I didn’t hate Fort McMurray when I first saw it. I didn’t have any strong feelings about it one way or the other. If I had, I would’ve fought my exile there a little harder. Instead, I drove my 3/4 ton pickup there armed with only a crude map and the instructions that camp is a little past Fort Mac wholly unprepared for what it would do to me. My boss pitched it to me as though I had a choice, as though he was really interested. I was an obedient co-op student, one of about 15 who’d been hired to work in Edmonton a term or two. Having grown up a gay nerd near Vancouver, I felt that I needed to challenge myself. I wanted to take myself outside of my comfort zone. So when my boss said “How would you feel like going to Fort McMurray for a few weeks?” I really couldn’t say no. Besides, it was only a few weeks.
The drive up was pleasant. I have no qualms with long car rides and the Canadian wilderness is breathtaking even from the road. While I knew vaguely how to get to Fort McMurray, there were a few bumps along the way. Since I wasn’t accustomed to Edmonton’s roads I stretched the 5 hour drive into nearly 6. This became 7 as it turns out that the ‘a little past’ instruction that I had been given meant another hour. I also wasn’t prepared for the distances between towns along the way and drifted into a gas station on fumes and desperation. I pushed onward still wildly unprepared for what lay ahead.
Eventually I made it, Fort McMurray. It didn’t seem so bad. I viewed it with the kind of low-level disdain I held for rural towns outside of my beloved Metro Vancouver. It was like Abbotsford, a blurry little place with a couple of gas stations and a Tim Hortons that I would drive through on the way to somewhere else. I refuelled there having learned my lesson from before, then drove on over a little bridge out of town. Just north of Fort Mac the only indications of the oilsand refineries and heavy industry were evidenced by “Wide Load” emblazoned vehicles hauling heavy machinery or trailers. The trees were cut back from the roads, but not as ravaged as I had imagined. There was a glistening little lake opposite a series of Giant Bison sculptures. It was, and probably is, still quite charming.
Then I drove up, over a small hill and found myself on a industrial moonscape. Saying that it looked as though a bomb had gone off wasn’t doing this landscape justice. It looked like an alternate reality where instead of organic life there were hulking beasts that trudged around a milky toxic lake. In the distance, I could see a maze of pipes like a steampunk dystopia without zeppelins or chivalry. This was Syncrude’s refinery at Mildred Lake and to this day I will never forget it as a harbinger of impending stress. On the right, there was a massive crane whose bucket could accommodate any of the ant-sized trucks that drove by it. In the distance was a sprawling complex of steel pipes and industrial exhaust. I drove around the tailings pond unable to express the scale of human activity which had bleakified the area. I switched into cautious driver mode, cognizant of the heavy machinery nearby which would make short work out of flattening my truck if it came to it. I hunched over the steering wheel and drove on into the buffer forest which occluded the view of the industry once more.
The road signs advertised the various camps or installations off of long side roads. Many had majestic sounding names like Aurora or Firebag and I watched careful not to miss mine. The traffic had grown thick past Mildred and I didn’t see any safe place to turn around. I didn’t have to, I found the small road for the site I would be working on. There was a 10 minute drive on an undulating road over muskeg which I should point out, should never be built or driven upon. Muskeg is highly organic soil that deforms long after most inorganic soil would have stopped. In this case, it happened to compress along one stretch of road causing three, very pronounced bumps which if you weren’t paying attention, would bottom out your vehicle. I persisted and drove onto a bumpy gravel road for a short time until I arrived at camp. Camp was a series of temporary trailers connected together like a possible moon base might be but more remote and covered in dust.
I entered. The accommodations were like a dirty hospital or a less grim prison. The halls had some paintings and plants but these seemed more like placeholders for when the real art would arrive. I knew better than to think that there would be some kind of welcoming committee. The woman at the front desk was contemptuous but helpful. She handed me a form to fill out and lent me her pen with an eye roll. When I asked her to clarify one section on the form she answered with a heavy sigh.
The main hall had branches of accommodation wings sprouting off of them. I was in room J something, but really it was more like closet J something. It was L shaped with a bed stretching the length of it, and a desk taking up the width. A TV was sitting atop a closet where I would hang my wardrobe. A pair of long johns, fire-proof overalls, some flannel and blue jeans plus 2 civilian outfits were my only clothes that I had brought with me.
When I arrived here, I came with only a scant assortment of clothes and belongings because if you remember, I would only be here a few weeks.
Those few weeks turned into 7 months.
This was a cleaned up portion of what I wrote yesterday. I think it will be an ongoing series of reflective creative non-fiction explaining my time in the Oil Sands near Fort McMurray.