In 2012, I was finishing my bachelors degree and looking forward to a few months of travelling the globe before getting gobbled up by “the real world”. Friends of mine were going tree planting in Alberta to make money, hang with interesting people and spend a whole summer living outdoors. At that stage in my life, tree planting sounded ideal so I bought a tent and some gear, as this would be my very first time camping, and boarded a flight to Edmonton.
Like many rookie planters, I had packed too much stuff while also managing to not pack all the right stuff. I learned quite a few lessons in those first few days in Grand Prairie, Alberta.
On my 23rd birthday, I got to sit up front in the passenger seat of our crew’s pick up truck, a rare privilege for a rookie. A huge grizzly bear and her two cubs emerged from the dense forest as we drove away from our planting site. They bounded across the logging road and took cover under the trees on the other side. To witness these impressive creatures out in the wild felt like a birthday gift from Mother Earth.
After a few weeks planting the logged foothills of the Canadian Rockies, we moved our camp to Fort McMurray, Alberta. As we drove further north along a narrow stretch of highway through the Boreal Forest, it was hard to imagine that we were headed towards the infamous oil sands. Suddenly the trees disappeared, replaced by winding concrete roads, offensive, orange construction signs and kilometers of strip malls.
We set up camp next to a highway. We could hear the repetitive beat of “bird bangers” which are used to scare ducks and wildlife away from the toxic tailings ponds. The tree planting company I was working for had won a contract to help Suncor fulfill their legal obligation to the Alberta government to reclaim the land that was excavated, mined, trampled and turned into a swamp for bitumen extraction run-off. Lucky us.
You can’t work on the site without sitting through hours of training and safety modules. At the end of our training, we watched a video which showed lush grassy hills, birds soaring through blue skies and beautiful plants blowing in the wind. Apparently, this was Suncor’s reclamation land. Apparently, this was their evidence that life could be restored in these tortured lands.
One thrust of my shovel into the lifeless soil was evidence enough to me that Suncor’s video was bullshit. Over a month, I jammed around 20,000 trees into the barren soil knowing all along that it would take a miracle for any of them to grow. Every morning on our way to work, we would drive past towering smoke stacks, deep, black tailings ponds, and hauler trucks that make a pick-up truck look like a Hot Wheels toy. The shear scale of the operation at Suncor, only one of the oil sands companies operating in Alberta, still sends shivers down my spine.
As I walked away from my last piece of planted land at Suncor, a frail, black bear ran across the seemingly endless expanse of dirt. It stopped for a moment to acknowledge its visitors, a loud bang went off from a nearby bird banger then it sheepishly scampered away.
Suncor is a place where the trucks are enormous and the bears are small.