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.