Thursday, September 20, 2007

Lake of Fire? No, Hell is Cold and Wet.

Today I fulfilled an obligation that I had agreed to a while ago. Gaylene had asked if I would be a linesman at one of her soccer games. (In return for dinner and beer, I'm not so altruistic.) The game started at six but I was to show up early and I didn't really fancy the drive to another quadrant of the city in rush hour traffic. I decided to take my bike and I was glad that I did for I was able to speed past traffic stuck at a standstill.
I arrived at the game in good time. Before the game even started I put on my sweater for there was a cool breeze blowing. After maybe twenty minutes or so, the first few drops of rain began to fall. The wind picked up a little bit and then it was even colder. A while later it began to rain in earnest and that's when I began to hope that the ref would call the game. I saw two lightning strikes, fairly close by, but our ref was a trooper and the game kept on.
Thankfully the rain let up and it was only chilly because I never got completely soaked. As the game drew to a close though the clouds burst forth with a drenching downpour. I got on my bike and started for home, about a thirty minute ride. Less than a block into the ride I was freezing, my hands feeling as if they were submerged in ice water. It was pretty miserable to be sure, but I wasn't too bothered for I was mentally armed, I have memories of enduring for far longer in far more miserable conditions. I used to tree plant.
For many Americans, July 4th 2002 was a glorious holiday, with fireworks, parties and friends. For employees of Hi-Rise Contracting, July 4th 2002 will forever be remembered as Hell Day.
We woke up early that day. There was a long drive and since we were taking a helicopter the last few kilometers we couldn't be late. Part way through the drive though the trailer with the tree boxes got a flat. It was a typical tree planting flat, the whole tire disintegrated. In typical tree planting fashion, the spare was also flat, perhaps in worse condition than the tire that had just given up. We got out and started doubling up the boxes, twice as many trees in each. Loading the boxes precariously onto the roof rack of the van we continued our merry way. We went to meet the chopper but when we arrived at the staging area it wasn't there. I can't remember exactly how it went from there, I know that we had to go to the other crew's block for a bit and then to another block where we left Clint and Justus to plant. We returned to the staging area, now a couple hours later than the time we were supposed to fly out at. Our radio consistently was calling, "Heli-Bob, do you copy?" with only silence for reply. It wasn't just do to the fact that the pilot's name was Lin, not Bob. He was nowhere to be found. Finally our foreman spoke those sweet words that I'd been secretly hoping to hear for a couple hours, "Alright, let's go home." I swear, it was less than a minute later and our radio blared, "Hi-Rise planting, do you copy?" Heli-Lin had arrived.
We did copy, and it was off to work we went. The helicopter ungraciously deposited us on the side of a a mountain, not too far below the tree line. The cut block was heavily overgrown and the leaves of the undergrowth were quite wet. Although it wasn't raining, it only took about five minutes of walking through the brush before I was completely soaked. I didn't have rain gear, actually I did but it was back at camp. I naively assumed that if I got wet and cold I would just plant faster to warm up. How foolish I was. So there was I, wearing nothing more than a light shirt, the cold, wet fabric plastered to my skin. I had essentially no protection from the elements.
I have planted trees in May, June, July and August and I have planted in snow in each of those months. The mountains have a scornful disregard for what summer weather should be. On this day there was no snow, but there was rain and later wind. A brisk breeze in two degree weather while soaking wet on the side of a mountain while planting trees is about as unappealing picture as I can imagine and that was my life for at least eight hours. I had never ever been so cold before, and have never been so cold since. I've waited for buses in minus forty weather and it wasn't even close to how miserable I felt that day. I had a sweater but I put it under the cache tarp because I wanted something dry to wear for the two hour ride home. Since we started later, the helicopter was due to come later. I kept on planting, with fingers so cold that they would just buckle the instant I tried to put a tree into the ground. The day dragged on and on, each minute more miserable than the rest. I turned on to autopilot, plant tree, walk, plant tree, don't commit suicide, plant tree.
I remember how happy I was checking my watch and realizing that I should finish up my trees because the helicopter would arrive soon. FINALLY!!! I arrived to find the cache all cleaned up and ready to be slung out by the helicopter. My "dry" sweater, previously sequestered under the cache tarp lay sitting in the mud, exposed to the rain. Luckily I arrived in time and it wasn't too wet. I think there was a bit of an argument about who had the unenviable task of hooking the sling to the helicopter. The wind from a helicopter hovering overhead is intense and wind against a wet body sucks heat away in a flash. This was one time I was happy to be a rookie, hooking up helicopters is a responsibility reserved for the veteran planters.
The helicopter arrived and I gratefully took the flight back to the road. There was no warm truck waiting there like I had been dreaming of for the last several hours. The truck finally arrived and we headed back to the other block to pick up Justus and Clint. We had too leave the warm truck because, predictably, the quad was hopelessly stuck. Getting vehicles unstuck is a trademark planting pastime and I understand that Justus and Clint had spent a good portion of the day doing just that.
We arrived back at camp at around nine, if my memory serves me correctly. It was, the most physically miserable day of my life. Nothing else even comes close. It was a bad day all around. Clint and Justus had been digging out stuck truck, we had frozen our asses on the side of a mountain as had the other crew planting another block, though not a helicopter fly-in. Adeit, always a bit of a sissy in the cold, had actually collapsed from hypothermia at the side of his piece. He was raced back to the trucks on the back of a quad while being held in place by John, aka Spaceman. (He was far-out, smoked a lot of pot even by planter standards.) Adeit received some good natured ribbing about having the lovely Sara as a "nurse" on the ride to the hospital. If he had collapsed on his piece though, he likely wouldn't have survived. If I had collapsed, and I think I must have been close, I would have died. The only radio we had was good for ten kilometers. The nearest road was ten kilometers away and there certainly wasn't anybody sitting there waiting for out distress cry.
I've had other miserable days planting, not quite so bad, but far worse than anything I've experienced anywhere else. For those miserable days I came up with a mantra that I would repeat in my head over and over. "This too shall pass." I knew that at the end of every bad day was a meal and a warm bed. I just had to make it through the day.
Today, although my hands were as cold as they have ever been, I didn't even need the mantra. I save it for really bad days, the type that occur with startling regularity while planting.

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