Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Long, Long Shift

I know my posts have been a little short the past few days, but I plan to have more substance soon. The primary reason for such short posts has been because of my busy work schedule. I put in to work over the long weekend when my shift was supposed to be off and then in order to stay on my regular shift I had to keep working through last week and then back onto my shift. So I've pretty much been going full tilt with what amounts to 12-13 hour work days (when you factor in the bus ride to and from site) ever since May 9th. Long days for sure but at least the weather has been cooperative.

I'll definitely be happy to have a few days off coming up toward the end of the week. For the most part, I enjoy the work. I have to admit the scaffolding trade was never something I though I'd ever get into much less survive but so far I can't complain. As luck would have it, we've had 3 college students from the U.S. join our yard for the summer and one of them just happens to be the son of the president of our company. I've spent a couple days helping him get his bearings and joked with him that when he goes back to Louisiana State for the fall I'll send him back with a pile of resumes stapled to him for his father's perusal. Not that I'm at all unhappy with my current position, but really, how often does the big bosses son end up working right beside you. Aluma is headquartered in the states and is a major player in our line of work here in Alberta but I digress.

On a different note, for those who may be wondering, the smoke from nearby forest fires hasn't been too bad, although there were a couple days where it was quite bad with ash falling from the sky and I came home feeling quite headachey and irritable. It seems the forest fire smoke has fallen into a pattern where it clears up as the day progresses and the wind picks up and then settles down into the valley overnight and during the morning commute. Lisa and I were downtown briefly last evening and the smell was rather nasty. It generally isn't that bad for us up in Thickwood but we feel pretty bad for the folks living downtown or in Waterways. Generally, all this smoke has been more of a nuisance than anything else, but still enough to play havoc at some oil sands sites.

Anyhow, I do have a few other items I plan to post about, including a much anticipated outing to a historical part of the city (assuming I can finally get out there this weekend) and an exciting new opportunity for Lisa, but these will have to wait a little for the time being.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Middle Age Bulge

No, the title doesn't refer to me, but another Fort McMurray blog I've happened across in recent days. Check it out here. It's nice to discover a little Fort McMurray blogging community out there. If you happen to know of any other blogging McMurrayites out there, drop me a line. I'd be very interested to know.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Not Again!

Not another intrusive camera moment! I'm trying to bathe here!

Friday, May 27, 2011


Tamara, Nicholas and Elijah enjoying a lazy afternoon along the bank of the Clearwater.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sleepy Time

Not the best of light to work with but of course I didn't want to turn up the lights and risk waking the young prince from his slumber.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Over the course of the past few days, Gabriel has started to show us the beginnings of his smile.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ashes Ashes!

The skies were pretty clear of smoke over the long weekend but now it's back. And not only that, but we had falling ash, definitely a new experience for me. My first impression was "Oh look! Snow!" (I almost wished it was given the hot temperatures we had had last week.) A fellow Fort McMurrayite dropped me a comment to say that ash was also falling in Gregoire, an area of town to the south of Fort Mac. It was definitely the worst I've seen it so far out on site and it was quite difficult at times to make out the cranes and the coker towers from where I work. We were given the option to head home early but since by that time there was only about an hour left in my shift, I elected to stay. Things weren't all that better in town either. Hopefully we get a little rain soon to wash the pungent odour out of the air.

To my knowledge, we have only one fire currently listed as out of control....at a whopping 184,000 hectares. I've had the sense that although the smoke is a concern, there generally isn't any real alarm that what happened down in Slave Lake will happen here. One of my foremen is from BC so smokey summer skies are old hat to him. I did joke with him the other day though that if I ever see him running I will do my best to keep up.

We Are Not Alone

For some time now, Lisa and I had been discussing whether we might find any other blogs out there from Fort McMurray. We had found a few informational type blogs but nothing comparable to a personal blog like this one. Wood Buffalo is a huge area (comparable in size to Switzerland) and it was neat to have such a large blogging territory staked out for ourselves. Alas, we are no longer a lone voice crying out in the boreal wilderness. In recent days, we've come across McMurray Musings. While it is quite a new blog, its author, has been a resident here for a decade, which by Fort McMurray standards, is quite a long time. Check out another window into our little corner of northern Alberta.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Recently, I decided to try and get a few shots around the downtown area but the construction going on down Franklin Ave., thick smoke from all the fires in the region and the fact that I fancy myself more of a scenic photographer rather than an urban photographer meant didn't really get the chance I hoped for anything half decent.

I did manage what I felt was a nice shot of city hall, housing municipal, provincial and I believe federal government offices. Once again proving that government has no sense of humour, it is a lovely brown brick building. Its name...the Jubilee Centre.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Late this past week, Lisa and I finished off another little project we had planned for the house, namely getting a gate put up and fencing in our yard. Our place was built around 1980 so I'm surprised no one had had one put up before. Anyway, along with the added privacy, it add some definite curb appeal. We plan to use the same gentleman who built our gate to add a few extra touches to our back deck and do some trim inside the house. Looking forward to seeing the final results of that. And I should mention the nice touches Lisa has done around the gate with the hanging basket and some much needed grass seed to patch up (God willing) a few rough patches.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Fire Update

I had been planning the past couple days to post an update on the fire situation here but have been pretty busy with work so it hasn't been until now that I've been able to get around to it. I can start off by reassuring everyone that while there are 6 active fires (3 out of control) in the municipality at the moment, we are in no immediate danger. This map here will give you a good idea of where the fires are burning. The closest one(about 100 hectares in size)is a mere 17km up the highway and being held. I pass quite close by the area on my way to work and haven't seen anything all that alarming in terms of smoke or flame the past couple mornings. The biggest fire in the area (and I believe the province) referred to as the McClelland Lake fire sits about 80km as the crow flies north-north-east of Fort McMurray. Last I had heard (this morning) it had grown to something in the neighborhood of 148 000 hectares.

All this has meant that we've woken up the past few mornings to a blanket of heavy smoke, not so bad up here in Thickwood but pretty nasty downtown and up at site. I think Suncor base plant, where I work, has been the only place that wasn't evacuated, or on some sort of alert this past week, although at least some of Suncor's outlying work camps were evacuated with many being lodged in various downtown hotels. For the most part the smoke dissipates as the winds pick up over the course of the day and then settles back in again as winds calm down over night.

The nearby community of Fort McKay was under evacuation standby at one point and the communities elders were transported out but have since been allowed to return. As for us here, its really just the smoke that's a major nuisance. The past couple mornings have been really bad at work but as part of my job I do have access to a half-mask, which I made brief use of yesterday afternoon.

All this activity is quite new for someone who grew up in southern Ontario and spent 6 years in Nunavut, where of course there are no trees, but for the people I work with from Alberta and BC, this is all old hat to them and they've been quite reassuring. We did experience smoke last summer courtesy of fires burning in BC, but nothing quite of this magnitude.

For the time being, we just take precautions to monitor our breathing and listen for updates, all the while smelling faintly of "eau de campfire".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Drunken Moose Path

I've often thought a few streets here were designed by a drunken moose. I think the moose got started by practicing out along the trails of the river valley.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Hazy view down the Athabasca River Valley caused from fires north of Fort McMurray.

I was expecting an eventful work day yesterday as it was inventory time and I was due to put in a 12-hour day. Instead, we got a reminder of the force of Mother Nature. Inventory in fact was finished up before 5pm since we are so busy with shutdowns at Suncor there was no really good time to shut down the yard. Anyhow, shortly before 4pm or so I was in the office for a moment when I heard someone mention an explosion on the highway at the top of Super Test. (As is often the case with such events, I was bombarded with a lot of conflicting information...a tanker truck had exploded on the highway....the grass was on fire....a few trees were on fire....the fire was spreading and traffic was backed up for miles.) Okay, this last part about traffic being backed up on Highway 63 is really nothing new to anyone fighting to get on-site at the start of shift, especially early mornings. Anyway, there is a work camp operated by Suncor and I heard they were both being evacuated as a precaution.

The long and the short of it all was that Suncor was evacuated for safety precautions, right around the end of my shift as it so happened. We passed by the site of the fire (Highway 63 wasn't shut down as I had heard) just as a water-bombing helicopter flew over and released its load. I actually didn't see any flame, just a great deal of smoke. The latest I've heard was the blaze wasn't all that large, a mere 150 hectare, and while lying 17km outside the city, no real threat to Fort McMurray at that point.

Fast forward to this morning and I catch wind that the nearby community of Fort McKay may be under some sort of evacuation notice with a 2000 hectare fire nearby which also prompting the closing of the CNRL and Firebag sites as well as a few roads into the back country. All this pales in comparison to the devastation brought on by forest fires down in Slave Lake.

So far this fire season has gotten off to a pretty dramatic start. And I suspect that with brush that is already tinder dry and a predicted hotter-than-average May, June and July that this could be a very interesting and challenging summer here of the forest fire front.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Oh Deer!

Many times over the past few months we have spotted deer in the early morning or evening hours around certain parts of Thickwood. We never really seemed to have a camera in hand until a couple nights ago when I just happened to have it in my coat pocket during an evening stroll. I feel quite fortunate in this age of urban sprawl to see deer in an urban setting and a little envious of the home-owners in this particular area who have them roam so freely through their backyards.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I was fortunate yesterday to be able to head out and do a little more birding. It was late in the day and the sky threatened rain, and I didn't really think I'd see anything that interesting but knowing I wouldn't get an opportunity to get out and about until the end of my coming work shift was enough to get me outside. Thankfully I was only half right and as it turned out I did see some unexpected things.

I did rain rather intensely but while it did turn the trail a little soggy, it passed quickly. And initially, yes, I didn't see much of anything, although I could certainly hear a post-rain serenade down in the valley below. I had actually headed down the trail a couple kilometres and had turned around to head back when a bird alighted on a dead tree almost directly in front of me. Initially I thought it was a hairy woodpecker until I quickly swung up my glasses and spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker (sphyrapicus varius). As it turns out I had seen a female one the day before but mis-identified it as a downy woodpecker. This fine fellow sported a bright red chin and I only caught a glimpse as he quickly made a bee-line into the forest. The only woodpeckers with a red chin (excluding the red-headed woodpecker (melanerpes erythrocephalus) of which there are very few records of here in Alberta) are the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the red-naped sapsucker (sphyrapicus nuchalis). The latter is only found much further south toward the Rockies so a yellow-bellied sapsucker it was.

A little later on I did spot a few rather noisy boreal chickadees (poecile hudsonicus) foraging in some dead leaves along the side of the trail. While I know they are fairly common birds here, (as commonplace as ravens are in say, Iqaluit) this was the first time I recall seeing them, so it was rather nice to go home that day knowing that over the course of the past couple days I came across 4 species of birds I can now check of my life list.

The other little treat for the afternoon was coming across a nest of a pair of hairy woodpeckers. I spent several minuted watching the pair taking turns leaving the nest and returning with food for their lung which I could clearly hear inside. Alas, I was able to get a decent photo since they were just a little bit quicker than me and the angle of the sun was creating a few problems but you should be able to make out their little hole in the above photo about half way up the trunk just below where that little branch is sticking out.

So all in all not a bad couple of days for birding. For some reason I never quite see what I want to see but I always see something unexpected and fascinating in the end which I suppose is one of the main reasons I've taken such an interest in the hobby.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Something New In The Forest

After what seemed an eternity, the right combination of days off work and pleasant weather provided me a much-welcomed opportunity to hit the trails and do a little birding. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go - the Birchwood Trails. I'm not sure that I've mentioned it as much as it deserves to be mentioned but the city is blessed with a number of green spaces and hiking trails, which really gives a lie to the portrayal of Fort Mac as some sort of northern gulag according to left-wing media types. Anyhow, with camera, binoculars and bird guide in hand, I headed out.

I was only a few yards beyond the trail head and my ears were already being treated to a delectable symphony of sound. I quickly spotted a robin, a couple ravens gave me a nice fly-by and some mallard flew overhead. A distinctive knocking sound grabbed my attention and I was treated to the sight of a downy wood pecker. Unfortunately my camera isn't the best for long-distance shots but after a little brain-wracking and experimenting I was able to get a half-decent shot of him by holding the camera lens up to the binoculars. I'm glad I came across this little trick as it was to come in quite handy as my outing progressed.

Edit - As pointed out to me by Clare's able eye, the bird in the above photo is in fact a female yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Heading down into the valley toward the creek I rounded a corner when quite suddenly a strange bird landed on some dead fall mere feet from me. Swinging up my binoculars I noted its distinctive yellow cap, pointed beak and black-and-white plumage. I knew it was some sort of wood pecker but wasn't initially sure what I was looking at. Fortunately, although the little fellow flew up into a tree a short distance away and hung around, giving me ample opportunity to consult my field guide.

I figured the yellow head would be a dead giveaway to help id the bird but the guide of course showed two species of wood pecker with yellow caps - the 3-toed wood pecked and the black-backed wood pecker. After several minutes (I had to re-position as he moved around the trunk of the tree), the distinctive black-and-white ladder-like markings on his back allowed me to identify him as a 3-toed wood pecker. So fortunately I didn't have to worry about counting toes to see if there were three rather than the usual four.

A little further up the trail I noted what I thought was a second 3-toed wood pecker, only this one lacked the black-and-white markings on his back. His back was completely black and it seemed a little bigger than the last one, although I did manage to get a little closer to him so who knows. And while I'm not 100%, I do believe this was the black-backed wood pecker. So two new species in under 30 minutes and I was pretty impressed.

Another thing I didn't expect to see were a couple mallard ducks in a small marsh along the trail. It was a pretty secluded spot buried deep in the brush and didn't strike me as a place a mallard might frequent. But then I'm new to birding and its always great to be wrong when it works out in your favour. Although it's difficult to tell, there really is a female mallard in the picture below.

As an added bonus, while I was patiently waiting for the mallards to swim close enough to me for a decent picture (which never really happened) I came across the side of the trail. Had not his hop caught my eye, I doubt I ever would have spotted him, so well did he blend into the surrounding leaves.

Ah, the Birchwood Trails. So nice to know that in a metropolis of 80 000 with scenes like this....

...that you aren't very far from a bridge over a quiet stream surrounded by nature.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011


While I had heard a few rumours about this, I caught new this past week that iconic rock band Kiss will be making an appearance here over the Canada Day long weekend. Score a big feather in the cap for the city. With last year's Canada Day celebrations attracting the Bare Naked Ladies things look good for having Fort McMurray attract big names to its venue down at MacDonald Island.

I have to smile while I type this because while I was never really a Kiss fan, I think its great they are coming here. Lisa joked about how they must be at least 70 by now and should be retired. She actually had me look up their ages online just to see. I'm not sure that they play with fire on stage as Lisa says but I'm sure they will deliver up a fiery performance nonetheless. Keep on rocking boys!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Love This Time Of Year

Spring is definitely my favorite time of year, particularly late April/early May as all the birds come back. Compared to where I once lived on Baffin Island, the number of species that over-winter here is of course very conducive to long hours of enjoyment over the winter months. I could easily come up with 10 species I can see over a Fort Mac winter without ever having to leave the comfort of home.

With Spring, the number of new species brings an increase in the sights and sounds. Pretty much everything I can identify with confidence that doesn't spend the winter, shows up during this late April/early May window. Over the course of this past work shift I've noted the arrival of Canada Geese, robins, Ring-billed gulls, what I believe was some sort of hawk and the fan-tail shape of the common Grackle. There's a few green areas I haven't been to in some time that I hope to get out to explore during my next time off this weekend. Come on sunny weather!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Feeling Better

Last week Gabriel just wasn't himself. He was coughing a lot, phlegmy, making a very gurgely cry and just not sleeping as well as he usually does (which for a 4-week-old is actually pretty well). Turns out he had caught a lung infection so Lisa had him down to the hospital for an x-ray, a prescription and to get his lungs suctioned. Fast forward a few days and he is doing much better and we expect a follow up visit to the doctor to yield good results.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Election According To Gabe

So another federal election has come and gone. I have to admit that what I thought would be a very predictable outcome was not the case at all. In any event I didn't cast a ballot, which was too bad really, since this would have been the first election I've voted in where the person I voted for actually won. Truthfully, I was pretty tired from work and was just looking forward to watching the election coverage on tv and relaxing (if such a thing is possible for a self-professed political junkie). In any event, my MP, whom I support whole-heartedly, won by a landslide and his party, for good or ill, will govern the country for the next 4-or-so years.

For a different take on things, here is Gabriel's reaction to our very changed House of Commons.

ANOTHER election....yeesh!

The NDP won seats in Quebec?!

Oh Ignatieff and Duceppe...you guys are just like my diaper.

Congrats on the Green Party's first seat! I knew it was in the bag.

Tory blue all the way.....baby!