Wapasu Nights: On Being A Coyote in Canada’s “Man-Camps”

Wapasu Bus Lot, A Sloppy Day in Late Winter

Sometimes I find myself in a place where I’m sure there ‘is nothing to photograph. I am almost always wrong.

No matter how sterile or seemingly dull the environment, you can always find a story to tell and something to shoot!

The Bagup Room – a delicious piece of Newfoundland terminology, translated to the middle of the subarctic boreal forest and an oil boom that powers Canada’s economy. Past overall-clad figures in studded safety boots, I toss sandwiches, fruit and salad into a paper bag, then sidle past the exquisitely bored Somali guard in the dining room. Grabbing a tray from the pile, I shovel orange and grapefruit slices into my bowl, and line up for a neatly institutional square of omelet, followed by a dipper of oatmeal in a white china bowl.

Dawn at Wapasu Lodge

Exactly eleven minutes to eat breakfast, then through the Wapasu Lodge doors into a blast of cold in the predawn Arctic darkness. I shuffle out with a hundred more thickly bundled

Waiting for Brass Alley

figures to wait under the baleful red lights of Brass Alley. Lights flash red to green, and we

Brass Alley

shuffle forward through turnstiles. Out the Alley’s back door, we hurry in the glare of halogen lamps studding tall pylons into rows of buses whose diesels growl into the blackness.

Such is morning at Wapasu Camp in Canada’s northern Alberta oil sands. Researcher, doctor, photographer, driver of big trucks – I am now a Health, Safety and Environmental Trainer/Industrial Hygiene Specialist, working for Chicago Bridge and Iron, helping build Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Oil Sands facility in Alberta’s subarctic North Country.

My “work week” starts around 10 am when Janie drops me off at Maple Bay, a secluded cove about ten minutes from our Vancouver Island home. I stand with my bag and computer pack at the end of the wharf amid houseboats and pleasure craft. Soon a small float plane buzzes into view and skims in for a landing. My bags are tossed on board, and

My “Other Car” – the de Havilland Beaver at Maple Bay

I climb in beside the pilot, trying to keep my knees from banging the stick and my feet off

Riding Shotgun on the Beaver

the pedals. We roar up the bay, climbing into the air over boats, forested islands, and summer homes, glide into Salt Spring Island’s picturesque little harbour to pickup a couple more oilfield workers, and 30 minutes later glide over Richmond’s crowded suburbs to touch down on the Fraser River. I walk three block to the commercial South terminal at the airport, and two hours later join a crowd of about 200 rugged-looking men and women heading north on Canadian North’s chartered

Boarding Canadian North at Albian Sands

jet. Two hours later, we are landing at Albian Sands airport, a strip of tarmac without even a control tower in the middle of the snowy Northern Alberta wilderness. We crowd into a row of snowy (or muddy, depending on the season) Diversified Transport buses for an hour’s ride to our respective camps, where we line up for our room assignments, haul our stored bags our of the luggage room, and settle down for a night’s sleep before an early morning and another bus ride to camp.

I rise at 4:45 every morning for 20 days, then pack my belongings off to storage for eight days at home. This is known as “Working a 20 and 8 cycle.” I later move to a “14 and 7” cycle – two weeks on and one week off – which is much more civilized. My days are spent in my classroom trailer, teaching orientation courses and introductory safety topics to electricians from Ireland, pipe insulators from California, and boilermakers from West Virginia.

Stereotypes paint construction workers as burly men with tattoos, beer bellies, and not much between the ears. The reality could not be more different. Many will surprise you with their depth of knowledge and thoughtful intelligence. Louis L’Amour, the famous writer of western and adventure stories, talked about the many self-educated men he met in the west (see Education of a Wandering Man, Random House, 2008).20130922_063748

The workers at Kearl are likewise a diverse and fascinating group. One shared that he is a fossil collector from the Maritimes. A self-taught, graduate-level amateur paleontologist specializing in the invertebrate fossils of New Brunswick, he corresponds professionally

The Guys I Teach

with museum directors across Canada and has original theories on the dating of the first land creatures. His talk of ancient eras and documentation of Eastern Canada land mass movements left me in the dust.

Kearl Lake from the Air (Anonymous Photographer, early 2012)

One big Irishman plans working hard and saving for five years, then retiring to care for his partner, who has multiple sclerosis. Another is an avid photographer who just got back from a job in Spain where he had time to photograph the Alps. A third, a quiet man from San Salvador, spent three years in the jungle as a guerrilla after union membership brought death threats. Scottish cement contractors mix with safety experts from coal mines in Nova Scotia, and rub elbows with insulators from Cape Breton. A wonderful cross-section of the world, their stories stretch from Canada’s blustery Maritimes to the forests of the West, opening little windows on Somalia, Ireland, South America, and China.

The classroom banter is the best part, and the camaraderie with my fellow teachers – language gets rough but I love working with these guys:

Morning chatter in the trailer (tasting my coffee carefully, making sure they didn’t sneak in an extra bag and supercharge it):

Me: Good morning, guys. Is anybody awake???
Big Mike, my fellow teacher, wanders through the class with his first cup of coffee.
Me: “Guys, this is Mike Knoll. He’s a very good teacher, but he is always insulting people.”
Mike: “Come on! I’ve been here a whole half hour, and I haven’t told anyone to fuck off yet!”

Ty (sticking up his hand): Can you tell me when we’re supposed to go home?
Me: I can’t tell you when to go home. Only your company can do that. What’s the matter? It hasn’t even started to get boring yet.”
Ian (Older guy with one arm, sitting next to Ty): Don’t be so anxious to leave. You’ll give the guy a complex.”

We all go around the room, introducing ourselves.

Big guy with black hair: I’m a trucker. I drive truck on the site. I’m 52, I live in Ontario, and I got ten kids and one foster kid.
Me: You’re going to be up here a long time. Those little beggars are expensive. By the time I discovered that, it was too late. You must have a big house!”
Big Guy: Seven rooms. It’s not too bad, except when the girls all get on the rag at the same time. Then it gets interesting! (Grins) When they get on each other, I just tell them to shut the fuck up so I can watch television.”

Paul (tallest, skinniest guy I’ve ever seen, wound up like the Energizer Bunny): “My name’s Paul. Everybody calls me Paul F. That’s for “Paul F…. Welder.’ I got my five rules to live by. They’re tattooed on my arm (and they are).
Me: “Meet me later. I want to photograph your arm.” And I do.
Paul’s T-shirt is pink. The front of it says “All my black shirts are dirty.”

I introduce myself part way through the introductions, show pictures I’ve taken, talk about my cameras, our time in the mountains of Kentucky, and the walks and images I take here in the marshes.

Paul (privately, afterward): “Hey, I know all the trails around here. I’m a bootlegger.”

One guy is a guitar collector. One spends his money to travel the world. Ian is an underwater photographer.

Next lecture – My other fellow teacher, Libertad, is from Peru but lives in Colombia, where she has to worry about workers who keep machetes in their tool bags when labor relations get touchy. She spent many years in mines high in the Andes. She’s great on getting the guys moving and doing role playing. Have you ever seen a dozen big, whiskery construction workers up on their feet like a bunch of kindergarten kids, acting out the two-arm hand signals for moving a crane the size of a house???

And so it goes….

Life is never dull up here…

Wing 39, Wapasu East

The people are fascinating, but the place? Wapasu in the winter can only be described as bleak and institutional. Rows upon rows of barracks-like prefabricated buildings fill the skyline of the Arctic night. There’s no doubting their usefulness and the speed in which they can be constructed and taken down again, but visually they leave a lot to be desired. Corridors, gray and blue and lined with aluminum siding, stretch into the distance, pockmarked with endless rows of doors, differing only in their numbers. Workers are camera-shy, and photographing people seems like an intrusion. In contrast, the Kearl construction site is fascinating, with enormous yellow cranes rearing starkly upward in the morning sun, and flames burning balefully in the darkness to heat huge vessels about to be welded – but photography is forbidden. I am reduced to scattered pictures taken unobtrusively at camp with my Droid X smartphone or an old Canon point-and-shoot.

Evening At Wapasu Camp

Yet as I walk evening after evening around Wapasu, its wings rearing like huge fingers out of the snow, illuminated by the halogen glare, I see that night and the light lend it a stark, monolithic beauty. Inside, the corridors, if institutional, are striking in their symmetry. I begin to experiment with my Droid and camera. As I become one with the human river flowing through the turnstiles and into the buses in the Arctic darkness, my Droid sneaks almost by itself out of my pocket. I begin to snatch profiles of huddled figures silhouetted against Brass Alley’s red glow, and try frame after frame to catch movement as workers hurry for buses.

After a Long Day – Back to Camp

As Wapasu becomes my home for three weeks per month, I bring my favourite framed photographs. Pastel rugs decorate the floors, and vintage cameras crown my armoire, together with loving cards from my wife. I come to realize that the camp is warm and cozy on the inside, with a Tim Horton’s and a little general store. Meals in the dining room include prime rib, Cornish game hen, an immense spectrum of desserts, and many varieties of salad. Pool and table tennis are available. Decor is austere and prefab, hauled-in-by-a-truck-and-bolted-together institutional, but housekeeping is excellent, the staff are friendly, and we can decorate our rooms to our taste.20131110_103249 - Copy

Much to learn, and I have joined a culture unknown to most of the world. Meet the rodbuster”” – he cuts and bends rebar for concrete foundations. The “rigger” connects the cable for cranes that lift tons of steel. Zoomer stops by my trailer – he drives a “Zoom-Boom”, a contraption like a forklift on a huge extendable arm, mounted on four enormous

Teaching fall Protection – My friend and fellow instructor Libertad

tires, and capable of lifting loads forty feet in the air onto scaffolds and elevated work sites. I learn about – and then teach – scaffold safety and the physics of falling wrenches. Life is not dull. A pile driver piston fractures on Thursday; the top fragment blows out of the cylinder and 300 feet into the air, landing at the base of the driver: 16 inches diameter, 30 inches long, and 2500 pounds of solid steel that misses everyone because of well-designed safety barriers.

I learn more about my new construction culture. Brass Alley? A long trailer, studded with red lights and and multiple doors with turnstiles, no brass within miles, and it is called Brass Alley? Intrigued, I investigate, and find threads linking me to builders and miners of the last century. “Brass”, dollar-sized brass discs, were issued to miners and builders as a method of timekeeping on mines and large projects before the computer age. Each miner would “brass in” – collect his token – as he passed through the gate of brass shack at the beginning of the shift. A missing token at the end of the day meant a miner unaccounted for (see The Brass System).

The origins of my new safety profession are written in the blood of miners and workers. Hillcrest, Alberta, 1914 – 189 dead, 400 children fatherless. Westray, Nova Scotia, 1992 – a small Cape Breton community changed forever from “incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference.” It is no wonder that my bible, the summary of Alberta’s safety legislation, is called “The Red Book.” Each dry law and code traces back to a miner buried, a hand lost, or a life changed.

Evenings are for dinner, work on my web site, and walks. In winter, the latter are adventures. Wolves are about, the largest about 150 pounds, requiring a canister of bear mace that bounces on my hip. Breath congealing at -17 Fahrenheit, my snowshoes sink into the powdery snow as I break trail up a seismic cut. I must be adventurous; 7,000 people in this camp and I am the only one out in the woods tonight. I have one mysterious friend who has gone before me, their narrow cross-country skis leaving tracks into the Arctic darkness. The tracks turn right into the forest, and I follow, my light catching snowy jewels off the stunted arctic spruce as the trail snakes through a miniature frozen lake, mounds of snow gleaming in the brilliant beam. In my hidden lake, I take refuge from the industrial glare in pools of frosty darkness between the spruce and tamarack.Despite the industrial-grade camp lights and institutional setting, walking the forest roads near Wapasu can be a surreal and beautiful experience. Over the snow-crowned tips of the spruce, the horizon is studded with pools of pearly white light, gleaming off the low-hanging clouds. Visible from space, these opalescent pools of light mark other camps and claims surrounding Wapasu – Firebag to the west, CNRL (Canadian Natural Resources Limited) to the north.

Oil sands from Space

Despite being huge mines and industrial complexes, their glows dot the horizon like pearls on a necklace.

As my surroundings soak into my consciousness, surreal and beautiful images begin to coalesce out of the harsh industrial lighting. Like the upturned brushes of some giant boreal artist, a grove of leafless white poplars gleams in the light cascading from the

Poplars, Jupiter, and Aldebaran, Wapasu Camp

camp. A tripod improvised from a cardboard box and a pile of snow captures their glowing crowns, with Jupiter and Aldebaran suspended above. Next rotation, I return with a huge old Mamiya tripod. A monstrosity at home, in Wapasu, it is perfect, with long legs that Wapasu, Winter NightWapasu Camp from Forest Snowshoe Trail
disappear three feet into snow and still leave me plenty of tripod for my little camera. Lugging its bulk one-handed with my poles in my other hand, I set out nightly. Prowling the margins of ugly snow piles, an abstract of shadows paints the fresh snowy surface, their

Snow Shadows 01

darkness piled layer on layer. As I walk, I have not one shadow but four, with long stilted legs and a head lost in forest. Farther on, roadside snow mounds are an abstract in

Long-Legged shadows

crystalline lines and deep shadow. The play of halogen light and shadow creates many abstract shapes, creating images of stark simplicity. A single twig in a snow bank stands out, silhouetted against a band of black shadow. At each stop, my little Canon is dwarfed on its huge mount, but its shutter clicks faithfully – until the batteries and my naked fingers succumb to the cold.

Twig and Shadow

An anomaly among camp dwellers, my sanity is questioned: “Man, you’re crazy…There’s animals out there!” Likewise, there is much negativity about camp life. Google Earth’s citation on Wapasu is filled with comments like “This place sucks” and remarks on the terrible food.

My Room at Wapasu

Like much of life, Wapasu is what you make of it. Consider the coyote. One of the most successful animals on the planet, the coyote thrives from the blistering Mexican desert to the frozen tundra of Alaska. He can be found in and around most large North American cities, where he will cheerfully make off with your garbage or Fluffy the cat to feed his mate and pups. His secret? He is amazingly, wonderfully, adaptable. In my own way, I am a coyote in this austere place, making a den for myself and finding a way to grow, flourish, and pursue my art within the Gulag. On the bare walls of my little room, I improvise clips over moldings to hang my artwork, scrounge colourful old mats from my basement, and cut bulrushes from a ditch to make a corner flower arrangement. Vintage cameras adorn the dresser, together with cards from my wife. Audio books play on my computer, and my austere room suddenly feels like home.

Be aware, however, that this adventure requires preparation, and does not work for everyone as well as it has for me (see Geoff Dembicki’s “Oil Sands Workers Don’t Cry“). Being up at four or five am daily and working a 10 or 11 hour day is tough, especially if you are hanging tank insulation at -30 degrees. Heart attacks are not uncommon, though numbers are hard to come by. One worker dropped dead at the table in the east wing while I was enjoying my trout in the west dining room. Isolation is hard, and you need to plan for ways to feed your spirit. The process is especially tough with young families, and fathers or mothers who cannot be home. Just getting sleep can be a struggle, and fatigue feeds depression. One worker’s significant other called him in the middle of a class to demand a divorce. A nurse told me that many strong, superficially tough men have closed her office door and burst into tears. One needs to go into this experience with an eye on one’s health: take favourite hobbies, music and books, get exercise, choose healthy options in the food line, socialize, talk with your family about managing separation and child care. It can be a great experience – or a miserable, lonely time.20130925_111038

But if you can adapt, it can be a good life. One red-haired young ex-schoolteacher said, “This is fun!” Apprentice pipefitters praise the experience: “Man, I’d never get to do this stuff in Toronto!” Another schoolteacher, driving a house-sized heavy haul truck, said “I made my year’s salary in three months.” Humour helps: “Kearl Correctional” hoodies are common. A crane operator’s T-shirt blares, “Heavy Lifting Starts at a Million Pounds.” One hefty fellow’s back says “Fat people are harder to abduct.”

So each night, I strap on my snowshoes to visit the jewel-encrusted tamaracks and firs. And once again, almost without my willing it, images climb through the lens of my camera and onto my film. No matter where I go, or how unpromising the place, they find me, and I must take them home and look after them.

There is always something to shoot.

Rand at Kearl

Postscript: My kids saw my Wapasu images and asked, “What did Dad do to get sent there???

Note: These images are all digital, taken with a Motorola Droid, a Samsung Galaxy 4, or a small Canon A610 point-and-shoot on Aperture Priority.

On Being In the Picture

The Interview

We spend a lot of time behind the lens. Occasionally – and often because a classic camera attracts attention, and gives us a special legitimacy – we get a chance to become part of the action, and are privileged to be in the picture rather than watching it.

Wandering the streets of Montreal near McGill University, I chanced on one of the professors being interviewed. Sensing a photo opportunity, I brought out my Voigtlander, whose classic Art Deco lines caught the attention of the cameraman. As I caught this image, he saw a fellow professional, and turned to me, asking, “Say, would you mind holding this umbrella for me?”. I found myself standing next to the professor, just out of the frame, holding the umbrella to diffuse the scorching Montreal sun, as he said, “Just a little higher. Now a bit to the left… That’s it! Perfect! Now just hold it there…” as the professor read from her notes.

As the interview ended, I asked the cameraman if he would mind taking a picture of the two of us with the umbrella:

Rand and the Professor

My cameras bring me riches far beyond mere images. The greatest of these is the link with so many people and the adventures that come with them. Some are big adventures, like a magical night with Loretta Lynne’s family; others are small, like a chance encounter on a Montreal street. Yet all become colorful threads in the tapestry of my life, and I am richer for them. The cameraman told us that he recently became a Freelance Cameraman and was thoroughly enjoying his new career. He took some beautiful photos of us, and I knew he was going to be a successful professional photographer.

Photographer’s Note: Carry a notebook! Not only is this useful for recording places and exposures, it also provides a safe place to store names and addresses. Both the professor and the cameraman requested prints, and in the year it took me to review the scans, I lost their cards.

The Bride at the Summit: A Smartphone Photo Essay

The Bride at the Summit #1

On those rare instances when life hands you a wonderful scene, grab whatever you have that will make an image and use it!

The Bride at the Summit #2

Traveling to Calgary, (see The Phototrucker’s Blues), we left the Fraser Valley under leaden skies and a downpour that rattled on the roof of our van. Rain turned to sleet and then snow as we ground up the steady climb to the summit of the Coquihalla Highway, avalanches spreading towering piles of mounded snow and splintered tree trunks beside the road, and gray mountaintops disappearing into the overhanging layer of soggy cloud. An hour passed, and slush turned into walls of dirty brown snow walling both sides of the highway. Finally, the clouds thinned, and an isolated rest stop loomed out of the snow. Gratefully, we stopped and unpacked sandwiches and celery sticks.

As we relaxed, contemplating the overcast and gravel-stained walls of snow, into this gloomy landscape scooted a small white Nissan. My eye was caught when a young Asian man in a neat blue vest and slacks hopped out, brandishing a bouquet of flowers and a camera. The bouquet was enough of an anomaly in this dreary landscape, but his

The Bride at the Summit #3

dark-haired female companion then leapt out of the car, clad in a white wedding dress, and scampered down an aisle between grimy snow mounds. My celery stick hit the floor, I grabbed the nearest camera (the Droid on my belt), and catapulted out of the car. I’m not sure if this is for every bride, but it does make for some amazing photos. If this is something that you are interested in doing, then you need to make sure that you have the perfect wedding dress for this photoshoot. If you don’t know what dress to get for the photoshoot (or even your wedding), then you could always check out this site here: https://www.winniecouture.com/stores/wedding-dresses-houston-tx

The Bride at the Summit #4

Like an exotic flower in a wasteland, the bride posed beside walls of gravelly snow, dancing from spot to spot while her husband followed her with his camera and I hopped

The Bride at the Summit #5

from spot to spot to keep up, framing images and punching the camera stud. Noticing me, the bride smiled and posed for me, and they handed me their camera. Even though I knew Geoff Wilkings is the best wedding photographers in Calgary, tried my best and framed two quick shots, then caught their pose again with my cell phone.

The Bride at the Summit #6

As they leaped shivering into their little car and roared away, I had presence of mind to grab my card, thrust it through the window, and cry, “Email me and I’ll send you pictures!”. Apparently, they married a year ago and had to delay their honeymoon.

The PhotoTrucker’s Blues – Part 1: Finding My Way

Rand and Maxie

Imaging driving a 1956 all-steel Cadillac with a little Austin engine and an eighteen-speed transmission down a tiny country road filled with milling sheep.

Add in a transmission with six gears (including reverse and ultra-low), a ranger switch in front of the knob that that shifts everything into a high range, and a little slider on the side that cuts each gear in half. Plus an interaxle lock switch and a rear differential lock switch (for snow). Together with as many dashboard switches as a Piper Comanche. Stir in the cyclist who yesterday zipped six feet in front of my truck as I was turning off the highway. That’s life in the slow lane (or very slow lane up hills).

That’s learning to drive a 60-foot, 50,000-pound truck and trailer through downtown Victoria traffic. I am learning on a big Volvo/GMC truck named “Maxie” whose Caterpillar diesel is only happy between 1200 and 1700 rpm. I go through four gears before most drivers are out of low, and double-clutch both up and down (no synchromesh). Once I have learned all the skills needed, I may reward myself with one of the dump trucks for sale in ontario that really caught my eye when I was browsing online recently. Long way to go at the minute but I’m confident that I’ll have the skillset soon enough.

Yes, I have a new adventure. Confirming that there is very little call for my many but general skills here, I enrolled in Saferway Driver Training School, the Island’s best commercial driving school, and am spending my days in a full-size semi truck and trailer. When my training is finished and I have my license, I am heading to a camp in Alberta’s oil patch to drive heavy trucks. There’s a reason that I’m going to a driver training school, and that’s so I have less of a chance of causing an accident. I know that driving can be dangerous, I also know that no matter how careful I am something is likely to happen. As a side note, if you are ever involved in an accident with a truck then it might be a good idea to get yourself a lawyer to help you with filing a lawsuit. If this is something that you are thinking of doing then you could check out someone like these truck accident attorneys North Carolina. As well for security reasons or if an accident were to happen, you could visit BlackBoxMyCar to get the best dash cams for your vehicle.

Trucking is immensely hard work, and I am managing to stay fit with climbing into and out of a high cab, and sliding wormlike around under the truck and trailer for morning inspection – also about as extensive as the preflight for a Comanche. It is a complex trade, with many things to do at once – watch the road, interpret many warning signs that I ignored in a car, watch the trailer as I swing wide on corners (taking up all lanes of some small residential Victoria streets). The hardest thing is to just coordinate everything into a smoothly coordinated whole.

It has had its rough moments, but I am actually having fun. I am entering a fascinating culture with many quirky characters and possibilities for fellowship. My instructor, Larry Hurdle, sports an exuberant mustache and possesses an inexhaustible store of both trucking knowledge and stories from his years as a logging truck driver.

Air Brakes Day- Larry and the Spring Brake

Lessons are peppered with stories of absentminded One-Chain Jack, who forgot to chain up on a snowy road, running his truckfull of logs off the road and over a bank. Deciding to cover himself by chaining up after the fact, he was discovered with one set of chains on the wheels high in the air, pondering how to attach the other set to the other set of wheels buried in the mud. He was dubbed “One-chain” on the spot, and never lived it down. This same miscreant, a heavy smoker, once burned up a load of prime shingles on the truck and noted that it was “…probably a spark from the stack (exhaust)…” Another chainless day Jack removed a front axle assembly sliding down a mountainside and into an abandoned logging road, missing the snow-filled ditch the company had dredged across the road.

Air brakes days: Consider a plate of spaghetti loving arranged by a cocaine-crazed kitten. Pepper liberally with valves, couplings, air tanks (Supply, Primary, and Secondary), and hand valve (“The Spike”), red and yellow dash buttons,”S-cams”, and mine-shaped air chambers that can crush a ton of pressure onto a brake drum. Over two days, Larry weaves us in and out, up and down through the maze. Old trucker stories: “In the worst cold, the air valves used to freeze up, so we soaked a rag in the fuel tank and lit it under the valve to thaw it. Except one day, I dropped a rag into the tank and didn’t know it until the truck began stalling every time the fuel was low because the rag would float over the fuel intake. After we figured out what was wrong, I fished out the rag and bought a little propane torch for the valves. The truck ran better too.”

Air brakes- Valves and hoses, valves and hoses

Life-saving tips: Overbraking on long downslope ( i.e., the way most of us drive, holding brakes on down a hill) can heat brakes red-hot, causing drums to expand and lose contact with the pads. Larry says, “If your truck brakes fail on a downhill and all you have is your trailer brakes, don’t just pop the red button and lock the parking brakes on… You’ll die. Lock the brakes off and on, off and on. You’ll have a rough ride, but you’ll make it.’ We all listen intently.

“Drive shaft – no excess play!” “Brakes – spring over service, automatic slack adjusters!” “Push rods – travel adequate!” I pull myself along caterpillarlike under the truck, stomach barely clearing the differential, grit falling on my face. What do fat truckers do? I bang on air bags and tug on lines and shock absorbers, barking out the inspection steps like a Marine trainee on a parade ground. “Kwitcher complaining!” Larry bawls affectionately as he paces me, “I kin hear you huffing and puffing from out here!” I finally haul myself out from under the rear of the trailer, pulling myself under the Honda Bar (a sort of reverse cowcatcher, meant to keep those perky critters from mashing themselves under the trailer). Pulling and tapping and delving from the front of the truck to the taillights, I’ve timed compressor build time, emptied tanks, banged tires (proper inflation pressure has a sound – no time for a gauge). You do not simply climb into a truck and drive away! I’ve learned to back up a semi to within a half-inch of alignment for the kingpin on the trailer, hauled myself up and down from the cab a hundred times, hooked and unhooked air lines, and come to know the sound of the big diesel when it’s happy.

Sometimes this all seems overwhelming, especially at 65 – this old dog is definitely being forced to learn many new tricks – but it is an adventure at a time when many my age are racking up TV time, and I am fortunate that I am fit enough to do it.

I am getting a lot of positive feedback from friends and acquaintances about this enterprise. Once I get over my angst about not using my training, I start to realize that I am embarking on an adventure, and I’m getting a great deal of support, both from Janie and others in my world. This morning, I spoke to an attorney friend he said that he rather envied me! That really made me stop and think! I am doing something unusual.


Shifting gears on 60,000 pounds of truck and trailer is an art. Not the dreamy, let’s-see-where-it-lands emotionality of the French Impressionists, nor Picasso’s disjointed connection with the moment. And definitely not Jackson Pollock’s exuberant splashes of paint from a ladder. More like the delicate touch of the English miniaturists, or the Precisionist movement of Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe – economy of movement with every stroke connected with the last and anticipating the next, and no time for sloppy plunges of the foot or hand.

The basics mastered, a light trailer is paint-by-numbers. Tuesday, we glide around back streets, the gears slipping one to the next with a minimum of grinds and complaints. The day is sunny, the cherry trees lining Victoria’s harbourside coyly expose touches of blossom, and life is good. Even MacKenzie Avenue’s gridlock seems benign as I make my way home, glowing with satisfaction despite aching knees and muscles that feel like warm spaghetti.

Yet enter only part way into the real world of trucking, and the cracks in my technique become glaringly obvious. The next day, a March storm batters the island; ferries huddle in their docks, my office lights die to the blue-flared wump of an exploding transformer, and fir branches fill the air like snowflakes. With only a moderate load of concrete blocks on the trailer, we pull out of the yard into sleet for my first experience of the Malahat’s twisting mountain highway.

I must be in an alternate universe; the laws of physics, at least with my right hand and left foot, are gone. Someone has moved third and fourth – they’re not where they were yesterday. And low keeps creeping into the spot where second lived on Tuesday. Uphill, shifts need lightning speed as the load of concrete pulls Maxie back and speed drops when the diesel stops pulling. Downhill, those enormous blocks spin the rapidly-accelerating driveline , and my hands and feet must match spinning teeth and shafts as we descend. My mind fails to connect revs and kilometers with muscle and nerves, and I miss a shift. As I flail my right hand to connect a gear – any gear – Larry barks “Clutch!” and deftly pulls the gear lever into third. Maxie falters and then growls to work again.

Eaton Fuller 18 Speed Transmission Shift Pattern

However, some things go well. I have my first experience of the “Jake”, or Jacobs engine brake. As we slide around the snakelike curves from the summit, the Jake’s machine-gun rattle holds us steady with only the lightest touch on the brakes as Larry gently feeds me tidbits from his library of life experience of engines and steel.

We weave down the narrow track to Mill Bay as I turn off the engine brakes and practice “Stab” braking – on and off, on and off, watching the speedometer and tachometer, holding our descent parameters in a narrow range, yet never letting the brake pads touch the drums longer than absolutely necessary. Finally reaching the choppy steel gray of the sea, we pull off on a gravel strip beside the waves as gusts batter the truck. The wheel hubs are barely warm.

As I brace against the wind, Larry hugs the shelter of Maxie’s radiator. “Spend much time in the North, and you’ll discover that this is the only spot that’s warm.” Hmm – more advice from an old hand. Images of cowboys trapped in Wyoming blizzards shooting a cow and surviving within the warm carcass flash through my mind. Next time I’m lost in the wilderness, find the nearest Kenworth and drape myself over the hood?

Keeping Warm at Mill Bay - Maxie and Larry

I definitely have much to learn. It could be worse, however. Twisting through the lower reaches of the Malahat, downhill grade, two narrow lanes with a slim barrier on the left and ragged rock wall on the right, Maxie holds us steady in fifth with the Jake rattling. “Can you believe I once went down this whole stretch with a student in neutral with no air for the brakes?” Larry reminisces. I twist the truck left and right, left and right through this narrow chute and think about a terrified student gripping the wheel. Nerves of steel. I could not do what Larry does.

Malahat, April 17, 2011 (Courtesy Victoria Time-Colonist)

Back in the yard, we put the truck away: I crank down the landing gear, uncouple the glad hands and hang up the hoses, yank with all my weight on the handle that releases Maxie’s jaws on the trailer king pin (dodging the pound or so of gritty black grease oozing from the fifth wheel plate) and pull ahead just enough that the trailer hovers over the rear wheels (collapsing landing gear will put the trailer on the tires, not nose-down on the asphalt). My ego is dented – bent and twisted even – but I have learned some things.


I am starting to understand Dr. Jeckyll better. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jeckyll transforms at night into the evil Mr. Hyde, who prowls the streets of London – a classic case of “split personality” (now classified as Dissociative Identity Disorder). I climb out of Maxie one afternoon, knees aching, baggy, grease-stained jeans, old green jacket and grit on my face. Trucker Collins’ work boots carry him into a gas station mens’ room, and a suit bag plops over the towel rack. Ten minutes later, Dr. Collins’ brown Rockports step out the washroom door beneath natty beige slacks, white shirt, blazer, and sporty red tie knotted precisely at the collar. Down to Victoria’s exclusive Union Club – buzzed through carven panels by the doorman, shoe polish, brushes and mouthwash precisely laid out on the marble counters of the mens’ lounge, wine rack by the dining room, and Victoria’s elite (and elite hopefuls) sipping coffee by the tall windows. This is weirder than working for MI-5. I discuss opportunities for government contracts with a management consultant.

Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde (Poster from the classic 1931 adaptation with Frederick March)

A week later, Persona #2 is in Baltimore at an elegant lakeside hotel, refreshing his certification with the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) as an inspector for the international ISO 15189 standard for medical laboratories. A2LA is taking on the thousand-pound gorilla of the College of American Pathologists, introducing a new standard for medical laboratory accreditation into the USA. No work as yet, but international labs waiting in the wings to join the parade once A2LA’s certification passes government logjams thrown up by established powers. Week spent on Estimation of Measurement Uncertainty analyzing concepts like this:

as well as document management procedures, traceabilty of measurements to international standards, and much more to do with certifying diagnostic quality. I am helping to pioneer a new venture for American medicine.

My highest cortical functions have had their workout for a week. Ten hours on a plane, blazer folded in the closet at midnight, don Persona #1. Scan the Maxie’s preflight checklist, four hours in bed, and back to the world of drive shafts, hitches, and a growling Diesel.


Out without a load on Victoria’s winding streets, practicing shifting and clutch work. First, second, third, fourth, ranger up, fifth, sixth, then all the way back down again. Not as smooth as Larry, who shift gears like a Chinese master doing water colors (green, pink, brown and black on fours sides of a round brush, then one quick twist of the wrist and a flower graces a page of rice paper) but smooth enough, and no bucking or heaving.

The next day, the challenge I have been dreading: out on the same narrow corners and byways with 50,000 pounds of truck and concrete blocks. Last time, the truck bucked and heaved like a clipper in a heavy sea whenever I started out. A week off has allowed knowledge to settle, however. This time, whenever, Maxie protests, I quickly engage the clutch and tell him to get to work. He likes this new-found mastery, and we move smoothly up hills and through gullies. I have time to watch the traffic more closely and manage a serviceable buttonhook turn in dense traffic, a complex but essential maneuver where one must signal right, then at the last minute move left, simultaneously blocking the right lane with the trailer and occupying the left lane with the cab, before moving wide around the corner, missing curbs, pedestrians, and telephone poles. At an ice arena parking lot, I manage an alley or “Jack” backup, moving the trailer backwards around a 90 degree corner, without being too badly out of position. I will be a trucker yet.

Next week, off to Alberta to look for work.


Just as it did for the thousands of English and Irish emigrants who populated Newfoundland two centuries ago, the morning comes when it is time to leave for a new land. Work looms before I can leave home, however.

A hectic last month; falling in love with 0.4 acre of Cowichan hillside, we inherited a view of rolling hay fields brooded over by the dark mass of Mt Prevost. With the view and the hillside, we also acquired several hundred metric tons of densely obstinate shale, demurely hiding beneath the thinnest veiling of soil. Needless to say, gardening is akin to breaking lumps in a Welsh coal mine, and our lawn stays green only by dint of intravenous nourishment and its proximity to the septic field. Getting the garden brushed and combed and ready for spring: an arduous task, but finally ready for the lawn service to take over.

My seven year project to create a storage gallery and wood shop in the garage reaches completion, and a car moves in and makes its home. Mail, accumulating in the corners of the office like dry leaves on the porch, must be processed and shredded. Vacuuming, lunch-making, and packing fill the night till early morning. Five cameras? Film? Three pairs of underwear? Restoration tools? Jeans? I’m packed. New persona, new life, new beginnings – frightening but exciting. Many of my peers are watching television and playing golf. Despite occasional envy of their relaxed lifestyle, I realize I feel alive, and happier than I have been in years. Finally, a challenge, an adventure, and life in motion…


Morning: Moving, a rustle, rattle, and crackle reaches my ears. Knowing that that the range of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) does not include Vancouver Island, I cautiously open one eye to find Janie asleep beside me on a layer of mail.

North Pacific Rattlesnake

Accustomed to awakening to find knitting needles and other sharp objects sharing my resting place, I cautiously ease out of bed and remove the offending literature. A cup of strong coffee brings my lifemate to consciousness, and we scurry through a morning of final preparations, ferry schedules, and last minute paperwork.

As we back down the driveway, I feel both anticipation and a sense of apprehension: a 65 year old doctor/photographer turned trucker- will anyone take me seriously?. Calls placed to major petroleum companies, and Flint Energy, largest of the equipment haulers. Web sites: Lists of benefits and testimonials from happy workers. Please use our on line service. Resume submitted as requested. No answer. Consider resume: medical director of this, consultant on that, trucker…TRUCKER??? Is this some kind of joke? What did he do??? Abscond with the piggybank? Auction off the Percocet on eBay? Stereotype: Doctors don’t drive trucks, they retire to the Bahamas and play golf. I decide to present my resume in person whether they want to talk with me or not.


We leave the Fraser Valley in pounding rain and gloomy gray overcast,, crawl up the long climb of the Coquihalla Highway, rain turning to a blizzard as we twist and turn between huge piles of muddy roadside snow. Stopping gratefully at the only rest stop in miles, we munch celery as we contemplate this depressing landscape. Suddenly a little while Nissan zips to a stop beside us, a young Asian man jumps out, a multicolored bouquet of flowers in his hand, and a bride with full wedding regalia and flowing black hair leaps out the other side, and they scamper off down a narrow aisle walled by towers of gravelly snow. My photographers antennae a-twitch, I am out of the car and tearing off in full pursuit. Following this elfin couple (at the start of a delayed honeymoon) yields a fascinating sequence of images as they cavort from snow pile to snow pile, and finally pose for me (see The Bride at the Summit):

The Bride at the Summit #5 (Droid Digital Image)

The wide grasslands of the Nicola Valley, coffee in Merrit, the Rogers Pass in a freak winter snowstorm (truckers crawling, car over the bank, one death), then time to explore Lake Louse and Banff, fondly remembering a second honeymoon spent here. Today, I am just savoring the fact that Janie can walk after four years of orthopedic disasters.

At an underground mall in Banff, an opportunity I cannot resist: among the fudge shops and racks of kitchy souvenirs, an underground bar and pool hall, dim light, and a group of colorful but slightly rough-looking males assaulting small balls with sticks. After some hesitation (I am a shy people photographer) I introduce myself as a writer doing an article on cell phone photography and escape with several images.

The Pool Hall (Droid Digital Image)

Challenging conditions for the little Droid camera with its love of bright Caribbean sun, but I push it to the max and one image passes the difficult lighting conditions with considerable tweaking of contrast, saturation, and curves in Photoshop. This would be an extremely difficult shot with a 1940s roll film camera, and one would be struggling with a wide open lens (limiting depth of field) and slow shutters speeds (failing to catch the quick movements as the pools aces quickly align their shots). Here, the Droid’s extreme depth of field is an asset.


Two days Alberta St. John Ambulance First Aid, one day Hydrogen Sulphide Safety course, on-line Petroleum Safety Training….. and all the networking and potential-employer-visiting I can cram in over the rest of the week. Life may be transformed based on what I learn.


St. John’s Ambulance: Resuscitating an unconscious choking baby: Place baby face down on arm. Whack baby five times on back. Flip baby over. Poke baby five times in chest with second and third fingers. Blow in (snotty?) mouth and nostrils twice. Repeat as need until baby wakes up or help arrives. One of the few times it is legal to hit your children.

Baby Dummy Heads, St John's Ambulance

Dealing with Stroke (Versus TIA). Open fracture of the arm. Sucking chest wounds. Amputations, Partial versus Complete. Not good after-dinner pictures. Chemical burns. Avulsion of the eyeball. A realistic picture of an eyeball hanging out of a socket. I know it’s realistic, because I’ve seen one just like it. Time for lunch.

Splinting the Tibia

H2S Alive Training:Hydrogen Sulphide (Sewer Gas, Sour Gas). “…an extremely toxic and irritating gas. Early recognition and detection is crucial to protect employees from deadly exposures…(Kalusche, H.E.).” Rotten egg smell, heavier than air, lurks in low-lying areas in oilfields. Potentially hiding behind every valve cover and tank top on a rig. Inhibits cytochrome oxidase enzymes in nerve cells. Low concentrations paralyze the sense of smell. At higher levels, the “Knockdown Phenomenon” – sudden loss of consciousness, respiratory depression and arrest.

Respirator Training - A Fellow Student

Hunting for A Job:
Time to Regroup: Time between courses and job hunting for photography. A shopping trip; a bright display of wine glasses catches my eye:

Wineglasses, Calgary Hudson's Bay

and a drive in a spring snowstorm finds a grove of poplars, thinly veiled with falling snow:

Alberta Poplars, Spring Snowstorm

Farther on, that afternoon, a panorama of horses scattered over snowy hills beneath a leaden sky:

Horse Herd, Alberta Snowstorm

First Interview: Sprawling industrial area southeast of Calgary. Past the distillery, air fragrant with the aroma of mash and yeast; one could get high just breathing. Tired-looking box of a building, just down the street from a crane’s giant arch over twisted car hulks and crumpled girders, a city block disappeared under metal and scrap:

First Interview - the Neighbourhood

Four guys in greasy jeans in an old office. Check out the company: Are the plants healthy? They might be if they like distillery fumes and anyone had thought of them. My target is the youngest. Nice enough, but clearly puzzled by why I’m here. Penthouse screensaver. I pass over my resume. “Seems like you ought to be teaching at a university. I’ve got to tell you that I have a pile of resumes from guys with years of experience. The oil fields are no place for a new driver.”

The next day, I meet with Darryl Faye from Finney Specialized Hauling. Much the same message, but from a kind manager who spends half an hour in a very busy day giving me suggestions: ” I have guys who have trained with us for three years that I won’t let touch some of the projects we move. You need six months of basic hauling experience before you set foot in the oil field. But good luck, and let me know how it works out.” Clearly, I am starting at the top and need to get experience with the basics.

Some valuable connections before we leave Calgary: an appointment with the Alberta Government job service (revise your resume – it’s too medical) and an exhilarating networking group at the library, which yields me a connection to a coach who is brightly enthusiastic about my background, and a recommendation to a new coach in Victoria.

The Ford in the Poplars (Droid Image)

A last walk through the poplar groves of Alberta, past an old Ford, rusting amid the pale columns of tree trunks, then back through the grandeur of Yoho and Glacier parks, the Rogers Pass, and the rolling brown ranch lands of central British Columbia.


Kalusche, H.E. Hydrogen Sulfide – Health Effects, Detection and Exposure Prevention. U.S. Army Workshop Online Notes. http://el.erdc.usace.army.mil/workshops/04jun-wots/kaluschue.pdf.

The Jeckyll and Hyde Laboratory. On Line Posting. http://jekyllhydelab.blogspot.ca/2011/03/jh-resources-full-length-movies.html.

To Be Continued…

Van Lear Diner

The Diner, Hot Summer Night, Van Lear, Kentucky

Van Lear, Kentucky: A magical summer night in a tiny Appalachian town. The best of bluegrass from the porch of a tiny bungalow, paint peeling like shavings in a carpenter’s shop. Meeting Loretta Lynne’s family, mingling with her friends and neighbors. One main street with white clapboard houses, and a small diner tucked beneath the boxy  old Van Lear Historical Society building.

Each year, Van Lear, birthplace of Loretta Lynne, remembers the first coal train rumbling away from the tipple at Consol Mine #151 by hosting Van Lear Days, a day of parades and celebration followed by an evening of down-home bluegrass. The town, situated in the middle of the Paintsville Coal Field, is tiny, nestled in a bend of the road across Miller’s Creek. Winding our way through Kentucky’s narrow, serpentine mountain roads, we arrived to find musicians in T-shirts and jeans setting up on the porch of an old bungalow, spotlights clustered amid traffic cones and tangles of cable across dusty Main Street. Visitors and neighbors perched in lawn chairs, opening coolers stuffed with Cokes and fried chicken. Campaign posters for the local election festooned the porch, luminescent in the glare of the lights.

Bluegrass on the Porch

The music was indescribable – bluegrass played in its home and at its roots. Peggy Sue, Loretta Lynne and Crystal Gayle’s sister, sang and told stories. We met Loretta’s neighbors, and listened as they reminisced about their local girls who had made good. After, I wandered into the tiny diner (Icky’s 1950s Snack Shop) beneath the Van Lear Historical Society.

Armed only with my Canon digital point-and-shoot with its f/2.8 lens (I had no vintage cameras that year in Kentucky), I saw this tableau in front of the counter and snapped one image. The original file was underexposed and of poor quality, but careful use of the Curves function in Photoshop, together with increasing contrast and saturation combined with the “Local Contrast Enhancement” function in Astronomy Tools pulled up a quality image.

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” always comes to mind as I view this image: with Hopper, the diners are captured through the restaurant’s window; with “Van Lear Diner”, the  tableau is frozen as they wait, the woman rummaging in her purse and the youth, clearly come from work in his ragged shirt, stretching restlessly as they endure the stifling air of the tiny diner.

Here, the fast lens and enhanced depth of field of the digital point-and-shoot wins out over a classic bellows camera, with its aperture limited by the surrounding leaf shutter mechanism. CCD chips in digital point-and-shoots are smaller than negatives, making the effective depth of field greater than any film camera’s at an equivalent f-stop. This factor can be a disadvantage when trying to blur a cluttered background, but it is an asset when depth of field is needed with the lens wide open.


Nicolas. 2002. WebMuseum, Paris.  “Edward Hopper.”  http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/hopper/.

Wikipedia Article: “Edward Hopper.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hopper.

Wikipedia Article:  “Van Lear, Kentucky.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Lear,_Kentucky.