Arborists do more than hug trees at Winnipeg Folk Festival

The Tree Huggers crew for Folk Fest are a mix of arborists and skilled labourers who constantly get asked if they just go around hugging trees.
The Tree Huggers crew for Folk Fest are a mix of arborists and skilled labourers who constantly get asked if they just go around hugging trees.

If you ask any Folk Fest volunteers what drives them to contribute to the festival, most of the answers will rotate between the complimentary festival passes and the free food served by La Cuisine, which is delicious.
But the Tree Huggers crew, brand new this year, wanted to make change.
At the previous year’s festival, Robyn Holmes was seated around a campfire with her friends, the majority of them arborists.
“I was talking about how I hate every year listening to people breaking branches in the campground.
“I sit there and yell out: ‘You can’t do that. It’s actually illegal. You’re on provincial property,’” says Holmes. “And so we started chatting about there needing to be a crew to go in and cut those branches for people.”
The idea was submitted to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and in no time, Holmes was heading the crew and assigning schedules to a group of 10.
The festival was extremely receptive to a new idea and way of improving. “I thought I was going in there just to chat with them about possibly starting up, and I got there and they handed me a coordinator book and said, ‘Alright, so we’re going to make a crew,’” says Holmes.
Most of the tree huggin’ team is comprised of certified arborists, though a few skilled labourers also lent a hand. The crew operates outside of festival hours, which means, like other jobs that need to be done prior and/or after the festival, the volunteers need to do 50 hours of work to earn their perks.
“It’s double the hours, but it’s nice to still have that freedom and to go backstage. I’ve never been back there so I was pretty excited for that,” says Holmes.
The group got to be in full vacation-mode during the fest, and they also get to spend more time at the festival campground than most, as their trips out to the festival grounds before and after Folk Fest often include camping.
“It was a fantastic weekend when we went out in May the ten of us and we camped out,” says Holmes. They weathered the cold together and enjoyed each other’s company so much that they decided to camp together for the entire festival.
During festival week, Holmes was able to compare and contrast a tree that they pruned versus one that was left untamed. The festival is assuredly more safe and attractive due to the dead brush and branches that the Tree Huggers clear out.
“I feel much better knowing that the trees are happier, and they’ll provide more shade that way too,” says Holmes. “There’s more spaces to set up tents and less eye poking and arm scraping and everything.”
Because not all of the Tree Huggers are professional arborists, Holmes paired each labourer with an arborist while they’re working, and due to interest, they’re going to hold a mentoring weekend so the labourers can develop good technique. Not a bad work experience opportunity for anyone wanting to become an arborist down the road.
Looking ahead to next year, Holmes says, “I wouldn’t hesitate to take more people ‘cause there is lots that needs to be done.
“We have that big festival campground and the festival site to work on. And then they’re always planting new trees, so we’re going to have to do a lot of maintenance on those, just to make sure that they grow up properly.”
She says the opportunity to learn and work with professional arborists could lead to real-world jobs, as most of the Tree Huggers either work for private landscaping companies or the city, and could put in a good word.
The name “Tree Huggers” was suggested by the Folk Festival team, and the crew loves it even though it causes some confusion.
“We have gotten a lot of questions. People are like, ‘What do you just go around and hug trees?’” laughs Holmes.

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