I moved to Fort Mcmurray, Alberta in the summer of 2003 to meet a friend and find a job. As a 22 year old Cape Breton male this seemed as much a choice as it was my destiny. In the tar sands capital of Canada I was reunited with people from my home town than I hadn’t seen since high school graduation 3 years earlier – something that surprised me at the time. When I asked what they were doing there, they replied invariably “Same thing as you! Makin’ Money!”

 

I had been raised to understand Alberta was the promised land of quick cash but had never pictured myself moving there. Like it or not, the previous 2 years living and studying in Halifax had left me with plenty of bills and a student loan to pay off. I heard of friends moving ‘Out West’ and doing well for themselves, so I figured with a little luck I could wipe out my financial worries in a hurry. Luckily for me some family friends were leasing a condo in downtown Fort Mac and had a guest room to spare. They offered the room up to me gratis, giving me an opportunity to get on my feet financially. I had friends in town and the overall prospects for employment seemed great. Arriving in mid June and walking down Franklin Avenue I saw help wanted signs everywhere! Having spent the first 18 years of my life in a place with the second highest unemployment in Canada I could hardly believe my eyes; sixteen dollars an hour to work at Subway, seventeen to mix drinks at the club, plus tips. Everywhere seemed to be hiring, and I was broke. It was a match.

 

3 weeks into my search I found a good paying job at Suncor Energy Inc., the tar sands second largest extraction and refinery facility. Once hired, the first order of business was obtaining security clearance to work the site. Travelling by passenger van 40 km North across the Athabasca River with 13 other would-be workers I got my first glimpse of the dark Behemoth. “Holy Shit” I said to the face next to me. “That’s awful, look how terrible the land looks now.” All the way to the horizon was Black. I didn’t see much wildlife or apparent vegetative growth happening for what seemed like hundreds of square kilometres.

“You don’t even know what you’re looking at” the face replied. “That’s where they haven’t even got to yet.”

 

Up until that day I had registered Alberta’s ‘Tar Sands’ as one of two things. To Cape Bretoners and people of East Coast Canada it was either the worst kind of mythic beast – reprehensible for it’s intoxicating allure, a sure road to damnation – or the answer to our every prayer. At no time had anyone accurately described the Tar Sands to me or told me in detail what went on there, so it’s chimerical status was preserved in my mind since childhood. My Saviour. The Black Messiah. Our Angel of Death. Years later after working in ‘the oil fields’ I understood that most people ‘back home’ had no idea what went on there, hence they hadn’t got past its mythology when rendering a description for me.

The few photos I had seen hadn’t prepared me for the shock and awe of tailings ponds and the utter blackness of the earth surrounding them. Sound cannons blast at 10 – 15 second intervals to keep migrating birds from landing on what must look like clean water to fowl in flight. At surface level it is all too plain to see and smell the toxic leavings; the reason for keeping wildlife at a distance. Overwhelming amounts of acids, benzene, hydrocarbons and residual bitumen from the refinement process slowly seep and dissolve into the ground through layers of salts and silts. Tailings ponds are the solution that’s been used since the early days of Alberta’s oil boom, but decades of increased demand for fossil fuels have taken their toll on the surrounding ecology.

24 hours a day, 7 days a week the worlds largest draglines scoop the areas bitumen filled soil into the payload of high capacity dump trucks. The dragline (essentially an apartment complex on tank treads) has a latticed boom arm like that of a large crane. The arm protrudes out and is attached by a series of taught cables to a trap door bucket attached at the tip. Some draglines are capable of scooping up to 200 cubic yards of earthen material in a single motion. I was told by an operator claiming to earn in excess of $300,000 per year that driving this beast was like playing an oversized video game. Filling up the backs of waiting trucks, then, must be how one earns bonus points. There are no levels to advance. There are no special achievements. There is only the black earth, and the work. Every scoop of the bucket is destined for the back of a waiting heavy hauler before being sped away for separation and refinement. CAT 789 and Liebherr 282 dump trucks run ceaselessly to and from the processing plant where massive tanks contain the boiling water used to separate Oil from Sands. The trucks can haul almost 400,000 lbs of material in every load, and they run all day, every day.

Before beginning work on site every new employee was required to watch a video underlining the importance of staying out of the path of these biggest of big rigs. The general rule in the field was that ‘Everything Yields to the Biggest Thing’. The training video culminated with the story of two friends having lunch one day before heading back to work. One was the driver of a 3/4 tonne welding truck, the other was a 789 operator. After warming up his rig and giving what he believed was enough time for his friend to drive out of harms way the operator put his truck in reverse and began to back up. On the video screen we saw a map of the CAT 789’s blindspots, which cover almost 50% of the area around the vehicle. The driver was backing up his truck when it suddenly stopped moving and would go neither forward or in reverse. Getting out of the vehicle he was horrified to find he had driven over his best friend, who had been having trouble starting his welding truck and had stayed in the drivers seat desperately trying up until the last moment, believing he could make it out in time.

My job was in the repair bay for these electric chariots of fire. Our crew kept the area pressure washed and free of debris. We joked that we were the highest paid janitors on the planet, each of us figuring we had achieved the Atlantic ideal of doing next to nothing while being well compensated. I’ve never fully understood that mindset, it’s warped and makes people incredibly lazy. I asked for other jobs to keep me occupied and would sometimes clean adjacent offices and extraction plant control rooms. In these rooms I saw rows of television monitors with the fixed images of conveyor belts moving black material – earth and stones. Black into Black, and then they disappeared forever. One camera stayed fixed on a raging flame – dead centre in the monitor. The technician told me “If that goes out, we have a problem.”

 

Where did all this material come from? Where was it going? Why was this strange flame so important?

There are things known and things unknown
In the wilds of Alberta
Once I had a steady work pace established I started feeling more at home in Fort McMurray. Despite the obvious discrimination experienced by First Nations residents and the high rates of substance abuse evident when walking down Franklin Avenue, I appreciated the good pay and relative sense of opportunity compared to my time living around Industrial Cape Breton. I amused myself by culture watching. Since many people are up and on the go quite early it was important for news media to broadcast the days necessities first-thing. ROCK 97.9 gave half hourly updates of 3 pertinent pieces of information:
One – The bear watch: If and when black/brown bears made their way into town, where they were, if cubs were present, when they had been tranquillized and relocated

Two – The air quality report: There are environmental monitoring stations set up all around Fort Mc and at intervals to the plant sites. A rogue breeze could bring fumes and gases from the refineries into town so it was important to keep residents apprised.

Three – The morning report on the Drive-Thru lineup at Tim’s: Despite having over half a dozen Tim Horton’s coffee shops (two virtually side by side) it was common for the lineup of cars to extend well onto the roadway into traffic, impeding the progress of morning commutes. Gots ta git me Timmy’s whaaa!

What was this place? what was I doing here?

There are things Known and things Unknown In the wilds of Alberta
The bear watch gave helpful hints about what to do when confronted by a bear in the wild or in town. At the time I was living there, a Native man who had been missing for several weeks was dragged dead onto the side of Highway 63 by a black bear. It was a gruesome sight for dozens of workers on their way to the plant that afternoon, witnessing the bear consume its kill in broad daylight. It was determined shortly after that the man had been living in a self-made camp just outside of town. He had been killed and lay buried under brush for several weeks before the bear returned for the body.

At that time I was travelling the bordering woodlands on foot trying to escape the madness of the city. A close friend’s younger brother, Sean, showed me a camp he was building up, about 2 km outside town on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Athabasca River. An impressive spruce had fallen the year before creating a natural lean-to structure. We added a deck and supported the fortunately placed beam with 2 x 4 stick framing. We added a spruce bough roof. We had cookouts and stayed late into the evening talking shit over campfires.

We hadn’t thought much of our cooking and noise making until late one August evening. Sean and I were determined to reinforce the roof of our structure on account of some excessive leakage during rainfall, and so were out cutting boughs in a densely forested area. There was the noise of my own feet moving, and I could hear Sean slashing boughs off to my right. There was the swing of my hatchet and the *chime* it made as it cut cleanly. There was the sound of my breathing. Then there was something else, something foreign, off to my left. I looked up from my bent-back posture and saw a mother black bear 20 feet from my position. I froze. I stopped cutting boughs. I could hear Sean singing to himself about 15 yards away, still swinging his machete, blissfully unaware of the visitor. I scanned the ridge line between the bear and my young friend. Sure enough, there were 3 cubs plodding their way along the ridge… picking grubs and bounding over each other. I looked behind me to survey any possible chance of escape should the bear make a rush. I was 15 feet from the edge of a cliff that dropped straight down 150 feet to the winding river below. I considered the possibility of jumping and breaking both legs on impact. I accepted that scenario as a completely reasonable choice, and then refocused my attention to the present situation. I gripped my hatchet firmly, trusting my ability to get a good swipe into the mother should it come to blows. I exchanged a friendly but alert glace with her as she looked to me and then to her cubs. She watched them as they moved on away from our camp. She followed them up over the ridge, and they were gone.

There are things known and things Unknown
in the Wilds of Alberta. I left Fort Mc not long after.

It was five full years before I returned to that black land. I rode the mini-fortune I had earned in the meantime to its logical conclusion, spending my money to buy time on a small island off the coast of France. When the money ran out I ran back to the island where I was born. In Cape Breton, the death of a close friend sent me searching for solitude, and I burned 3 years on a frozen rock in the Arctic Circle. In 2008 I arrived back in Alberta to take a job as bartender at a friend’s night club. Rock City is Grande Prairie’s largest capacity club with full capacity at 1200. The building is an old Canadian Tire store location – massive and wide open. It featured 9 bartenders on duty at 3 bar areas, shooter girls, fire spinners and even a male strip show on Wednesday nights. I could pull in an average of $250 to $1000 in tips most nights of the week which was appealing, and the staff were really great to work with. Most of the money was coming in from off-duty oil field workers keen on drowning their sins and sorrows. I asked around to find out what they were earning, thinking I could stack roughnecking and bartending into a serious 1-2 financial punch. Sure enough, a lead came through from a friend and fellow bartender of the same mind. After a rigorous physical and drug test we were both started in the yard at Nabors Production Services, waiting on a crew to pick us up for the real money work in the field.

I spent a month hanging around the yard, getting friendly with the boys and doing busy work when there was busy work to do. Painting, scrubbing, pressure washing the underside of filthy rigs – whatever whim popped into the yard supervisors mind that day. In between labor tasks I squeezed my way into office areas to get some hints as to what crews were gearing up and who to talk to for higher paid work. Richard Butt – an unfortunately named Newfie – presided over the flow of information.

I noticed ‘Accident Reports’ coming in by fax, or sometimes just laying around disowned on desks. I had never much considered the reality that oilfield work is pretty dangerous business. Most of the H2S training you get skims the surface on hazards, at best. The most sincere warning I received was from a woman who emailed me months before when I was living in Halifax. I had listed my belongings for sale on Kijiji prior to leaving and got a reply of this nature from her for my 3 piece microfiber couch:

“Hello, I’m writing in response to your post about the couch for sale. I see from the ad that you’re moving to Alberta for work. I’m not interested in your couch (though it is beautiful!) but felt compelled to email you and tell you to be careful out there. My son moved to Alberta 4 years ago to work in the oilfield. He was there 3 weeks when he fell into a man made hole in the ground and was knocked unconscious. No one on the work site noticed he was missing because he was ‘the new guy’. He died of Hydrogen Sulfide gas poisoning, alone in that hole. Please Please Please be careful.

Sincerely,

XX ”
I wrote back to assure her I had no intentions of working in the oil field. I told her that chapter of life was over for me, and at the time I believed that to be true. Now a year later I was standing in the office of a company that claims ‘Zero Accidents Since (whenever)’ looking at faxes that say things like ‘Replace Safety Chain XYZ on Slant Rig 123, Safety Guard Had Let Go, Worker Killed Instantly by Steel Tubing Through His Neck’, etc.

There are things KNOWN and things unknown
In Alberta.

I continued working for Nabors Production Services and was picked up by a crew doing a daily run to a lease site 80 km out of town, and back home every night. That was pretty lucky from what I understood – most guys were sent out for 28 day stints and were ‘in camp’ (Hotels/Motels) away from family, friends and any real social activity. That lifestyle can be pretty attractive in short bursts but incredibly draining over long periods. I got to sleep in my own bed every night. I got to see my girlfriend and be a Rock City bartender all at the same time. It was a decent deal, all in all.
After 10 days of rig setup time in the bush I noticed my workmates to be notoriously unreliable when it came to information about what we were actually doing on this site, 80 km from nowhere. When I asked about the conspicuous lack of information I was told we were working what is called a ‘Tight Hole’ – as little information as possible is given to the workers, and what does get through is not to be shared with friends or family.

I learned that this site was special. It was one of the largest underground oil deposits in all of Alberta. Located by seismic testing in the year 2000, it was capped with a wellhead and left for 8 years when the company controlling the lease, Beyond Petroleum, was unsure what to do with it. Diagnostic equipment revealed layers of propane and crude oil among other deposits. After a concrete casing was poured (think of a really big straw) almost 2km into the Earth the ‘zones’ were separated with dog nuts and left for consideration. Our crew was the first to crack the seal on that wellhead in 8 years. No one knew what was going to happen, but everyone sure seemed antsy to get going.

 

Despite sworn secrecy, even a veteran tool-push will start leaking information after a while, they just can’t help it.

“Got a new guy coming to work tomorrow” He says to me, driving home from the lease one evening.

“Oh yeah?” I inquire, halfheartedly. Part of me wants to learn what we’re doing, part of me is just too damn tired.

“Yup. A Russian Nuclear Physicist…his name is Igor”

“No shit, what’s he going to be doing?”

Leaning on his console armrest, scratching his beard stubble while he stares out the windshield onto the dusty back-roadway this man is hesitant to break his Tight-Holiness. He wants to prove to me he has some line on what’s going on here – That his position grants him some kind of access to the inner sanctum of Oil Field informational hierarchy.

“He’s testing a new tool down-hole. It’s a new type of fracking gun. It’s called the Shear-Dilation Tool, but don’t bother looking it up – it doesn’t exist”

From what I learned around the yard and in the field my first 2 weeks on the job there were currently 2 types of fracking happening in Alberta: Pressure Fracking and Acid Fracking. Pressure Fracking is where a ‘tool’ or ‘gun’ is wirelined down into the Earth through the poured concrete casing. The gun is fitted with dozens of small explosive charges that detonate either by remote activation or when a lucky team member ‘drops the bar’ and sets the tool off by pressure. ‘Dropping The Bar’ means dropping a piece of rebar into the hole at surface, letting it travel 1-3km straight down at break-neck speed before striking the tool and setting it off. It’s an oilfield wet dream, maybe the 12 year old boy in you can understand. When the bar impacts it sets off the explosive charges and they fracture (frack) the porous rock in the immediate area, sending cracks for a considerable distance. All of this works toward the end goal of making more oil flow toward the giant straw-like casing in a bid to bring it to surface. Acid Fracking can be combined with pressure fracking to ‘eat away’ the porous rock after it has been fractured, further increasing the potential amount of crude coming top-side. All of this requires several 3rd party companies, is expensive and time consuming. Companies are always looking for new ways to bump up production: Enter Igor. His Shear-Dilation tool is meant to do exactly as it says: it Shears (cuts) and then Dilates(opens a cavity). According to my associate the tool had been tested once in Mexico.

“So what’s the explosive charge then?” I ask.

“Can’t tell you, but it’s pressure sensitive…something like C4. It comes in little pucks, kind of look like hockey pucks. Each puck is equivalent to 7kg of TNT, and there are 60 pucks in the tool.”

I do the math. 7 x 60 = 420 KG of TNT. That’s a lot of pressure sensitive explosive to have around! I wonder to myself about what happened in Mexico.

“Igor will be on site first thing tomorrow to assemble the tool. It’s 42 feet long – two 20 ft sections filled with the charges joined together with a 2 ft hydraulic hose in the centre. Our job is to guide it into the hole and get it down to the depth to detonate. I wanna drop the bar on this fucker, it’s gonna be huge!”

I should be scared, but I’m not. I have no idea what is going on and at this point am just along for the ride. It’s my 10th day on the job.

There are things known and things Unknown
in the Wilds of Alberta

Sure enough, at 8am the next morning a peculiar looking van enters our work site. Tank armour is plated at hard angles along the top and sides – it’s a bomb proof van. We’ve been waiting eagerly for Igor to arrive and there is a real sense of excitement about what’s going to happen next. He parks his ride then joins us for the morning safety scrum.

“I am Igor…” he says in a thick Russian accent, periodically darting his eyes up from the circle of boots kicking dirt. He has no more English to share, and we don’t speak his mother tongue. We do our best to include him in the ritual safety round of ‘slips, trips and falls’ but he has his own agenda. He makes his way back to his van and starts to assemble The Tool.

We set up our end of the project which consisted mainly of test running 4 tonne blocks up and down the 30 meter telescopic derrick and clearing away any debris between our catwalk and Igor’s workbench. A light rain had started to fall, making things extra slippery. Looking toward the bomb-van and saw Igor jobbing his primarily PVC creation together with a cordless screw gun and rubber mallet. The whole scene had an air of Amateur Hour about it. I remember back to the previous conversation about ‘pressure sensitive explosives’. This man knows what he’s doing…right?

After 2 hours the tool is assembled and laid out on the catwalk, ready to be hoisted high in the air before being set down in the hole. I get a little queasy as I pass by the tool and it’s foreign father, feeling the first bit of uneasiness now that it’s almost show time. Igor passes me some advice, in his characteristic accent:

“Do not keeck, weeth boot…will explode.”

Ok, check, Don’t kick the fucking thing. Awesome. Totally not sure what I’m doing here at this point. I’m not sure if it was Igor’s intention to stir up feelings of uncertainty among the crew, but there was a definite sense of high anxiety permeating the environment as we raised his tool up the derrick. Another crew member, a 20 year veteran, leaned in as he passed me near the catwalk “This is fucking nuts. I’ve been doing this shit 20 fucking years and this is fucking nuts. This is cowboy shit”

It was totally Cowboy Shit.

I realized then that there were people in my immediate vicinity who just don’t care about the value of human life, and they will do damn near anything to blow a bigger hole in the ground. They don’t care that this thing could blow up and kill all 3 dozen people on site if you did so much as look at it the wrong way.

Cowboy Shit.
There are things Known.

So what did we do? We raised this monster 50 feet in the air and brought it down to enter a foot and a half wide hole in the ground. We started stacking 10 meter lengths of 2 7/8 inch heavy gauge steel tubing on top of it, every one bringing it 10 meters closer to its destination and 10 meters further away from us. I swear to God no one on our crew took a breath for 15 minutes until that Thing was far enough away that it wouldn’t kill us even if it did go off unexpected. And we kept stacking tubing on top of it. The Tool was destined to arrive 1.8 km closer to the center of the Earth before being set off remotely. Fortunately or unfortunately, it never arrived. About 200 meters short of it’s destination the length of tubing we were holding at surface jumped up the derrick almost 3 meters. To put that in context, a 10 meter length of 2 7/8 steel tubing weighs approximately 230 pounds. We were holding 160 pieces of said tubing. 160 x 230 = 36,800 pounds which moved 3 meters VERTICALLY. Perhaps a large explosion occurred below? It’s not rocket science folks, this is the oil field after all.

We radioed back to the trailers where several company reps from BP, Shell and Encana sat salivating, waiting for the good word. We told them the tool had gone off.

“WHADDYA MEAN IT WENT OFF?? PUT THAT FUCKIN THING IN THE GROUND AND QUIT FUCKIN AROUND OUT THERE”

Cheery.

After failed attempts to add more tubing to the string and a few more tyrannical radio messages, the brains of the operation conceded that work had halted – at least for now. A 40 year veteran, extremely disgruntled, made his way up onto the floor in a huff. He stuck his face directly over the hole and smelled what we had already been smelling for minutes. It was a shotgun residue smell – a sure enough sign that something had detonated. He turned to leave. “Take lunch.” he barked as he stormed off, irritated.

All of this happened before 11:30 am. After a decent lunch we grouped in for another safety scrum. The angry veteran spoke first:

“So, the Shear-Dilation tool detonated prematurely”

‘No Shit’ thought a chorus of minds.

He continued: “We don’t know why it detonated prematurely…but we’ve got more explosives ordered from Edmonton and we’re going again first thing tomorrow morning.”

My heart sank into my stomach which sank into my shoe. I must have been Ghost White. I knew right then that showing up for work the next day posed a greater risk to my life than I was willing to take for these psychopaths. There was no way I was sacrificing myself to people who didn’t even know my name let alone care if they blew me to pieces. I went home that night with a difficult decision to make: Stay the course on this ship of fools or forfeit my job and live to tell this story.
There are Things Known and there are Things Known
In the Wilds of Alberta