Thunder Bay dentist Ash Mokhtari credits tree-planting with his choice to move to the North, and says the recent upswing in the forestry industry is going to be good for lots of people – not just the loggers and mill workers dependent on it for a living.
The Iranian immigrant came to Canada over 20 years ago to attend university, first at Ottawa U and then in the dental program at Western. He signed on to a tree-planting crew in his second summer in Canada and spent the next eight summers in the bush all over Northern Ontario, in BC, Quebec and eastern Manitoba working for a number of different reforestation teams.
“Tree-planting paid for most of my education,” he says, and goes on to describe a typical tree-planting summer. “Planting season is only two months around here,” he says, “but it’s piecework. So the better you are, the harder you work, the more money you can make.” Ash says that when he was planting, just prior to the industry downturn that put most of the tree-planting operations out of business, a good planter could make about $15,000 in the brief hiatus between spring exams and fall classes. A renewed demand for tree-planters means thousands more summer jobs for students, he says, reducing student debt and dependence on government support for post-secondary education.
But there’s more to the experience than just the money. It’s also an adventure, an education in social skills and a great way to learn how to work, and how to work hard. “I have kicked one bear in the nose and chased many others with my shovel,” he laughs, and tells other stories about the people he met who have become lifetime friends. “The better a planter you are, the more respect you get. The team is counting on you to do your share – it’s a good foundation for friendships.”
It’s also something of a tourism opportunity for people who don’t mind hard work while they travel. Ash visited small towns all over Ontario’s North during his planting days, and says he always thought he’d come back to one of them to settle down. Chance and opportunity found him a practice in larger Thunder Bay instead, but Ash has made his home in the rurals outside of town where he’s surrounded by the bush he likes so much.
Ash still keeps in touch with many of his tree-planting friends. Some of his patients are forestry workers. “My guy – the guy who interviewed me for my first tree-planting job,” he says with a proud smile, “he’s my patient now.” Every summer he hosts visitors from southern Ontario who come to hike, climb and reminisce about “the good old days in the bush.”
“I’d go back in a second if I could,” Ash says, and if he wasn’t running a successful dental practice employing ten staff he actually might. A few years ago he discovered Ultra Marathons, five-day races over 250 miles of grueling terrain, and participates in one or two of them a year – it’s the best outlet for his restless energy that he’s found since tree-planting. “On the worst day of a marathon I think about battlefields of stumps and slash-piles,” he says of the challenge, “and I just keep running, like I would have in the bush.”