The Travelling Student – Clearing

My name is Philip Kirkbride. I’m a college graduate from Ontario studying at AU. I’ve always wanted to do an exchange program or study abroad but never found the right time to do so. This is part twelve in the story of how Athabasca University has allowed me to create my own study abroad program. In part eleven Matt and I reached our “piece”, having hauled giant brush cutters some thirty minutes into the forest, and I was getting ready to start my first day of clearing a small, remote part of Northern Quebec.


With the sounds of the woods and cutting in the background I put my safety helmet and goggles on. I readied my saw, now strapped onto my back to ease the weight?that lesson had been learned on the trek in. With a swift pull of the cord my engine started up with a roar. I pressed the trigger on the saw and the blade started spinning, supposedly reaching speeds of 12,300 rotations per minute. All I could tell was that it was faster than I could see.

I looked to my right and saw Matt swinging his saw through the bushes with the facial expression of a statue. We were sharing a piece. Meaning we would be paid based on our combined speed, so I had to keep up. With that thought, I started attacking the thickest bush I could see. The sharp blade cut through the large bush like a knife through butter. “Wow,” I thought, in awe of the blade’s power.

After about ten minutes of me cutting through a patch of bush Matt approached me signaling for me to turn off my saw so we could talk. “You’re cutting down the crop trees,” he said.

“What’s a crop tree?” I replied. I had started with no training or briefing, and at that moment I realized I had no idea what our purpose was.

Matt gave me a quick but lengthy explanation of what brushing was all about, and our overall purpose. I won’t go into too many details but here is a quick summary. After a forestry company harvests an area by cutting down all the large trees they are legally required by the government to replant the area. The need to replant forests creates a sub-economy in forestry revolving around replanting forests. The first step after cleaning up an area is to send in tree planters who plant several hundred pine trees a day.

It isn’t until after several years after the initial planting that brushing comes into play. By chopping through all bushes and vegetation which isn’t a crop tree we give the crop trees (Pine, Spruce, etc.) plenty of light. Brushing drastically increases the speed at which the crop trees grow back, aiding in the re-forestry effort.

Of course, by this time I had chopped down several crop trees. So with my newfound knowledge I fired up my saw and continued cutting. The day was slow and, for the most part, uneventful. At one point the boss came around and asked about our experience. When I let him know that I had never done it before, he looked like he was going to have a heart-attack. I’m not sure if I had been expected to lie about my experience, because there were one or two other people on the job who I could have sworn were new, but they claimed they had experience. Despite the bosses reaction to my having no experience I was able to keep cutting alongside Matt. The day was long, the sun was hot, and the wind was cold. I should have packed a lunch at least twice the size of what I’d usually eat because by lunch I had already eaten it. By two o?clock I felt like I was going to fall over from exhaustion. At some points I worried that I’d fall on my blade while going up or down a steep hill. With an hour left to go I felt I was ready to collapse from exhaustion. It took a quick break to let me go back at it for the remainder of the hour, leaving me completely drained of all energy.

Finally, at four?thirty, we were ready to call it a day. Of course we still had to make the thirty minute walk out of the bush again and wait to be picked up. Walking out the second time felt like torture. My body was completely unprepared for the punishment that is brushing.

When we got on the cramped work van the upbeat African music raised our spirits and made the crowding of the van and smell of gas fumes more bearable. Within minutes, despite the music, the crowding, the smell, and the bouncing of the van over half-made roads, I was asleep.

When we arrived back at the work camp I immediately went to bed. I only woke up when I was told supper was being served. I ate my fill as quickly as possible looking forward to going back to bed. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, and I could hardly talk. My mind was completely blank. If brushing continued to be this tough finishing my courses at Athabasca would be nearly impossible.