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Blisters, Bugs & Breakthroughs: My Season as a Tree Planter in Hearst

Posted: August 24, 2017

by Kaitlin Kiraly

Hurry Up and Wait

This past spring, I made the last minute decision to go tree planting with my university roommate in Northern Ontario. We finished the last exam of our university careers and prepared for our ten hour drive to Hearst, the small town we would call “home” for the next two months. Hearst is located about two hours north of Cochrane, of if you’ve never heard of either of those towns, five hours east of Thunder Bay.

Tree planting was the most mentally and physically challenging experience I‘ve faced in my life thus far. I learned more about myself in those 56 days than ever before. No matter what anyone says, you will not understand the “bush life” until you experience it and I encourage anyone thinking about going tree planting to absolutely do it!

Prior to planting, I was a fairly impatient person, which isn’t uncommon today when everything is available to us at our fingertips, but planting taught me patience. The unofficial motto was “hurry up and wait” because some days were extremely unorganized and the only solution was to wait.

I decided to go tree planting because I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with an experience that few people thought that I could complete. The thing about my personality is that if you tell me that I can’t do something, I’ll do everything in my power to prove you wrong.

At first, waking up at 6 am and planting for ten hours a day in all weather conditions was so mentally and physically exhausting that I wanted to quit every day. However, I had a lot of people to prove wrong back home, so quitting was not an option.

Bugs & Blisters

Eventually my body adapted to the physical demands of the job, and I

learned about ways to manage the mental aspect of the job from the veteran planters.

A couple tips from these planters were vital in surviving without going crazy. If you’re susceptible to blisters when wearing new shoes, blister bandages, doubling up your socks, and wearing in your boots won’t work unless you wear them for ten hours a day in various terrains. After a painful first week for my feet, an experienced planter told me about applying Polysporin on the back of my heels and putting duct tape over top. This was the only thing that worked for me and stayed on all day.

The most important advice I can give is that you can never have too much Watkin’s Bug Lotion. The bugs in the Northern Ontario bush will be like nothing else you’ve ever experienced. They never stop. Ever! It begins with the black flies that constantly swarm you – guaranteed mouthful if you try to breathe.

Once those tiny buggers are gone, and by gone I mean a few have died off because of the heat, the mosquitoes come. You’re now bombarded by black flies and mosquitoes, twice the bite and an added constant buzz in your ears. Think you managed to kill them all in your tent before bed? Nope! You wake up in the middle of the night to the buzzing of a bug that is lost somewhere in your tent.

Just when you think you’ve had the true northern experience of bugs, the deerflies and horseflies come out and man, do those babies hurt. Although you’re more aware of their presence when they land on you, be careful not to swat and kill them as they release a scent that attracts more of them to you.

Watkin’s Bug Lotion won’t keep the bugs away or even off of you. However, it will prevent them from biting you if applied often enough. The hardest part is getting used to the bugs constantly touching you. That’s a mental game that you have to experience in order to learn how to cope with it.

Coming Home

I admit that before planting, I was a materialistic “girly-girl.” Something about getting paid an average of 10 cents per tree planted in the pouring rain really changes your outlook on money and the cost of things. Most of all, tree planting made me value the sense of “home.” Waking up to your tent covered in snow and having to put on your dirty work clothes that are wet from the previous workday  really made me appreciate all that I had back at home.

All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hearst and am grateful for all the people I got to meet through this endeavor.  My experience with tree planting was one that I’ll never forget, and I look forward to my second season in 2018!


Kaitlin Kiraly graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Kinesiology program with an Honours Bachelor of Arts this past spring. Kaitlin enjoys the outdoors and spending time with family.