Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:
A Complete Guide
Cold, Mud and Bugs
Dealing with the Seasons and Roads
Every season in the oil sands comes with its own peculiar set of challenges. Here I’ll explain what the elements will throw at you as you toil away. Winter is the most notable of course. You wake up in darkness, shovel snow all day in frigid temperatures and only finish work when it is dark again. In fall and spring you wade through an infinite morass of squelching, sucking mud, becoming intimately acquainted with the dozens of mud varieties you never even knew existed. Summer isn’t bad, except for the dense swarms of horse flies, black flies and mosquitoes, sweltering heat and abrupt lightning storms.
Up until mid-November only slushy snow had fallen and the mercury meandered over freezing point. Raised on the West Coast, the only part of Canada absent ‘Canadian winters’, I had begun to cautiously hope winter might not actually be the ordeal I’d been mentally preparing for.
Then one morning as I opened the door to leave camp for work a blast of cold air hit me in the face, sucking the air out of my lungs and sending me reeling. Winter had come. Gathering myself I trudged to the truck in the midst of swirling snowflakes, freezing wind whipping at my face. Overnight the temperature had plunged to -20°C, -36°C if you factored in wind chill. In our morning toolbox meeting we were informed an Arctic front had descended upon us and would not leave for the forecastable future. We were given a helpful chart explaining what temperatures would freeze off our fingers and toes. The chart indicated the current conditions would cause exposed flesh to “freeze within one minute.”
Chart indicating the danger level of the cold. The red circle indicates the coldest conditions I had to work in, about -49C (-56F).
For the next four months the temperature remained stubbornly below -15°C. Sometimes it would get much colder, and for a week at a time it would stay in the minus 30s. There were rare days it would get so cold, around -45°C, that the oil company deemed our lives imperilled and halted all work. I had always thought that -15°C was so ludicrously cold temperatures any colder were effectively meaningless; cold is cold. It turns out this obviously isn’t true. Breathing becomes difficult around -20°C, and you can feels every single degree colder than that. Moisture in your mouth, nose and eyes turns to ice. A pot of boiling water tossed in the air will freeze solid before hitting the ground.
This kind of cold makes carrying out even the simplest of tasks draining and time consuming. Our spades failed to scrape the iron-hard earth. We struggled with stacks of lumber super-glued together by shafts of ice. Frozen engine blocks would defy every effort to turn over. Extreme winter rated wiper fluid froze on contact with the windshield. I once foolishly removed my gloves from my sweaty hands to fumble for a wrench in a shadowy sea-can. I only realized I’d happened upon it when I stepped into the light and saw the wrench stuck fast to my numb hand. After I’d peeled off the wrench I made for the warmth of the truck and jammed my hands in front of the heater. Ten minutes and a panic attack later sensation finally returned to my trembling digits. Others were not so lucky: we were given reports of workers nearby losing fingers and thumbs when they dispensed with their clumsy winter gloves for too long. I noticed some of those who’d grown up in northern Alberta had frostbite scars on their hands and faces.
It almost never stopped snowing. This was not thick powder, but light dry snow that would only accumulate an inch or three a day. Every morning began with a bout of feverish snow-shovelling under floodlights. A thick blanket of clouds obscured the sun and we lived in twilight and darkness for days and weeks at a time. We began work at 7 am and the sky gradually lightened enough to turn off the headlights at 9:30 am. Then the sky started darkening around 4 pm and it was pitch black by quitting time at 6 pm.
Still this was all manageable. Managers understood when work slowed to a glacial pace. We were encouraged to take as many warm-up breaks in the truck as needed. Many times this would equate to a 1:1 ratio of time sitting in the truck warming up vs. time spent working. On the very cold days it was probably a 2:1 ratio. None of our superiors ever questioned the necessity of this.
My employer provided me with warm clothes that offered excellent protection from the harsh climate. Covered from head to toe in thick woolen layers, I could barely feel the effects of the cold, save on my protruding nose. Most veterans of Alberta winters will tell you they prefer winter to summer: you can put on more layers if you’re too cold, but you cannot wear an air conditioner when you’re too hot. So long as you keep moving and have a truck nearby the cold is rarely unbearable.
If you are going to be working in the oil sands in winter do not count on your employer to supply you with winter clothing beyond gloves. Bring warm clothes. You don’t need much, a pair of long johns, waterproof snow pants, a balaclava, and as many pairs of socks as you can manage (thin ones that will allow your feet to breathe inside your boots).
To ensure vehicles and equipment would start in the morning we’d simply leave them running all night. I grew up in a place where ‘Idle Free Zones’ are a thing and seeing dozens of trucks and pieces of heavy equipment idling every hour of every day was horrifying. But after a few mornings spent unthawing the engine block I came around to the wisdom of this wasteful practice.
There is a never-ending stream of wide-load trucks like this one traveling 100 or 120km/hr on the highways around Fort McMurray, regardless of the weather conditions.
Driving on the highways around Fort McMurray is another aspect of life worth covering. Highway 63 is the main artery connecting Fort McMurray with central Alberta. It is sometimes called the ‘Highway of Death’. Its safety record is bound to improve once twinning into four-lanes is complete, a process that is proceeding at a snail’s pace.
Highway 881 is a two lane highway that runs parallel and to the east of 63. A decade ago it was a dirt track. The region is seeing rapid SAGD development and the 881 takes far more heavy traffic than it was designed for. The endless stream of speeding wide-load trucks, aggressive drivers and non-existent shoulders can make driving this stretch of road a hair-raising experience at the best of times. In winter one must also contend the short daylight hours, thick sheets of ice coating the pavement and swirling snows that dazzle the eyes. You’d often have to guess where the line separating you from oncoming traffic was. People frequently got it wrong. Most would err to the right, and veer off into a snowdrift. But sometimes they’d err to the left, and smack head-on into another vehicle traveling 100km/hr. Those sorts of accidents were reported on the radio with shocking regularity.
These are the ones who picked the wrong side. Roadside fatalities on Highways 63 and 881 over the past decade.
My first experience driving the bustling 881 at night in blinding white-out conditions was probably the most terrifying ordeal of my life. After the white-knuckle trip I felt like vomiting. Eventually I became acclimatized to driving in the extreme driving conditions, but it is a good idea to master driving in winter conditions (which I hadn't) before tackling the highways around Fort McMurray at night.
The camera is remarkably effective at cutting through the white-out conditions seen here on Highway 881. You can't see this well in person.
Around March the snows began to melt. It was a slow process and winter only reluctantly loosened its icy grip on the region—the last snow fell in May. It did not feel as if there was a spring in the oil sands, just a gradual muddy transition to summer. The land beneath our feet was muskeg, bogland, meaning most of the snow-melt didn’t drain away but instead saturated the ground and turned any dirt surface into a quagmire. On construction sites nothing is paved so we were doomed to spend these ‘spring’ months struggling through the morass. I often caught myself drawing parallels between our existence and the First World War’s trenches or the Russian rasputitsa that foiled Napoleon and Hitler.
While these conditions presented fewer practical dangers and drawbacks than wintertime, trudging through knee-deep sludge for months at a time is exhausting. We grew accustomed to having our coveralls caked in mud that hardened like cement and stiffened our clothes. The mud would grab your boots and refuse to let go.
The trucks managed. Our truck, an enormous Ford F-550 with dual rear tires, negotiated the atrocious conditions with ease. Pressing the gas pedal through the floor pulled us through all but the deepest mud pits. When that sometimes failed we could sheepishly call a loader or bulldozer to tow us out.
With longer daylight hours and clearer skies, driving on the highways became easy again. Now our main problem were the huge chunks of mud that hardened into cement on the insides of the wheels. With the wheel alignment so distorted, getting up to any speed on the highway made the truck shake so badly I imagined we were riding the space shuttle into orbit. At 90km/hr our teeth chattered and we’d fight to maintain control of the steering wheel. Then, suddenly, the shaking would stop, and we would see a fist-sized clump of dirt sail high into the air and land on the the road ahead of us. We could avoid this by beating the rock-hard mud out from the wheel wells, but that proved almost unbelievably difficult; a friend once managed to pop a tire in the effort.
By June the ground hardened and the temperatures rose to the mid-20s and 30s. The summer months were short and sweet. The panoramic Alberta skies feel far more voluminous than anywhere else I’ve been, and they’re more dramatic. Most days end with a breathtakingly beautiful sunset.
The pace of work quickened. The graders that constantly patrolled and repaired the roads in winter and the muddy season gave way to water trucks that kept the roads damp and the dust down. Manual labour in the hot sun in fire-proof long-sleeve coveralls was difficult, but we were able to take as many breaks as we wanted (within reason) to cool off in the air conditioned truck.
As if on cue hordes of bugs emerged from the muskeg to torment us. Most common were the swarms of tiny black flies. Individually their miniscule bites were barely noticeable, but their strength lay in their numbers. Their behaviour was perplexing: Inexorably attracted to the interiors of vehicles, they would collect by the hundred on the dashboard of any parked vehicle until the vehicle began moving. Then as soon as the window rolled down the window they would escape out the crack.
Huge and intimidating horse flies also followed us everywhere we went; apparently believing our truck was some giant lumbering beast. They were far less irritating than I expected as they rarely bit (though it was extremely painful when they did) and their three-day life span kept their numbers in check. More vexing were the mosquitoes that would flock to any patch of exposed skin. At work this wasn’t so bad because most companies demanded long sleeves be worn while working, leaving only the face and neck vulnerable.
The oddest bugs were the giant tar sand beetles, properly known as white-spotted sawyers. They are attracted to the smell of bitumen and will flock to oil sands projects. They don’t seem to have brains. Instead they careen around the air at random until they land on someone’s face. They rarely bite, but when they do I’m told it will leave a scar.
The warm air promoted terrific lightning storms that would appear out of nowhere and bring all work to a standstill. Any lightning strikes within three kilometres would send us scurrying to the lunch rooms to wait out the storm. In late July this was almost a daily occurrence.
Living With the Seasons
That covers all of the weather difficulties you’re likely to encounter. Though they sound awful, they made life more interesting, an inherent part of the experience. So long as you dress appropriately, drive to the road conditions and keep a positive attitude, you'll be fine and can at least say you've been through a real Canadian winter.