scotia, Canada. Geographically, Nova Scotia is northeast of Maine, a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. Annie went to school for art and, after graduating, became a tree planter in British Columbia. For three years she's worked as a planter in the summer season and then taken time off to go explore her creative outlets in some chilly northern city. When we met Annie she was hitchhiking her way north to Dawson City (located in very northern Yukon) for the winter, her summer planting just finished.
Before Keys to Freeze I didn't know about planting, but the industry makes sense. Replace what has been cut and scored. After many long miles riding up through the logging - and, consequently, the planting - meccas of Prince George and Fort St John I counted truck after truck hauling 40,000 lbs of fresh-cut wood for processing. I wondered what happened to all spaces left empty and void from the logging industry. Annie was there to fill in the gaps.
She told us about the typical planting day. You wake up at 6 am, out the camp by 7. Camp is usually in the bush, some thirty minutes away from any sort of civilization. You are with 30 other planters, sharing meals and camp space and time in the truck as you head towards your planting assignment. Thus by 8 you are on site and strapping on a belt. The belt has 3-4 canvas sacks hanging off. Empty they look like gaping mouths, hungry to be filled. Oblige them. You fill these sacks with little trees, the ratio of pine to elm to aspen dictated by your foreman, who has a list of all the trees cut in your planting zone. And then, with a pat on the back and a squirt of bug spray you're off, bending and planting and moving down the line.
So this day goes. You are paid per tree, somewhere - depending on the company and terrain - between $.09-.18 per tree. Annie, after three seasons, was able to plant 2,500-3,000 trees a day.
The work continues until 4:00. Then you pack up, truck home, shower, eat, make a fire, play some music, and kumbaya baby.
You might have 6 days on, 2 days off. The total planting contract lasts around two or three months. It all depends on the size of the planting zone and how difficult the terrain is. Annie told us about some of the tough work conditions, the mosquitoes being so bad that "you inhale them through every orifice. Yeah. Visceral. I know." Or planting on slopes so steep that one misstep would send you tumbling off the mountain. Or hands so raw from the repetitive planting motion that you have to wrap them in duct tape beneath your work gloves. Dirt everywhere, clinging to you, sweat soaking into the fabric of your clothes. It is an exposed lifestyle.
But Annie loves it. It's allowed her to open herself up. She's grown from the experience. "I'm able to live more in the moment now because of planting," she said. "It's a community of artists who don't know what's next, and that's okay with them. And I guess it's okay with me."
What a cool perspective! I drew some serious parallels to Annie's journey and ours. Every day is different but the same. Ultimate exposure to the elements. A tight group of friends to share experiences with. The only difference is she's making money ... we're just spending it.
And now she is going to Dawson City, a northern Yukon community known for its winter artist residencies. And we ride north too, now more aware of an important community that offers new life to a ravaged landscape. So now, when you're on the road and see a logging truck, keep your eyes open. There might be some planters close by.