Sunday, February 28, 2010

Big Toys

You know you're in big oil country when you glance out the window and see something like this.....

House Hunting In Fort McMurray

As I mentioned in my last post, Lisa and I had headed into Fort McMurray early Friday morning. For the past while we had been discussing an eventual move into town for a plethora of reasons. Aside from saving on the 200+ km we put on the odometer every time we head in, living in town would allow us to take fuller advantage of all the place has to offer. Other than the fact that my current job keeps me in Janvier, the big obstacle was just how crazy the housing market in Fort McMurray is. A radio station we listen to quite often here even has a little advertising spot that goes something like this: "Fort McMurray, home of half-a-million dollar trailers.......and 103.7FM." The only other markets I can think of where housing is so crazy expensive are Iqaluit and of course Vancouver. Compared to what I'm used to seeing in Ontario, the prices here seem a tad over-inflated. (Stories of rents as high as $4000/month for a detached house are not exaggerations.) This is understandable considering how much of a boom town the place is but clearly, some of the places for sale here are pretty underwhelming. Clearly if we were going to find a decent place without breaking the bank we had our work cut out for us.

Slowly, Lisa put together a short-list of 6-7 options and so we set out to see them Friday. Most of the houses lay in an area of the city known as Thickwood. While originally this area was high on our list of areas to live in, we soon discovered that it might just be a little beyond our budget. Some determined digging though landed us 4-5 places that seemed within the realm of possibility. A couple of places that piqued my interest turned out to be a little disappointing when viewed in person. As the day wore on, it seemed like we weren't going to find anything that stood out and that we would be left with some tough choices. The last place we were scheduled to see was actually a place Lisa had shown we and I was fervently hoping it wouldn't disappoint. We had driven by it the week before and I had like what I had seen from the outside at least. Now, as we approached it, I silently hoped that this place would have that certain "Wow" factor that had escaped us so far.

To cut a long story short, the place lived up to expectations....roomy, plenty of storage, a nice deck out back and, with the exception of the carpeting upstairs, I loved the flooring. Yes, I know I LOVE flooring. But my parents are in the flooring business so there you go. The house is a good family home that will change as the family changes. It's unique and stands out from all the other houses in the neighborhood which looked a little too "cookie cutter-ish" to me. We drove downtown where I initialed a lot of papers. After a few phone calls we ended up accepting the counter-offer which turned out to be exactly what I was hoping it would be. Now, we just have to do all the fun banking stuff and then, if all goes according to plan, we take possession March 24...and then the fun begins.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vista Ridge

Yesterday was the big school trip to Vista Ridge. As it turned out I didn't have to discover how bad of a downhill skier I am since I ended up chaperoning at the tubing hill. This was a good thing since not only did it save me from almost certain injury but it also meant I got to spend the day with Tamara. We all had a blast sliding. You can really pick up some good speed and the kids loved going down in large conga lines.

Here are a few views of the tubing hill.

This is the tractor and sled we all piled into to get to the tubing hill. It had descend down a pretty steep slope to get there. I think some of the kids (myself included) would have gladly ridden the sled up and down the hill all day if they had the chance.

Tamara takes a break from all the sliding.

My camera batteries died on me (luckily I had spares) as we descended down to the tubing hill so I had to wait until I had fresh batteries and we were returning back to the lodge before I could capture some decent pictures of the valley. They don't quite show how steep the hill was as well as I had hoped but I still think the views were nice.

This is a view of one of the downhill runs I snapped before boarding the bus back to Janvier. I was glad I elected to go with the tubing group.

All in all a fantastic outing. I look forward to getting back out here with the family in the near future.

Highway View

The two major highways in the area cut through many valleys offering some pretty nice views. Lisa loves the drive into town and jokes she could do it with one hand on the wheel and her eyes closed....though of course I encourage her not to. Anyhow, here is the view along the highway as you descend down into the valley into Fort McMurray from the north. It was a little overcast but you can still make out the Athabasca River in the background.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


For lack of ideas for a post, here are a few pictures of the big Syncrude plant north of McMurray that we passed by last time we were up that way.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fort Chipewyan Winter Road

Yesterday we decided to hit the road early to try to find a scenic outlook north of the city. I was a little fuzzy on the details though. I could only recall having briefly seen the place advertised on the back of a local magazine we picked up last week. "40km north of Fort McMurray" was all I remembered seeing. Predictably we didn't find it but decided to enjoy the drive, the milder weather and wherever our 4 wheels would take us.

We decided to go up and see the activity around the oil sands since the kids love all the big machinery. We turned off and visited the small hamlet of Fort MacKay first since we had missed the turn off last time were up that far. Lisa and I have an on-going dispute over the pronounciation of the place. I've heard it pronounced many times over the radio and by other people like Fort MacKay as in "Mac-eye", while she pronounces it as "Mac-K". I think she disagrees with me just to tease me and get me going and really does know how the place is REALLY pronounced. But regardless of how you actually say it, we had no problem finding the turn off this time.

I didn't get any pictures of the hamlet itself but the road does descend a rather steep grade leading across the MacKay (Mac-eye) River into the hamlet. Here are the bridge and the MacKay (MacKay) River.

Highway 63 crosses the Athabasca at Fort McMurray and then re-crosses it 60-odd km farther up just below the 57th latitude. At this point you're starting to run out of official highway in a hurry. The only thing above this really are all the big oil sands projects or gas pipelines.

We passed the last big project at Bitumount and reached the end of the road. Here is the start of the winter road that leads up to Fort Chipewyan. We had passed a sign a little earlier informing us of no more gas of services for the next 282km. I always get a kick out of those signs. By now the kids were starting to get a little antsy. I couldn't really blame them since, other than the Athabasca River crossing, we had seen nothing but trees and we had by then been on the road for a good 3 hours. I had only been on a winter couple roads before so I was quite curious about this one, easily the longest one I had seen had we decided to travel its entire length. In any event, its a little too far to travel in one day, plus we didn't have the gas or made the preparations one really should make when venturing out on these types of roads. In any event, I convinced Lisa to head a few kilometers up just to see and experience it before turning around.

A view down the winter road.

The kids perked up once we got on the road. All the little ups and downs gave the ride a roller coaster feel. The surface was remarkably smooth for the most part and we zipped along at around 80km/hour even though the speed limit was 30km/hour. After about 40km we reached the crossing at the Firebag River and it was here that we decided to turn around. The road makes a very steep decent and we wanted to make sure we could get the van back up it and not get stuck. Reality was also setting in since we had to pick up a few groceries in town and make it back to Janvier in time to catch the hockey game.

Another shot of the Athabasca River as we headed home.

The kids rested up after an adventurous day on the road. Nicholas wasn't actually sleeping. Lisa and I just asked him to pretend he was since this is one of the few chances I get to take a picture off all three kids together being relatively still.

All in all a great little day where original plans didn't pan out and we ended up creating our own little family adventure.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bird's Eye View

I'm down in Edmonton at the moment so in the meantime, here are a few photos of "town" aka Fort McMurray that I've shamelessly dug off the 'net. They're a bit dated but you get an idea at least of the lay of the land.

A couple views of downtown or "Lower Town Site" from the northwest and southwest respectively. River in the background to at the left of the first photo is the Clearwater River, which flows in from Saskatchewan and joins the Athabasca just north of the Lower Town Site. The water at the fore of the picture is an offshoot of the Clearwater known as The Snye, a popular place for float planes to land in summer and for snowmobiles in the winter.

The large brown building is the municipal building. Abasand Heights, one of the cities first subdivision dating from the '70's can be seen on the extreme left. The road up to it has a pretty steep grade......and the views coming down are fantastic.

Here is a view from the west side of the Athabasca River. If I'm not mistaken, that's the Thickwood Heights subdivision in the foreground.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bohn Lake

Bohn Lake was a spot I had been hoping to get out to since we arrived back in the fall. (It's the closest decent ice-fishing lake and I hope we get a chance to do some ice fishing before too much longer.) I had made a couple aborted attempts to get out to it back in the fall with the kids but we ended up getting distracted by either nature or strange looking machinery. While we have had quite a bit of snow over the past few weeks and the sky was overcast today, the mild temperature continued so that was good enough for me.

Part of the reason I haven't explored the surrounding trails as much as I'd like to (apart from work and family obligations) is that up until very recently I lacked a decent map. Fortune smiled on me, however, and I did manage to get a rough map into my possession, though it did languish on top of the fridge for a spell. Yesterday afternoon, I grabbed the camera and my ipod and headed out. Originally, I had hoped to bring Tamara along with me but decided that the deep snow might be a bit much for her. As it turned out, I was right. Even my long legs were challenged in a few spots and I had to stop a few times to catch my breath.

Rather than start from the trails beside our property here, I elected instead to cut through a shorter trail behind the house to the air strip. From there, I walked down the empty runway to a marked trail that, according to my map, led straight out to the lake. Once I got back into the woods, I could see the lake perhaps a kilometer away down the trail. At this point I turned my ipod off to enjoy the sounds of nature. Here then, are a few pictures from my afternoon. With luck, I'll have a fishing rod and ice axe in my hands during my next visit.

Bohn Lake is shaped something like an inverted tear drop, measuring 4-5km east to west and 8km north to south, lying a mere 40km west of the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. I'm not really sure that it would make for much of a swimming lake but the views were nice. Unfortunately, the overcast skies and my photography skills just don't do it justice.

A shot of the Janvier airstrip. For the first time in my life I was able to walk right down the middle of the runway with no fear of taxiing planes or airport police...not that I make it a habit to take casual strolls down runways.

A couple of shots of the trail beyond the end of the airstrip on the way to the lake.

Wandering down Moose trail. Most of the main trails are named after different animals. I didn't see any moose but a few other creatures made their presence known.

I stopped and watched for several minutes as a small group of black-capped chickadees flitted around a tall stand of birch trees. A couple brave ones landed pretty close to check out the interloper but I wasn't able to get any close-ups with the camera before they darted off. I really regretted not having my field glasses with me.

Bohn Lake at last. The overcast sky made it look much more dreary through the camera lens. Other than a few skidoo tracks out on the lake which were probably a day or two old, I had the place to myself.

Two views to the east.

Looking northward.

View to the southern end of the lake.

On my return I startled a grouse of some sort out of the bush. A whir of flapping wings and a bit of snow dislodged from some branches caught my attention. The foliage was too thick for me to make a positive id but it was perhaps 20 feet away when it lifted off. I was only able to make out a brown-coloured shape through the a tangle of brush. A few minutes later I again heard something a few feet back from the trail but didn't see anything. I stepped off the trail and walked a few feet into the bush to try for a better view. There was only silence and then the sounds of a scolding squirrel perched on a branch a dozen feet over my head.

He was a pretty brave fellow defending his territory. He showed no sign of intimidation and scurried back and forth along a few branches clicking and squeaking. At one point I swear the thing was actually letting out some sort of strange growl at me.