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May 3, 2014

Night Shift in the Oil Sands

When night falls the wildlife tentatively reclaims the land

A shortage of bus drivers precipitated my appointment as night shift shuttle driver for a week. In practice nobody used–or was even aware of– the shuttle service, meaning I ended up spending my nights sitting in the shuttle or hanging out with the security guards and hearing about their homelands of Gambia and Ethiopia.

Working night shift affords one the opportunity to savour some of the experiences inherent to working this far north that can easily go missed if one is stuck on the 0700-1730 day shift. It’s refreshing to be on the work site absent the sights and sounds of hundreds of men working. The silence reminds you how close to the wild we are, how thin on the ground our little patch of civilization is. At night nature creeps back onto the land so recently claimed by man.

I can relax. There is no pressure to be seen to be doing something. You don’t have to drive around in your truck and play a sort of adult version of hide and seek I call “The Kevin Game.”

The rules of the Kevin Game are simple. The seekers, the numerous bosses we answer to, patrol around in pickup trucks, like predators on the hunt. There’s a lot of them, as one of my coworkers would often say, “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.”

Deer wander back onto the construction site at 4am.

The quarry, us, must evade detection by these lurking menaces. By learning routines, finding safe zones, eavesdropping on other companies’ radio channels and memorizing all the players’ trucks as you would their faces, we can get pretty good at the Kevin game. If you get caught, as often happens, a list of plausible and seemingly high priority tasks demanding your attention can be used as a last resort. If this fails then you lose, and you have to work.

During night shift you also have more time alone with your thoughts. Time to ponder who in your real life you can text and remind you’re alive, and time to write things like what you’re reading now. Though by many measures it’s a good life, the isolation and enforced regimentation can be difficult to deal with. It easily becomes all encompassing and lonely. Reminders that there are places that are not this goddamned place are always welcome.

On one night Ola, a guard, distracted me from my ongoing Rome Total War campaign and beckoned me outside urgently.

Dude Keven’s coming! Just pin it, we gotta get the fuck outta here.

“Can you hear that?” he asked.

A faint chorus of yips and yelps carried out of the woods in front of us, rising and falling with the wind. I thought they were coyotes, but he shook his head. He had seen them before, eyes shining malevolently as they stalked along the treeline, watching him. He pointed at a towering Dodge 3500 parked nearby. One of them was as tall as the hood, he said. No coyote is that big. Just then a long, very lupine howl cut short all the smaller cries and erased my doubts.

“Shit, this is like that fucken movie, The Grey,” I said. He agreed.

“I wish Liam Neeson was here.” He agreed.

Our work site straddles a creek that we’re told is a ‘wildlife corridor,’ so we see lots of animals: beavers, deer, owls, foxes, coyotes, bears, and wolves. During the day the wolves seem more majestic than dangerous. But at night, in the dark, their presence becomes sinister and unnerving. I made sure never to stray far away from my truck.

They’re pretty big and they’re not afraid of people.

It didn’t help that the previous day a woman at another site, Suncor, had been tragically mauled by a bear. It happened in broad daylight and in the middle of a busy laydown yard. The most popular theory currently is that this tenacious winter has left the bears emerging from hibernation with little food for forage. They are hungry. Presumably the wolves are having a hard time of it too.

I saw the Northern Lights. Emerging from the security shack at midnight, I glanced up at the sky and exclaimed “No fucking way!”

Undulating green sheets banded across the sky. Beginning at the horizon, they extended straight over my head and continued to the opposite horizon. The gently rolling plains around the work site meant I had an almost unimpeded 360 degree panoramic view. They were fast moving, faster than the fastest clouds. Rapidly and randomly, they changed shape and brightness, transitioning from long wispy white strands to thick fluorescent green blocks. I hopped back into the bus and pulled into a darkened parking lot where I had a good vantage of the brightest streams. In the distance one could see the unblinking and ominous tower flare at the nearby upgrader, always reminding me of Sauron’s lidless eye.

Apparently this photo was taken by Fort Mcmurray the same night I saw them, April 30. I check this website pretty frequently for the next chance to see them.

I had seen the Northern Lights once before. My first winter here I told my friend and coworker John that seeing the Northern Lights was one thing I absolutely had to cross off my bucket list while working up north. John was a Cree Indian who had grown up in Fort Chipewyan far to the north, near the border with the Northwest Territories. Though seeing the lights was almost a daily occurrence foWr him growing up, he was eager to take me out, in the manner people suddenly become enthusiastic about the most ordinary aspects of their surroundings when given the opportunity to show them off to an outsider.

Good ole John.

In the middle of January, when it was -35 Celsius outside and there was three feet of snow on the ground, the website dedicated to tracking such things showed a 70% probability of catching an aurora. Around midnight we hopped in his truck and drove out onto the middle of Gregoire Lake. It was thickly frozen, John assured me, and fresh snow made it hard to tell where the beach ended and the water began.

Blasting the heater we parked and watched the sky, waiting. I had brought along a few beers, because, well, who wouldn’t want to drink a beer in this situation. As we waited John told me about his tough upbringing in Fort Chip, the drugs many of his peers succumbed to, and the fights he couldn’t avoid, as well as the summers spent fishing, the winters snowshoeing. My childhood was pretty tame by comparison, to put it mildly. He kept stepping out into the cold and scanning the sky with an expert eye. After some time he pointed at a patch of clouds and told me they were the Northern Lights. I doubted him, but he told me they often looked white, not the green I’d expected. We reorientated the truck and saw as they began phasing in and out, growing brighter all the time. As we watched the pulsating white columns in the sky John told me how the Cree believed the Northern Lights are the spirits of the dead who’ve come out to dance. You must never whistle at the lights, he told me. To do so would draw their attention, which can have disastrous results. I did what anyone else would do and tried whistling at them.

My stint as shuttle driver ended quickly. Yesterday I was wrenched back onto the day shift. Kevin has just returned from days off. Nature recedes into the background again.

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