Thursday, December 29, 2011


If you're privy to my Facebook you probably know that things are different here now. Without going into a plethora of detail, Lisa and the kids are now back in Ontario shortly and I continue to stay here in Fort McMurray. Sometimes life just doesn't head in the direction you hope and this is one of those situations. At the end of it all, I love my son dearly and take comfort in knowing that he will be well provided for.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Na Shledanou Mr. Havel

Growing up as a bit of political junkie as well as one of those "artsy types" the name of Vaclav Havel was one I was familiar with. It wasn't really until I visited Prague a few years ago that I think I appreciated his significance. It was hard to imagine walking down Wenceslas Square, as sunny and peaceful as I remember it on that July afternoon and realize that it wasn't that long ago that it was full of tanks and police. How times have changed and Havel can take a sizable chunk of the credit for it.

One of the places I visited in Wenceslas Square was a former police headquarters where Havel was held on I'm sure more than a few occasions. It is now a museum. Coming from our Canadian democracy and seeing this was quite the eye opener. It made me realize the depth of the love and conviction this man held for his people that he would challenge authority and wind up in a cell like the one I saw that day. And this was just the mocked up version for tourists so I can only imagine what it would have been like in its original state. Things sure have changed in the meantime. Today, this former police station is flanked by a McDonald's and a small casino (or at least it was when I was there.) Difficult to imagine.

Sadly I didn't pick up any of his plays when I was there. (I did pick up a very interesting satire on the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the anarchist writer Jarolsav Hasek.) I now really wish I had but with luck I will be able to remedy this lapse.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had politicians in this country who didn't just run their mouths but backed up their words with action?

The National Gallery in Wenceslas Square with a statue of King Charles in front.

Wenceslas Square (summer 2007)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chiquita Goes Bananas

According to media reports, banana producer Chiquita is looking to ban fuel sources derived from the Oil Sands. This comes from a company responsible for human rights abuses in Central America, crushing unions and the infamous Banana Massacre. Backed by the United States, Chiquita was complicit in the deaths of perhaps 2000 people. (This is actually where the term "Banana Republic" originated.) And yet, this fruit company is trying to take the high road by jumping on the environmental bandwagon. Apparently, it is more ethical for Chiquita to fulfill its oil needs by purchasing from such democratic bastions as Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, they don't have unionized workers, they just shoot you. This is also where they flog women like animals and back international terrorism among other such progressive and ethical practices. And God help you if you happen to be homosexual.

I get tired of the Oil Sands here becoming the global scape goat for all the evils of the world. The economic benefits span well beyond the borders of this province and indeed the country. I work with a few guys that came here to work because of the freedoms and choices we have, freedoms and choices that don't exist in other countries but where Chiquita apparently feels it is ok to take their business. Our GHG emissions are minimal compared to countries like the US and China and even the EU. I see that the PM and a few Alberta politicians have added their voices to this silly myopic decision. (NDP feel free to chime in any time. This is a union town after all and union jobs are on the line.)

Don't point fingers Chiquita. Don't demonize us. You have no right to the moral high road here. You fund designated terrorist organizations. Please. Don't lecture us. This action is nothing other than blatant hypocrisy.

Contact Chiquita here and tell them what you think.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ah, The Life Of A Contractor

I tried sitting down once and thinking about all the different contractors that work out at site. I know, I know.....but it was a long ride home that particular day. Anyhow, the number of companies I came up with off the top of my head grew until I couldn't keep track of them all in my head. My employer is but one of at least a handful other companies that deals with scaffolding out at site. I heard something like 1000 companies bid on all the contracts that are available at all the different projects.

As pertains to my work, our current contract was due to expire at year's end and unfortunately the men in suits in ivory towers down in Calgary have spoken. A competing bid was successful which means we will be relinquishing our yard in the new year. Such is the life of a contractor. Don't worry though, I won't be finished up tomorrow as there is a transition period of 120 days so I have plenty of time to get my resume out there. Likely, many of the guys will go "into the field" as apprentice scaffolders, something I've given some thought to over the past year. Some will likely get taken in by the new contractor or stay with the company and head to other projects. So there are plenty of options. This IS Fort McMurray after all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Body Parts"

I'll chalk this one up to not partaking in my morning coffee ritual before catching my bus to work.

More and more often at work I find myself with a radio attached to me. Initially I wasn't too fond of it namely because it drives me crazy to hear how my voice sounds over the radio if I'm standing close to say one of the other foreman or one of our truck drivers and hear my voice coming from their radio. Over time though, I've learned to grin and bear it and I take my being given a radio as a sign that I'm an important cog in determining how the yard gets run and that my input may be somewhat useful. Now, I don't mind the radio chatter and find it breaks up the monotony of a slow day and the nosey old lady part of my (yes, I know that is a scary thought) often finds myself tuning in to radio conversations I hear between other contractors as I go about the course of my day.

The easiest way to catch radio chatter is on the bus on my ride in. I usually sit fairly close to the front so I can catch what's being said on the radio. I find this helpful to find out what's going on if traffic is hectic or the weather is being temperamental. Anyhow, this morning I caught something on the radio that at first I thought was my imagination running amok. It was 5:30am after all. But hearing a few gasps from other passengers around me made me realize that this wasn't a dream.

Now, I didn't clearly hear all of what the dispatcher said. But I recall hearing something about slow traffic on the highway, a few garbled words about a particular location and then the phrase "body parts along the side of the road." The lady was quick to add "no, not human body parts" much to our collective relief. I perked up though for a few minutes and scanned the ditches through the morning darkness. Seeing nothing, I quickly dozed off. When I woke and got off at my stop I imagined the whole episode had been part of some strange psychotic dream (such things will happen more often as I get older some people jokingly tell me.) But no I heard mention of it from a couple passengers as they disembarked as well. So I'm sure it wasn't some sort of weird collective experience.

Now, I've had some strange things happen to me on the bus. I've missed my stop, got off at the wrong stop and once ended up getting on the wrong bus entirely and ending up at Albian Sands which is about as far north as you can travel before hitting the winter road to Fort Chipewyan. THIS little gem though had me chuckling to myself all day and will be difficult to top.

(view from Super Test Hill, southbound Highway 63, roughly 25km north of Fort McMurray, Feb. 2010)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

There has a been many a time the past year where I've sat down to try to do an overview of what Fort McMurray has to offer its residents and visitors. Like Icarus, ascending toward the sun, I come crashing down every time. In the two years I've been here I've seen a great deal but yet I know I've only scratched the surface. I am always hearing and discovering new things.

Enter local writer and fellow blogger, Theresa Wells of Fort McMurray Musings. In response to some recent bad press out of Edmonton about our city, she wrote this fantastic article for a popular Edmonton website to help set the record straight.

Not only does it combat some rather myopic views about Fort McMurray it is also a great read and nicely showcases all the wonderful things about our home here. Perhaps the one thing I can add is that we are home to an amazing Junior A hockey team. The Fort McMurray Oil Barons seem to put an entertaining and competitive team together year after year. In their 30 years history they've racked up some impressive stats with very few sub .500 seasons. In 2000 they won the RBC Cup right here on home ice. At the moment they sit second in the league with a record of 26-3-0-3 and the lowest "goals against average" in the league. Many times last year I remarked how I'd much rather stay here and catch an Oil Barons game then venture 5 hours down the highway to waste money on an Edmonton Oilers game. Ah, the love of the game...

But I digress.

I first came through Fort McMurray back in 2002. Back then this was just a jumping off point for getting to the small town I was working in at the time in Northern Saskatchewan. I never guessed I would buy my first home here and set down roots. Looking back, this place has changed so much. MacDonald Island then was a mere shadow of what it has since become in the intervening decade. This was the most obvious change I noticed when I think back to then but I've discovered plenty of other hidden gems as well. To be honest, I think that I moved here at a very exciting time. There is just so much going on as Theresa's article mentions and the city is evolving in so many exciting ways.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Attawapiskat...Too Familiar, Too Close To Home

Unless you've been living under a rock recently you've no doubt become aware of the plight of the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. Aside from the fact that Ontario is my home province, this hits home with me in many ways. Not only because I can't imagine my 8-month-old son living in this type of situation but also because I witnessed living conditions similar to those of Attawapiskat in some of the places I worked over the past decade. I count myself lucky though because in the end, I have the choice to leave for somewhere else. I get a choice. There are kids there that do not. I had a choice to leave a community after being under a "boil water" advisory for close to a year. The kids there do not. I had the luxury of a 3-bedroom school board-owned house where I could squirrel away and listen to Bach and Mozart to my heart's content. Very few, if any kids there, had that option.

I found it interesting initially to see kids' reactions when they would stop by for a visit. I recall one boy remarking about what a big, clean house I had. At the time I found it puzzling. The house I was staying in wasn't anything special. It hardly seemed a palace. Clearly, they hadn't noticed the small mountain of laundry on the floor in one the two other empty bedrooms or the dust on the counter tops in the kitchen. I'm reasonably tidy but I can get lazy at times. (Later that fall I started getting annoyed because the tap in the bathroom sink wouldn't stop leaking and the sound kept me up at night. Now, I think about how fortunate I was to have running water.) I wondered for quite some time what would prompt someone to think I lived in a palace. And then during report card time I visited a few of the students' homes....and got the shock of my life. I won't go into all the details of what I saw but I will say, I said many times in later years, that I felt as if I had been transported to a third-world country. But I had a choice, kids didn't.

When I was a kid, I always thought it was neat when my grandparents or other elderly people talked about "the old days" and how they would boil snow to make tea or coffee. I never thought I'd have to do this....until I arrived in one community which was under a "boil water" advisory for pretty much the entire time I was there. Boiling water in a pot on my stove worked up to a point. After a few days I began noticing a rather disgusting yellow ring of crust at the top of the big pot I used. That was the day I made coffee for the first time using snow behind my house for water. At the time, it was more of an experiment to see if I could do it and filter out all the seeds, bark and dirt that might be in that snow (I did a pretty good job) and I also figured it would be a great story to tell the kids one day. Turns out that it takes a lot of snow to get a single pot of water and I quickly soured to this chore as it was rather more labour intensive than I figured. But in the end I was only making coffee. I didn't have to rely on my backyard snow for more important things like, say, basic hygiene needs. In the end, I had a choice. I didn't HAVE to live those conditions if I chose not to. Kids there didn't have that choice.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with all this, or at least that is my hope. Before people start bashing government, or Aboriginal people or start seeing this issue as solely one of dollar signs and poor fiscal management (and I"m not saying this isn't), could we remember that there are vulnerable CANADIANS here that don't have any other choice but to live under conditions such as what I've described. (I'm sure what I did see was only a very small snap shot of the bigger picture.) If you think that the average Aboriginal person is laughing at you while they spend tax money to fund a lavish lifestyle I can disavow you of this notion. Clearly they are not living in the lap of luxury. From my own experience, communities like Attawapiskat are, sadly, not a place you want to be.

I'm sure I could write a small tome here based solely on my own experiences. Perhaps there might be a blog post for that sometime in the future. For now, I truly wish all the nay sayers, bigots, racists, red necks and other such ilk would get off their high horse. There are a lot of kids in this community who don't have a a choice. Can we not put aside our myopic thinking for a few minutes and realize that these vulnerable citizens are CANADIANS and that they deserve compassion and assistance? And while I'm at it, will politicians off all political stripes close their mouths, work together on this issue and stop using this situation to score cheap photo ops and political points?

Then, we might begin to start to accomplish something. A lot of kids in one small northern community are counting on us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Apparently There's A Sign For That

In our industry there are a number of different hand signs used by scaffolders for all the different materials. I'm not sure off the top of my head how many different scaffolding parts we have but it is a pretty big list. I got chatting with one of the other foreman this morning and he went through all the signals with me. We don't really have much use for them in the yard but its something you need to know if you're out "in the field" obviously. Anyhow, I've always been fascinated with different languages and always saw these signals and just another form of communication. I've come to know a few of them but was interested to know more.

So the foreman ran through them quickly and I was pretty pleased with how quickly I picked them up if I do say so myself. (I DO have a pretty good memory for certain things, though I know that perhaps Lisa might dispute this.) The hand signals were all good practical information, including one that I think might be VERY practical should you find yourself atop a scaffold in a certain situation. Yes, there is even a hand signal to show that you have to go pee! Seriously. Who knew?

Presumably the same signal you would use for a "number 1" can also be used for a "number 2".

Random photo of the day. Historical church in Fort McMurray's heritage park, one of my favorite buildings down there.

Friday, November 25, 2011

There's More Than Bitumen In Them Thar Hills!

Back during the last ice age the land on which the city of Fort McMurray sits lay under a vast inland sea penned up by ice. As the ice sheet melted and receded the lake drained away, helping to form the Athabasca River valley we see today. (It was this glacial action that was responsible for the creation of the oil sands.) The retreating ice scoured the land north of the city and its action helps explain why north of the city the oil sands are located much closer to the surface than they are to the south of us. Anyhow, as retreating ice left not just bitumen-soaked sand lying around but also the remains of creatures that once roamed the planet so many millions of years ago. Occasionally, some fossil remains turn up as happened recently out at Syncrude...a plesiosaur in this case. (We can't give Drumheller all the credit for Alberta's dino discoveries.)

This is the second major discovery I've heard of this year, the first being back in the Spring at Suncor. Fortunately for the archaeologists called in to examine finds such as these, we have plenty of big shovels and trucks to pitch in and lend a hand. Maybe its just me, but I think it would be really interesting to have our very own dinosaur museum here to showcase all the unique and interesting finds that have been dug up here in recent years.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Not A One Horse Town!

Its pretty rare I step into the realm of advocacy as I'm not one who likes to rock the boat. I'm a poor swimmer anyhow. But reading a recent post from a fellow blogger at Fort McMurray Musings hit my frustration button. Theresa does a fantastic job at highlighting all the great things going on in our community and is a wonderful writer to boot. I've done my fair share of traveling around this great country, from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island, from Point Pelee way up to Resolute Bay, Nunavut. While I may have grown up in southern Ontario, I now find myself in Fort McMurray and proudly call it home.

I wish Ms. Murphy, writer of the SUN News article in question, would get out of her bubble and see the bigger world. Many of things you think you know about a place very often turn out to be wrong. (Of course, this is SUN News we're talking about here so I may just be engaging in wishful thinking and wasting my breath.) I've lost track of how many ill-informed and just plain ignorant comments I heard about Nunavut when I lived there. Nunavut isn't some barren wasteland. PEI isn't about potatoes and Anne of Green Gables, Saskatchewan isn't endless fields, Vancouver isn't the sole refuge of long-haired hippie protesters. Heck, even Toronto grew on me after awhile. Fort McMurray isn't all about "hookers and blow" and the flavour of her article suggests. We are definitely NOT a one horse town.

Now I did some searching a managed to locate an online version of the news item which can be foundhere. I realize the article has to do with financial matter but to simply thrown in statements about life here with no one to rebut them, she simply adds to old preconceptions. Perhaps Ms. Murphy is unaware, uninformed or simply has never paid our fair town a visit. Regardless of the reason, I found it necessary to fire off an email giving her my two cents. You can find my response to her article below.

Dear Ms. Murphy,

As a resident of Fort McMurray I am writing to express my disappointment and disgust with the focus of your recent article on Fort McMurray. While any growing urban centre has its issues I feel that focusing solely on problems and not counter-balancing this with the many positive things about our community only serves to reinforce prevailing negative stereotypes.

Contrary to what Mr. McGuire [a man interviewed in Murphy's article] states, the vast majority of Fort McMurrayites are not wandering around Franklin Avenue with "a ton of disposable income" and "little else to do." I myself bought a house and moved here with my family of 4 kids. I suspect there are many other families here as well. I can assure you there is PLENTY to do here. Those who complain there isn't simply aren't looking hard enough. We have the largest rec. facility in Western Canada, if not the country. We have an outstanding Junior Hockey Team in the midst of a stellar season. We have nature trails in spades, nearby Gregoire Lake Provincial Park, and many outdoor pursuits I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of. We have theatre events, concerts, a fantastic public college, a brand new middle school and high school that are a tech-lovers dream, tons of free events during the summer, community groups and clubs to suit all tastes and passions (apparently, there is even a scuba diving cub in town.)

And did I mention last summers KISS concert, and last season's first ever outdoor AJHL game which set an attendance record? I could go on. Writing an article, the simple gist of which being that people here have only "hookers and blow" to occupy their time is simply not accurate. On behalf of the many Fort McMurrayites who make this community our home, we invite you to come visit us to get a fuller picture of all this community has to offer. The idea that Fort McMurray is a one horse town is a ridiculous and facile stereotype. We who live here know best.


Darcy Steele,

A Proud McMurrayite and Albertan.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scaffold Tree

Why buy a tree when you can build one? This Christmasy creation greeted me as I left work today. I was put together by one of my foreman using materials from our yard. With the exception of the lights, it's made of nothing more than a standard, and a bunch of ledgers and collars. The photo isn't mine. A co-worker beat me to it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Apologies To Harry Potter Fans

No, I haven't read any of the books in the Harry Potter series though my nephew has. The series has been around almost as long as he has. I know he read quite a few of the books though he didn't develop the obsession with them I remember seeing on the part of some young fans. I've always enjoyed a good read myself and through pure luck stumbled onto a few good books over this past summer by a certain Welsh author. I think I can relate somewhat to the excitement of a Harry Potter fan back in the day because while I used to think they were half nuts I have to admit I can't wait for the sequels for the books I have been reading to come out over the next few years.

I started out this past summer reading Ken Follett's novel "Fall of Giants", the first of a planned trilogy. As I said, it was a complete fluke I discovered this book. One afternoon back in the summer at the end of a work day, a summer student was reading a book as we waited to sign out from work and I happened to notice the date "1918" at the top of a page. I said something along the lines of "You must be reading something about the Great War." Anyhow, as a history buff, I found her subsequent synopsis of the novel, "Fall of Giants" piqued my interest so on my days off I headed down to the mall and picked up a copy.

Ken Follett was an author I had never heard of until then. But since I mostly stick with real history rather than historical fiction, I wasn't all that surprised. Glancing around on the shelf, my eye fell on two more titles "Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End." Reading the back cover, I saw that they involved Medieval history, something I didn't spend much time studying at university but which I've grown more interested in in recent years, especially aspects such as architecture, church history and the guild system. I think I appreciate the history of guilds a little more since I am now currently eligible to go into the field as a second year apprentice scaffolder. The journeyman-apprentice relationship is touched upon and both "Pillars" and "World Without End" describe scaffolding in early construction. Talk about art imitating life. Anyhow, I picked up a copy of "Fall of Giants" first, read it, and then returned a short while later to purchase "Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End".

I won't pretend to be a literary critic here. Follett has a very straight forward writing style. There isn't a lot a grand description or long, flowing sentences. More like an epic narrative along the lines of The Lord of The Ring trilogy. There isn't much character development. Good characters are good and bad characters stay bad and get their just reward at the end. On the surface, this doesn't sound all that interesting yet I find it a good read. My guess is that since I've read so much history from the eras the books portray that my brain just fills in the details and and compare what I read in the book to others I've read. My mind is engaged in imagining life in an everyday English town in the 14th century (I just recently started "World Without End") rather than focusing on the actual writing style itself. Anyhow, the book is proving to be a wonderful companion on my commutes to and from work. I know my some of my history professors might shoot me for saying this but I think Follett, while he has several strong female characters, gives them more power than they probably would have had at the time. For a self-professed atheist, though I find he does an admirable and fair job at portraying the everyday workings of a medieval priory and the thought processes of the people involved.

So having said all this I am now trying to finish off "World Without End" so that I will be ready to tackle Book 2 of Follett's Century trilogy when it comes out next year. Apparently, once this trilogy is completed, a follow up to "World Without End" is due out sometime in 2014 I believe. So while I'm not about to dress up like a wizard or wear a funny set of glasses and line up at the wee hours of the morning in front of Cole's Books down at Peter Pond Mall (what a scary sight that would be), I do find myself fidgeting with anticipation for these next books to come hot off the presses.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Fort McMurray!

Normally I wouldn't do this but a few on-line discussions had me thinking this morning about the "Occupy" movement and its distinct lack of presence here in Fort McMurray. I have no idea why this is so. After all, this community is seen by viewed by some elements as the "dirty oil" capital of Canada, an environmentalist's version of Satan incarnate if you will. What better way to voice your objections to the oil industry than by venturing up Highway 63 on a "holier-than-thou-because-I-am-a-university-educated-urbanite" pilgrimage into the belly of the beast?

Ah, but where to hold said protest? Fort McMurray isn't a huge place by American, or even Canadian, standards but it is fairly spread out geographically. After a great deal of pontification and some consultations with the great tree goddess, it suddenly came to me. Forget downtown (see reason 4 below) or even uppity Timberlea. What better place to pitch a tent and hold a protest than in my little corner of Thickwood?! Need some reasons? Awesome! Thanks for asking. I have plenty.

1. Thickwood overpass - The recently completed Thickwood overpass will get you to your tent right quick. No more stopping at the set of lights at the bottom of the hill. Did I mention it opened ahead of schedule? See! It's like we've been expecting you.

2. Tim Horton's - We only have 2 Timmies and one of them is right here in Thickwood! Better yet, the drive-thru was recently expanded into 2 lanes. No more long lines stretching out of the parking lot and down Thickwood Boulevard. For those who prefer Starbucks instead, look no further than the Safeway on Signal Road right around the corner.

3. Birchwood Trail - For those needing a daily nature fix, the Birchwood Trail system is within easy walking distance and highly recommended. Tree-hugging fetishists could spend a lifetime there.

4. Less traffic congestion - Franklin Avenue downtown can be a traffic nightmare at times, particularly during shift change.

5. Casman Centre - Thickwood is home to the Casman Centre where our AJHL hockey team plays. The Oil Barons are having a fantastic season and tickets are quite reasonable so if you need a break head here. You can even network among visiting fans and spread your message across Alberta. Calgary (home base for many oil companies) has 2 AJHL teams. You can double your audience right there. Incidentally, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons are locally known as the MOB. Think about it - your mob meets the MOB!

6. Easy access to MacDonald Island, Fort McMurray's Island Playground! - Take the 1A from Thickwood to city hall and hop the #9 bus from there.

7. Lots of Parks and Green spaces - Hellen Pacholko Park is just down the road from The Dollar Store for your shopping convenience.

And finally...sick of hearing all those one-percenters berate you to "get a job"......we have plenty of employment opportunities here!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mr Johnston

Back when I was taking my history degree at the University of Windsor I took a course covering the Second World War. A large part of the mark for the course involved writing an essay based on the experiences of a local veteran. Now I've heard it said you learn and appreciate history more when you see it through the eyes of someone who was there and lived it. I still have no reason to question this maxim. As a result of this assignment I met a most remarkable man - Mr. Johnston.

One pleasant fall afternoon I found myself on the doorstep of his home in the east end of Windsor. He invited me in and I learned and grasped more about the experience of war than I could have from reading any textbook...and I've read countless texts on all sorts of topics and sub-topics surrounding WWII over the years. At the time I was serving in a local reserve regiment. Obviously my experience were a complete joke compared with what he went through. But I found that he treated me like a fellow soldier and I greatly respected him for that. While he had slowed down somewhat with age (he was well into his 80's at the time) you could sense from his manner that back in his prime he was a real man's man. I'm sure he would have given some of my old training sergeants a run for their money.

Mr. Johnston spoke of the need for service, for standing up for what you believed in, for doing the right thing even if it may not seem popular today. He participated in the ill-fated Battle of Dunkirk (where he was wounded), fought in Italy (where he was again wounded) and the latter part of the war found him in Europe. All told, the man was wounded 4 TIMES and yet he wasn't about to let "a few scratches" as he called them stop him from what he felt needed to be done.

Sure I did well on the assignment but I haven't a clue what I wrote. I can't recite a single sentence I committed to paper. But I totally remember Mr. Johnston. My biggest regret is that I didn't keep in contact with him. But I carry fond memories of a feisty, determined and well-spoken man (to say nothing of his sacrifice and bravery) with me to this day. He embodied many qualities I feel are sadly lacking within my own generation but which were commonplace then. Thank you for your life lessons, Mr. Johnston. I will carry them with me always.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Super Fail

So the snow I blogged about in my previous post materialized over night....with some pretty crazy consequences. It wasn't very much snow, hardly anything to get excited over, though it did cause a traffic nightmare this morning on the way to work for a lot of people. I'm sure there are many people tonight thinking, "How the heck could the city have been so unprepared?!"

My first hint of what was to come came as my bus pulled up this morning and I saw the back tires skid a little on the road.   Rather than heading down the hill from Thickwood, my bus headed over to Timberlea as it had done the day before.  There is a bus-only lane there which allows us to hit the highway much quicker.  Everything seemed fine and dandy and I dozed off.  When I awoke awhile later we were parked in solid traffic somewhere on 63 and my phone told me it was 7:30am.   Initially I thought I had perhaps caught the wrong bus. It's happened before. But no, that wasn't the case.

Road and weather conditions conspired to turn the highway into an icy mess. Super Test was down to a single lane and then closed off. It was simply too dangerous for the bus company to send its buses down this big hill. There must have been a good dozen vehicles in the ditch at the bottom. Both north- and south-bound traffic was stopped until the situation improved. I had doubts about whether we'd make it up the 8% grade but thankfully we made managed. We ended up being pretty lucky as I caught word that another bus had been rear-ended by a pick-up at Suncor's base plant. Passengers were transferred to another bus which then later side-swiped or grazed a concrete divider. I only know of this because a couple guys I work with happened to be on that bus. In any event, no one was hurt but I'm sure it was quite the little experience. My foreman drove in this morning in a company truck. Leaving Timberlea at 5:10am, he got into work at 10am.

As for my bus, I got on around 5:40am this morning and clocked in at 9:23am. There were only three others that made it in ahead of me and work didn't commence until almost 11am, after we finished clearing the snow from the yard. Hopefully tomorrow's commute will much less of an ordeal. At any rate, I'm glad I decided to pack a really big book.

Monday, November 7, 2011

We Know It's Coming

I don't recall the date of our first measurable snow fall last year but it seems to me we are a little late this year. I'm fairly certain we had at least something on the ground, if only temporarily, by Hallowe'en last year. So far it looks like we have lucked out (or lucked in) at its looks like every other place I've lived in over the past few years has had at least some snowfall by now. Weather here can be as unpredictable as in any other place as I was reminded when looking through some photos from shortly after we bought our place here....

March 2010...The snow had completely melted.

In early April, we got a rather unexpected deluge of snow. If you look carefully you should be able to make out our neighbor's pine tree. The poor thing got clobbered beyond recovery.

Our poor backyard tree went from this..... this....

I honestly thought the thing was done for. It obviously had 9 lives though. Following a little minor surgery on a few branches it bounced back just fine.

This was our street in the aftermath.

Snow is predicted in the next few days. Time to wait and watch....and perhaps dust off the shovel.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Imperial Woodpecker

Here in Alberta we have 9 species of woodpecker (excluding the Red-Headed Woodpecker which is a vagrant) and of these I've seen all seven of the species one can normally expect to see in our part of the province. So the woodpecker is the first species that I can say I've seen all the ones that can be found in our location. I'm not sure how many song birds there are off the top of my head but I know I haven't even come close to seeing them all, which is just fine with me because every time I head out doors it is with an expectation that I stand a chance of seeing something I haven't seen before which is of course one of the reasons I find birding so enticing. Initially, I figured I would have more birds of prey or water fowl checked off my list (because there is no shortage of places to see them). I didn't imagine woodpeckers would be the first species I'd have all checked off first.

They actually aren't my favorite type but I do see them almost every time I go birding. Other than the Common Raven and the Black-billed magpie I'd say they are the most ubiquitous of bird species here. (For the record, my favorite bird is easily the Bohemian Waxwing.) Why exactly this is, I don't know. I find them hard to photograph (unless I can sneak up to a window while they are preoccupied with feeding in our front yard trees and I find them difficult to photograph). We do have them back where I grew up in Ontario but I don't recall seeing them all that much. I think its just their unique look and colouration that attracts me. They are handsome little devils at any rate.

So back to woodpeckers. I've grown increasingly fascinated with all the different types of woodpeckers we have here over the past few months. Goodness know my photography skills aren't the greatest. I actually think the woodpeckers realize this because, while it can be difficult to get a decent shot of their dark shape hidden in dense forest, they are pretty mellow creatures (quite unlike the Waxwing) so more often than not I can approach them fairly easily for a good viewing. Now, whether I walk away with a half-decent photo is another matter entirely.

Anyhow, all this is to say that I came across a little video of the Imperial Woodpecker, now thought to be extinct, that piqued my interest the other day. Its an old video as the accompanying article explains and is brought to you courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is responsible for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which by the way I also highly recommend.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

...And For His Next Trick...Factoring Quadratic Equations

I find myself really missing our camera tonight. It went MIA awhile ago and I really wish I had it on me tonight. I really need a photo for the blog to back up my unbelieving eyes. Gabriel is going bipedal now. Yes, he's actually walking. I thought Elijah was early. We progressed from "commando crawling" to standing up within a very short span of time. Gabriel turns 7 months old this Sunday and he's already up and on the move. (Is this normal?) We are still trying to wrap our heads around it. If you're privy to our Facebook pages you can go and take a look for yourself. If not, you'll just have to take our good word for it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fortis In Arduis

Today is a day we would love to tear off the calendar and pass over in many ways, skip over, have over or change events. Unfortunately such powers do not exist. The day casts a long shadow. I've been thinking about this post for quite some time now, trying to stay on top of my feelings and trying to figure out what to say. This morning I will get up and head off to work and Lisa will tend to the children. But it won't be a normal day. Today marks the day that Lisa lost her little Wyatt, a sad day that I've talked about before. It's just plain difficult. Lisa miscarried before we met and became engaged. Finding the right words isn't easy. I can only imagine what goes through her head. Lisa really truly is the rock of our family. Goodness knows, she's supported me through some very difficult times.

If Wyatt had survived he would have turned 4 today. I really don't know how she does it. I honestly and truly don't.  Elijah will be 3 next month.  The boys would have been so close in age.  So much so that, really, if  Wyatt had lived there would very likely be no Elijah.  It's not something I like to spend a great deal of time ruminating about understandably.

Life is a funny thing. It is fragile, painful. Sometimes it just doesn't seem fair. It is full of challenges, obstacles....hope. I wouldn't really count myself as an overly religious man. Spiritual might be the better word for it. But I do believe he is in a better place. A place without pain, without hurt, without disappointment. I believe we will all be united some day. I know Lisa and I, the kids and everyone else he touched is his all-too-brief life are united with him in spirit always.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fort McMurray: A Google Earth Tour

Since I've posted about all the changes underway here over the past several months I thought I'd play around with Google Earth and put up a few images of the layout of our town. I don't have every area of town here though though I have enjoyed the few times I've been up to Abasand. I've included the areas I'm most familiar with but this includes the bulk of our fair town. Join me on a short tour of Fort McMurray then, if you will.

A wide shot of Fort McMurray or about as much of it as I could manage to fit onto a screen shot. The city is divided into several subdivisions as it spreads away from the downtown core.

West of the Athabasca we have the Timberlea and Thickwood subdivisions. That would be Timberlea to the north and Thickwood south of it. The green area in between them is the Birchwood Trail system which I've mentioned on this blog a few times in the past. Roughly 50 000 people live up here..more people than in the entire territory of Yukon or the Northwest Territories.

And here we have Thickwood, older of the two subdivisions and the area we call home. Back in the day this part of town was known as Area 5A if I'm not mistaken. I only know this because I recall reading it somewhere. Thickwood was created back in the 1970's which ushered in quite the boom here following the opening of Syncrude in 1979. Suncor, where I work, led the way, coming on-line in 1967. Around the time I was born, Fort McMurray had around 6000 residents. By 1979, that had climbed to 27 000. And as I believe I've noted before, we are now pushing 100 000.

Here is a closer shot of our little corner of Thickwood......actually its a lot of corners. There are a lot of crescents in our immediate vicinity. We can do most of our shopping and running (groceries, gas etc.) around up here rather than fighting through traffic to get downtown.

Here have the Lower Town Site, east of the river. But everybody just refers to it as Downtown. Our main drag is Franklin Avenue. Franklin was one of the first streets created, stretching south-easterly from the Athabasca. Due to geography (hills to the west and the Clearwater River to the east), everything grew up around Franklin Avenue. It is our commercial core, our busiest street and a source of headaches to anyone stuck in traffic during the busier times of the day. Both Lisa and I have a love/hate relationship with the street although I have to say it takes real guts for a community to have its main drag named after a failed northern explorer. Fort McMurray sure has succeeded in becoming an economic engine and there's just a certain gritty, stubborn determination to it all that I love.

Here is MacDonald Island at the forks of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. (It's not the most updated picture but it will do for now.) It is home to our amazing recreation facility I've mentioned a few times in the past on this blog and I referred to it as the largest facility of its kind in Western Canada. The most recent information I have though from a very reliable source is that the MacDonald Island Recreation Centre is the biggest IN CANADA. And their are plans to expand. Swimming, curling, indoor golf, hockey, indoor track, weight rooms, hot tubs, library, all sorts of community events, the list goes can find it here. Last year the facility played host to the first ever outdoor Alberta Junior Hockey League game...our OIl Barons beat Drayton Valley 5-2 if I recall correctly. This urban gem has hosted many great concerts including Kiss and the Barenaked Ladies. Future plans include the construction of baseball field and I've heard talk that we may be getting a minor league baseball team in the future. The place also sports a golf course and some pleasant river side and nature views (I'm pretty sure that when I make my first sighting of a Belted Kingfisher, this will be the place it will happen). So no matter what, chances are good you'll find something worth your while at this fantastic facility.

Here we have our airport, ski hill and the rural acreage of Saprae Creek. We rarely get out this way but we do know that if you miss the turn to the airport while driving in the dark you eventually reach some sort of old rail yard at the end of the highway. Yes, we know this because we've done it a couple of times!

And finally, Waterways. At one time Waterways was a completely separate community from Fort McMurray. It's where the rail link ended and was the jumping off point for all areas North. When we decided to move into town in the spring of 2009, one of the houses we looked at was down in this area. Its quiet and homey and has the most small town feel in my opinion. In the end though, Thickwood one out. We do enjoy coming down here for the water park and for drives along the river.

And so ends our little tour. We've seen pretty much every part of town at this point but we know there is still a lot here to see. I've been playing around with the idea of a future post about some of the oil sands projects north of town. I only hesitate because I'm not interested in having my blog invaded by all kinds of rude, slobbering enviro-nut Leftists but we will see.

One thing I did want to mention before I forget, and some may have picked it up if they've followed this blog for any length of time, but I keep referring to Fort McMurray as a city and as a town. Technically, we are actually a hamlet I suppose. At one point, from 1980 until 1995, Fort McMurray WAS a city. It was then amalgamated with Improvement District no.143 to form what later became known as the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. So even though the city sign (see? there I go again) in my header photo says "city", we are really an urban service area. Being small town Ontarians, Lisa and I usually just refer to here as a town. But really, in the end, it is just home.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bridges and Interchanges

As mentioned a couple posts ago, the city continues to grow and is currently undergoing some major infrastructure upgrades. Chief among these for the past several months has been the construction of a third bridge over the Athabasca and two new interchanges at the foot of Thickwood Boulevard and Confederation Way.

The new bridge, which will handle all northbound traffic over the river, has been under construction ever since we moved here. Back then, I recall seeing only the concrete supports in the water. I wasn't 100% sure when the new bridge would be ready and had caught wind that it would be ready by the end of the month. It turns out they were slightly ahead of schedule as Lisa told was able to drive on it for the first time yesterday. The new 5-lane Athabasca River Bridge boasts the largest road deck in the province measuring 472m long and 30m wide. The new bridge is also quite significant for the oil sands projects north of town and is designed to carry some pretty hefty loads. While a typical bridge in Alberta is designed to support a load of 800 tons, this new bridge will be able to handle a 28-axle 1.1 million kilogram overload vehicle. That's some heavy hauling!

The remaining two bridges will also be getting some TLC which is due to be completed in 2013 and 2014 depending on the bridge. The Ralph Steinhauer Bridge (the middle bridge) will be widened to I believe 5 lanes and will reverse direction when completed to become a south-bound bridge. The Grant MacEwan Bridge will be rebuilt, lowered, and have its trestles removed and will provide easier access to MacDonald Island. It will be sad to see the changes to this piece of local history but at the same time it will do wonders as it will help ease the flow of traffic flowing onto Franklin Avenue, our main drag.

Here you can see a photo taken last fall I believe of the construction. It's hard to believe how different it looks already. I actually had to look at this picture for several seconds to get my bearings.

In addition to all the bridge work, there are also 2 interchanges being constructed north of the river to improve traffic flow and provide better access to the Thickwood and Timberlea subdivisions.  Thickwood, like me, is a child of the '70's and Timberlea has more than doubled in size since I first passed through Fort McMurray in the early 2000's.  Collectively, they are home to close to 50,000 people.  With the addition of Wood Buffalo, Eagle Ridge and Stone Creek areas, the two access roads leading to this part of town see a pretty phenomenal amount of traffic.  Commuting times can be a headache at times.  (Case in point, while it usually takes my bus about 40 minutes to travel the 30-0r-so kilometres from Suncor to Thickwood, the ride home this evening took a just over 2 hours.  Yes, there are many here that will be happy when all this new infrastructure is in place.)

Like the bridge work, work on these interchanges has been going on even before we moved to the area.  Over the course of the past year I've had the opportunity to see the progress being made on my travels to and from site.  Last fall, the Thickwood overpass was put in place and the Timberlea one followed suit this past summer.  

Below you can see a conceptual drawings of both interchanges.

If I recall correctly, they will both be up and running toward the end of summer 2012 if all goes according to plan. The kids look forward to driving on them for the first time. And so do I!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Suddenly Work Got A Little More Interesting

(photo by Greg Hume)

There were 3 species of birds I had hope to see over the course of the summer...the Northern Flicker, the Black-and-White Warbler and the American Kestrel. The Northern Flicker, I sighted a couple of times, the first near a storm pond a short walk from the house back on June 19. I blogged about it here. The second sighting occurred a little later in July I believe in during a hike along the Athabasca River valley. As for the Black-and-White Warbler, I was able to check that off my list on Canada Day.

So only the Kestrel remained. I've been told on good authority that the river valley, which has yielded up some of my most memorable sightings, was a good place to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately, my visits there were few and far between this summer and as August rolled into September and I put in a few longer shifts, I realized my chances were fast disappearing. Which brings me to yesterday. As I was leaving work, I skimmed through a Suncor publication and was pleasantly surprised to find another possible location for a viewing....some of the reclaimed areas right there on site as it turned out.

A breeding pair had been photographed after taking up residence in a nesting box on site (the photograph being taken by a researcher from my old alma mater as it turns out). Because the birds often return to the same nesting sight in consecutive years has me hopeful of a sighting. Odds might be slim this year as they tend to have all left by October. But I eagerly await a Spring return. I pass Wapisiw Lookout, a reclaimed area formerly known as Pond One, on my bus ride to and from work every morning and I'm always scanning the distance in what little light we have at this time of year just in case something catches my eye. Can't wait to see this diminutive little falcon. Suddenly work got a little more interesting.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Here We Grow Again

It's no secret that Fort McMurray is the fastest growing urban centre in Alberta and, quite likely, in all of Canada. While things cooled downed a little in the early 2000's, the pace of change has quickened again. Currently we sit at about 80 000 residents or so (there is some disagreement between the municipality and the province over the inclusion of our "shadow" population) but this is more or less where we stand at the moment. I've heard talk of the city hitting the 250 000 threshold within the next few years and even projections of a future population of 500 000 if you can believe it. So our city must expand as the economic growth projections I've seen look quite rosy between 2012 and 2019. It must be an infrastructure nightmare for urban planners and I surely don't envy their task. Last summer Lisa and I took a drive over to Timberlea, our newest subdivision and were amazed at the construction going on in Eagle Ridge and Stone Creek, the last two pieces of Timberlea to be filled in. This fall has seen a new high school and a new middle school open over there to try and keep up with the growth. Our subdivision of Thickwood is pretty much as big as it's going to get with about 18 000 residents or so.

Anyhow, I bring this all up because over the long weekend I was doing a little web surfing to see what I could find out in terms of how the city expands from here. Lisa and I were actually discussing it in the van when the topic came up on a local radio station and apparently, the topic is being discussed by local city council as is mentioned by a local blogger over at Fort McMurray Musings. I debated blogging about it since Theresa has been here much longer than we have and her blog has a feel of the pulse of the community. In the end though, Lisa encouraged me say (type) a few words saying she thought it would be a good way to show just how much our city is growing and me blogging about it would make more interesting reading to the casual visitor of this blog than reading the entire development assessment report (which can be found here should you have the time.)

Currently development is underway for Parsons Creek, an area north of Timberlea and Saline Creek on the south side of the Athabasca. I had heard snippets about these new subdivisions every once in awhile and knew that were next in line for development. What really woke me up to just how fast things are moving along was news of another planned subdivision to be called Riverbend across the river near Abasand. This is a forested area I wandered through back in the summer by the Horse River. I blogged about it here and here. If I recall correctly, work on this new development will commence as early as next year. Between Rock Bend, Saline Creek and Parsons Creek subdivision we're looking at space for an additional 50 000 residents and there are still 3 more areas fit for expansion as outlined in the report cited above. So much growth that there are recommendations for a number of new interchanges and, yes, even ring road, through an area west of the city that is currently nothing but boreal forest. It really boggles the mind to think about it. When I first passed through here in 2002, large parts of what is now Timberlea didn't even exist. There is now something close to 40 000 there. Eventually, Fort McMurray will grow across the Clearwater River north of the downtown core. This idea has been around since the '60's as far as I know but the costs involved were prohibitive as it would require yet another bridge, a 4-lane access road and I'm sure an overpass or two. Even now, the cost of this infrastructure would be something in the neighborhood of $200 000 000, a seemingly ridiculous sum. Understandably, this area, known as Forest Heights, will be the last area to be developed. I never thought I'd see this proposed subdivision happen in my lifetime but the fact it is on the drawing board for consideration shows just how much growth potential some are expecting.

For someone who (the university years excluded) grew up and worked in small towns, all this just boggles the mind. And one more shocker for you...the average price for a detached family residence here in 2006 was just over $441 000. Last year it was around $645 000....and the latest figure I've seen.....$727 000 and change.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mr. Slate

Growing up my only real notions of a foreman came from the Flintstones. The show was an old stalwart and Mr. Slate was one of my favorite characters. I know that Mr. Slate was Fred's boss and not a foreman exactly but for some reason I always equated what a foreman was with this character. Which is why when I originally left the public service for the oil patch I wasn't really sure what to expect when it came to foremen. I still remember walking into my foreman's office with a great deal of trepidation the first time he asked to speak to me. In the end it was just to ask how I was making out so far on the job and give me a couple pointers.

I know I brought a lot of old stereotypes with me. They are hard taskmasters, symbols of capitalism (oh, the horrors) and of course they yelled a lot. But of course I didn't find that at all. Actually, an old foreman of mine (ok, not OLD since he was actually younger than me) was one of the best guys I ever worked with. Now that I'm a foreman (at least part-time) I know that I am non of these things. I'm a stickler for promptness but I don't think of myself as a tyrant. I'm not about to defend capitalism (or at least the American flavour of it) and I don't yell and raise my voice...very often.

Perhaps the only resemblance between Mr. Slate and I is our profound lack of fashion sense.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is the one non-passerine I remember most from growing up in Ontario. You could take a drive out in the county and see their nests atop telephone poles or catch glimpses of a solitary specimen in a small pond or wet land. In flight, they are simply magnificent to watch. I was amazed at (and still am) at how a bird of its size manages to get off the ground. From what (little) I know we're a bit to the north of the heron's range here in our little corner of Alberta. (But you never know, I didn't expect to see robins and blue jays here and we do, so I hold out hope.) In the meantime, I enjoy this fine specimen. The photo was taken in the summer of 2009, near the Wood Islands light house on the south east coast of Prince Edward Island.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Darn My Political Sensitivities

Sorry for the sporadic nature of my blog posting. I don't really have any excuses except perhaps that the days are getting noticeably shorter and I'm nearing the end of my current shift so I find my energy levels flagging a little. The past couple days I shamelessly admit to being distracted by all the provincial and territorial elections. I never studied political science in university although I once did give some consideration to running in Nunavut's last territorial election (seriously). Excluding Ontario where I grew up I've lived in 3 provinces and 2 territories and I've visited every province and territory in Canada at least once except Newfoundland and Yukon so I've always kept tabs on places I've lived even after I moved.

So I've spent part of the last couple evenings at least following the results of the Northwest Territories and Manitoba elections on-line and plan to do the same with the Ontario, Yukon and Newfoundland elections in the coming days. (I did miss the PEI contest but I suppose I can't watch every little snippet of political news though I sometimes like to think I can). Oddly enough I've encountered 3 individuals involved in three of these elections, spanning from the Northwest territories to Yukon to my home province of Ontario.

The NWT (along with Nunavut) doesn't have party politics (each candidate runs as an Independent) so I found it a little hard to follow. I'm probably about as disenchanted with party politics as the average Canadian but the system does at least allow you to follow what the major issues are a little more easily. I'm not knocking consensus style government but as an outsider it can be a bit of a challenge to figure out what the issues are. Having said that though I was familiar with some of the names of the candidates and wasn't surprised to hear that Michael Miltenberger, former mayor in Fort Smith was victorious in the Thebacha riding. I moved to Fort Smith 11 years ago to start my teaching career. Odds are Miltenberger will have a strong chance of becoming the NWT's next Premier.

I also discovered a familiar name in the Yukon election in the person of Cully Robinson, running for the Liberal Party in the riding of Whitehorse West. Cully is a University of Windsor grad like myself and we were both interviewed for the U of W's Faulty of Education alumni magazine back in 2007. You can read my blog post about it here. And while I'm no fan of the Liberal Party I do wish Cully the best of luck. He struck me as a very genuine and well-spoken man during the course of our interview and I'm sure he would serve his Whitehorse constituents well if elected a couple days from now.

Finally of course there is the much anticipated Ontario election. Rob Milligan is running under the Progressive Conservative banner in Northumberland-Quinte West, which includes the small town of Campbellford where I grew up. Rob and I attended the same high school (where he now teaches in fact) and we were both cadets in the same army cadet corps as teenagers. Of course I'm extremely biased here since I know Rob and his party's views overlap with my own but I do wish him the very best of luck on Thursday. I know the people of Northumberland-Quinte West will be very well served with Rob as their MLA.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Utterly Brainless

When I came home yesterday to hear from numerous media sources about Thursday night's violent confrontation in La Loche, Saskatchewan I was completely stunned I must admit. Fort McMurray notwithstanding, I've spent my entire working career in small, remote communities that rarely get press coverage. Sadly, there is media attention here for all the wrong reasons. I have to say right off the bat there are some great people in La Loche and I still keep in touch with them when I can. Unfortunately there is a violent rabble that has stolen all the attention.

Keep in mind that in small, remote communities where everyone knows everyone (and frequently everyone else's business) speaking out and taking action can be a very difficult thing. Its not easy when you have to interact on a daily basis with an undesirable element. I know for a fact that there are drug dealers within a 10 minute walk of my house but Fort McMurray has a population pushing 100 000 so unless they come right to my doorstep its not like I have to put up with them. If they want to partake of an illegal substance and mess up there own lives, well, I suppose that is their prerogative. Its much different in a town of 2300. The jerks are much more visible. The comments I've read from the hapless mayor certainly do nothing to help. The presence of gang activity and alcoholism were obvious and have only gotten worse.

What would possess a group of "people" (and I use the term loosely here) to wreak havoc on a hospital defies logic. I can understand people not being on the best of terms with the RCMP (up to a point), but to try to mob a building to attack attack two officers and then destroying a police vehicle, good grief.

Obviously there are no quick solutions to this sad chain of events and it pains me. Working there wasn't always easy, true, but I have fond memories of the best ice fishing I've ever done in my life, along with stunning sunsets and views along the lake, like in the two following photos taken in December of 2002 and August 2002 respectively.

The hospital there is (or at least was) a wonderful facility given the "northerness" of its location. It opened there year that I moved there. Here is a shot of the hospital in better days.

Someone much wiser than myself once told me that its not the location of a place, the beauty or the socio-economic circumstances of a place that make a place "home", rather it is the people themselves. I always try to keep this in mind but sadly, fond memories have been destroyed by a group of brainless thugs. Whatever positive actions are taken by residents will long be over-shadowed by Thursday evenings' events. This is just the unfortunate reality.

The photo below is the last picture I have of La Loche as I flew out in a small Cessna to begin a new journey in Nunavut. I still remember looking down and wondering....if I were to return 20 years from now, how would it be different? Would it be better....or worse? Clearly a great deal of work needs to be done. People can blame whatever of whoever they want but to paraphrase a famous quote from Gandhi...Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Life Will Never Be The Same

As of this past Tuesday (my sister's birthday no less), we no longer have a stationary baby. Gabriel is now on the move! Not only can he now do a control roll over, he has now started to "commando crawl". He makes out pretty good for himself on the laminate floor in the living room. ( I only wish I knew where our dear camera wandered off to.) I've known Elijah since he was 6 months old and recall him starting his commando crawl when he was around 7 months, shortly after we moved out here to Alberta. Gabriel officially turns 6 months old tomorrow so he has surprised us all with his early start. If he is anything like his older brother he will be up on his feet pretty soon. I remember Elijah progressing from "commando crawling" to pulling himself up onto his feet within a very short span of time.

So now Gabriel is on the move. I'm pretty sure we've nailed down everything thing that needs to be nailed down already but I'm sure we'll be double-checking just to be sure. Welcome to a new mobility, Gabe. The world is on the move.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dear Keystone Pipeline Protester

Hey good job at getting arrested! I guess you didn't think about how your big hub bub protest would be eaten up by the media and become a story it itself, shifting focus off your message. Oops. It must be frustrating for you. How, much gas did you burn just getting yourself and and your goofy little sign to this supposedly "historic" protest? Since you seem so adamant about climate change can we expect to see you next protesting big oil in, say, the Niger Delta? If you truly believe in your convictions, why don't you go there and protest? After all, Nigeria's environmental record is much more worthy of attention don't you think? What goes on in the Niger Delta makes the Deepwater Horizon disaster pale in comparison. The US buys something like 40% of its oil from that country. Don't you think its more ethical from an environmental and humanitarian standpoint for the Americans to import oil from Canada? I mean really, they need to buy it from somewhere. So where? Russia, with its freedom of the press? Venezuela, where they oppress and brutalize their indigenous peoples? Saudi Arabia, where they chop people's heads off and have such a stellar record of women's rights? Iran, perhaps? Where? Just easier to stay in Canada and protest in safety and security I suppose. Hey, Fort McMurray is in Canada? Why don't you come and protest here? It's a city of around 100 000 give or take so its not like you wouldn't get major media coverage here.

No takers? Yeah, I didn't think so. Ever heard of Wapisiw Lookout? Its the first reclaimed tailings pond out here at Suncor. Even former founder and ex-Greenpeace leader, Patrick Moore, was supportive. Ouch, that has to sting. I drive by it everyday. So all these propaganda pictures I see you carting around on your little signs are a little foreign to me. I see deer, coyote, bear, foxes and all different types of birds there. Really, you should get away from Parliament Hill and come take a look for yourself. (The politicians there don't really care about you anyway.)

So, please, don't deny me and many other hard-working Canadians a living. We have families to support, bills and mortgages to pay...(Want to take over my mortgage? Yeah, didn't think so.) If you really want to go out and yell and scream about oil's environmental impact, feel free to yell and scream at the top of your lungs in downtown Abuja...that would be the capital of Nigeria, but seeing as most of your ilk come across as little more than pompous, arrogant know-it-alls, I'm sure you were already aware of that.) Kindly move along. Tomorrow I along with many others, will head off to work to support our families. Please don't take bread off my table...thanks.

I will agree with you on one thing though, that oily odour you come across in our little neck of the Athabasca really does occur. But it has nothing to do with oil sands development or pipelines like the one you protest. Oil has been seeping naturally out of the ground for time immemorial...If you go back to the early explorers, like Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson or Peter Pond, they all mention this in their writings. Its kind of how they figured out there were oil sands here in the first place.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Forest Fire Season Continues

We've had quite the forest fire season here this year, beginning back in May with a number of smaller fires north of the city which eventually joined forces into a single "super fire". This fire, which began on or about May 14, scorched something in the neighborhood of 700 000 square hectares before being brought under control. By comparison to the fire which ravaged Slave Lake this past summer, this one was a monster, the big difference of course being that here we have huge areas of boreal forest and little in the way of private property in the way.

Throughout the summer I blogged several times about the fire situation. (See here, here, here, here and here. ) After a few weeks of excitement during which I heard occasional talk of evacuation notices for outlying communities, things settled down.

Now it seems, Mother Nature is taking one more kick at the cat as I heard news this afternoon of a new fire this afternoon which has closed a section of HIghway 63. I can't lay claim to a lot of first-hand knowledge other than what was already been reported by the Edmonton Journal and Vancouver Sun.

Normally I might be freaked out that the highway has been closed (Highway 63 is the primary link between the city and the rest of the province) but I know its not the first time an event like this has occurred, the fire is much smaller than the big one earlier this summer and winter is really just around the corner. So I take this latest development with interest and amusement.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag)...One Year On

In September 2010, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo brought in a by-law banning the use of single-use plastic bags at most retail stores here. I believe there are a few exceptions involved but since I don't do a whole lot of shopping, I'm not sure on the exemptions. Anyhow, I originally intended to comment on all this last year but I thought I'd give it time. September 1 marked the one-year anniversary of this by-law so before too much time goes by and I find myself commenting at the two-year-anniversary mark, I better give it a go here.

Initially, I wasn't too sure how the by-law would be received. We've become such a "throw away" society. Plastic bag usage sure is convenient, though I found they have a nasty habit of accumulating (usually in the cupboard under the sink or some other such cupboard I rarely opened back in the day) and creating headaches. I recall my aunt taking reusable bags with her while grocery shopping in Zurich when I went to visit her back in 2007. Clearly, they were light-years ahead of us there, and when I raised the subject with her she told me that it was just a part of everyday routine there.

(I temporarily interrupt this post to add that this by-law was the brainchild of a local high school student and I had the pleasure of meeting this intelligent and well-spoken young man last year while I was doing a little substitute teaching at his school.)

So initially, yes, when the bag ban came into effect, it took an effort to make it part of my routine. I know for myself there were many times I'd run into a store to pick up a few items and leave with two very full armfuls of items. I know I wasn't the only Fort McMurrayite who did this. It needs to be said that you can purchase reusable bags at major retailers like Safeway, Sobeys and Walmart, but not so easily at smaller places. Anyhow, it didn't take many days of aching arms before I began to make a habit of taking bag along in case I needed to grab something. Of course Lisa has more foresight than I normally do and we typically we keep our bags on a convenient shelf in the closet within arms reach, or more usually, just keep them in the back of the van, before shopping trip.

I'm not sure how popular the ban is here in the city generally as I have to admit I haven't been doing a good job with keeping up with the local media. I have heard some grumbling in some quarters that people eventually wind up with 20-30 bags in their house when they forget to take shopping bags with the them on a regular basis and have to re-purchase new ones. Last month, the municipality hired a firm to do a review of the ban. I just haven't heard anything back on that yet.

Fellow blogger, Theresa, next to whom my writing skills pale and is more tuned in to local events than I have been the past few weeks, has commented on this issue a few times here and here and I suspect the subject will be re-visited there as perhaps it will be on other local blogs. At present, the ban doesn't bother me and I do find some of the objections rather silly. Fort McMurray often gets such negative press that what gets lost in all the noise is the fact that our city was one of the first jurisdictions in Canada to enact a by-law like this. And I think it's a positive step.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Summer Waterfowl

With amazing speed the weather is starting to turn. I should be well used to it by now but it still comes as a shock. Last weekend the mercury was in the low 30C range and now I start work with temps hovering around zero. We've even had our first fall experiences with frost. Seeing numerous geese and other waterfowl beginning the fall migration, I found myself longing for my next opportunity to get out and see some non-passerines. Quite likely it will be some time now.

In the meantime I'll just have to satisfy myself with a few photos I came across from a couple summer ago during our move here from Ontario. They're a bit dark as the sun was quickly setting and I won't pretend to be a great birding photographer but they do bring back good summer memories as what is left of our mild weather quickly fades. These photos were all taken during the summer of 2009 during an overnight stop in Longlac, Ontario.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gabriel: A Love Story

I loved you from the first moment I laid eyes on you. In that moment you were so perfect, so fragile, so innocent, so wondrous, so beautiful. When you look at me and smile it makes my heart glad. When you sleep I feel your peace. Everyday I see you growing up...and it makes me both happy and sad at the same time. More than anything, it makes me feel proud. I love you son.

You have a mommy and daddy a sister and two brothers that love you more than anything. You have made our family complete. Know that you can accomplish anything in life you set your mind to.

May you share in my successes.....and learn from my mistakes. May you have the strength of an angel.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Whoa! Now that looks scary!

A couple days ago I made a quip on my Facebook page about how it seems my work follows me around. I never really paid much attention to scaffolding though I recall walking under many a scaffolding structure as a kid on a busy street and gazing upward in curiosity. Now that I'm in the industry I tend to notice a lot more, which I suppose is quite understandable -- there's scaffolding EVERYWHERE out at site, as well as in town here. I saw it last time I was in the local mall (which was having the top floor renovated) and the book I'm reading at the moment makes references to it. (The book centres around the construction of a 12th century English cathedral...yes I KNOW that might sound like a mundane read but it actually is quite a good story.) Even during my regular reading of favorite blogs on my sidebar, I came across references to scaffolding in Kara's most recent post.

So I notice scaffolding alot. Which is why I find it odd that there are people that have no inkling about what scaffolding is. Like a lady I spoke to on the phone a couple months ago regarding my credit card. ("Scaf.....fold? Scaf....fold?? I don't even know what that is.") Can you believe it? I know, I was shocked too. So there you have the genesis of this post.

So what is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to access unsafe work areas, such as the construction/repair of buildings and other large structures. Construction workers, electricians, pipe fitters, welders, painters, insulators, siding installers....all these trade people make use of scaffolding to perform their jobs. Michelangelo made use of scaffolding while he worked on the Sistine Chapel. While there are many types of systems out there, scaffolding consists of the same basic parts - standards (the uprights that hold the structure up), ledgers (which attach to standards and run parallel to the ground, providing a stable base to attach your planks to) and braces of various size to provide lateral support. There are also many different lengths of tube, several smaller parts (which in a nut shell help hold all the larger components together and tie the structure into the building) and a few specialty pieces (which I won't pretend to know all of).

What is scaffolding made out of?

Much of what I see on a daily basis and am familiar with is made of either aluminum or some sort of composite material. Apparently in some parts of Asia, they use scaffolding made out of bamboo, as in the picture below.

Where is scaffolding most commonly used?

That depends. In major cities such as Vancouver or Toronto....housing construction. In a place like Sarnia, Ontario or here in Fort McMurray, its apt to be used for more industrial-related purposes.

How long does it take to become a journeyman?

I can only speak for Alberta but here you apprentice for 4 years before becoming a journeyman (upon successful completion of your final tests of course.) I can also add here that it can be difficult to go between provinces and have your qualifications recognized. I don't know all the ins-and-outs but I know our trade isn't the only one affected by petty inter-provincial bureaucracy and politics.

Does scaffolding pay well?

Well, it helps pay my bills and without going into too much detail I find it comparable to some of the salaries I used to earn in my past career in education. A 1st year apprentice starts out at around $23/hour. A journeyman rate I believe is in the neighborhood of $40/hr and the general foreman rate through the company I work for is in the $50/hour range. It will never make me a millionaire but like any other trade, if you're determined and hard-working you can do well for yourself. Due to all the oil sands activity, Fort McMurray is most certainly the best place in Canada to be involved in the scaffolding trade.

And a question I seem to be getting a lot lately..Are you planning to go out into the field?

That I haven't decided yet, although eventually probably yes. My decision will be based on how I can best provide for my family. I started out last fall working in the main scaffolding yard at Suncor. Recently I was promoted to part-time foreman and next month my basic yard worker rate will see a rather nice raise. Going out into the field will mean giving up my foreman position and drawing a smaller salary although in the long run, going out into the field will pay off if I were to become a journeyman. (Plus, because I have some familiarity with all the different materials, I would be able to go out into the field as a second-year apprentice rather than starting out at the bottom.) I can also add here (and this will come across as strange I know) that I am a little afraid of heights. Yes, I know. Perhaps I didn't completely think things through here. Although I should say that it has gotten better in recent years. (And this won't be a factor in any final decision I make.) Last week I was down in one of the plants helping with a massive tear down and spent part of the morning a good 40-50 feet off the ground without any great trouble.

So anyhow, there you have it. I won't pretend to know more than I know. I do know that I approached the trade with some apprehension a year ago as it lay well outside the line of work I was used to. With familiarity things become a lot less scary. I certainly don't mind the physical aspects of it. As it says on my hard hat, "Labor Vincit Omnia" -- Hard Work Conquers All.