It was just reported on Friday that the devastating Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo wildfire is finally, officially deemed out. Friday’s announcement comes a full 15 months after the fire forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people and eventually destroyed 2,400 structures and scorched 590,000 hectares of beautiful and important trees.
Of course, it was under control and barely smouldering for most of the last year. Thankfully so, as a team of St. Albert Scouts recently travelled to the area to help in the reforestation process. They got down and dirty, planting a small forest full of trees.
Planting trees is grunt work to be sure, but Scouts are a hardy and industrious lot. What’s better than that is that they aren’t given to complaints. Rather, they prove time and again that they will jump at opportunities to help, whether they are helping people or the environment or both as is the case here.
And so barely two weeks ago, those Scouts (and their adult Scouter supervisors) planted more than 800 trees in J. Howard Pew Memorial Park in the Timberlea neighbourhood near where the Hangingstone River meets the Clearwater River. Representatives from the 12th St. Albert Scouts didn’t just join the crew that day: it was their idea in the first place.
“We’ve done lots of tree planting around St. Albert,” explained Isobel Shea, Scouter with the 12th St. Albert Scouts and organizer of the tree planting initiative. “Environmental stewardship is a long-standing value of Scouts Canada. It’s something that our group really takes to heart.”
There’s no denying that. It’s one thing to say that you want to help a community rebuild by putting some sprouts in the ground. It’s another thing entirely to commit to the effort by getting grants, arranging for seedlings, getting volunteers, setting up the transportation and accommodations in the city five hours away, not to mention doing all of that aforementioned grunt work.
It took more than half a year of planning, all starting with the simplest of nudges from the national organization.
“I think the tragedy of the fire in Fort McMurray affected everybody. Our Scouts went to a camp in Fort McMurray and the kids there didn’t have all their camping gear. I think it just stuck in their hearts a little bit. A year later, we get a regular newsletter from our council and I saw a grant that we could apply for for tree planting. I presented it to the kids and said, ‘Where would you like to go tree planting?’ We could go anywhere. It was unanimous that we were going to go to Fort McMurray.”
It was just as easy as that. No sweat, Shea said.
Well, okay, there was sweat and a lot of dirt under the nails but it was totally worth it.
Planning the ‘Plant’
Shea has two children who went with her as part of the northern adventure: Eli, a 12-year-old Scout, and Skylar, her 10-year-old Cub. Behind them, they had the backing of Scouts Canada, the Tree Canada Tree to Our Nature – Canada 150 legacy program as well as TD Friends of the Environment, which donated $50,000 to help fund 20 such Scouts Canada tree-planting initiatives throughout Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick this year.
It’s funny how people can think of Scouts as a club that offers kids outdoor skills and gets them to earn badges to prove it.
“It’s survival skills,” Skylar said.
But Scouts are a kind of service organization too and they often go unrecognized for the help they offer the world.
Every year, Scouts from the ages of 5 to 26 plant approximately 200,000 trees across the country as part of the Scoutrees program. It’s an ongoing effort to improve Canada’s environment, something that affects us all. They have reportedly planted approximately 80 million trees since 1972, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Planting trees is about the survival of the planet. That’s being prepared for you.
With a ton of goodwill behind this work and all of the best intentions too, what could go wrong? Sadly, charity isn’t always smooth sailing.
The group’s trailer was stolen a few weeks before they left.
“There was one large shelter in it. It’s unfortunate and our group will have to eventually replace it, which is tough for a nonprofit group.”
Thankfully, they were able to get a deal on a U-Haul rental trailer to put them back in the game. They had the trailer, a passenger van (courtesy of Driving Force) and all of the trees that they would need, including some special ones, but more on those later.
There was also the problem of the tree order. The garden centre that was going to supply 750 trees wasn’t able to fulfill the amount the week before the trip. The number was off by 100 and getting the rest from another nursery would have put them over their budget.
That’s when a TV news report helped their case, even if that help came from the other direction from where they were heading.
“A day before we left, Ian Ashby of Arbutus Landscaping in Calgary had heard about the project and tracked me down and bought us 200 more saplings,” Shea said.
That’s how they ended up having 850 trees, the transportation, and a sturdy work crew trucking up to Fort Mac on the weekend of August 26.
The right people and the right trees for the job
If you’ve never participated in a tree planting expedition, just think of how easy it is to plant a garden. Now, throw out that thought because tree planting is nothing like that. It’s tough, unpleasant, hard work. It’s the opposite of easy.
“We had to go into the bush quite a ways most of the time,” Eli said. “You’d have to crawl into the bush with the five trees that you have, plant those, go back out, get more trees, do it again.”
“A bunch of people came. We talked about tree planting,” Skylar said, noting the community interest.
Both Eli and Skylar agreed that it was pretty laborious: a lot of fingernails got dirty and there were many scratches from the close branches. The work came with no small amount of bug bites also. Similarly, the siblings both agreed that it made them feel good and they wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.
“It felt good to help a community rebuild after something so devastating,” Eli confirmed.
“They were very grateful and happy for us to be up there. Where we planted the seedlings just so happened to be the same trail that the Fort McMurray Scout group goes on hikes. Everything is being redone where the trails are. It was so special to them that where we were planting is where they go hiking,” Isobel added.
The day started in the Waterways neighbourhood with the planting of three symbolic trees. That was always part of the program to help the reforestation effort but with added meaning. Part of the grant stipulated that they had to plant three big symbolic trees to represent First Nations, Alberta and Canada.
They chose a Paper Birch tree for the first symbolic tree. First Nations people, Isobel said, use it to make canoes, cradles and canvas to write on.
“It’s useful in different aspects of life from engineering to art. It was neat to learn about that. That touched the Scouts because they believe in the use of all resources.”
They also planted a Lodgepole Pine to symbolize Alberta, the tree “that helped build the railways that linked Alberta to the rest of Canada.”
As for the Canada tree, the Maple was a tempting choice but they chose the Trembling Aspen instead.
“In our research, the Aspen grows in every forest in Canada and in many cultures, it’s a symbol of the protector of life and the strength of community. The Aspen is one of the first trees to repopulate after a fire. They survive because of their deep roots.”
Fort McKay drummer Mitch Mercredi performed a blessing song for the trees and for those who worked to reforest the J. Howard Pew Memorial Park. There, they planted seedlings that are native to the area including poplar, aspen, spruce and dogwood trees, as well as the Wild Rose, Alberta’s provincial flower.
The park is a spot where the Fort McMurray Scouts often go on hikes, making the work even more special. The fact that the entire thing was organized and hosted by their friends here in St. Albert touched them greatly too.
“It was quite amazing. The Fort McMurray Scouts all became our friends. We look forward to seeing them again. It was a great experience for our kids,” Isobel added.
“The people… they’re not just rebuilding their lives: they’re thriving up there. They’re doing a really great job.”
As for the 12th St. Albert Scouts, they’re already planning to put some new trees in the ground here in this city too.