British Columbia

Eccentric forester planted millions of trees before dying of COVID-19

Jerry Krouzel, 79, was working a tree planting job when COVID-19 felled the tall, formidable forester.

‘To me he was nature,' said Aida Krouzel, who believes her dad planted 12 million trees in his lifetime

Jerry Krouzel in an undated photo. He died May 18 in Quesnel, B.C. (Submitted by the Krouzel family)

Jerry Krouzel planted trees for most of his life. He wasn't finished. 

The 79-year-old was working on a tree planting job just two weeks before family say COVID-19 felled the tall, formidable forester.

Krouzel's daughters believe he was infected May 2 or May 3 on a tree planting crew headed to a site near Burns Lake, B.C.

He died May 18 in his basement suite in Quesnel after refusing medical treatment for COVID-19. 

9 infected, 1 dead in outbreak

The veteran tree planter had sent messages to family members about a fellow worker who was coughing during transport to a planting site. Krouzel left the site fearing infection after working his final day on May 9. 

His family says he wore a mask and was wary of COVID-19, but had chosen not to get vaccinated.

Work sites related to two Quesnel-based reforestation companies — Dewan Enterprise and Mikegrosite Consulting — were closed after a COVID-19 outbreak that, as of May 21, had infected nine people and killed one. 

Public health investigations "determined that infection control measures were not sufficient to prevent further transmission of COVID-19," according to the Northern Health Authority. The BC Coroners office and workplace safety authorities are now investigating.

12 million trees

Krouzel's eldest daughter has questions about her father's death that she wants answered. 

"His hands carved the looks of a portion of our planet," said Romana Krouzel, 56.

Krouzel, 79, had worked in forestry or tree planting in B.C. for more than 35 years and trained in forestry at 13 growing up in Czechoslovakia. (Submitted by family)

Daughter Aida Krouzel, 32, estimates her father planted about 12 million trees throughout his life. 

"He just loved to be outside helping the community and the forest," she said. "He'd been planting trees since he was 13 years old in the Czech Republic in the forestry cadets, so it's very possible he planted millions of trees out there,"

John Mills hired Krouzel more than 30 years ago and said Krouzel out-worked men a third his age. 

"You put him with younger guys if you want to motivate them," Mills said. 

Despite some "wild ideas," he said Krouzel was kind. Mills said he was considered a fixture at the farmers market in Quesnel, where he was often seen in his signature bandana and "fancy shoes." 

Early life 

Jaromír Kroužel was born in Czechoslovakia in the early 1940s. He attended forestry school, where his family says he excelled as a marksman and falconer.

Later, his family says he coached judo and was short-listed to be the trainer for the Czech Olympic judo team. But Krouzel gave up his chance to go to the Olympics when he fled in 1968 during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Krouzel settled in Montreal and worked as a cheese maker, before managing a dairy company in Manitoba and, later, becoming a real estate agent in Alberta. 

Krouzel was born in Czechoslovakia 79 years ago. He died of complications related to COVID-19 alone in his basement suite. (Submitted by the Krouzel family)

"He was a borderline genius," said Romana Krouzel, adding that he also had an indomitable spirit and piercing blue eyes. 

"I don't know if he had delusions of grandeur or if he just refused to accept limits."

In his 40s, Krouzel left his family in Alberta and returned to forestry, living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in a van and travelling the world.

Later in life, Krouzel met his second partner in Thailand and they had a daughter, born in Bangkok.

Jaromír Kroužel, or Jerry Krouzel, shown with a Czech judo club in Banská Bystrica in 1963. He is the tallest at the centre. (Submitted by the Krouzel family)

Aida Krouzel, 32, said she later moved to Canada, and grew up in northern B.C., often trailing her dad in cut blocks as he replanted when she was as young as five.

"To me, he was nature — he was the smell of pine — the wind whispering through the trees," said Krouzel.

He never lost the athletic discipline he'd developed while practising judo. 

Aida Krouzel said she never saw her father smoke, drink or even eat junk food. He cooked a mean Czech meatloaf and grew an impressive garden. He loved organic food and researched holistic health practices.

Aida Krouzel as a child with her father. (Submitted by the Krouzel family)

She spoke to him in the days before his death and urged him to go to hospital. But he was trying to fight the infection at home.

She said she wishes the person who infected her father had not gone to work. She wishes her new fiance could have met her dad.

"I would have definitely wanted to change that — I could have spent more time with him."

LISTEN | Aida Krouzel remembers her father, Jerry Krouzel:

From learning Judo and trying to catch a falcon in Czechoslovakia to planting millions of trees in B.C., Quesnel treeplanter Jerry Kouzel was a local legend. His daughter Aida tells us about his life. 7:32

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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