People & Culture

Landslides, loggers and bears: What it’s really like to be a tree planter

In his new book, Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life, Greg Nolan recounts his rollicking, rewarding and often risky career as a tree planter in British Columbia and Alberta. 

  • Jun 22, 2019
  • 1,481 words
  • 6 minutes
Greg Nolan Williston Lake BC Expand Image

When you spend 27 years working in one of the toughest careers in Canada, doing something that can isolate, endanger and exhilarate you all at the same time, you’re bound to come out the other side with some tales to tell.

That’s certainly the case for Greg Nolan, whose first book, Highballer: True Tales of a Treeplanting Life is a look back at his years in the silviculture industry, a time during which he planted more than 2.5 million trees in some of the most remote parts of British Columbia and Alberta, survived hurricanes, landslides and belligerent loggers, and came face-to-face with hostile grizzly bears.

The excerpt below is from a chapter called “The Grizzly Corridor” and describes a hair-raising encounter that Nolan, his colleague Zach and their canine companion, a Doberman pinscher named Lady, had while working along Bute Inlet, B.C., during the summer of 1983.  

Read the excerpt and then check out Canadian Geographic’s Facebook page for a chance to win a copy of Highballer, which is published today by Harbour Publishing.


I woke up from a deep sleep several hours later sensing movement on my lower extremities. When I lifted my head, I made out the silhouettes of two large rodents, frozen in motion, staring right at me; one on my hip, the other on my knee. Horrified, I freaked out in a full- body convulsion, causing the rats to leap off and break for cover. As I checked my exposed arms and neck for bite marks, it occurred to me that these critters appeared to be well fed. Perhaps they were merely curious. My anxiety soon dissipated and I was fast asleep again. Before I knew it, there was activity outside, presumably the loggers occupying the building next door. It was 5:45 a.m. I had managed to sleep nearly the entire night away.

When I entered the dining hall that morning for breakfast, I realized no one was even aware of my late night caper. The looks on people’s faces told the tale — it had been another long sleepless night on the grizzly corridor.

After breakfast I decided to brave the trail back to the beach, alone, to see if I could find Barrett. It had been several days since I’d had a real talk with him. Barrett always had a way of putting things in perspective. I needed to know what he was thinking.

I made the hike back to the beach cautiously but deliberately. At the end of the trail, at the ledge overlooking the creek, I spotted Zach crouching down at the water’s edge washing his hands and face. The air was still, untroubled. Before I could call out a greeting, the calm was broken by a loud cracking sound emanating from higher up in the timber. It was the distinct sound of large wood yielding to extreme pressure. Zach heard it too and we both paused, anxiously examining the opposite treeline.

“What the fuck was that?” I called out, but before he could respond, there was another loud crack, then a series of small crashes followed by a clamour in the heavy brush on the other side of the creek. Then, almost as if on cue, a monstrous grizzly broke into the open and charged halfway across the dry creek bed before grinding to a halt. The monster locked eyes with Zach.

Zach was unarmed. His rifle was leaning up against a log with the rest of his gear on higher ground a good twenty metres away. With its head down, the bear slowly began to advance, closing the gap between them.

It was a grotesque creature. Its coat was dripping and there were long clumps of matted fur hanging off its shoulders and neck. Its eyes — narrow, cold, black as pitch — seethed with rage. Its lower jaw quivered as it began a series of short advances, sweeping its freakishly large head back and forth, snarling and snorting. Then, as abruptly as when it first emerged, it exploded into a full-bore charge, stopping hard at the water’s edge within fifteen metres of Zach. This second charge caused poor Zach to stumble backward, as if hit by a powerful blast of wind.

The bear continued to advance, entering the creek, emitting guttural grunts and growls as it thrashed its head from side to side. At one point it paused and began slapping the surface with its enormous forepaw, sending gushes of water in all directions. The bear was less than ten metres from Zach. We were both paralyzed with fear.

Though the bear was almost entirely fixated on Zach, it was keenly aware of my presence only ten metres further up the bank. We both had to contain the impulse to turn and run for fear of triggering a decisive predatory response and having all of this bear’s rage unleashed on us.

With its ears back, its teeth clenched, its eyes fixed on Zach, I knew a final charge was imminent, one that would lead to a vicious mauling. All I could think to do was slowly reach into my pocket and pull out my small lock-blade knife. Hands shaking, attempting to extract the blade without attracting the bear’s attention, I suddenly heard a clamour on the trail directly behind me. Before I could make sense of the commotion, I was sideswiped by a black streak. It knocked me off balance. It was Lady. She leaped off of the edge of the bank and bolted toward the bear headlong. She entered the creek and engaged the grizzly from the side, forcing it to pivot away from Zach.

Lady was in full-on attack mode, weaving to the left, then right, running tight half-circles around the bear in one direction, then reversing back. The bear thrashed its head wildly from side to side, snapping its jaws, emitting horrible moans and snorts as it tried to gain control of the engagement. Lady was simply a blur of fury.

In the space of only a second or two, the bear went from seething rage to abject bewilderment as it attempted to square off against its new foe. It was no match. While it was attempting to back out of the creek and onto dry land, seeking a more advantageous footing against the humiliating assault, Zach managed to stagger away from the creek edge, tripping and falling as he made his way over the slippery rocks toward his rifle. I continued to watch, slack-jawed, speechless.

Lady continued her assault, even as the bear attempted to turn itself around and retreat. She would not back off. If anything, her attacks became more intense, biting viciously at the bear’s hindquarters every time it attempted to break for cover. During the chaos, I caught a glimpse of Zach wrestling with his rifle. It had apparently jammed as he was attempting to chamber a round. He didn’t have a clear shot anyway — the two adversaries were too tightly entwined.

Eventually Lady became winded and suspended her assault for a second or two. The exhausted bear seized the opportunity to turn and run. This immediately triggered another rush by Lady. The bear managed to push past a thick layer of willow, tripping and stumbling over the uneven terrain as Lady mercilessly pursued from behind, biting and gnawing the bear’s hind legs. I watched clumps of fur fly.

They soon disappeared into the dense brush and up into the timber. Occasionally, a crash could be heard, followed by a rapid series of high-pitched barks — I imagined the bear stumbling in its attempt to gain elevation and Lady capitalizing on the mishap.

While Zach sat down at the edge of the creek bed and tended to his rifle, I maintained my position, surveying the timber above, waiting for Lady to return. I was also trying to process what I had just witnessed. A good ten minutes after the two combatants disappeared, Lady’s barks were still audible, but were competing with the sounds of the rushing water from the creek. Twenty minutes later her barks were coming from much higher up on the mountain. By that time, Ricky had arrived, wondering where his dog had wandered off to. Zach and I took turns recounting the incredible sequence of events that had unfolded before our eyes only minutes earlier. And we made it clear that Lady was a hero, that had she not arrived when she did we both would have been torn to shreds.


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