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The Old Fort: A musing from the Oil Sands

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What they don’t tell new arrivals.

I LOVE LIVING DOWNTOWN. APART FROM THE WEATHER, I can sometimes forget I’m even in Fort McMurray. There are new immigrants everywhere and at times it can feel like I’m back in Johannesburg or Nairobi. Plus, if I need a cab, there are always about a dozen of them available.

The diversity of this town surprises visitors. There are more than 100 different nationalities, nearly as many languages, and a spread of beliefs and cultures that cover almost the entire range of human history. But sometimes I think we do these new residents a disservice. It is difficult to move from a country on the equator to a part of the world that actually has seasons. It’s one of the reasons why we talk about the weather so much. Up here if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you, you might not make it back home. I remember at the Christmas parade about three years ago, watching a new family climb out of their vehicle dressed in their finest traditional clothing. They lasted about five seconds before the heads dived back in and their saris were covered by bulky winter jackets.

 Most Canadians have an inbuilt sense of how long it’s safe to be outside in cold temperatures. New people? Not so much. Here is a how-to-guide for living in Oil Sands country from November to March (or September to May, depending).

Winter is cold; seriously, brutally cold. Unless you are from Nepal and used to climb Everest for a living, you have probably never experienced anything like it. And just to make you feel even colder, the cheerful people on radio talk about the wind chill factor. This is a mathematical calculation that is actually useful information – “Minus 22 today but with the WCF it feels like minus 31.” It is also depressing. It’s like being told by your doctor, “You have a virus that will cause intense diarrhea for 48 hours. Don’t go out in public because you will also be sneezing a lot.” When in doubt, listen to the lowest number, and dress accordingly.

Strangely, even though it is so snowy and miserable most of the time, everyone drives white trucks. These are considered normal-sized vehicles in Canada. Back home if you owned two of them it would be because you ran a construction company. If the people you work for give you one to drive, remember where you parked it or else you may only find it in the spring.

On the other hand, if you buy what you would consider a normal car – something made in Asia that has only four wheels, seats, and cylinders – there is a distinct possibility that you will get run over by a white pick-up. It’s not that they dislike you – Canadians are really very friendly – it’s because they won’t necessarily know you are there.

Statistically, the chances of being rear ended/run off the road/crushed increase by 10 per cent for every one of the following factors in play: 1) he’s male; 2) he’s wearing sunglasses; 3) it’s dark; 4) both conditions 2 and 3 occur simultaneously; 5) his ball cap is on backward; 6) you can hear the music he is playing while he is a dot on the horizon; 7) he has tinted windows; 8) he has four or more tires on the back axle.

If the suspension has been jacked so that he needs a ladder to get into the cab, get off the road now. Not only does he not see you, he cannot. And if you continue to insist on driving your econo-hatch, at least buy a buggy whip. It’ll help to find you in the snow drift.

You may have been told that the Inuit have more than 50 winter words. This is not strictly true. Like Albertans, they only have two; ice and snow. There are, however, 50 different ways to describe them. Some involve colour: black ice; white, blue, and deadly yellow snow. Some talk of density: thick and thin ice; moist, light, fluffy snow. The heavier it gets, the cruder the description. Soft snow is for Christmas ornaments, fecken’ heavy snow is the stuff you have to shovel.

Other important details we should have told you, but didn’t. You will want a remote starter for your car, also a block heater and a place to plug it in. Buy the repeat business deal so that you can get it repaired the first three times you drive away without unplugging. And then there’s the drive to work. Your trip out to site can take anything from 20 minutes to Suncor to over an hour to CNRL, in ideal conditions.

Ideal conditions are Sundays from May to September, some Saturdays, and the occasional day over the summer when there are no roadworks, shutdowns, outages, or new construction. Otherwise, leave early. If you have to cross the bridge, leave earlier. If you want to get coffee, leave even earlier, and if you want a coffee from Tim’s, don’t even go to bed. Go home, eat some supper, kiss the wife and kids, and turn around and head straight back to site.

Finally, just accept that in winter you will be late. Shrug and say, “Sorry, traffic,” and it will be understood. Walk in two hours late with a box of Timbits and not only will you be forgiven, you’ll probably be promoted.

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Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.