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Oil Sands Discovery Centre

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IMAGINE… A HOT HEAVY SUMMER’S DAY WITH BUGS flitting about, filling the air with their hum. You’re trekking along one of the many wooded trails dotting out region, maybe along the Horse River valley where bitumen is clearly visible along the hillside. You pause, look around at the stillness and realize you are stepping where dinosaurs once roamed.

How cool is that?

And it’s those prehistoric creatures that have made this region the economic engine of the country.

But what exactly are the oil sands? How does this grainy stuff with the consistency of peanut butter become what’s in our gas tanks and products like shampoos, bandages, and computers that we use every day?

Well, to get bitumen savvy, head on over to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre for a little Oil Sands 101 and experience the history, science, and technology of the bitumen laced sand.

This educational hub has amassed a colourful collection of materials that can teach visitors everything they need to know about the oil sands. There are even a couple of fossils hanging around.

The museum talks about the whole scope, not just about industry, but oil sands geologically and historically. It’s about the early pioneers who came up here and set about figuring it all out and what they did in the early development dating back to the 1920s, explains Diana Moser, the centre’s senior interpreter.

“There are a lot of scientific and technological advances that have happened in the oil sands so we cover all those things here,” she adds. “There are a lot of different programs for people to take part in as well. It’s a very informative museum. It’s the best way to get a knowledge of the oil sands without actually being on site.”

The main Dr. Karl A. Clark Exhibit Hall -- named after the father of oil sands extraction as it is known today -- has different sections, each addressing a different part of the oil sands.

“We’ve got the big truck which everybody loves with the simulator so you can go up and ‘drive’ one of the big ones,” chuckles Moser.  “We have lots of hands-on that deal with what the oil feels like, different viscosities.”

There’s stuff to read, watch and even touch. Pint-size visitors can don coveralls and hard hats and get to ‘work’ in the play lab. They can even try their hand at building a truck …well, a foam wall-mounted puzzle truck.

Computer stations provide extra information for those really interested. Daily demonstrations are offered to show how the oil sands are separated using hot water and explaining that’s how they do it at the mine sites – just on a much larger scale. Films and videos are shown throughout and Professor Knows It All is on hand to explain oil sands at the kid level.

On weekends, the centre offers the discovery lab which is activities and little experiments based around a different theme each month, and it’s not necessarily oil sands.

To get up close and personal with some of the giants needed for mining, visitors can trek  to the outdoor display area, featuring mining equipment that was once used in the oil sands mining industry. Cyrus, the 850-tonne bucketwheel excavator, is one of the largest land-based artifacts in Canada. The outdoor area is closed over the winter months for safety reasons.

The provincially-owned centre first opened its doors in 1985 and went through a major re-development in the early 2000s. Open year-round, it typically welcomes more than 25,000 visitors a year.

“That’s quite a good number considering the fact that we are so far north,” notes Moser. “We’re northern-most site of all the government sites.”

The biggest audience the centre lays claim to is Fort McMurray itself. Moser explains that the centre means a couple of things to the area. 

“We’re kind of the unofficial science centre so a lot of things we do community-wide are very sciencey with the science camps, the education programs we give for schools, that sort of thing.”

“Our other main audience is the people who come here because they’re curious; whether it’s business travellers, people coming to the region to figure it out. We do get a lot of people who live in Fort McMurray bringing their families who are visiting.”

Summer walks are another offering of the centre, taking history buffs and the curious down the Horse River Valley in Abasand. On the trek to the valley, the unmistakable aroma of bitumen can be detected in the air and bitumen chunks can not only be seen coming through the valley walls, but also form the path the hikers are walking on.

Dodging the remnants of dumped vehicles, appliances and other assorted garbage, the hikers visit the remnants of one of the original oil sands plants, Abasand Oils Ltd.

The plant, according to historical documents, started producing oil in the Horse River Valley in September 1936. The plant operated for five years before a fire destroyed the powerhouse. The plant was rebuilt and continued to operate until 1945 when yet another fire devastated the plant. Despite several attempts, the plant was never operational again.

Production Capacity
(barrels per day)
Project StatusMiningIn -Situ
Projects in Operation 1,303,000 925,400
Projects Under Construction 220,000 544,905
Projects with Regulatory Approval 1,010,000 1,245,949
Projects Under Regulatory Review 595,000 1,615,270
Projects Announced/Disclosed 100,000 1,284,000
Total Production Capacity 3,228,000 5,615,524
*Project information valid as of Aug 2012. Public sources used.

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One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.