Vancouver Sun


VANCOUVER -- It took Nahanni Arntzen many years to appreciate her early childhood in the B.C. wilderness as the daughter of two young hippie tree planters.

She was born 39 years ago in a teepee on a sandbar nine miles up the Kingcome River on the west coast of B.C.

Her father, Daniel James, caught her in his dirty hands. Her mother, Jenny Arntzen, was back planting within a few days. He was 20; she was 19.

Nahanni Arntzen has warm memories from those early years in makeshift camps of dogs, riding in the back of trucks, sleeping in tree boxes, stealing mouthfuls of icing while the cooks weren’t looking, late night fires and early morning rain.

Arntzen, who now lives with her husband and three kids in Portland, Ore., didn’t think much about those early years until after her second child, daughter Olive, was born eight years ago.

Wanting to show Olive photos of herself as a child, she asked her father if he had any. In response, he dropped off roughly 500 slides that he shot with Kodachrome film during his tree planting contractor days in the 1970s and 1980s.

The slides don’t only tell the story of one child’s life; they are a snapshot of a rich period in B.C.’s history.

Tree planting got its start in the early 1970s after logging practices in B.C. were leaving large swaths of bare earth. The duty to replant was first delegated to loggers’ wives but that proved insufficient. So forestry companies started offering reforesting contracts. Many were snapped up by young hippies, including Nahanni Arntzen’s father.

What she found in those boxes of slides was so precious, she’s launched a crowdfunding initiative to turn them into a photo book.

There are photos of her being bathed in an old-fashioned tub that isn’t attached to plumbing, of long-haired hippies strumming guitars in tents, of primitive camps perched precariously on the sides of mountains, of scruffy tree planters caked from head to toe in dirt.

But the photos reflect a lot more. They tell the story of ties being forged in the wilderness.

For Arntzen, they brought back a flood of memories.

“I remember bears coming into the camp,” she recalled. “I never felt they were dangerous because it was always kind of exciting. We got to bang pots and pans. The noise and the dogs would scare them off.”

Without even a telephone, the planters enjoyed a world unto themselves, an isolation that would be unthinkable today.

For entertainment, they used to rip novels in half so someone could read the first half and then pass it along to someone else while finishing the second half. Tattered, ripped up novels lay scattered around the tents.

“I think that maybe just the experience of working really, really hard together and playing music together and cooking together and taking saunas together cemented friendships that have carried on,” she said.

The hippies weren’t drawn to the jobs only out of idealism; the pay was great. “A lot just worked for four months of the year and were able to live on that.”

Arntzen’s aunt and uncle, for example, lived in a school bus while tree planting and then headed to Mexico to surf and hang out in the winter.

Her parents met in high school in North Vancouver. Their friendship blossomed into a romance that ended when their daughter was two.

They both went on to find other partners, have several other children each and lead full lives. James lives in Lions Bay and works as a home-renovation contractor while Jenny Arntzen lives in east Vancouver and is completing her PhD in an art-related field at UBC.

The Arntzen family is well known for its many artistic gifts. Nahanni’s aunt Holly Arntzen achieved fame as a singer. Arnt Arntzen has carved out a name for himself as an artist and furniture maker. Her grandfather, Lloyd Arntzen, is a jazz musician. His kids and his kids’ kids are musicians. Coincidentally, many of them were into tree planting.

Nahanni Arntzen can’t recall precisely when she left the camps for the big city but she figures she spent much of her childhood until about the age of eight in the forest, returning to the family’s home base in the Vancouver area in the off-season. Because she bounced back and forth, she had no trouble making the transition.

Her fondest memories are of the evenings when the planters returned to camp dog tired from the hard work but ready to play an impromptu game of volleyball, to play music and to enjoy a communal meal.

She has carried remnants of those early days into her life today. She and her husband, Benji Wagner, have an outdoor gear company called Poler. With her family’s artistic roots, she is into textile and furniture design, having learned the latter from her talented uncle. The couple try to get their three kids out camping as much as possible.

But she feels life is harder for parents now.

“People have to work a lot harder for a lot longer for less money. There’s so many things to be afraid of as a parent now.”

As a result, she feels kids are missing out. “There’s not a lot of just running free and making mistakes and tripping and cutting yourself and figuring out how to get yourself home if you are bleeding.” As a result, she feels kids are less resourceful and less self-reliant.

There’s so much information nowadays, she thinks parents are less likely to trust their own instincts. She has little doubt her parents would be censured today for some of the adventures they took her on.

Yet the bears, the dogs, the music, the sleeping in boxes, the rain and the sunshine — they gave her a happiness that all the modern gadgetry couldn’t replace.

“I didn’t have anyone telling me to watch out for this or that, that is dangerous.”

She said she had one of the greatest gifts of all, namely freedom, which is precisely what today’s child lacks.

Twitter: @yzacharias