Lake Athabasca

Its a two week countdown until I finish out my restaurant job in Guelph and have about ten days of downtime before my planting season officially begins, and for the first time in four years, I’m not heading north to Hearst to spend the summer in the Hearst Forest. An e-mail with contract details arrived in my inbox last week and I know I’ll be working in-between Lac la Biche and Lake Athabasca in Alberta. Lake Athabasca lies in the North Eastern corner of the province, nearing the border of the Northwest Territories. The contract will be a lot of oilsands and the burn around Fort Mac, as far as I can gather. The winter’s been a scramble of updating my credentials- I go into a new season with a new company armed with first aid, propane handler’s and an up to date food handler’s certification, and recently learned I’ll also be flying to Thunder Bay for two days of supervisor training. Wait, what, flying for work for a treeplant camp cook job? This isn’t Hearst anymore, baby! So I find myself trying to pick out an outfit that says both “I can survive in the bush and keep everybody else alive for three months” and also “I’m totally sophisticated enough for my work to be flying me in to a training session and putting me up in a hotel for two nights”. It’s harder than you’d think.

The schedule crunch gets a little crazy toward the end of April. I finish work the 14th in Guelph, I fly in to Thunder Bay from April 23rd-25th, then home, then I get on a train on the 27th to Edmonton. Wanda lives! But I don’t have the time or the finances to make sure she’s roadworthy for a 4,000km trip before the start of the season and the train ticket costs less than gas, which makes it an appealing mini vacation. A three month season in the bush is a hell of a lot longer than a two month, where people start going bush crazy around the three week mark.

When I rolled into Hearst in May of 2016 for the first time, it was like coming home. Born and raised in Northern Ontario the vast expanse of Boreal forest and huge sky and idling trucks have a sense of familiarity and grew more familiar over the time I spend there, and this summer in Alberta I’ll be sorely missing La Companion and Johnson Lake and even L’Independent. That first season saved my life, all sad and broken from a bad breakup and leaving Toronto and my career trajectory of fine dining cooking and just generally being lost. I wanted to go and camp cook that first season, but I ended up planting. I wasn’t the best planter. Actually I wasn’t very good at all. I struggled to hit the benchmark of 2k and made barely any money that season, but being outdoors and away from cell service and wi-fi and living in a tent was never the problem. Some of the greatest moments of joy in my life have been in the bush in Hearst, barreling down a logging road with shovels and hardhats rattling around my feet or sitting on a bridge above some nameless north Ontario river while a young man plays the accordion in the pitch black.

The second season I wanted to go and plant again, but ended up cooking, and the rest is history. I never could have known five years ago that I’d be planning logistics for a heli-access camp where possibly nobody has ever set foot before. I am so absurdly lucky that I get paid to travel to these remote parts of Canada, that I get to work off the beaten track, pick and choose my contracts and more or less live on my own terms. Full time long term employment has never been for me. I get bored after about 6 months. I love camp, where I work 24/7 for a few months, make decent money and then have time off. Finally having the opportunity for year round contract work with a company that does other forestry work and contracts out chefs and catering to remote operations opens up a lot of doors for me, and means I won’t have to quit a job every spring to go back to the bush.

All summer I’ll be dreaming of swimming naked in beaver ponds on Waxatike with my best friends. The day we decided to swim across Goat River and hit the bank about a hundred yards downstream, carried by the current and laughing. I’ll be missing the shitty parts, filling hotdog bun bags full of leftover beers from the night’s party and charming the receptionist at the Howard Johnson to let us back in to the hotel. I’ll be missing the hospital waiting room and the grocery store and the bad poutine at John’s and five dollar margaritas at the pizza restaurant, and I’ll be missing the cardlock and sharing showers at the Husky with Fleetwood Mac blaring on a tinny phone speaker, I’ll be missing ‘my bus’ Bertha and irresponsibly large boxfires and in a weird way, even the stinky ‘too yellow’ mess tent. I am going to miss Hearst, in a nutshell. I am going to miss all of the amazing people who have become dear friends to me over the past seasons, and I am going to miss Jude who can not come with me this season.

Five year plan- cook at Everest Base Camp for an expedition.
This winter? Maybe work on a horse ranch in Patagonia.
And then Wanda and the wide world of Canada call to me- once I’ve installed a tiny little woodstove to combat the elements, of course.

Look forward to having more blog-worthy content over the next few months.