Friday, April 27, 2007

Back to Work in British Columbia

I’m back at work on Canada’s west coast. I run a camp of tree planters every summer, which is a rather strange and adventurous career path. What does this mean for me? Well, I supervise a camp with about sixty-some employees, including two cooks, five foremen, a couple of quality control people, and fifty-odd tree planters. During the next three and a half months, my camp will plant between five and six million trees.

Although the planters usually work a rotating six-day schedule all summer (five days on, one day off), I don’t get that luxury, nor do most of my foremen. I work about 110 days straight, getting up between 5am and 6am, and working until midnight or 1am. I’m responsible for pretty much everything imaginable, from hiring and firing, to overseeing the cooks and making sure that everyone is fed, to scheduling deliveries of food and water, to maintaining a group of up to a dozen trucks, to picking up propane and fuel for the camp, and most importantly, I oversee the safety program to try to make sure everyone stays alive for the summer. Here are some interesting facts:

- My cooks will use about 15,000 eggs this summer. It is not uncommon for some planters to consume six to eight thousand calories per day, and still lose weight. Most of us walk at least twenty kilometers in a typical day, going up and down hills and through swamps and over slash and other obstacles.
- We work in conditions ranging from light snow to temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius. Over the years, I have learned not only to tolerate, but to actually enjoy working in the rain (well, most of the time).
- On a typical spread-out contract, my crews may be planting throughout a region that covers well over twenty-five hundred square kilometers. I have to know exactly where every single person is working at any given time.
- We typically work in central and northern BC and Alberta, although I have worked in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan on rare occasions.
- The trucks in my camp will drive a combined total of nearly a quarter million kilometers this summer. I often drive an average of well over four hundred kilometers per day, a significant portion of which is on dirt logging roads.
- Our vehicles will probably burn well over thirty thousand liters of fuel in three months. I have to bring a lot of that fuel into our camp from town, a couple barrels or tidy-tanks at a time. I’ve come to love the smell of diesel in the morning.
- It is common to run into bears, deer, and moose on a daily basis. Occasionally, I’ve run into elk, caribou, lynx, bobcats, and wolves. I don’t mind the wildlife – humans cause more problems than most animals.
- I do not expect to touch another drop of alcohol until mid-August. My responsibilities as a camp supervisor are intense, and I am literally on-call 24 hours per day. I have to be in suitable condition to deal with any kind of problem, no matter how minor or major, at any time of day. I like to say that my job description could be summed up as “putting out fires.”
- I expect to lose about twenty pounds in my first twenty days of work. And if you know me, you’ll realize that I don’t have much to spare. Some of my employees, who plant full-time and don’t spend as much time driving around as I do, will lose much more than that.

I mentioned that overseeing our safety program is one of my main responsibilities. I actually think of it as my most important responsibility, by far. Thankfully, the entire industry has become much more safety-conscious in the past decade. Unfortunately, I have had several planters in my camp who have been killed in the past, which was a really tough experience for everyone in the camp. I’ve had a 23-year-old girl die in my arms. I’ve had planters who have been stabbed and/or thrown in jail, and once I had to take a knife away from a very angry (and very large) man who wanted to stab one of my other planters. I’ve been attacked by an enormous dog on the Alaska highway. I’ve had someone try to steal my truck at night, despite the fact that I was sleeping in the back seat. I’ve tried to “hide” from the police in Fort Nelson (a town with four streets), while driving around in a bright pink hearse. I’ve slept with a rifle under the stars. I’ve ridden to work in helicopters hundreds of times, sometimes in machines without doors or seats. I’ve had employees who have been doctors, lawyers and engineers, and I’ve had employees who have been hippies, convicts, and practicing witches. The former are more manageable, but the latter are more fun to work with. I’ve seen people have mental breakdowns that would make Ken Kesey proud, and I’ve had employees who thought that clothing was optional in the workplace. In short, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things over the years, and I really need to sit down and write a book about it all someday.

I have a tree planting website,, which sometimes gets as many as a thousand visitors per day from all over Canada and the world. Go to the “Diaries” section on that site, and you’ll see some pretty detailed stories of things that have happened to me and my employees in the past six years or so, since I started keeping regular records. Here’s the link:

Tree planting is one of the strangest, most difficult, and yet most rewarding jobs in the world. I have seen varsity football players sitting on a stump crying, because the job was so much harder than they expected. I’ve also seen 105 pound girls, eating supper with a tired smile, laughing because the job is so much easier than they expected. New planters worry about being able to handle the physical aspects of the job. What they don’t realize is that the mental hardships are what makes most people quit.

Lots of people ask me why I keep doing it, so I tell them that it’s for the money. The job IS incredibly lucrative, but that’s not the real reason. I do it because it gets me into amazing physical shape. I do it because I love working with nature. I do it because I like to be the best at everything I do. And I do it just because I can, while so many other people can’t handle it. I hate my job in a hundred different ways, and I want to quit at least once a week, but as soon as the summer is over, I can’t wait for the next season to begin. And sadly, if you never work as a tree planter, you will never truly be able to understand why.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Everybody's Heard About The Bird

Last week, after going to see DJ Dan play in Halifax, we were driving home when I saw a dead pheasant (frozen solid) in the road. Ian Allen was acting as my Transportation Engineer that night (ie. designated driver) and I told him that I had to have the pheasant. I took it home and hid it in the freezer at the house, so when my roommate Jamie opened the freezer, this dead bird would lunge out at him. He finally found it today, six days later.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. I came to talk about the draft. Oh wait, no, that’s a line from “Alice’s Restaurant,” by Arlo Guthrie.

In honor of the frozen pheasant in the freezer, today’s blog topic is about what happens to objects when they get really cold: specifically, what happens to them at absolute zero. So this is a physics-oriented post.

Now I knew that things stop moving around much as they get colder, and even gases will eventually freeze into a liquid form. As a liquid gets colder, the molecules move around less and less, and get closer together. The liquid will then turn into a solid as it gets extremely cold. So I was thinking about this, and trying to decide if that means that all motion stops at absolute zero. I wondered this because I figured that if this was actually the case, the object would shrink massively and become extremely dense. I had to do some digging and reading to figure this out.

I was under the impression that the molecules (or atoms) of a solid are effectively dense and “locked into place,” and stop moving as its gets colder. However, what about the electrons? An atom of a substance is the smallest individual unit possible of a chemical element. For convenience, we generally describe an atom being semi-analogous to a solar system, with the nucleus of the atom being like the sun, and electrons being like planets which are orbiting the sun. But if all motion stops at absolute zero, then the electrons would stop orbiting the nucleus and that obviously does not happen, because if it did, the atom would collapse and become extremely small, and would no longer exist as we know it. Or does it?

After a bit of reading, I learned that while an object does stop emitting radiation at absolute zero, its constituent parts don’t stop moving entirely. The energy and motion is certainly reduced, but the behavior of the object is explained by what is called zero-point motion. That’s a quantum physics theory, not classical physics, so I won’t get into that. But at least my curiosity was solved.

The pheasant certainly doesn’t appear to be moving, but it is interesting to know that even if it was frozen to absolute zero, its component substances would remain active on an atomic/sub-atomic level.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

White Collar Criminals

Do you know who the real white-collar criminals in Canada are? I'll tell you. It's the Big Five banks.

Let's take ScotiaBank as an example. Not that they are probably any different than any of the others, but I just happen to be working on some accounting right now, doing a bank reconciliation with statements from that institution.

Did you know that with a standard small-business account, they charge $2.00 for every $100.00 of coinage that is deposited? So for example, let's pretend that I own a video arcade. Let's assume that I deposit $1,000 in quarters to my company's chequing account. They will charge $20.00 in service fees (2%) immediately, for the privilege of taking my money. Plus another $1.00 for each deposit as a "transaction fee," just for fun. And let's not forget $1.00 per month for the preparation of my financial statements. So in other words, if I put $1,000 in quarters into my bank account at the start of January, and I don't touch it for twelve months, the bank will charge me a total of $33.00. AND, to add insult to injury, they don't pay interest charges on this type of account for the money that you have sitting in the bank.

Furthermore, switching to a cash-free society won't help. When we used to have debit machines at my bar, before I ripped them out in anger and installed an independent ATM, the bar used to pay over $4,000 per year in annual service charges to ScotiaBank. And that was just for the debit machines, and didn't count all the other service charges on top (incidentally, we also get charged for depositing bills, not just coins).

And they don't pay their staff very well either, considering what kind of revenues/profitability they are raking in.

Criminals, I tell you.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Canada's Federal Government

Canada's federal government is apparently offering a new service: time-travel.

Last week, I filled out my taxes. They're pretty simple, and I'm an accountant by training, so it took me about twenty minutes to fill them out. I was quite surprised, however, to see that I would be getting a bit of a refund this year. That doesn't happen very often (although as an accountant, I have to admit that not getting a refund, ie. paying less up front, is a good thing).

Anyway, after I realized this, I noticed the forms that said that I could file online, and get my refund more quickly. I figured that I'd try it out. I managed to set up and access my account, download the right software, and submit my taxes online, all within about another half hour.

Today I got my security code in the mail, which gives me full access to everything online, including the ability to check the status of my refund. So I checked it. It said that the government had already mailed my refund check to me, on April 5th, 2007.

But today is April 4th.