Dale Stephenson is a freethinker, an adventurer and a professional designer currently residing on the west coast of Canada in Vancouver. Ever since becoming great friends with both Dale and his brother Matt, I’ve always sensed a rare energy when spending time with both of these lads. It’s something I can only describe using the simple term, presence. Wherever these two are, they are fully there, and you can feel it. Whether that be in their careers, their friendships, their adventures or their activities. Not surprisingly so, their lifestyles have ended up incredibly well rounded as they prepare to exit their late twenties in the next few years. As far as I can tell, with nothing short of great things to come on their horizon. Both Dale and I share similar views and interests on a whole host of topics. Reading copious amounts of the same content, it’s always been a reality that we can ring off ongoing conversation on an almost endless basis. In this episode, we dive into a whole host of topics including Dale’s near-death experience, how to follow your intuition in creating a life by your own design, and a unique perspective on retirement I’ve rarely heard anywhere else.
After finally escaping the ceaseless San Jose traffic, the cab driver lets me out at my hostel. Possessing no energy to question him, I pay for the absurdly overpriced ride and hop out with my bag. At this point the excitement of finally arriving is too much for a few dollars to affect me. The hostel is on a dark street across from a park and it is about midnight. As the cab driver takes off down the closest alleyway, I ring the doorbell outside the courtyard and anxiously await acknowledgment. After a few long minutes the hostel attendant greets me at the gate. I quickly head to my bed and pass out for what feels like the shortest five hour sleep of my life. As dawn cracks, I munch on a plain tortilla and make my way to the bus station for my trip to the coast.
This time my taxi driver doesn’t understand a single shred of english and naturally, we zig zag through San Jose visiting half a dozen bus terminals before finding the right one. I grab some plantain chips and snag the last seat on the bus. It doesn’t take me long to realize that what would be a 2 hour drive back home is quickly quadrupled due to the slow, winding roads swerving through the rainforest. We finally roll into a strange town and all I can see are hostels, surf shops and dust, everywhere. Not quite the main strip I had imagined. As I step down from the bus I spot a couple drunk Canadians with devious looks on their faces and realize these are just sunburnt versions of my friends. I’m finally here. They surprise me with the first celebratory drink of what would soon become four months worth. Apparently we had plenty to celebrate. Soon after we make our way down the road to our rental and the place is incredible. A full beach home all to ourselves, including a crisp view of the palm covered pacific beachfront. My friends point me to my bed, which is basically a piece of foam. Cheers to showing up last. Once fully settled in the guys take me to meet our landlord. I trudge down the twisting steps and set my gaze upon what looks like a Spanish, surfing hulk Hogan. With a firm handshake he smiles and says to me “welcome to my country, my name is Diego. Pura Vida!”.
We spent the rest of the night listening to Father John Misty and sipping on Cortez with our German neighbours. Everybody came to the consensus that a trip to the local pub was in order. Although at this point I can barely keep my eyes open, my response is a resounding “I’m in”. We join the flow of locals into the bar and blend in to the tourist corner for awhile. When it seems obvious enough that the evening has come to an end, we follow the departing crowd and inevitably join the road party going on outside. Immediately I notice a small but intimidating local kid walking directly toward me. I have no idea what to make of his glares and gestures, but soon understand he’s looking to push drugs on me, with persistence. Before I have a chance to re-affirm how uninterested I am, two more locals confront the young tico and do it for me. A couple moments go by and suddenly I was surrounded. At this point I was prepared to empty my pockets on the spot. To my surprise, instead of the mugging I was expecting, the locals actually pull aside sketchbag number one. After a little bit of violent shaking, they affirm with him that I’m Diego’s new tenant. I see the fear in his eyes as I receive what seems to be a truly genuine apology, and that’s that.
The shrieking of howler monkeys and a rum induced hangover wake me early in the morning, and coffee is a must. I walk down to the store to buy my first groceries: eggs, cereal and the biggest avocado I’ve ever seen. When I get back to the house, I notice the same three locals from last night hanging out with my landlord. To hide my discomfort I make sure to give them a wave and they call me over. Casually, they mention the encounter from last night and all burst out in laughter. One of them says to me “you don’t worry about anything brother, you’re staying with Diego”. Slapping my shoulder, Deigo roars with laughter and the four men stroll down the hill.
When I get back to our unit my friends are finally awake and I fill them in on the strangeness of my first night. It took us all a few minutes, but the realization hits simultaneously, Diego is a big deal around here. Suddenly everything about him makes sense. The wealth, the random excursions, the friends and the lifestyle. He was the mafia, on a big scale. What that meant for us was not what you might expect. Instead of being fearful, it basically meant total immunity. Nobody in town wanted to mess with any business of Diego’s, and that literally meant us. For the rest of our trip we relished in the joys of the town without a single ounce of worry. We were never bothered by a single local on land or in the waves, and were never charged the implicit “gringo tax” that most tourists unknowingly pay. We were the tenants of a man who was probably scarier than we could imagine and surprisingly, it was pretty comforting.
If you are a young adult in Canada, chances are you have heard of the seasonal job known as tree-planting. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you right now, you are probably imagining the wrong job. This is not the earth friendly student job spent replenishing mid sized maple trees in your local parks. This is the real tree-planting. The tree-planting that is spent dripping in sweat, blood and tears. The kind spent working for the logging industry, in isolated camps found deep in the northern boreal forest. This is the tree-planting where you are covered in dirt and bugs and quite likely, bug bits, all day, every day. Don’t count on having a shower at the end of a days work, and you will probably work harder than you ever have, and ever will. In this tree-planting, you work through thunder, hail, snow, rain. There is almost nothing that will cancel a day of work. But with all this being said, treeplanting is one of the most unique experiences you can every have in your life. It’s a lifestyle where you live in temporary remote communities. These camps are kind of like little miniature societies that are so different from normal life, that you go through culture shock every time you come home. This tree-planting will provide you with some of the most exciting and crazy moments of your life, while simultaneously showing you many of the worst, most challenging experiences of your existence. The bugs will push you to the brink of insanity, and the friends you’re with every night will help bring you back to order…at least until the alarm goes off the next morning. I personally describe tree-planting as the most bi-polar experience an individual can have. And quite likely, the best character developing challenge of my life. To anybody who is on the fence, you should probably avoid treeplanting for the sake of your wellbeing, and you should probably go treeplanting for the sake of the craziness of it all. It will leave a mark on you, that is the one thing I will say for sure.
I planted 6 contracts in four years before deciding to move on. For me, planting trees in the summer has provided me with more lessons and memories than I could put on a list. Planters have become my best friends. Planting memories are some of my fondest. Planting money gave me the freedom to experience many other great things, like travel and adventures. For me, tree-planting ended up becoming some kind of right of passage, just as it has for many others. Having finally decided to turn a new chapter, it’s hard to stop looking back on how crazy the experience was, and how much I will miss it. For some people, planting is horrendously unpleasant and for others it is life changing. As any planter will tell you, accurately describing the experience to someone who has never planted is impossible.
Here are just a few stories from the Canadian tree-planting experience. They still don’t do it justice, but they get the idea across pretty well.
The hallmark of a tree planting day off: Sitting in a greasy breakfast diner, surrounded by your grubby, starving friends. Searching the menu for the largest possible meal for the least possible amount of money. More coffee. More water. Your tree planting appetite combined with your god forsaken hangover is unbearable. In an effort to more quickly pass the time you have to wait for your food, you go to the bathroom. You look in the mirror for the first time in days. Who is that? You look famished. There is visible dirt on your face. That sunburn is starting to peel. You look kind of badass. Nice.
Rain is one thing, but being submerged is another. I was walking along, trying avoid what looked like a big puddle. My foot slid, as the ground gave way and I found myself up to my nipples in swampy water. With bags full of trees, I tried to climb, only to sink deeper. In desperation, I dropped my shovel into the mucky abyss. Once out, I had to dive back in to retrieve my lost shovel. I pursed my lips to avoid drinking the swamp as I reached to the bottom and fumbled around fruitlessly. After several minutes, not unlike King Arthur retrieving Excalibur, I was able to save my shovel and move on from my murky, soaking nightmare. The sole witness to my swim only laughed, and offered no assistance. At least he was able to verify my pain.
One buggy morning the crew boss pulled me aside and told me that I had to go back to the old block and finish up my piece, so I would be alone for a few hours. While I was back at my cache a big black bear started slowly approaching me. I yelled at him and tried to scare him off, but he remained persistent. I slowly backed away from my lunch bag so that he could just take the food if he wanted. As I backed further, the bear passed my bag and continued to follow me down the road. Right before accepting that I was inevitably going to be this bears next meal, a truck came charging down the road and scared it off. That was the only vehicle I saw drive down that road all week.
What comes to mind immediately is the dart race belt fights we used to have on day off. Man, those were a spectacle. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Two guys would try and smoke darts(cigarettes) faster than the other, while simultaneously whipping each other with belts. It was kind of insane, pretty much all the parties in the bush were.
At my camp, we had a tradition of throwing a “bush pageant” every season. It was essentially a mock fashion show where everyone got super drunk and a bunch of the planters did the catwalk in whatever sexy costumes they could find.
One guy at the camp wanted to go “all natural” and refused to wear bug spray because he said it “hurt the bugs”. That guy came home for the next few days with the most bit up skin I have ever seen. He got totally lit up. It looked like a volcano erupted on his face!
Tree planting sucks. This was tree planting for me at its suckiest: I had drank too much the night before and my head was thumping in pain. My stomach rejected anything I offered it, so I had no energy. As a cherry on top of my shit sundae, I had bronchitis so bad it would force me into the fetal position, so I laid on the ground, abandoning my trees, as I coughed, my head thumped, and I resisted the perpetual urge to vomit, as the hot sun beat down on me.
Walking in solo, Nazko area, blew past my turn-off as was enjoying the calm morning. At the crest of a hill, startled a crew of 3 wolves who quickly form a triangle around me. Heart skips and I take a few steps back; the wolf in front follows my lead and takes two steps towards me to my one. I stop, they stop. Silence. The 2 on my periphery start getting nervous, running back and forth between spots with some light cover. I call to them, pointing — “I see you.” This elicits a reasonable reaction as their movements become more relaxed. The one in front stares, so I further occupy myself by going into my bag and rolling up some of my stash. By the time I’ve inhaled most of my goodie, the one in front has turned and sauntered into the tree line. Best bag-up I ever missed.
In my rookie season we had a bear tormenting our camp and it escalated quickly. Every night for almost two weeks the bear would come to camp and sniff everyones tent before ripping open a few. The bear was so heavy you could feel the ground sink when it passed your sleeping space. At the time, we had two dogs at camp and they would chase and bark at the bear every time it came around. Soon after the barking we would hear the supervisor shrieking for her dogs to come back followed by the sound of bear bangers going off (sounds like a gun). It literally sounded like a war zone every night.
Near the end of the contract I was planting across the road from my girlfriend and she walked out of the land with a briefcase. I thought it was hilarious so I started filming it all. When we opened the case and saw that it was filled with little bricks of white powder both of us freaked out. Later we found out it was just a prank from some of the people at our camp, but we have a hilarious video of our genuine reaction to it all.
She arrived at the cache a few moments after me, her eyes welling up with tears. Hey girl, what’s wrong? I looked away for a second. She said “I hit a baby bunny with my shovel by accident. It was wriggling around, half alive. I didn’t want it to suffer. So I killed it.” To this day, we call her the butcher.
After a long day our crew was sitting in the van waiting for the the last planter down the road to walk out of his area. After awhile our foreman got fed up and walked in himself to see what was going on. When he got into the piece, the guy was pacing backwards as a cougar slowly approached him. The foreman ran to the van and called the helicopter to go rescue him before he got eaten.
2006, my 2nd season planting for Thunderhouse Reforestation had an event that stood out. The first day of our heli show, our gear was slung in before us, we waited in anticipation for the chopper to return but it seemed strange that it was taking so long. After what seemed like an hour we finally heard that the helicopter sling had malfunctioned and the chopper was picking us all up to comb the forest for it, as they didn’t know how scattered the gear was. So we all spread out along a kilometer or so of road and started walking, eventually it was found mostly in one spot sunk into the sphagnum moss a few feet. Almost everyone had something that was crushed, work and/or personal gear. After all the gear was reunited with it’s owner we went back out to the road to get flown back to camp. Instead we were informed that the chopper had to leave and we had to walk the 3 hrs back to camp. Oh well the day was shot anyways, didn’t really matter, we chatted and ate our lunches as walked. Then there was some commotion, my foreman was on the verge of anaphylaxis and we were out of radio contact. She had eaten her sandwich that had, unbeknownst to her been sprayed with the Deepwoods that was crushed in her backpack. Someone eventually got radio contact and she was met halfway with a quad and recovered fine in camp. Work resumed as usual the next day and there were no more sling incidents. Thunderhouse gave us shirts depicting the sling story, with the quotations ” what will happen next”, as FUBAR type events were pretty common. About a year and a half later I recieved a cheque for $127 from Domtar, reparations for gear/lost day of work.
This one time, I was planting through some giant slash when my foreman came over to give me some tree feedback. “A few of your trees were a bit shallow. A few of your trees were too deep, don’t plant in red rot!!”. I had just dug a hole, when I stopped to politely listen to her advice. Turns out the hole I had just dug was in the middle of a wasp nest. So I hobbled my way along the top of a giant toppled tree, getting stung repeatedly on the face, legs, neck and hands, before flailing off the end of the log and tumbling down a sandy cutbank. My foreman, having witnessed all this, brought me a freezie from her secret freezer bag. Bless her heart.
On my last contract we had all seen a lot of big paw prints from a big cat all over the block, followed by tons of small prints. On our way to the block the next day we saw a mother lynx crossing the road with her whole litter of kittens. Such a cool thing to see.
At one of my summer plants, we were put up in a camp with unlimited chocolate milk. My friend drank so much that he started convulsing from dehydration and had to go to the hospital.
I was cooking at a camp in Ontario and my supervisor(and good friend) thought it would be hilarious to anonymously order a giant dildo to the camp in my name. I retaliated by putting the dildo in his carry on bag when he had to fly home for a wedding. He had no idea it was in there and in the airport security line they made him empty his bag. He said it was the most embarrassing moment of his entire life.
One day I was planting a piece that was covered in head high poplar trees. It was terrible. I got to the back of the piece and heard some kind of big animal ahead of me in the brush. I sprinted to the side where there was a ten foot boulder and climbed to the top of it. I yelled out to try and scare the animal off and an enormous moose and her calf ran right past the big rock. Good thing I got out of the way.
In my rookie season we had a freezing cold rain day in mid July. To this day, everyone on the block still talks about it as one of the worst days they have ever had. I remember I fully fell in a puddle and actually started crying.
On our very first drive out to set up camp in my second season, it starting dumping snow. It didn’t stop for about two days until we probably had well over a foot. There was so much snow that management couldn’t drive out from the camp, which was two hours into the bush. It got to the point were they were telling us to try and eat as little as possible because nobody had any idea how long it might be before we would be able to get more supplies. Most of those few days was spent having snowball fights, gathering around the fire pit, or shivering in our tents because half of us were instantly sick.
One season we had a really fearless garbage bear that wouldn’t leave our camp alone. We eventually got so used to him we named him Reggie. He eventually got a little too comfortable and starting walking right up to people and messing with their tents and everything. He was definitely going to maul the next person who startled him, and it was getting pretty dangerous. An old local hunter who was as much of a bushman as they come, came to our camp with a shotgun. I remember seeing him point his gun at the bear in the treeline, slowly walk in to the brush and shoot the bear right in the face. The bear ran off and must have died because it never came back.
I became Chapleau Ontario’s first streaker in the summer of 2011 when I streaked down the main drag. I had a police officer cruising around looking for me and luckily a friendly local man offered to lead me to his house so he could give me some clothes so I could avoid getting ticketed or charged — He lead me to his place, clothed me and we returned to the chip stand everyone was at to get a Poutine. That night back in camp there was a meeting called in the Mess Tent to announce the award of MVD (most valuable drunk) for night off. The man announcing the winner decided to put on the party boy theme song through the boom-box in camp and stood on a chair dancing to the music before tearing off his pants, full-out mooning the whole tent and in BIG letters written across his ass was “GABE”.
The first time I planted 7 thousand trees was probably the most painful day I’ve ever had. I had been having skin problems for a few days prior, and this day ended up being a perfect storm for skin abrasion. It was nothing but sandy trenches, with high expectations. I had forgotten my skin powder which kept me dry, and it rained on and off all day. The wet bags rubbed and chaffed my skin as I moved through my piece as fast as I could. I hit my goal that day, but messed up my back and hips so badly that my shirt and pants were soaked with blood by the end of the day. I had to visit the hospital, and struggled with chaffing for the rest of the season. Worth it.
I remember my watch beeping at 6:00PM. I had a hard day, and was completely spent. I waited at the road for awhile before red flags started appearing in my mind. I took a look around and realized I was the only person left on the block and it hit me, I had been forgotten. Trying to stay calm, I occupied my mind for awhile by first building Inukshuks, then brainstorming and planning how I could start a fire/survive the night in case I was going to be stuck until morning. It was almost two hours back to camp driving in the van, so I knew my best bet was to wait and stay hopeful. After a long while I eventually decided I may as well continue planting until it was dark as the best way to pass the time. Hopefully soon somebody would notice I was missing. Near the end of my bag out I heard the honking from a truck as my crew boss and supervisor picked me up. They had a big container for me full of the dinner I had missed as we rolled back to camp in the darkness, several hours later.
This isn’t really my story, but I heard from a friend about a scary moment he had planting in northern Alberta one time. Apparently the crew had gathered in a group when they noticed a mother grizzly bear with her cubs in the distance. As they waited, the mother caught wind of their scent, and immediately started booking it toward them. Apparently the entire crew crammed onto two quads, and drove down to the bus as quickly as they could without anybody falling off.
A few years ago, I worked on a contract that seemed to drag on forever. The contract ended up lasting weeks longer than expected and it was quite a story. A friend of mine from camp ended up documenting it all and actually writing a book about that season. She does a really good job showcasing what it’s like to plant a contract in Ontario, and furthermore has the perfect writing style for this tale. You can find her book on Amazon.
Why you should go treeplanting.
Go treeplanting. It will build you character. It will take you way outside of your comfort zone. It will show you just how capable the body and mind are of overcoming challenges. Treeplanting will teach you more about yourself than you would have ever believe to be possible in such a small timespan. It is a life changing experience and I still reminisce on my good old days working and living in the bush. Do I want to go back, no I don’t. I am pretty happy with where I am at. But quite likely, this would not be where I would have found myself had I not had that experience.
For more resources about treeplanting visit the links I have shared below: