cover photo :: Luc Forsyth.
As a magazine about outdoor recreation, we decided to take a slightly different tack this spring. We’re all outside for a leisurely bike or trail run—how about working under the weather, so to speak? We asked our writers to contribute their most memorable outdoor job anecdote, spotlighting the rugged, unpredictable, sweaty, sketchy, remote, punishing and rewarding aspects of the work. Whether our contributors worked on Georgian Bay or Danger Bay, swatted away bugs or preserved them for science, we got all of these aspects and much more. –Ned Morgan, Editor, ML Blue Mountains
The Sickness: Tree Planting in Northern Ontario
“You need your appendix out.” The doctor gave me a pat on the knee and left the examining room. “That’s serious,” said my tree-planting buddy. “I’m sorry Mel, but I have to get back to the bus.” With a hug and kiss, he turned and left. I wanted more than anything to go back to camp—to reminisce about the night before when our entire crew of plaid shirt–wearing planters stood on the bar tables, fists pumping to The Hip.
Suddenly, a jab to the gut reminded me where I was. It started this morning, on our precious day off. Walking around downtown Hearst, Ontario, picking up supplies—duct tape, candy and bug repellent—I noticed kicks of pain immediately after eating; by afternoon, I was vomiting.
I was uncurling my legs as the pain receded, and the doctor returned: “Aha! So it’s not your appendix, dear. It’s giardia … Beaver Fever.” What was worse: removing an organ, or a parasite chopping away at my guts? How did this happen? Water, that’s how. Every morning we were told to add a capful of bleach to our water. No wonder. This was 1993.
What was worse: removing an organ, or a parasite chopping away at my guts?
Only three weeks into my first tree-planting experience, I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t. At five cents a tree, averaging 1000 trees a day, and $20 camp costs, I needed tuition.
A taxi dropped me off into the bush. “You sure you want to stop here?” the cabbie asked. With no streetlights and few dozen tents off a dirt road, it looked like the Manson Family ranch.
My empty stomach churned as I slid into my sleeping bag—the last thing I ate was a stack of pancakes at breakfast. Zipping up to my neck, I coiled my knees back up to my chest.
Three mornings later, still coiled up, unfurling only to use the bathroom, I practiced squishing mosquitos on my tent wall to pass the time. I never knew the time of day. Between fits of weird dreams and groggy wakefulness, I’d a kill a mosquito, then fall back asleep. If I gave into the hunger and ate, I immediately vomited. The parasite wanted out.
Every morning, I lifted my head long enough to hear the bus sputter and drive off. Sometimes the cook came to check in and talk. One night I sat with the planters during dinner. Watching them eat heaps of food, second and third plates, I was envious and felt more alone than ever. By day four my pants were slipping off my hips.
Day five, I went for a walk. Day six, I was ready for planting, if only to relieve boredom. Feeling sorry for me, my supervisor gave me the creamiest land: a beach in the bush. That day, emboldened by the sun and a sense of purpose, I planted faster than ever. The sweat felt good, my legs came alive. When the school bus pulled up at the end of the day, everyone chanted my name to help me “bag out” my last few trees. I’m so glad I didn’t go home. — Melanie Chambers
Sea Scout Disaster: Tourist Ship Crew
Have you ever been part of a story so unbelievable it could be a movie scene? One you’ve retold so many times you can visualize it unfolding in your head without any effort at all? Such is the tale of the 100 sea scouts.
Through mutual friends and family, my husband and I ended up with crew jobs aboard a 120-foot steel-hulled ship in the Caribbean in the late 1990s. The ship took tourists out for day trips, snorkelling and swimming, serving up seaside meals and cold brews to mostly Dutch visitors.
On this day, the captain had decided to support the local community and offered to take 100 sea scouts out to a nearby island for an afternoon. We were a small crew—three of us—in addition to the captain and his wife and a handful of scout leaders. The scouts boarded the ship in great spirits. The seas were rougher than on our typical tourist tours, but these were scouts and, surely, they could handle it. The boat had a 20-foot bowsprit and with the considerable waves it was diving underwater before quickly roaring back up. The bow became the main attraction, a huge congregation of scouts riding it like a roller coaster up front, screaming in mixed terror and glee when the waves crashed on deck.
It lasted about 30 minutes, and I am unsure if a single sea scout was spared.
Everything was fine, loud and exciting, but fine… for about an hour. The first indication that anything was wrong was an ominous quiet that fell over the group. The scouts were sitting down now, looking a bit pale and confused. The quiet was nice at first, until we realized it was a bad omen.
The first barf landed on the top of a boy’s brush-cut hair, perching neatly on top, the liquid not yet reaching his scalp. The boy saw the horror in his friend’s eyes, slowly put his hand to his head and promptly felt his fingers in the inaugural puke. The realization that someone had barfed on his head resulted in the second puke, which witnessed by his friends, led to the fourth, fifth and the sixth of the day.
If you’ve ever barfed on a ship in the wind, you know there’s a right place and a wrong place to heave overboard. The wind decides which is which. But with 100 scouts barfing, all the “right” places were occupied. It soon became unclear if you were being hit with sea spray, vomit or the tears filling the leaders’ and crew’s eyes. I saw a kid run up the deck, slip in something wet, land on his butt and projectile vomit at the exact same time.
It lasted about 30 minutes, and I am unsure if a single sea scout was spared. When we reached the island and the ship stopped moving, the scouts made a miraculous recovery. They went to shore, swam, played and picnicked. They were tired but happy on the ride home—but the damage was done.
Our time as crew ended a few weeks later, and I doubt if the captain ever extended the sea scout invitation again. I can only tell you that the memory of that day (complete with sights, smells and sounds) is burnt forever in my mind. — Allison Kennedy Davies
Minaki Ferocious: Mountain Bike Camp
The day was awful. It was absolutely pissing with rain. It wasn’t cold, but the warmth meant that somehow, the bugs were still biting. And they were freaking ferocious. Like northern Ontario ferocious. Minaki ferocious.
Looking downhill, the small swath of singletrack disappeared into a massive swamp-like puddle. This was a zone we constantly had to repair. One hundred fifty feet of bridges that were always waterlogged and crumbling in this boggy terrain. But you couldn’t see the bridges today; they were completely submerged.
Behind me were ten kids. Nine to 12 years old. And one 16-year-old camp counsellor. Still basically a kid himself. They were not stoked.
Streams of blood from bug-bitten ears mixed with mud and ran down our ears.
With the rain pounding, the blackflies and mosquitoes circling, there was a frantic tension in the air. Some kids wanted to turn back. They figured the trail was unpassable. Others wanted to forge ahead. It was 3.5 kilometres back on technical rugged trail the kids had just struggled through, or 1.5 km forward through a swamp, but then onto the road and back to the Rockids basecamp at the Minaki Yurt. And there was me; a wizened 26-year-old counsellor that just wanted these dang kids to stop whining. So I made the call. We’d push through.
Trying to muster some enthusiasm (for myself and the kids) I hopped on my bike, cranked a power wheelie and bombed down the hill hoping for enough momentum to get me through the 50-metre-long puddle. It didn’t work. Less than 10 metres in, my wheels slipped off the bridge, bringing me to an instant stop and landing me knee-deep in black, tar-like swamp mud. The kids followed with similar results. We all ended up in the shoe-sucking terrain, trying desperately to step onto the submerged bridges, while dragging bikes. It was, to say the least, character-building.
When we finally emerged from the swamp, like a rag-tag juvenile crew from the Swamp Thing, we needed to cross one last four-metre bridge. It wasn’t underwater, so we hopped on our bikes, rode over the bridge and then made the final up onto the road’s shoulder. That’s where every single one of us discovered we had either one or two flat tires (we later learned one of the bridge’s boards had flipped and a nail had had its way with our tires).
The last 1200-metre walk along the roadside was miserable. And as the bugs circled, the rain continued to pour down; streams of blood from bug-bitten ears mixed with mud and ran down our necks. The kids whined and our shoes slopped along the gravel.
When we finally poured into the three-storey yurt and mess hall, the camp cook had chicken noodle soup and grilled cheeses waiting. We slopped onto benches and began devouring lunch quietly. But slowly the room got louder. And louder. As we espoused our exploits, like any good adventure story the mud got deeper, the cloud of bugs got thicker and the blood ran more freely.
And I was proud of these kids. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? — Colin Field
Dirt Time: Killarney Backcountry Maintenance
If you’re not familiar with the expression “dirt time”, it’s used as in: “My tracking skills are slipping, I haven’t been getting much dirt time.” For one epic season, I got a lot of dirt time: For minimum wage I worked a backcountry maintenance position in Killarney Provincial Park.
I was the one who dug the thunderboxes (the trick is to move the box off the old hole and use the dirt from the new hole to bury what you try not to see when you’re swatting bugs off your kid in the rain at 2 a.m.). We cleared trails and cleaned campsites, packed out trash and burned down an outhouse, but not before we paddled it out with another crew in a “crapper canoe-catamaran” to where it met its fiery end. I was the sweaty guy packing a chainsaw in Park overalls, steel-toed boots, and a blood- and deerfly-stained shirt from battles won and lost.
We worked in crews of two, ten days on, four days off, with a week of vacation in the middle of the season. We used our own gear, packed our own food and fended for ourselves. When I ripped the seam around the door of my tent diving in to escape the voracious bugs, it was my own dental floss that saved the day. I also learned you can remodel a canoe’s yoke with a lifejacket belt and parachute cord.
We traded off making dinner, I made my backcountry sushi chef debut, but otherwise—because we could keep what food allowance we didn’t spend—dirt time was powered on a dirtbag diet. Lunch consisted of pepperette-and-cheese wraps and evenings closed with a ration off the kilo bar of chocolate.
We accepted cookies from campers, used abandoned table syrup, ate Ontario Rangers’ leftovers or scavenged freeze-dried meals jettisoned by weary hikers. You’d be amazed how easily you can clothe, feed and clean yourself from the trailside.
It was a simple equation of maximum dirtbag strategies to maximize dirt time. It also meant 27 days of straight camping with no showers but the ones in waterfalls.
So what makes dirt time valuable? You get to see a toad swimming, a bumblebee pollinating a parasitic plant that lacks chlorophyll (Monotropa uniflora, look it up!), a pine tree with a looped trunk, otters living in a beaver lodge, and a mother moose with her twins. You get to be woken up by snapping turtles fighting and have a beaver stalk your campsite. You get to swim with the snappers (I had a point to prove) and see a mother loon flattening herself out on her nest. You get to see the day end and begin again from atop Silver Peak and bear witness to not only light pollution and the size of Sudbury’s super stack, but how little of the bigger whole is set aside for protection—making the work of groups like Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve and Georgian Bay Land Trust absolutely crucial. —Tom Thwaits
MNR Nightmare: Wildlife Field Worker
What if a typical day on the job turns without warning into a bloody scene from The Revenant? It happened to Ministry of Natural Resources biologist Laura Darby, roughly 100 km north of Thunder Bay in 2011. Conducting a wildlife assessment for the MNR with co-worker Daniel Morrison, a research technician, the two were walking separate tangents near the shores of Wabikon Lake in early October—not in sight of each other but in radio contact. Darby radioed Morrison to tell him she had spotted a large black bear. After he responded but didn’t hear back, Morrison ran in her direction. “Probably over about two or three minutes [the bear] proceeded to … confront me, and then eventually charged me,” Darby told CBC News. In a presentation to the public reported in the Fort Frances Times, Darby added: “It was amazing how clear my mind was [during the attack]… Living on a farm, I’d worked with animals before. I knew I had to appear dominant and in control.” In spite of Darby repeatedly screaming at, punching, and kicking the bear, it continued to maul her, at one point throttling her by the arm. “He was playing with me. I was his toy,” she said. When the bear began to drag her deeper into the forest, Darby clung to a branch to impede their progress. “It must have made him mad because he went back to [mauling] my right side.”
“Living on a farm, I’d worked with animals before. I knew I had to appear dominant and in control.”
When Morrison came upon the scene, the bear turned on him. “I knew he wasn’t going to be leaving because he would test my ground,” Morrison told CBC News. He fended off the animal with a hunting knife, stabbing it in the mouth area and behind the shoulder blade. He did not fatally injure the bear, who ceased attacking but continued to linger within view. Morrison called for help on a satellite phone and applied basic first aid to Darby’s lacerated shoulders, legs and arms. “I was pretty close to being overwhelmed with pain and was immobile. I would not be here if it wasn’t for Dan,” she said.
After airlift to hospital, Darby underwent a seven-hour surgery, where doctors used roughly 800 staples on her wounds. But in spite of broken bones, torn ligaments, and enormous blood loss, Darby was lucky: Nerve damage was limited and the attack did not impact any arteries or organs.
By any measure, Daniel Morrison is a hero—but he doesn’t really want to talk about it. I spoke to him by phone but he preferred not to go on record. Instead of talking about himself, in his few public comments Morrison preferred to talk about his co-worker and her bravery. “Laura [Darby] is one of the bravest people I know,” he told CBC News. “She just kept herself really calm and, if she wasn’t that type of person that had that strength, it would be very different for everybody involved.” — Ned Morgan
Gazing into the Abyss: Commercial Fishing the Bay
Captain Bernard Lepage carefully steered us through the shallows. The first light of day painted Giant’s Tomb Island as we trawled along its northeastern shoreline. The bottom of the Bay was plainly visible, a mere six feet beneath the Laurie E fishing tug.
Soon after arrival at the first buoy, I listened to the net lifter tick as it raised the float and anchor lines out of the shallow water while the first mate, Captain Bernard’s nephew Garry, flayed the incoming nets into the net bins. As a 19-year-old, my job was to untie the nets from each other as they filled the bins, and reload the first mate with a fresh empty bin.
It wasn’t a laborious procedure unless the nets were jammed with fish. I gazed out over the rail at the lines as they were pulled into the net lifter. The lines were coming up bare, with no net attached. When I peered over the rail to see what was happening, I was astonished by what I saw. There was a massive “shark”—well over two metres long—caught in the nets and tearing them from the lines. This fish was too heavy to lift past the surface of the water, causing the tear.
Belonging to the family Acipenseridae, this ginormous fish was a lake sturgeon. No wonder I thought it was a shark—they share the same caudal fin. Captain Bernard reversed the tug to hold position while Garry and I reached for the fish with the gaff pole, hooking under the gills of the gentle giant and trying to haul it in. It required all three of us to heave on the pole to clear it over the rail.
Once on deck, it flopped and flailed in agonized protest. There was no getting anywhere near it until it calmed down. I was still in shock that this creature was pulled from the waters I felt so familiar with. We had caught hundreds of sturgeons, all way smaller than this. We had always released them, which was why I was even more surprised with the decision to keep this one. I began to feel a little, shall we say, seasick.
As the creature calmed down, I lowered myself toward its eyes. It had cow’s eyes. They were huge. It looked directly at me. I imagined the possibility of this thing having observed me before—perhaps my younger self, swimming in the Bay. Why not? Sturgeons live a long time and travel great distances. I swam in Georgian Bay my whole life. We had harvested so many fish before this. Why was this catch so hard to bear? Why couldn’t we throw it back like the rest of the sturgeon?
I couldn’t overcome the feeling of awe at this encounter with such a magnificent creature. On the other hand, this old wonder was slated to be filleted alive in front of me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. That was the first time ever that Captain Bernard asked me to take the helm of the Laurie E. I couldn’t help but wince at the rear-view mirror while this ancient fish was minced for meat and caviar. It was tough. Within minutes, she was no more.
A clarity emerged out of that day: I wasn’t a fisherman. Perhaps I’m oversensitive. You know that Nietzsche quote? “Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss will gaze back at you”? Same goes for the eye of an old fish.
— Scott Parent
Benthic Bonanza: Acid Rain Biomonitor
“Must be able to work in the presence of biting insects.” This could be the first line of any Ontario outdoor summer job description. Yet, hanging over the side of a canoe in a shallow, marshy bay of a remote lake north of Sudbury, elbow-deep in tar-black organic lake bottom detritus, this job description rang particularly true. Swatting the cloud of mosquitoes and blackflies crawling up my shorts and down my shirt wasn’t an option. This lake-bottom muck was part of an important study. And my dream summer job.
My University of Ottawa Geography degree required I find a summer job in my field. Determined to find a co-op placement that entailed minimal screen time and maximum fresh air, I applied for a position as an Acid Rain Biomonitoring Technician for the Canadian Wildlife Survey (CWS). It was a job that combined science and my field of study with hard physical labour. It required the use of maps and navigation to contribute to an ongoing study, ultimately monitoring the resilience of nature.
We relived stories and suffering of the field, missing the simplicity of a job in the wilderness.
Bushwhacking through the forest with a canoe on my shoulders and sampling equipment bouncing on my backpack, I felt more like pack mule than a scientist, but it was exciting and rewarding to be a part of a 30-year-long Environment Canada study on the recovery of lake systems acidified by emissions from Sudbury’s nickel and copper operations. Each day in the field started with a big breakfast in our small log cabin before loading up ATVs equipped with canoes on custom-made overhead racks that looked as if they were plucked out of Jurassic Park.
Bumping along rocky, muddy or swampy trails, our four-person team stopped only when we neared a sampling location. Close was a relative term, and we sometimes bushwhacked for multiple kilometres to arrive at a lake. Each team carried a canoe and heaps of sampling gear, including fish traps, Secchi disk, bottles, bags and containers. At the lake, we paddled to multiple predetermined locations where we were trusted with basic sampling: drawing benthic samples and measuring water temperature, depth and visibility, plus baiting and placing fish traps.
Arriving home at dusk, two people took on dinner prep, while the other two donned headlamps (and bug nets) and began processing the day’s samples, depositing fish, leeches and macroinvertebrates into various ethanol-based preservatives to be analyzed back in Ottawa. After dinner and a beer or two, we didn’t even need the sounds of loons or peepers to lull us to sleep.
After 38 days of field work, the remainder of that very hot summer was spent in a small, poorly ventilated lab, where my co-worker and I picked through hundreds of litres of benthic samples—decaying leaves, sticks, sand and mud from the bottom of the lake. We counted each blackfly, midge and mosquito larvae, nematode, amphipod, chironomid and fingernail clam; the highlight of the day was being startled by the discovery of a menacing-looking dragonfly nymph under the microscope. We relived the stories and suffering of the field, missing the simplicity of a job in the wilderness. But we didn’t miss waking up looking like we had a black eye and wisdom teeth pulled, from the number of blackfly bites to our faces. — Carmen Kuntz
“Prepared for Wonder”: Parks Canada Enviro Educator
In his memoir Naturalist E.O. Wilson writes: “A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder.” I arrived at my own water’s edge when I moved west to the Rockies after university. I had no idea what I was going to do but I knew I wanted to work outdoors. I landed a summer job working as an environmental educator for Parks Canada in Yoho National Park, B.C.
A Dene elder once told me that the bear was my spirit animal. Perhaps I should have accounted for this before accepting a job in bear country. Sure, I would expect to see a bear running up a scree slope or on the side of the highway while I was safely inside my vehicle. But they seemed to be everywhere. They were my breakfast companions, hanging outside the kitchen window of the staff house casually grazing on a berry bush. They would make a nocturnal appearance while I locked up the supplies building for the evening. One memorable moment was an encounter with mother bear and cubs. After a brief stare-down I backed away slowly. Once out of sight I ran for my life. Seeing a bear up-close, while unnerving, will bring you into the moment.
There was also the other type of wildlife in the park: the visitors. I was a nature nerd but the same could not be said for many of the park visitors. I had to ask visitors not to approach, pet, or feed wildlife an unacceptable number of times. I’m still unclear what would possess anyone to approach a bull moose and offer him a little pat on the back. I would be asked bizarre questions like how the lakes are drained to paint the bottom (that’s sunlight reflecting off suspended glacial silt) or what time the animals are released into the park. I used those awkward conversations as teachable moments, letting people know that the “pets” of the park are wild—and free to bite as they please.
Then there were the delights of working in the field. I supported a 12-hour guided hike to the Burgess Shale, a 500-million-year-old fossil record and UNESCO World Heritage site. And of course, my days were set to the backdrop of glaciers, waterfalls and the Rocky Mountains. “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systemic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist,” wrote E. O. Wilson. I look back on all the challenges and delights of this experience with fondness as they taught me much about the natural world, humanity and myself. — Laura Raimondi
Coldest, Wettest, Muddiest: Cyclocross Teamrunner
It’s an odd type of job that encompasses both the best and worst of outdoor experiences, and for me, that job was managing a professional cyclocross team. Cyclocross is what happens if road cyclists and mountain bikers got together and decided to create a course that runs through fields, into woods, on pavement, and involves some off-bike obstacles where you literally run holding your bike. Oh, and it’s done primarily in the coldest, wettest, muddiest months of the year. In short, it’s the best sport in the world. I’ve been racing it, writing about it and loving it for a decade, so when I was offered a job to run a professional team and travel North America and Europe to do it, I jumped at the chance.
A drunken cyclocross fan managed to slide into me, spilling beer down my coat and knocking my feet out from under me at the same time.
And then I ordered new galoshes. I should have just ordered a full rainsuit immediately, but being a fashion-conscious team manager, I froze in stylish tights and merino wool sweaters through the first season, traipsing through thick Belgian mud with a backpack stuffed with gels, water bottles with very specific drink mixes, wipes and towels, and a camera. During the race was the easy part—I ran around the course and tried not to slip-and-slide through the muck, shooting photos of the racing action. Maybe, if it was a big race in Belgium, I found time to hit the frites stand for some hot food (but mostly just sipped a protein shake).
On one memorable occasion, a race had such steep banking on the course that as I pulled my way up using the rope they’d tied to a tree at the top, a slightly drunken cyclocross fan managed to slide into me, spilling beer down my coat and knocking my feet out from under me at the same time. Covered in mud and smelling like a brewery, I grimly made my way to the finish line for the last moments of the race.
And then, there’s the finish line. If the race didn’t go well, there was some muddy hugging to be done, and some minor consoling. Often, by this point, I’d be coated in mud and slightly soaked but able to hop in a warm van and change quickly. But if the race went well, that was when the job got hard. In 30 seconds, Wild West gunslinger style, I’d pull out the water bottle with pre-mixed recovery drink, shake and hand it over. A jacket would go next, often dragged on over a layer of mud caking my poor racing friend. Once that was done, we’d end up in a tent where I would half-heartedly try to wipe mud off of their faces (and out of front teeth) to make them camera-ready as steam literally poured off them and my hands shook from the cold.
Getting a racer dry and warm while waiting for an interview is no small task, but after two seasons, I was the Wyatt Earp of the finish line, with a fanny pack and an easy-access backpack at the ready. And yes, I was the one in the full rainsuit. — Molly Hurford