Friday, March 3, 2017

A Glimpse of Ground Zero

Since today was likely going to be the mildest day weather-wise during my days off, I was keen to head out and stretch my legs.  Of course I wanted to do a little bird-watching but I also just needed to stretch my legs.  I enjoy being outside this time of year for the most part and doubly so when I'm carrying my binoculars rather than scaffolding material at work. 

There's a section of trail that skirts the top of the river valley that I used to walk quite a bit when I first moved here but since I had moved on doing my bird-watching in a few other places, I had not been on this trail for probably 3 or 4 years now and I was keen to remedy that.  Unfortunately, I took my zoom lens with me as I was hoping for a few bird shots so I didn't get the wide-angle I would have liked for the photos that I did end up taking of the forest.

The trail also takes me through an area that took quite a bit of damage from the last May's big fire.  I saw quite a few burned out trees and a few open areas where the brush had been cut back.  At any rate, I had a much better view of the river than I recall having in the past.

This photo was taken just up the hill from our water treatment plant and looks across the river to the mouth of the Horse River.  This whole area is was more or less where the fire started before spreading into the Abasand and Beacon Hill neighbourhoods.

The following two photos are of Abasand or what is left of it.  I haven't had the chance to get over there yet though from what I've heard rebuilding is going fast and furious.  I do plan to head up there later on this spring and I'm sure I will be a bit shocked at what I see.

I bumped in to this fellow as I was backtracking home.  I've seen countless foxes at work but its rare I get a glimpse (let alone a photo) of one in town.  Unlike the ones at work, this one turned out to be  much more wary of my presence.  I first spotted him from a distance.  He was marking his territory so I didn't bother with the camera yet figuring no one really wants to see a red fox pooping and peeing in the bush.  There were enough snowy rolls between us that I'm not sure if he knew I was there or not and after finishing his business he began to slowly turn in my general direction.  I approached stealthily but lost sight of him until we both came over a little rise.  I'm sure he was as startled as I was.   He bolted down the hill and in to the trees where he watched me warily.  Luckily I was still able to get a half decent photo.  

While I've had numerous wildlife encounters this one was special.  It was nice to see the that the forest, along with its many critters, is returning to normal.  

I should also add that as a birding foray, the day also turned out very well.  I noted 13 species which is something that I don't normally manage to pull off until later in the spring.  Waxwings and chickadees especially seemed to be everywhere and as I wrote in my notes, trying to count them accurately was like attempting to herd cats.  For the curious, I will include the species I saw below.

Hairy Woodpecker
American Three-Toed Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Bohemian Waxwing
Pine Grosbeak
Common Redpoll
Hoary Redpoll
House Sparrow

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Trail Time

We've been having some unseasonably mild weather here the past few days and it really has felt as if we may get an early Spring.  Normally I would welcome this but of course we got an early Spring last year and we all know what happened.....raging fires and chaos. 

I put this out of my mind however, and hit the Birchwood Trail system.  It's rare that I go there this early in the year.  The ground is usually still a nightmare of ice and snow.....and it was but I was willing to risk a little bit of a slide in order to be able to get outside and get rid of a little cabin fever.  Last year I went out around this exact same time and saw a couple of bird species I don't usually see until much later on in the Spring so that temptation was there as well.

At any rate, I managed to make it down the first steep slope without any problems.  

It was noticeably cooler at the bottom of the small valley.  While there was some water from Conn creek creeping up along the bank, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  I was still thanking myself for deciding to wear boots rather than my running shoes.

I did about a 3 km walk.  Nothing too strenuous and I did have to loop back around to avoid some ice on a particularly steep section of trail but I did manage to see nine bird species which isn't too bad considering the time of year.  It took me awhile before I really spotted anything and at one point I had resigned myself to just a quiet walk in the woods.  But when they started showing up, things got interesting first northern shrike, 3 gray jays, the ubiquitous magpie, a quick overflight of waxwings, and a raven with some sort of stick fetish were among the highlights.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let's Talk

With today being a time to speak up in support of mental issues I thought I would add my own voice to the discussion.  This is a topic especially relevant to people here in Fort McMurray given the trauma of last May.   Compared to most people though I think I've been pretty lucky.  Other than the huge inconvenience of being out my house and my regular routine for 5 weeks, I've managed rather well.  (These days my biggest concern tends to be staying on top of all the economic uncertainty that has been floating around our industry for the past couple of years.)  Looking back on the past 8 months, I've felt that one of the reasons I've managed so well after the fire was the I've been through some pretty tough experiences (which I wouldn't wish on anyone) that have helped me to cope and while it's easier now to look back through the storm there certainly were times when things just weren't so easy.   This is really a post I've wanted to write for some time now.  There's a stigma out there about males sharing their feelings but the hell with it.  Obviously, it's painful and uncomfortable to look back on things but if my story can help just one person in some small way, it will have accomplished its goal.  Here is my story...

Mental issues were never something I ever imagined I'd have to deal with personally.  Sure, I was the quiet kid in school but by the time high school hit, most people people just accepted me as someone who experiences the world through observation and thought rather than by necessarily interesting directly with it.  Mental issues were certainly something I never thought would effect me in my work life.  After all, in my former teaching career, I was used to giving advice and council and support.  I never really considered that I might one day need it myself.  In my view I was on top of the world.  Not that I was connected or anything, far from it.  But at the time, I was confident I had life figured out and that mental health issues were just something that  happened to other people.  In my late-20's perhaps this was something I can be forgiven for thinking.  I was the first person in my family to graduate university, I earned 3 university degrees and was well read,  I was making a very good salary compared to most other people in my peer group, I had travelled to or lived in almost every province and territory in the country, had been the US several times and twice to Europe. 

The two biggest mistakes you can make, in my view, are to believe the fiction that it can't happen to you and the pretend that you don't need help.  "I'm fine" was a refrain I repeated a lot at one point.  Like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, it crept up on me.  In early 2009 or so I hit a particular rough patch during one teaching assignment I had.  I had been assaulted a couple of times and a couple of students I cared deeply about committed suicide.  Once assault late that year resulted in a cracked knuckle, a splitting headache and an expelled student who was also to commit suicide a short time later.  

The day after the funeral I had a debriefing meeting with the community mental health nurse who I knew on both a personal and professional level and she advised me that I might want to take some time and step back from work.  In her professional opinion, she informed me, I was suffering from symptoms of PTSD.  I remember just staring at her when she told me as I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing.  I wasn't sure if she was joking but was quick to see that no, this isn't something that she would joke about.  She had a habit of being bluntly honest and that was what she was doing by telling me. 

I asked her about symptoms and a light came on for me.  I was becoming an angry person with an ever-decreasing fuse.  I didn't want to be around people and when you have a job where you are dealing with people on a daily basis AND you live in a small isolated community on top that it doesn't take much to see how this can lead to some real problems.  I wasn't my regular joking self and was told I didn't seem to smile as much either.  I actually real very clearly describing my situation to the mental health nurse as going in to "bunker mode".  So overwhelmed I would feel at times that I would dig a hole, shut down and hunker down just so that I could get through my day.  I had my coping mechanisms of music, good books, a good game of poker with friends or perhaps a hike.  But none of if seemed to be working.

So I knew there was a problem.  But hey, I'm 34-35, I'm a professional, I have a basic background in behavioural psychology because of my teaching degree and hey, this was something that happened to OTHER people.  And so I pretended or convinced myself that I didn't really need help.

I took one last teaching assignment when, looking back, I would have been much better served by taking a year (or even a few months) off.  Things didn't get better.  At that point in my life I was in a common law relationship and I was able to take the edge off with a few drinks.  Definitely not the best coping mechanism.  I never drank to excess as I don't handle hang-overs well at all but my body grew accustomed to having a couple mixed drinks on a daily basis.   It's entirely conceivable that my intake would have increased as my body grew increasingly accustomed to it.

Without going into a lot of details my relationship was fraught with difficulty at times as I tried to balance the reality of being a father with my professional life while still making time for myself.  Not so easy.  Eventually the situation became untenable and the relationship feel apart.  There was fault on both sides but I was angry.  I yelled.  I felt like I was in a nightmare I couldn't escape from.  Not addressing some important issues cost me my professional life, my relationship and that time and most importantly my relationship with my son.  I have no doubt that a few people that have known me since my school days but who haven't seen me in a number of years will read this and perhaps be shocked by just how incongruous this seems with the person they knew.  

To make a long story short, this was a wake up call for me and I did seek help....from family, a couple old friends people I know locally here and yes, a little professional advice as well.    The biggest help for me was getting myself out of the physical environment I was in.  That meant my teaching career was at an end of the time being and my relationship was over.  It also meant being honest with myself and discussing some very serious topics that I would normally find embarrassing.  It's tough to discuss things like erectile dysfunction even with a health professional but I'm sure if I hadn't my son would likely not have been born.  I rediscovered my passions.  I discovered new ones.  I met new people.  And most importantly for me, I never stopped talking.  This doesn't mean I went around telling everyone about my issues.   My blog notwithstanding, I've always considered myself a pretty private person.  If you're in my confidence it means I really REALLY trust you.  I like to think this isn't really that different from the majority of other people.

So am I "cured"?  Does this sort of thing go away or is there some sort of invisible line that I've crossed over in the intervening years?  I don't know.  I still carry an aversion to loud noise and feel awkward in social situations at times and I suspect this might not ever completely go away but I am better able to cope.  I won't pretend to be an expert on this topic, but I do know that things have gotten better.  Hell, I just feel better overall.  

I still have stressful days of course but when I look back at the person I used to be and the journey I've travelled to get to where I am today, I feel empowered.  What I have gone through and experience has, in sum, made me stronger.

Mental health issues don't mean you are in any way "stupid" or deficient or an idiot.  It's one small part of your being you might some day have to deal with...but it is NOT a summation of your entire character.  It can be addressed and positive change can happen.  You are not alone.  


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Response to Jane Fonda

James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Neil Young....its seems that there is no shortage of celebrities lined up to bash our community and our industry.  And now, we can add Jane Fonda to the list.  Fonda is in town today ostensibly to "inform" herself about our region.  

Fonda claimed to a local resident that she is not against [us] but given the economic turmoil we currently face, to say nothing of the forest fire that devastated our community last May, I really have to wonder.

Let's be honest: Fonda is a professional activist.  She has made a career of supporting all sorts of causes and spouting all sorts of nonsense no matter how hurtful it may be to some. It wasn't until 2011 that she got around to apologizing for offending Vietnam vets on her blog.

Fonda claims that (according to the CBC article regarding her visit) "It's like someone took my skin and peeled it off my body over a very large surface."  Ah, such hyperbolic language.  It makes for a great sound byte, I'm sure.  But just how large of a surface is that?  Let's put things in perspective.  The boreal forest covers about 60% of Canada.  What percentage of Canada's boreal forest is subject to surface mining?  Turns out THAT figure is 0.2%.  Since 1967, the year GCOS (the forerunner of present-day Suncor began), oil sands mining has disturbed approximately 760 square km (roughly 294 square miles).  That's an area smaller than New York City, London or Berlin.  All of these figures can be verified on official government websites, unless of course Ms. Fonda wishes to indulge in asinine conspiratorial-types claims.  Sorry, Fonda, but your simplistic analogy utter fails.

I do have to question where she will be getting her information from.  Will she be getting it from industry leaders?  community leaders? people who actually live here?  people who actually work in the oil sands? actual scientists?  Will she be getting it from Green Peace scientists instead?  Oh yes, Green Peace doesn't actually have real scientists, only paid activists.  Has Ms. Fonda ever heard of SAGD technology? (Google it)  Of that this technology will be the way going forward.  Let me guess, she flew over Suncor and Syncrude north of Fort McMurray which employ older mining techniques but conveniently DIDN'T fly south of Fort McMurray where SAGD is employed.  If you're only going to talk to those opposed to development or see what you want to see, you only get one side of the story.  Ms. Fonda, it's called an "echo chamber", a massive case of confirmation bias if ever there was one.

She wants to claim how horrible our industry here is yet I would challenge her to visit any number of other oil-producing nations so she can compare how we stack up with the rest of the world.    Of course, Fonda won't do this.  She's more interested in publicity and Canada's industry is the low-hanging fruit on the tree.  She can show up, pose for the cameras, mouth some nonsense and fly (yes, she admitted she flew here....on a plane.....which burns oil) back to Los Angeles with no real cost to herself.   As I said at the outset, we've had a long slew of personalities role through here, fly over in a plane (again, burning oil), mouthing nonsense and leaving.  If you can't understand why some people here might be a little bit annoyed with these antics, I'm afraid I don't know what to tell you.

She's like the visitor that shows up at your door unannounced and uninvited, then enters and walks around without taking her shoes off and eats some of your food off your table before leaving.  If you really cared about people I would suggest instead that you should visit struggling families in Abasand, Beacon Hill, Waterways, Stone Creek Saprae Creek, Anzac or Wood Buffalo, areas which were devastated by last May's forest fire.  Why not visit a local first responder who lost their own home to the fire (and there were many)?  Why not visit a Keyano college student who is stressed out over whether there will be a job for them upon graduation.  Why don't you talk to Chief Jim Boucher or any member of the Fort McKay First Nation and how our industry benefits them.  (Oh right, you WERE asked that question and ducked it.)  Rather than engage in reasoned debate or even respond to a reasonable question, you simply ran away because it challenged the narrative you are trying to push.  Please, don't come here and tell us that you're not against us.

Sorry, Ms. Fonda but being a celebrity and an exercise guru does not make you informed on our industry.  Far from it.  You should stick to yoga and the things you know.  Truth is, Fonda is NOT on our side.  It's akin to playing a hockey game in overtime with Ms. Fonda over in the corner kicking around a soccer ball (or flopping about on a yoga mat.)  This doesn't mean you aren't entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Year That Was

As you can imagine, for anyone living in Fort McMurray, it's truly been one hell of  a year.  Low oil prices, economic uncertainty, lay offs and rumours of lay offs, followed by yet more lay offs.  And then, of course, there was the Beast, the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history that saw roughly 88,000 people abandoning their work, their houses and their everyday routines of life and fleeing for safety.

In a very real way, I've come to more fully appreciate the value of human life and living safely.  More than one firefighter here sacrificed his home in order to help save mine.  I appreciate the value of countless people helping complete strangers with no expectation of repayment.  I appreciate second chances, making the most of each day and taking nothing for granted.

It's been quite a roller coaster ride but while the year had its fair share of angst, there were positives as well.  Chief among them would be the fact that I've navigated my through all the crazy events of the past year, either through luck or skill and sometimes both.  I've managed to stay employed through countless rounds of layoffs and rumours of layoffs and kept my tenants in place.  It really is impossible to overstate how much of relief that has been.  In other positive news,  I saw a number of great concerts with the Calgary Philharmonic and the Edmonton Symphony which I touched on on my blog here.  While the evacuation prevented me from seeing one concert I was especially looking forward to, I will get a second opportunity to see one of my favourite violin concertos performed in the coming spring.

While the evacuation also wiped out a much-anticipated birding trip to Banff, I still got to see quite a bit of the province this year (again, mainly because of the evacuation) and this in turn led to me being able to see a record number of birds for my year list.  I initially hoped to get to 50 for the year, which seemed an impossibility once the evacuation but all the travel I did throughout May and June led me to seeing at least 5 or 6 species I had never seen before.  Unless something really crazy happens in the last few hours of the year, I will finish off 2017 with 83 for my year list, so despite all the trials and tribulations of the year I really can't complain.

Other than that I really can't think of too much else.  I'm in the middle of a work shift so I'm scrambling to hack something out before we roll over in to the new year.  I really  feel as if I've turned a corner and the new year will potentially open up some exciting new opportunities for me though it might take a bit longer before they are fully realized.  At any rate, after the insane bat-shit crazy year this was, things can only look up as we stand at the cusp of taking one more trip around the sun.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Weather Was Just a Bit Brisk

Having spent the bulk of my working life either north of 60 or in the provincial "norths",  I'm rather accustomed to long, cold winters.  I've lived places where your eyelids will freeze together, I've had more than a few bouts of frostbite, I've managed through a few blizzards, I've developed (some) patience when it comes to dealing with how the cold can slow things down and I've mastered the art of dressing in layers, or at least I like to think I have.  

While I'm used to it to a certain extent, its doesn't necessarily mean that I have to LIKE it, however, and the past couple weeks were a reminder of that.  Thankfully, my work schedule meant that I missed part of it but there was no escaping the second half of it.  I woke up last Friday morning to my laptop telling me that as of 5am local time, the wind chill was a rather brisk -51C.  This was the lowest wind-chill value I've seen in the time I've lived here and I'd have to go all the way back to my Nunavut and northern Manitoba days to have experienced something comparable.  Wind chill values in the -60's were commonplace during the winter I spent in northern Manitoba but back then I had an indoor job and wasn't working 12-hour shifts.  In the early 2000's I got a nice little dose of frostbite on my face after walking in a blizzard in Iqaluit just to say I did it.  In my defense I was younger and didn't fully have the appreciation for Mother Nature that I have now.  Needless to say, that was a feat that will not be repeated.  

This past shift was particularly challenging and I don't think there was a single day that was "normal".  Something was always breaking, weather it be a furnace, a fork flit, a light plant (in or case, two of them) or a frozen water/sewage line.    As for work itself, there wasn't that much going on.   I have some pretty good clothes for working out doors  that I can layer up in and have developed a pretty good system but for the better part of three days the powers that be decided that it was too cold to be outside for any length of time so I spent the bulk of the weekend either in a lunch trailer (when the furnace was working and it wasn't a nippy -2C inside) or in a warm truck.  

As i mentioned earlier, I'm more or less used to these types of situations but that doesn't mean I LIKE it.  I made for what seems a very long shift and I was quite tired by the end of each day.  On top of the cold, we had  a pretty decent dump of snow at work so while I don't relish snow shovelling, at least it kept you moving and kept you warm.  Most of the guys at work no about the time I spent in Nunavut so I get the odd joke about how it MUST be cold if the guy who was in Nunavut is mentioning the cold.  Needless to say, I'm very glad to be off today.  It's warmed considerable over the course of the last 4 days and the mercury is expected to flirt with the freezing mark, which is downright balmy compared to what we've just been through.  

Monday, December 12, 2016


To say it's bit a wee bit nippy that past few days would be a bit of an understatement.  I supposed I've lived up north long enough to be more or less used to it, although having said that, that doesn't necessarily mean I always like it.  Thankfully I've been on my days off so I take solace in knowing that I don't have to be out working in it.  

While I've had somewhat of a sedentary existence the past week, I've been fortunate to have a few visitors around.  In total, there's something like 10 to 12 species I can regularly expect to see this time of the year without having to leave the house.  No Red Polls or Evening Grosbeaks yet but most of the regulars have made an appearance so far.

Bohemian Waxwings

I'm not really sure why such a large group showed up on the driveway since there isn't anything particularly interesting on the ground there.

The resident Blue Jay.

Not the greatest photo of a Magpie but a Magpie nonetheless.

My first photo of a Pine Grosbeak with the new camera.

...and of course, the ubiquitous House Sparrow (male and female).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Welcome Incursion

As I'm pretty sure I mentioned in a previous post, during my last trip down to Calgary I picked up a new camera so hopefully we will now see some improvements in picture quality.  It's much easier to do some posts about my birding excursions when I have a half-decent camera to use.  (I've actually started to give some thought to starting another blog devoted just to birding, but we shall see.)  

Ironically, now that I have a new camera I haven't really been able to use it all that much, partly because we are seriously lacking in sunlight here with the sun setting just before 4pm and partly because of work.  I now leave for work in the dark and return home in the dark.  The other big complication (until this afternoon really) has been that there really hasn't been anything of interest poking about.  I'm used to filling up my backyard feeders about once a week but I haven't had to do that for a couple of weeks now and all I've seen around date house lately are the ubiquitous ravens and magpies.  

Fortune, however, smiled on me this afternoon as I was hit with a rather large incursion of waxwings.  My ash trees didn't really grow that many berries this year so I'm not sure how long they will be able to attract large flocks, making today's "invasion" all that more welcome.  

For about 20 minutes, there must have been between 80 to 100 waxwings in the front yard and while I wanted to get a wide shot of them I was too nervous about startling them away.  While they are one of my favourite winter birds, they are also notoriously skittish.  If you're looking for displays of territoriality and dominance amongst a flock of waxwings, you'll be sorely disappointing.  They all just get along swimmingly.

I had a fantastic vantage point from a couple of second floor windows so I was able to get set up and sneak in a few shots without freaking them out too much.  Given the overcast skies and that the sky will soon begin to darken AND the fact that I am hardly a professional photographer, some of my shots turned out not too badly.  Certainly they are a big step up from what I was able to manage in the past.  Anyhow, here are the best of the bunch.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Evening Down by the Bow

By the time I reached Prince's Island Park, the last place I wanted to get to before my weekend concert, the light was really starting to fade on me.  Again, I didn't see anything new but it gave me a chance to have some camera fun and grab a few close ups.  I had no shortage of willing subjects.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Urban Wildlife

After visiting the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary I headed to an urban park closer to the downtown.  I didn't expect to see much in terms of birds (and I didn't) but it gave me an opportunity to play around with my camera and see a bit of wildlife I don't usually see close up.

There actually IS a common merganser swimming around out there.

Friendly neighbourhood squirrel.

These little guys were all over the place.