Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Next Northern Town

I promised you Fort McMurray and now I haven't even seen the Oil Sands Museum before shipping out. I've recently been informed that the Athabaska Oil Sands are this years ice trucks on American TV. I'm always surprised to have Americans know weird details about the north of Canada, but apparently it's all content for cable TV. So maybe you know all about Fort Mac already. I can tell you only that it's strung out along highway 63. There's no downtown 100th Street and 100th Avenue or any grid pattern at all: the oldest streets are named after people and the streets loop around in little sections off the main road. It's an overgrown bush camp, is what it is, and it's still growing. The service is indifferent, like most places in Northern Alberta. People can get high paying jobs easily and it's hard to recruit motivated workers for the service industry.

On the weekend there's no parking at all at the airport, and the long term parking lot contains a lot of very long-term parked vehicles with flat tires. I guess sometimes people who live elsewhere buy a local truck and fly back and forth, then when the contract isn't renewed they abandon the truck. From the air it's like anywhere in northern but not arctic Canada: rocks and trees and lakes. The trees are very green, a combination of the springtime new growth on the evergreens and a large deciduous mix. There's a lot of muskeg swamp. People come up here for recreation, too. Right by the airport there are two camps, one surrounding a little lake and one just at the airport for convenience of its occupants. There aren't many people who say, "I wish I had had longer for sightseeing in Fort McMurray."

After lunch I settle the fuel bill for our training flights. One of my colleagues is short only a few hours PIC for her airline transport pilot application, so I give her the leg to fly. She plans it and tells me there's some low stuff so we'll be at 1500' agl. That's fine with me. She's legally single pilot, but I offer to do the radios and she accepts. I set the GPS for the destination, being careful not to set it to Moose Jaw, this time. She asks my opinion a few times about which way to go around rainstorms, but I know that she doesn't really need it. It's just girl-style CRM. We're flying above a big river and she looks it up on the GPS. "That's the Athabaska." One of the fun things about this job is the number of times I get to just casually fly above some hugely significant geographical feature. The Great Lakes, the Hudson Bay, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Athabaska, Mississippi, St. Lawrence, Fraser Rivers, the Rocky Mountains, the Canadian Shield, the chain of volcanoes that runs from BC to California, the South Dakota badlands, the astonishing flatness of the Canadian prairies in winter. That I can recall being slightly bored above all of these vistas just makes it all the more amazing.

Once en route there's no one to talk to on the radio. I tell her I'm napping and actually do fall asleep for a while despite all the low level bumps. I wake up about fifteen minutes out of our destination. It's still the same rocks, trees, lakes and oil extraction infrastructure, maybe a bit lumpier terrain as we're closer to the Rockies now.

We land and taxi in, asking the flight service specialist where we can buy fuel. The fueller is even there, despite it being Sunday, and tows our plane to parking after fuelling. He even helps with the luggage. Wow, where are we? Texas? You never get service like this in Canada. The customer picks us up in a truck. He's talking on his cellphone "just picking up the pilots ... well, they do have their own vehicle, but it doesn't work so well on roads."

The airport is a ways out of town, so we get to see it. It's another northern town I've never been to. There are trucks and trees and mud. There's talk of building a nuclear power plant here. We go to dinner at a restaurant with a startling large menu: everything from cheeseburgers to lobster dinner. We all order Chinese, the house specialty and get large portions of excellent food, with superior service from a soft-spoken young man who turned everything I ever wrote about northern Alberta service on its ear. He wasn't just enthusiastic. He was skilled. At the end of the meal my fortune cookie promised that I would be reunited with a "lost treasure" this month. Everyone laughs as I express hope that this is my suitcase.

The WestJet website still lists the case of my missing suitcase as "Open" which they define as still looking for it. I had hoped it would be at least "Matched" by now. I've already called them when I found out that I was leaving Fort McMurray, but now I have an address where they can send it, so I call them back. It turns out that my suitcase has been found. It's in Fort McMurray, of course. It got there about the time we left, I imagine. Too bad their tracking system didn't work well enough for me to intercept it. They will fly it to Grande Prairie and then send it to me by bus.


Geekzilla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geekzilla said...

If your suitcase could blog, I'm sure it would have an interesting story. Hopefully you'll be reunited with it very soon!

Unknown said...

Could be worse! (turn your sound down - loud soundtrack):

Anonymous said...

I love the irony that American TV knows more about some parts of Canada than your usually detailed travelogues. I've followed "Ice Road Trucks" on the History Channel on and off. This season (which I believe started January, 2009) is in Alaska, and they've "imported" "Canada's best" truckers to see if they can handle Alaska's equivalent "ice road."

The previous season was *way* up north, with lots of travel to some place that starts "Tuk" and has hundreds of letters after it. Everyone calls it "Tuk", surprisingly.

The season prior ('07?) took place primarily in a several hundred mile radius of "Yellaknife" as they all called it, going north to the various diamond and gold mines. Fascinating mode of transport--hours on end at something like 25kph, hoping you don't fall through the ice, run into 0/0 conditions or get involved in a head-on.

Thanks for the insight into your ride--congrats on checking off that box.


Lord Hutton said...

I took a wheel-less and address label free skateboard to Venezuela. It arrived with my case shortly after I did, so all credit to airlines luggage handling

Sir Lukenwolf said...

ongrats on the past test. not that we ever were in doubt. Show 'em girl :-)

Aviatrix said...

Tuktoyuktuk? Heh, that's one of the easy ones. It's as recognizable as Mississippi. My current favourite name is Quttinirpaaq, because it means "top of the world" but spell it Quittinirpaaq (as Google Maps does) and it can instead be translated 'the person who has gained the most weight.'