Hotham Sound Kayaking Review

jane's review and taping procedure


Fissures in the Earth

I’m on vacation, or rather I’m in between two back-to-back vacations. Both involve visits to major fissures in the earth’s surface.

The first fissure was Nootka Sound, which is filled with salty ocean water and scruffy conifer-topped marine islands and sleek, curious sea mammals.

jane displaying nootka sound from a kayak

Tomorrow I leave for the second fissure, which is the Grand Canyon. I don’t yet know what’s in there, but I’ll let you know.

Vehicles of Ottawa

I’m back on the coast. Ended my Ontario junket with a swing through the capital region. Here’s me…

…blasting past the PM’s residence in my convertible (not actually mine)…

ontario fall 09-4301

…blasting into some notional blue sky in my Canadair T-33.

on fall 09-4393

Actually, it’s the NRC Flight Research Laboratory’s trainer. I’m pretty sure it was the T-33, but I could be wrong. I remember being told its serial number was “1”. I was just giddy with the prospect of flight.

Back from the Mountains

Our hike in the southern Chilcotins was magnificent. Some weather chased us off the ridges a little early and I’m back on the coast. Photos and details to follow.

tim on harris ridge

De-Mobbed to the Coast

“De-mobbing” is a term I had heard before, but never with sufficient context to understand. Now that I have personally been de-mobbed I’ve learned that it’s the opposite of mobbing, which is mobilizing. As in, mobilizing your troops and their complement of vehicles and materiel to the area of operations. Which for us was (as discussed in the preceding post), the oil sands of Fort McMurray.

“Oh man, the last day is going to be a knee-deep gong show.” — Somebody
“No, Pierre’s pretty experienced with de-mob, it should run smoothly enough” — Somebody else.

installing wattle with handtools

The last day turned out to be long by several hours but only partially a gong show, and fun in the sense that I prefer too much to do over looking busy while drawing out remaining tasks. Pick axes make poor props but decent tools. When the day ended we drove out of the main mine site with all our trucks in convoy, our boss’s little Kootenay Toyota in point position, looking madly undersized but triumphant. Anywhere north of 55 degrees latitude compact pickups start to look odd next to the 1-ton 350 super duties that are de riguer in the oil patch, and alongside the world’s largest trucks in the worlds largest hole it’s just comical. I rode shotgun in our 5-ton moving truck and I’ve rarely felt better to be outbound from a contract. We bumped and heaved our rolling box of unneeded supplies onto that big beautiful divided highway to nowhere, and pointed ourselves north to camp one last time. I was grinning like crazy. Done was what I wanted to be.

Liz in truck

The company I was working for were good people. Smart, competent, worldly, pleasant, funny people who did a good job and took care with it. And being in the midst of the oil sands operation was, as an abstract exercise, just as fascinating as could be. But as a daily thing living and working there is no place to live and, long-term, no way to work. I say that knowing that I may someday be grateful to compromise my ideals and my preferences to make money there again. But I was surely glad at the end to be leaving. We were there on a one month contract, significantly short by tar sands standards. We didn’t chat much with the other folks at our work camp, but it seemed like months and years are not uncommon stints. Most employees are on shifts of 10-and-4 and it’s routine practice for companies to pay to fly people back to their homes for the 4. Despite the short contracts my company does there, they too are considering breaking it up into two halves with a paid flight home in between. All this flying of folks around seemed rash to me at the start, but I’m now thinking there are good reasons for it. Staying in Fort McMurray, especially in camp, can wear down your character. I suspect that might be true even if a person was sanguine about the environmental implications of the work they did. A significant break in real life might help to make people real people again. Even in a recession there is work to be had there, and it can pay extremely well, but the process of shuttling between pit mine and dinner line and dorm room strips your sense of what’s worth doing and what’s worth spending money on. That puts some kind of limits on the value of the cash you might make. You need to know why you’re there, or else you’ll just keep buying trucks, parking them in front of the work lodge, totaling them while you still owe payments, and going back to work.

Courtney reading The Express

At least that was my impression from my little 1-month mini-contract. That doesn’t put me in a good position to generalize or judge the people who work there year-round, so maybe I should shut up about it. In any case, I’m gone.

photographing dinosaurs

There are 14 ferry sailings a day from Vancouver to Victoria, and I’m on one of them. I’ve been back on the coast for three weeks now, mostly working on an interesting contract involving caribou and Google Earth, and hanging out with Jane, and getting moved in to our new place. I’ve many times in the past made the transition from work camp life to town life, and given that “camp” this go round meant a roof and a bed and wireless broadband, this could have been one of the less abrupt transitions. But hitting the streets my first morning in Kitsalano, I felt stranger than I can ever remember feeling post-planting. The people looked weird, and the personal scenarios suggested by their bearing and friends and clothing and packages struck me as theatrically improbable. Life here is more complex than working in a pit mine. I’m feeling very pleased about that complexity right now, very pleased.

Oil Sands In-Bound

Two direct flights leave Vancouver for Fort McMurray every day, and I’m on one of them. Back in Creston, my stalwart former comrades are finishing up the last few days of the summer planting season. I’ve been offered a spot on a reclamation crew working in the tar sands for a few weeks, and hungry for more of the money that can be made during the summer labour season, I’ve left planting a little early and signed on to the oil patch. This won’t be the first time I’ve worked in the Fort Mac area, starting in 1999 I worked for three summers planting trees from remote camps run by Coast Range. This will be the first time I’ve worked directly in the oil industry, either in the Fort McMurray oil patch or anywhere else (unless you count pumping gas at the Squamish Chevron for 2 months).

YVR radar and outbuilding.

Working for questionable industries is a re-occuring theme in my life. Despite self-identifying as an ecologist and enviromentalist, I’ve been involved with 2 different oil multinationals, the U.S. military and countless logging companies, either working for contractors hired by those dubious entities, or working on grant money from them, or working on their property, or all of the above. This will be the closest I’ve come to directly supporting the damaging operations of an industry I dislike — usually I’ve been taking grant money to do environmental projects on their behalf, and at least with treeplanting I could take some solace that I was planting trees rather than cutting them. This time I will be preventing erosion on the dam walls of the mining tailing ponds of what I assume is the single largest source of carbon-altering emissions in the world. I guess I can still claim that I’m preventing run-off instead of directly extracting oil, but I think the excuses are getting a little thin here. I will be directly labouring on the infrastructure of the Alberta tar sands.

I’m doing it for the money. Since I graduated I’ve been freelancing, doing what I have decided to call “community and ecosystem informatics”, which has mostly meant web development and a little cartography for socially and environmentally oriented clients. I like the freelance life, I like tracking down jobs and taking on unexpected tasks for interesting people and I’m optimistic about the direction that work is going. But summer manual labour has the benefit of being consistent and, in some cases, well paid. A friend of mine who I know from the treeplanting community emailed me to ask if was interested in joining this erosion control crew, and somehow I overcame my ethical objections in the amount of time it took me to operate my calculator and my calendar. So here I am with the rockies floating by below me, bound for Fort McMurray.

Western Albertan oil leases under the wing.

I have to admit, I’m also curious to see Fort Mac again. Not that we’ll be seeing much of town, I’ll be living an hour north in one of the satellite industrial lodges which I’m told collectively house as many as 10 000 men and a dozen women. Fort McMurray has always had something of a trainwreck fascination for me. I’m curious for a glimpse of the changes in 8 years of oil industry acceleration, and curious what it’s like to live in an industrial lodge. It will be a switch from my be-porched and be-gardened small-town lifestyle in Creston, that’s for sure. I won’t even get to cook for myself. What am I going to do in the evening?

Highway 63 north towards the tar sands.

I’m told it’s a good company to work for, and they’re making it too easy for me, paying my flight and rental car and all accomodation and expeneses. This is considered normal in the oil industry, and it’s much different than the co-op culture of treeplanting, where most people pay daily camp-costs for the privilege of pitching a tent. Whatever it’s like, it will come and go quickly enough, I’m told there will be between 15 and 25 days of work. And then I’ll be back on the coast, and can enjoy some summer and get back into the freelancing lifestyle.

The Proposed U.S. High Speed Rail Network

Here’s the high speed rail network that Obama proposed yesterday:

View Proposed USA High Speed Rail Network in a larger map

(I didn’t include the existing NY-Boston line)

As near as I can tell, the Obama administration isn’t actually saying that this is what the final network would look like, they’re just announcing the existence of a competition for some of the stimulus money, and assuming that the projects that will win are the the existing regional propositions. Which makes sense.

For comparison, here’s a map of the existing Amtrak routes from MapMash.

(Sorry, too lazy to fight Google into showing them both on one page. Silly Google.)

A few things I notice:

  • Not many cities which aren’t serviced by existing Amtrak routes would get added. So this would mainly amount to a speeding up of existing services, not new connections.
  • The long sleepy run through the Great Plains isn’t going to get any shorter or invigorating. No high-speed for you.
  • Although it isn’t totally clear from the couple of regional plans I looked at, it doesn’t appear that abandoned rail stations currently lying fallow in towns and small cities on these routes would be re-opened. Viarail in Canada does a better job of keeping smaller stations open than Amtrak does in the US.

So this is principally about speeding up medium-distance inter-metropolis rail travel.

Some people are going to say that we want to encourage a focus on cities, because that’s where economies of scale of people and ideas generate the most rich human existence, as well as the most ecologically sustainable population densities. This plan looks to do that, so those people will be happy.

Other people may argue that further marginalizing the rural areas and their associated small and medium towns and cities isn’t a good idea, when we’re facing a de-stabilization of the food system and probably want to move people back into local adaptable foodsheds. Those people might not be so happy.

I figure if it gets people into trains, that’s naturally going to lead to greater demand for scope and density of connections. High-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor today, regular-speed connections across Nebraska tomorrow.

Coming Back Home From Home Via Home

I keep doing this trip, one way or the other. I’ve wrapped up my thesis, gradumacated, spent some time with my newly enlarged family on the minifarm in Ontario (not necessarily in that order), and have now arrived in my adopted heartland of Victoria BC to have extended brunches with my friends and look for work.

Away and Gone

I’ve left the Deuce and am installed for a while on my parent’s mini-farm in Ontario. The closest internet is 30 minutes away over rural roads which are alternately snowed over and rained out, in a friendly local library which is usually closed, so I won’t be posting here much until I fly into Victoria on Jan. 7th. Until then, my folk’s phone is 519-986-1834.

Photos from Southwestern Research

2 months ago I was wandering around in rented cars, waking up to the dawn in improvised Forest Service campgrounds, cooking up bacon and eggs and coffee on camp stoves, breaking down my tent then rushing out into the piñon-juniper woodlands with a gps antenna magneted to my bandanna, a compass around my neck and a camera in my hand, documenting the landscapes that were going to become my study sites. I would drive and hike around in a rush to look at things until I decided I had to look at something in particular very slowly. Then I would stare at it. Mostly bushes and trees and soil and water courses. Also hills and valleys. I visited Sierra Vista and Tombstone and Arizona and Flagstaff and Cedar Ridge and Tuba City, and mostly places in between, like Cochise County and the San Pedro River and the Coconino forest and Waputki and the Little Colorado canyon and the rangelands of Navajo Nation. I took a train to New Mexico and did similar things there. Then I took a train home. It was a good time. There was a lot I missed because I was in a hurry to look at semi-arid vegetation, but there was a lot I saw because I was looking for semi-arid vegetation. I wrote about it a bit here.

Because I had a camera in my hand and because New Mexico and especially Arizona are so damn visual, I took a lot of photos. I’ve finally posted some of them up here.

rental car in coconino rangeland

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