Monday, May 31, 2010

Then And Now

Now that we've started making the house into our home I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at one of our first pictures from earlier this spring and compare it to a more recent one.

March 2010.

Late May 2010.

They are taken from slightly different vantage points and it helps that the yard isn't all covered in leaves but we like what we see so far.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Clear Water But A Dusty Road

A Saturday afternoon drive took us down the valley of the Clearwater River. There's a good deal of history behind this river as it was part of the old fur trade route stretching from Montreal to the Rockies and north to the arctic. Back in the day many an explorer came down this river route seeking to unlock the interior of the country and plumb its thick forest for valuable furs and other trade goods. The head of the river lies over the border in Saskatchewan. From there it flows west until it empties into the Athabasca at Fort McMurray. When I lived in La Loche, I had a chance to see the river from much further upstream. I can vouch for the great fishing there.

Anyhow, we followed a dusty dirt road through the valley until we reached its terminus a few kilometres out of town. While the valley may not have a spectacular mountain backdrop of a river closer to the Rockies, it was lush and green and there were some nice views along the way. Unfortunately, we weren't able to capture as much as we wanted on camera since passing vehicles were kicking up quite a lot of dust. The header picture atop this blog was actually taken further up the valley earlier in the Spring at the ski hill so you can get a taste of what the area looks like in the winter season.

Here are a few pictures Lisa and I took along the way.

Mild Criticisms

If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you know that we've been praising Fort McMurray to no end. I'm aware that this place gets bashed enough by left-wing, long-haired, granola-chomping tree huggers because of the oil industry and its not our intention to add to it here, or at least not in the vitriolic way these people often seem to do. Really, I can't complain all that much. This is by far the largest place I've lived in the past 10 years and really, it offers us the amenities we need (which Lisa likes) while allowing us to still enjoy a northern setting in the boreal forest (which I appreciate).

Still, there are a few things that annoy us so in the interest of balance (because a blog can always be used to show a rosey picture of things), here are a few things we wish were a little different. For the most part, they are all tied in together.

Prices - Fort McMurray is not a cheap place to live. Everything from groceries, services, receation etc. is pricey. I'm sure Lisa notices this much more than I do since she does much of (okay, all of) the grocery shopping. I've spent a number of years around the north, including the Northwest Territories and more recently, Nunavut, so really, every store I go into I feel like I'm getting a bargain. With a family though, I am a bit more attentive to prices than I used to be.

House Prices - I understand the whole supply and demand thing but prices here are nuts. Average house prices here ($645 000 for a detached house last month) easily give Vancouver a run for its money I'm sure. Really, we paid double the cost of what if would take to rebuild this place from scratch. Some of the places we looked at when we decided to get into the housing market here are pretty trashy and unless you were going to buy one and rent it out, I don't really see why anyone would want to buy it. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of nice places in our immediate area. A house I could have snatched up back around where we grew up is priced in the stratosphere here. Many times as we've been house gazing, we've been tempted to stop the van, knock on a door and ask the owner exactly what they do for a living. Still, houses move fast. There were I believe 7 places on our street for sale when we took possession and now I think there are only 2. If there is a bright side to all this though is that if the price of oil stays where it is, we could buy a very nice retirement home in PEI, where were plan to head one day in the future.

Traffic - Many parts of Fort McMurray were built up in the 1970's and 1980's. The place is growing too fast to keep up with the volume of traffic. People drive a little crazy here at times. Our first trip up to the Thickwood area (where we now live) back last fall, didn't get off to a good start. A fender bender just at the top of the hill coming into Thickwood created a monster traffic snarl, which we then found ourselves in. Since the road we were on was the main artery, we were forced to retreat back across the river. Since Lisa does the bulk of the driving, she finds people get a little crazy here when they get behind the wheel. And I have to agree. I've lost count of the number of inconsiderate drivers we've seen. They give Montrealers a run for their money.

Tim Hortons - There are only 2 in this town. Now one of them is located within walking distance but the line up for the drive-thru is insanely long, often backing out onto the main road.

Vice - I don't know all the stats but from what I gather drugs and trafficking is a bit of an issue here. I know this is not anything any different from any other community of comparable size but given how much money can be made here, the problems will most likely get worse before they get better. We noticed 3 RCMP cruisers outside a pretty nice house in an upscale neighborhood and when I remarked about how I thought it odd to see so many police in this particular part of town, Lisa mentioned it could be drug related. When I responded by saying that anyone in this neighborhood wouldn't need to be involved with drugs if they could afford such a fancy place, she pointed out how it would be a good way (perhaps even a tempting way) to pay a mortgage given the housing market here. Just goes to show you that drugs aren't just a downtown problem here. I can't quote exact numbers but the police have made fighting the drug trade a big priority and have taken on something like 25 extra police to help keep things under control.

Pedestrian friendly - I'm sure some out there would disagree with me on this one but while there are plenty of trails and green areas, there are times when I don't find this place all that pedestrian friendly. The different subdivisions are pretty spread out so you pretty much need a vehicle of some sort.

Other than these few things, we are quite content here and we don't really notice these things. It's kind of like not really noticing a large line up unless of course you happen to be in that large line up.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A New Dawn Rising

I've never written a post about books I've read mostly because I always thought most people wouldn't find them all that interesting. That plus I'm hardly a qualified critic afterall. Much of what I read pertains to history. I just finished a book looking into German life under Nazism in WWII and I've just started a new book examining the role of science during the Third Reich and the Nazi's appreciation of it (or lack thereof). Occassionally I read historical fiction which admittedly I haven't read much of though I did finish up a very interesting book on the Black Death shortly after Christmas.

Anyhow, all of this is to say that the latest book I've come across is not only historical fiction but also has a local connection. A New Dawn Rising is written by local author Patricia Budd. You can visit her website here. Ms. Budd is an English teacher at one of the local high schools here in Fort McMurray and Lisa very thoughtfully picked up a signed copy of her book for me when she visited the Women's Spring Trade Show here recently. What piques my interest about this piece of historical fiction is that it has nothing to do at all with the oil patch as one might expect. Rather, it deals with the issue of slavery and takes place in 19th century Georgia. From what I've gathered from the critiques I've read so far, the author has really done her research and pulls things off wonderfully.

I haven't read it yet (though it is next in the queue right after my book on the Battle of Berlin that intevened after the other 2 WWII books...honest..I know Lisa thinks I read WAY too many books on WWII, but I promise) but I'm very much looking forward to it. Not only is the book by a local author but it also deals with some interesting subject matter given that it deals with slavery in Georgia in the early 19th century, a time and place very far removed from northern Alberta's oil patch. The reviews I've seen are quite favorable so I look forward to delving into this book.

UPDATE - I should also add, since it's come to my attention, another recently published local author. All of 17 and still in high school....the one right around the corner from our house here come to think of it.

I've had it in mind to write a book now for some time so, with any luck, perhaps I'll be able to make this into some sort of Fort Mac triumverate. At any rate, there's some nice talent in this town and its nice to see it out on display.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Out The Window

While we were all pretty disappointed by the amount of rain we got over the long weekend we are seeing results from the deluge in the form of budding trees and flowers. I'm finding the speed of all the change pretty unbelievable at times. Here is a shot from yesterday of the trees in our front yard taken from the master bedroom. I believe they are mountain ash but correct me if I'm wrong.

On another botanically-related note, a kind neighbor did us a huge favour by cutting the front lawn for us this afternoon. Inadvertently, he mowed the little tree we planted out front 3 weeks ago. The poor thing really wasn't much taller than the surrounding grass. But we have plans to head out this weekend and buy some flowers and plants to brighten up our gardens so I'm sure we'll find a suitable replacement.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Do-It-Yourself Gardening

I intended to put up this post about three weeks ago but didn't get around to it so best to post it now even though the front garden is still very much a work in progress.

With the exception of the lights, this pretty much what our front garden looked like when we moved in.

Not very inviting for sure. Lisa and I had some discussion about what to do in order to brighten up the front of the house and soon got to work. The wooden framing was in rough shape from dry rot, plus I stepped on it accidentally one day while making faces through the window at Elijah. Also, it seemed just a bit too small. A bigger flower bed would be more suitable for the large front window and of course give more room for some plants and flowers to brighten things up. Initially, I had hoped to buy some cedar logs to replace the older wood but Lisa but some nice edging that better matched the house. She then enlarged the garden and I lifted off the sod and weeds. I have to say I was impressed we were able to get as much done on it as we did given that we had to work around the daycare schedule.

We were fortunate in that the previous owners had done quite a bit of gardening in the backyard and so we inherited 3 bags of potting soil which I added into the expanded garden. After perhaps two hours-worth of labour, this is how things stood...

We've gotten away from this little project in recent days as we've been busy with a multitude of other things. We do hope to add some flowers (and some much needed colour) soon. It's starting to come along now and its a nice change to the front yard.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Can I See Your

I have to say that after a few years in the arctic tundra where there are only a select hardy species for large parts of the year, experiencing the abundant bird life in the boreal forest of late spring can be both exhilarating and even overwhelming at times. My only regret is that I forgot to bring my camera along with me on my morning walk.

Initially I was planning to head to a green area a short distance from the house where I had been a few times before with promising results. Along the way I deviated off course onto a trail leading down into the valley along the Athabasca. The one thing I am slowly starting to work on is listening to all the different sounds of the birds to help in identifying them. It was a real symphony of sound that greeted my ears. A few times this morning I looked in vain through the heavy brush trying to find the source of the song, only to meet with some frustration, not to mention a sore neck.

All was not lost though as I encountered some familiar species, along with a few new ones. Initially I thought one particular fellow, in among the birch and pine was a Pine Siskin and had it pegged as such after checking my guidebook. Something didn't seem quite right though and after looking at several of these birds I soon realized it was likely a Yellow-Rumped Warbler. The only problem was that it was difficult for me to make out its backside through the branches and the bird in question wasn't very cooperative and hopped about quite a bit before flying off. A little further up the trail I came across a smaller trail spur and ventured into the bush a few dozen yards where I again caught sight of my mystery bird atop a birch tree. Fortune smiled on me and he turned enough so that I got a decent look at its bum. And, so a Yellow-Rumped Warbler it was.

A lady I encountered along the trail informed me there were plenty of these birds along this stretch of the valley as well as Swainson's Thrushes, which I believe I also saw although I'm not entirely sure. The bird in question looked a little different from the picture in my guide. I'm at a loss for what else it could have been though and I don't think I hit upon beginner's luck and discovered an entirely new species.

A couple other species I agonized over but in the end was content with the knowledge that as a novice I'm simply not going to positively identify everything I see right away. I did however see a White-Throated Sparrow, a Magpie, what I believe was a Black-and-White Warbler, a huge flock of Canada geese overhead and a female Downy Woodpecker that allowed me to get within mere feet of it until a stray lab came wandering down the trail and scared it off.

I should also add that if there was a species known as "Some Sort of Sparrow" than I've seen quite a few. I know I encountered a few but after 3 hours my concentration was starting to wane, plus the heat was on the rise and I needed some water. The sparrows here blend into the bush so well that I have a very difficult time distinguishing just what I'm seeing but I see it as a good challenge. So for the meantime, when asked what kind of small bird I saw, I always say "Some Sort of Sparrow".

If you'll indulge me now here are the different species I've come across here in Fort McMurray to date, either at the backyard feeder or in various green areas I've managed to visit thus far.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Green-Winged Teal (Anas crecca)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)
American Coot (Fulica americana)
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica)
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus)
Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) -- possibly
Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) -- possibly
Northern Waterthrush (Seirus noveboracensis) -- possibly
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyenalis)
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Common Grackle (Quisicalus quiscula)

22 definites and 3 possibles...and I always leave a place knowing there is just so much more to see.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quirky Things About Fort McMurray

Our one month anniversary of living here in Fort McMurray passed by uneventfully on May 3. I had intended to do up a post but was sidetracked by a myriad of other issues. There are things we love and things we don't love but of course the former outnumber the latter or else we wouldn't still be here. In lieu of a lenghty post, mostly because Lisa and I have been putting in 12-hour days as of late with the daycare, I thought I'd give you a short list of fun facts about the place we now call home.

-- Fort McMurray is the 2nd biggest city in Newfoundland (though I'm sure Yellowknife could give us a run for the money on this one.)

-- official slogan - "We have the energy!"

-- location - 430km (270 miles) north of Edmonton

-- actually, Fort Mac was only a city from 1980 until 1995, when it was amalagamated with the surrounding municipality. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is the largest in North America and larger than a few European countries.

-- average price for a detached home (March 2010): $645,000

-- average montly rent for a room - $850-$950

-- number of Tim Hortons - 2!

-- number of McDonald's - 3

-- number of Shar Pei's spotted here to date (excluding our own) - 4

-- home to the largest sport and recreation centre in western Canada

-- average amount of time we waited in line for a car wash at one of the city's 2 car washes -- 40 minutes

-- number of pages in the Yellow Pages advertising escort services - 4 (and I only know this because Lisa told me.....honest)

-- most common colour of vehicle you pass on the way to work - white

-- most common colour of vehicle you pass on the way home from work - grey-black

-- in 1913 clearing began for the construction of Fort Mac's major artery, Franklin Avenue, in order to improve motor traffic.....things don't seem to have improved all that much in the past 97 years.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Expanding My Domain

I'm not sure if it's the unpredictable weather or if they are upset that I finally managed to get around to hacking off a few branches from the backyard tree after it was damaged in the last big snow storm of the season, but my usual cadre of backyard visitors seem to be ignoring the feeder at the moment. I've seen next to nothing the past three days.

Fortunately, we are surrounded by a lot of green spaces and so I've gotten into the habit of bringing along my binoculars whenever we head out for a walk. This morning I grabbed them at the last minute before heading off with Lisa and the daycare crew to a park a short distance away.

Fortune smiled on me and I saw a record total of 7 species I was able to identify plus one more I'm not sure of. We saw a Robin, a Black-billed Magpie, a Red-winged blackbird, a Canada Goose, a Mallard duck, a Herring gull, all very common around here this time of year. New to my list, I can add a Common Golden Eye and a Grackle. I've seen plenty of grackles in the past but this was my first Alberta sighting and I probably would have missed it entirely if not for the binoculars as it was mixed in with the red-winged black birds. The species that got away was flying around overhead and I wasn't able to get a decent enough look to be able to identify it with confidence. I suspect it could have been a flycatcher of some sort but I'm really just grasping at straws here.

At any rate I've found some really nice places to explore as the spring migration kicks in and have plans to head out with Lisa and the kids to check out the small ponds we discovered today more thoroughly in the next few days.

One of the many robins that frequent our front trees here right out the master bedroom window.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shot Along The Trail

We are very fortunate to have such a fantastic wilderness area so close our house here. Walking, running, skiing, bird-watching or what have's a nice place to lose yourself for a few hours.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mighty Machines

A local radio station we frequently listen to on our drives advertises itself using a number of different catch-lines. One of our favourites goes something like this -"Fort Murray....home to half-million-dollar trailers.....and 103.7 FM." Another one mentions about how some of the trucks up here working at the various oil sands projects are "as big as a two-storey house." We didn't see trucks like this the day that these pictures were taken but we did we some other pretty impressive machines.

These two gargantuans were so massive I couldn't even fit them all in my camera frame without standing in the middle of a highway...which of course is not advisable with all those two-storey trucks driving around.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Backyard Visitor

A new visitor arrived at our backyard feeder today. So we've seen two new species in the past two days. Sort of anyway, I've seen Bohemian Waxwings before but yesterday's was the first one I'd seen in who knows how long. Anyhow, the pictures leave a little (okay, a lot) to be desired. I managed to get a few shots from our kitchen window over the course of the day. What caught our attention was the distinctive black and white striped head with a touch of yellow near the eyes. The wings resembled a sparrow's. We had quite the debate about what type of bird it might be and a search through my guide book made made me think it was some sort of warbler. Still, its sparrow-like wings had me puzzled. Truth be told, to my novice eye, it looked like a sparrow, a slate-coloured junco and some other strange bird with a striped head had got melded together and formed some sort of love-child.

In the end, our mystery visitor turned out to be a White-throated Sparrow. (Thanks again, Clare.) So the warbler guess was way off but my one guide book noted that these particular sparrows can be rare visitors to this area so that has to count for something.

Here are our new visitors. Again, not the best of shots but I'll work on it.

And, because they reward us daily with an appearance, here is one of the many juncos we've seen here.

On The Trail

A lazy Friday afternoon and half decent weather gave us a good excuse to take another walk on the nearby Birchwood trail. This time I went armed with a trail map so we had a much easier time navigating the myriad trails. I also remembered (finally) to take my binoculars along. I'm quite glad I did as I used them to catch a decent view of a Bohemian Waxwing (my first of the season) atop a very tall spruce tree that I otherwise would have missed.

Tamara and Nicholas look down into the creek valley from the top of a ridge.

Every place with dead fall, moss or a puddle needed to be thoroughly explored.

The trails were mercifully much drier than last time we went though there was still the odd patch of snow either trail side or along the creek bed. This was the kids first time seeing snow this late in the season.

Not only were there many robins, herring gulls and magpies to be seen during our walk but also some more non-winged creatures as well. Just as I was cresting a hill, I noticed some movement a few yards ahead. My initial impression was that two large white dogs had slipped their leashes and were running erratically down the trail. Both creatures dashed into the bush and as they did so I noticed that were not dogs at all but a couple of white-tail deer which Tamara was also able to see before they disappeared. A picture of their tracks was all I managed to get with the camera as Nicholas and Tamara took a closer look.

Robins vs. Juncos

After living here for just over a month, I finally got around to getting a bird feeder up in the tree by our deck. I had to get a brand new one as the one we had down in Janvier had been chewed to death by squirrels. We actually love the smaller squirrels we get out here, just not in the feeder. Elijah gets a kick out of watching them scurry along the top of the back fence and points and giggles every time. I picked up a decent squirrel-proof one that blended in well, filled it up and then sat back with the binoculars peering out the kitchen window to see who would show up.

We have been getting quite a few robins and dark-eyed juncos in our backyard as of late so I was curious to see which one would be the first species to discover the new food source. While quite a few robins had flown by this morning, I had my money on the juncos.

Sure enough, the juncos beat out the robins, and did me a favor by eating some of the seed I had spilled on the deck and under the tree. Our current camera doesn't quite have the zoom to take decent bird pictures but I was able to observe one particular fellow for a good 10-minutes before he flew off.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


It's difficult to write about Fort McMurray without a mention of the oil sands thrown in there somewhere.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Trent William Angus Campbell

I've been a little slow on the ball lately so I'd like to make up for my tardiness in introducing readers to the newest addition to my extended family. Meet Trent Willam Angus Campbell, born April 16, 7:55am, 9 pounds, 10 ounces, 22.5 inches long. Congrats sis!

Crane Lake

Here are just a few more pictures from last weekend's visit up to Crane Lake.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Let Me Plant You

Early last week Tamara brought home a small plantling from school. I was tied up with substituting so I didn't have an chance to find a new home for the little guy until this past weekend. I chose a spot about half way down the front yard and away from the existing root systems of the other trees and dug our newest addition a new home. With the exception of a large pine tree at our next door neighbour's our street is hurting for nice large trees so we are happy to have this one and look forward to seeing it grow as our family grows here.

Tamara and Nicholas show off the new addition to our front yard along with a neighbourhood friend.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Busy Saturday

Yesterday we took advantage of the warmer weather and the fact that we only had one child in the daycare to get out and about and explore the area. We were up early anyway since Lisa wanted to hit a couple yard sales to pick up some toys for the daycare. I have to say she is a fantastic bargain shopper and I was especially impressed that we were able to fit everything she picked up into the van, along with 4 kids and 2 adults.

Once we got everything back to the house, we were soon off to the rec. centre where we took in the Fort McMurray trade show. The place was absolutely packed. We arrived about an hour after the event kicked off and we found ourselves in overflow parking. The place was packed, maneuvering a double stroller through the narrow openings between displays was an irritant at times, the kids were rambunctious and even I was a little cranky but it was still a productive time. We entered a number of draws, picked up information on various events and saw a bathroom tub to die for.

After leaving the trade show, we headed up the highway for an afternoon drive. Lisa and I had heard about a lookout point where you could see bison. We had trouble finding it the first time as the signage was poor but this time we had a rough of idea of where to look. We came across a place we thought was the lookout point but which turned out to be one of those nice little gems you discover by accident.

The Crane Lake Reclamation Area was created by Suncor in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and has been slowly added to over time.

Crane Lake itself was a quiet little place full of birds and frogs, cat tails and pussy willows....and on this particular day we had the spot all to ourselves.

The bird blind was a nice find and I plan to bring my binoculars along next time we head up there. Still, we were able to identify mallards, ruddy ducks, buffleheads and American coots.

Looking up, we spotted an unexpected perihelion over our heads.

I took the kids down along the shoreline in hopes of spotting something in amongst the reeds but no dice. Tamara had spotted a giant bird feeder off in the distance and I think I was pointing out a couple of other feeders to the kids here in this picture. While we would have loved to have walked the path around the lake, the ground didn't look that friendly for pushing a double stroller so after a few more minutes we headed back to the van with plans for a return visit.

A short distance from the Syncrude plant we found the bison lookout we had been searching for. They were way off in the distance on this particular day but the kids were quite fascinated since I don't think they had ever seen bison before.