To plant more than 4,500 trees in one day, you don’t move like a gardener, you move like a machine.
In a video viewed millions of times on social media, Leslie Dart walks across a desolate and burnt landscape in Saskatchewan. She plunges a small spade into the ground, levers open a hole, drops in a seedling, then stomps the hole shut, barely breaking stride as she does it again, and again, and again.
By the end of that summer day last year, Dart had planted 4,545 trees. In the past three summers, she has planted 372,290 trees across Canada.
Dart, who now works in the aerospace manufacturing industry after graduating from Durham College in Ontario this spring, is among the thousands of tree planters, many of them college students, who work mostly for logging companies across Canada to plant trees each summer.
Some of that work is mandated by law, but tree planting also takes place after forest fires.
The British Columbia Ministry of Forests said in a statement that reforestation is a “very large and important component” of the province’s forest industry and 1.6 billion trees have been planted since 2017.
Dart, 29, said the job was physically and mentally demanding, but also “incredibly rewarding.”
Dart’s video on TikTok has been viewed more than 8.7 million times. It went viral after being reposted on Twitter last month.
In another video, Dart guides viewers through a 17-hour day when she planted a personal best of 5,415 trees in 34-degree temperatures.
Dart said the job has highs and lows, largely depending on the weather.
“It could start the day off sunny and then minutes later, it will just be raining, torrential downpours, hailing or snowing. You never know what to expect,” she said. “There were some days that we were planting through a heat wave, so we had like 37-to-40-degree weather for several days straight and that was really difficult.”
She said she had done some particularly tough work near the community of Bob Quinn Lake in northern B.C.
“Climbing over giant logs, fighting my way through an endless sea of Devil’s club (a spiny plant), tripping over roots, rocks and logs hidden in the overgrowth, every step was a surprise while being mercilessly swarmed by mosquitoes in the rain,” said Dart.
The job isn’t without serious risks, too. Last week, a tree planter was attacked by a suspected grizzly bear near Tumbler Ridge in northeastern B.C. The B.C. Conservation Officer Service said the 21-year-old woman was in a stable condition.
Dart said she had never encountered a grizzly, but has encountered several other bears, as well as moose and other wildlife.
She has been flooded with online praise for her efforts. But it isn’t voluntary work for the tree planters or the companies that hire them.
The B.C. Ministry of Forests says it is a legal requirement for forestry licensees, who must “regenerate” a specified number of trees in their stewardship plans. More than 200 million seedlings are planted in B.C. each year.
The ministry said that in addition to mandated post-logging programs, tree planting supports forest regeneration and health after wildfire. More than 12,000 square kilometres of the province has been burned so far this year, in what is likely to be a record-setting season.
Jonathan Clark, president and CEO of Replant.ca Environmental, an organization devoted to Canadian reforestation and environmental issues, said tree planting is huge in B.C. because the province has more rules about replanting after logging.
“On the east coast of Canada, there are not really any rules about planting more trees, but there is also a lot of natural regeneration that is very successful, and you don’t really have to plant trees anyways because nature does it very well,” said Clark.
But natural regeneration doesn’t work well in B.C., said Clark, requiring help from planters.
Tree planters usually get paid anywhere between 13 and 27 cents per tree, depending on the roughness of the terrain, said Dart. The highest Dart has been paid was 44 cents per tree in northern B.C.
It may be back-breaking work but it’s a popular summer job for university students, Clark said.
Many stick with it, some for decades, drawn back each season by the lifestyle.
Veteran Saskatchewan tree planter Kenny Chaplin has been at it for 35 years.
He works in the film industry as an assistant director and is a substitute teacher in Regina, but Chaplin said it was tree planting that “changed his soul,” helping him develop a strong work ethic and allowing him to quickly move up the career ladder.
Along the way, he set a Guinness World Record by planting 15,170 trees one day near Prince Albert, Sask., in 2001. He planted, on average, one tree every 4.5 seconds for 19 gruelling hours.
Chaplin said tree planting is such a “Canadian thing” to do. “I think every parent in Canada should be sending their kid out tree planting because it will take your child and it’ll turn them into a worker. They’ll learn how to work, they’ll have responsibility. They’ll have money in their pockets.”
He said he walked away from every planting season “in the best shape” — both physically and financially.
Photographer and filmmaker Rita Leistner, who was a photojournalist during the Iraq War, credited her late career success to spending her early years planting trees.
“When I worked in war zones, and people asked me: what prepared me for that work. I told them: tree planting in Canada,” she said.
“People were surprised because they said tree planting doesn’t sound very hard,” said Leistner, who planted trees between 1984 and 1993.
In 2021, she examined tree planting in a documentary film, “Forest For the Trees.”
The job sometimes involves sleeping under the stars, and there is camaraderie with other crew members, but the job is not romantic, said Leistner.
“And so, when I was spending time somewhere in the middle of the desert in Iraq and I couldn’t shower for three weeks and there wasn’t proper food, I was OK with that. I was used to that kind of living” she said.
Dart has entered the full-time workforce now, but she plans to get back to tree planting too, in the “coolest office” she has even known, in northern B.C.
“Being surrounded by snow-capped mountains and such a vibrant, wild landscape, I couldn’t help but pause every second to take it in,” said Dart.
The job had taught her about grit and self-motivation, she said.
“You just really have to be prepared for everything, be open-minded, roll with the punches. It just makes you a stronger person mentally and makes you more adaptable and ready to take on the world,” said Dart.