Thursday, May 5, 2016

Safe From Fort McMurray Wildfire

The past 3 days have been incredibly challenging and difficult in many ways.  I'm writing this post tonight from Lac La Biche after been forced to flee Fort McMurray Tuesday evening due to the current forest fire situation.  There is much to say and will no doubt be commenting more in the coming weeks.  I am also writing this very post very much off the cuff, so to speak.  For now though, know that I am well and safe.

I left work early Tuesday afternoon after learning that the fire situation had rapidly deteriorated that morning.  In a nut shell I left the main gate of Suncor in a cab with 4 other fellows and returned to town to find thick smoke blanketing the community I call home.  I was stunned.  Fortunately it only took about an hour to get back to my house as we had a cab driver who knew the city very well and was able to avoid much of the congestion.  Fearing I might not be able to get to my street as we were already catching wind of evacuation notices, I jumped out of the cab a couple of blocks away and was able to get back using a few short cuts and parking lots.

The grey heavy smoke I saw the day before had returned and there was heavy black smoke coming from the direction of the golf course in the Wood Buffalo area to the west.  My tenant, Tony, had just woken up to prepare for night shift and was greatly surprised by my sudden appearance.  Following the news on tv was surreal to say the least.  We were watching a major community under siege from forest fires....and that place was HERE.  The wind made it difficult to give us a sense of how close the flames might be and at times it appeared as if things were calming down.  By 6pm, however, it became clear that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.   All the local  radio stations ceased broadcasting and  we  made the decision to leave.  I had 2 small bags packed and quickly called my parents to let them know what was going on.  Between Tony and I, were we able to get my cat into a small carrier and headed off in Tony's truck.  I had a tenant who was currently out of province and another tenant who works in the same trade as I do.  I hadn't been able to make contact with him yet but were certain that he had been evacuated to a work lodge north of town where we were also intending to go.  After a fuel stop, we reached highway 63 in rather good time only to find RCMP directing us southbound.  At that point we had no idea where we were even going.

Driving over the Athabasca and through the downtown was an apocalypse.  I'm sure most people have by now seen the many images and video through various media.  That was pretty much what we faced.  At various points we were directed to travel south in the northbound lands and by the time we reached the outskirts of town the northbound lanes were filled up with southbound traffic for as far as I could see.  Abasand  was an inferno.  Beacon Hill looked like it had been bombed.  There were cars and truck  and in the ditch and stuck in the median.  A trailer park was a smoking ruin.  A hotel was completely engulfed in flame.  The scope of the destruction we saw along the highway made it difficult for my brain to register anything familiar.  I couldn't even recognize that place.

Once out of town we heard on the radio that the hamlet Anzac was our best option so that's where we headed.  After a 3-and-a-half hour drive that normally takes 30-40 minutes, we arrived at the Anzac rec centre and checked in.   I expected to be there 3 or 4 days at the most.  While we had cots set up, we spent the first night in Tony's truck.  I was finally able to find an area in between the arena boards and the outside wall of the building that was safe enough to let the cat out for a much-needed stretch.  Drifter was a trooper. 

The following day (Wednesday) it became clear that the situation was deteriorating again.   A wall of dark cloud stretched across the horizon east to west as far as I could see.  Things were changing so quickly that even authorities had difficulty keeping up and keeping people informed.  All they could tell us by 10pm was to head south.  To where, we had no idea.

We caught rumours to head to the Nexen site perhaps 30 minutes down the highway and we booked it of Anzac about a 3/4 tank of gas only to discover that Nexen was sending its people out.  We were on the move again.  In the event, it was a good thing as I heard that by morning the fire ling was very close to Nexen. 

After a couple more hours we reached Conklin to find the gas station closed.  While I was confident we could get as far as Lac La Biche on our remaining fuel we decided that if we were wrong or hit heavy traffic we would be in some very serious trouble if we ran out of fuel.  We heard reports of mobile gas station being set up but in the moment we decided to stay put in Conklin for the night.  After spending the second of 3 nights in the truck.. RCMP arrived early the following morning and suggested we head to Lac La Biche.  We were able to top up our tank and get a coffee.  I had slept 2 to 3 hours in addition to the 2 hours the previous evening to this point.

Around 8am this morning we arrived in Lac La Biche and got settled in to the rec centre.  And that is where I find myself currently.  After a hot shower and a much-needed meal I was able to breath easier and collect my thoughts.  I`ve been able to get access to many resources regarding my work and house situation and as I worked my way through the list I found my stress level beginning to lessen.  I was heartened to see a few guys I know from work and collect information from them.  Thanks brothers!

I do have to say I am completely overwhelmed at the support Lac La Biche has given.  As I type this I am sitting in one of the field houses that is well-stocked with everything a person would need.  I had a few clothes with me, perhaps 3-4 days worth but no jacket so I was able to grab a nice hoodie along with all the toiletries I needed. 

I`m grateful to so many people I can`t possible name them all.  Thank you to the volunteers upstairs who are taking care of my cat.  She has a much bigger kennel, food, a proper litter box.  She`s obviously stressed but a little better than this morning. 

Thank you to the people of Anzac who opened their community to us and who have now been forced to evacuate in turn.

Thank you so much to the fine RCMP and EMS personnel of Fort McMurray.  Even as your own families and homes were affected you continued to perform your duties to the best of you abilities. 

Thank  you to all the people of Lac La Biche who donated sooo much.  I wish I knew who donated the hoodie I`m wearing so I could buy that person a beer. 

Thank you to all those who helped me deal with all the insurance and work related issues.   It`s never fun stuff to deal but at least I feel a bit more in control of my circumstances at the moment.  Things will take time to get done but they will get done. 

Thank you to the anonymous stranger who drove up to me to ask if I needed a ride anywhere. 

Thank you to the lady who directed me to the internet services so I could update family and friends and reassure them....and even write this post. 

Thank you to the man who dressed up as Santa.  You put a smile on my face and I know you brought comfort to that little boy you were walking with down the main concourse earlier this evening.  His smile made me smile.

I would also like to thank all the guys from work I`ve bumped in to for the information and encouragement they`ve passed along.  Seeing familiar faces in a sea of unfamiliarity enlightens the spirit.

While I`ve already said many thank you`s already, I`d like to acknowledge and thank Tony for his help in getting me through the last 72 hours.  I honestly don`t know where I would be right now otherwise.

This is only the tip of proverbial iceberg and I`m sure there will many more thank you`s to say in the coming days and weeks.

At this point it seems I will likely be heading to Edmonton in the next 2 days  to stay at my grandmother`s after I`ve finished taking care of as much as I am able to.  Yes, life is a bit up in the air at the moment but I know I`m better off than many others tonight.  I don`t have all the answers and still have a few things to work on but it will all get done in time. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Smoke in Thickwood

While there wasn't much visible smoke in my neighbourhood this morning, there certainly was by the time I got home from work this evening.  We are experiencing a bit of heat wave here with the mercury in the upper 20's but fortunately, there wasn't much wind.  I've seen some pretty dramatic photos of the fire online but it does appear that things are improving from what I've seen.

Wolverine Drive near Westview School

Wolverine Drive looking east.

Wolverine Drive looking west.

A couple south-westerly views from the school playground.

Looking west from in front of my house.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Dramatic Start to the Fire Season

If you've followed the news today, you've likely heard about the forest fires threatening Fort McMurray.  In order to assure friends and family I thought I'd do up a post here to their minds at ease.  First off, I can say that I am perfectly safe.  The fire that occurred in town was actually the closer of the two fires to my house (perhaps 4 to 5 kilometres away) but that fire is now under control.  While it did lead to a closure of Highway 63 leading north out of town, between Thickwood and Timberlea,the highway has since been reopened.  I actually passed right by the area on my way home from workand while there was still some smoke and the forest looked a bit black, there were helicopters and crews visible working on hot spots.  

Unfortunately a much more serious fire is still active on the south side of town.  (This would be on the other side of the Athabasca from where I am).  I had caught wind of possible evacuations for  the Gregoire and Beacon Hill areas and this appears to be the case.  So while I'm relieved and thankful that my home is under no threat and I am mindful of those here who can't make that claim here tonight.

I'm back to work tomorrow so odds are my readers might hear of future news before I do  as I don't have a cell phone (ya, I know, I'm different).  But if anything changes I'll be sure to update when I get the opportunity to do so.  

In the meantime, here's how today's events looked from my neck of the woods.  Both photos were taken shortly after 9pm this evening from the parking lot of Westview School in Thickwood.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Set No Limits

Back in the fall of 2001 I left a teaching position in the Northwest Territories to begin teaching grade 6 in a small fly-in community in northern Manitoba.  Northern Canada was still very much an alien place to me back then and I'm sure I appeared very much to be an alien to the young charges for whom I found myself responsible.  

To say it was a difficult year would be an understatement.  I developed a rather serious skin rash due in part to the community being under a "boil water advisory" for the entire school year.  A close relative of one of my students was murdered.  A young pre-school girl was tragically run over by her school bus and killed.   I recall one day after sitting at my desk in empty class in tears as I questioned my roll and purpose after a day where it appeared blatantly obvious that despite my best intentions, I was failing to get through to my students.  Suffice it to say, it was a year of many challenges.

If there was one bright spot that year, it was that I was privileged to have a young girl in my class named Nicole.    While she was the smallest girl in the class, she had the biggest personality, always smiling, a great communicator and very determined to succeed, easily one of those students you feel fortunate, indeed honoured, to have had the opportunity to work with.   I knew back then that this girl had "university-bound" written all over her.   

It is often said that in education you're dealing with long-term investments in people and so you don't see the result until much later.  I left the community not knowing what the future would hold for her but trusting that her determination and hard work would pay off in the end, even if the result would never be known to me. was.

With the growth of social media, I was able to get back in touch with Nicole a few years later and was quite thrilled to learn that she had been accepted in to an undergraduate program at the University of Brandon.  Her strong work ethic was paying dividends.  I'm sure transitioning from a remote community to a university town was no easy task.  Certainly I can relate to that as leaving my small Ontario town for a major city to attend school posed challenges for me as well.  

Challenges, but also opportunities.  As it was clear that Nicole had every intention on making good on the opportunities she had.  As it turned out, her undergraduate degree was just a warm up for the Bachelor of Education program she later enrolled in.  Nicole was setting her sights on becoming a teacher herself and to say I was really damned proud of her would be a colossal understatement.

Fast forward to Spring 2016 and she is no longer the young girl with the long brown hair I remember her as, though I'm sure the big smile I remember remains.  As I write this, Nicole stands on the cusp of graduating with a Bachelor of Education degree.  

Words fail me at times, and this is one of them. so, using the excuse of a being a gushing former teacher of hers, I will proudly defer to her own words as I feel she expresses herself very well...

Graduation will be May 27, 2016.  It took quite awhile to get to where I am today.  Believing in yourself and determination and get you through anything!  I am glad I got to do my last placement in my hometown and possible employment with Frontier School Division as a teacher in the near have the potential to become whatever you want - set no limits and just do it!

Nicole, I wish you all the very best :)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Conspiracy Afoot

If I wasn't such a logical thinker (or at least I like to fancy myself as one) I might be forgiven for thinking there was a conspiracy afoot.  The washer, my bookshelf (or lack thereof, to be more accurate) and even the provincial government seemed to be in cahoots regarding my overtime.  (Honestly, I'm NOT a government conspiracy nut... a self-professed political geek, yes but a surly anti-government Albertan, no).

Ah overtime,  it's rather like hen's teeth these days given the current economic volatility.  But it does exist, even if it doesn't make its presence known as much as it once did.  I haven't worked overtime in so long I can actually still remember the last time I did.  Almost to the exact day, back in late October of 2014.  Ouch.

But given the sum of everything, I really have no right to complain.  I know I'm not hurting as much as a lot of other people here and for that I am very grateful.  But overtime appeared (knock on wood) on the ephemeral overtime horizon this coming weekend and I put in for as many days as my employer sees fit to give me.  Five days would be amazing.  Two days is likely realistic.....and two is at least better than zero.

It was the perfect weekend for it too.  Despite today's rain, the forecast for the upcoming weekend was looking downright ambrosial and I wouldn't have to make any big payments out of my next cheque which was downright sublime.  Of course, that's how it all appeared to me yesterday when I put in my overtime request.

Tonight I got home to learn that my washing machine had finally died on me.  Guess what I'll be spending my overtime pay on now?  It's all good though.  The contraption had lasted me for as long as I've owned the house, which was a great deal longer than it's dryer companion did.   And it gives me a good excuse to buy a nice front-end loader.  (When I was 20, owning a concert grand piano and a custom stereo system were, in my mind, symptomatic of having "arrived".  At 40+ that has now evidently changed to owning a front-end loading washing machine.  But they DO have lots of fancy lights and buttons and that can be cool, right?)

I was a bit tired and water-logged from work so I didn't have much energy to fret over it for any length of time.  But at least now that I need a new washer figured I might as well get a new dryer, a new microwave to replace the one over the stove that gave up the ghost a couple months ago and, hey why not?, a decent set of bookshelves for all the books I've accumulated over the past 6 years.

It's been awhile since I've bought any big ticket items for the chateau so I figure it's better to get it done all in one shot if I can do so rather than die a death from a thousand cuts.  (The province also releases their budget tomorrow which I will be following closely, even if I don't blog about it, so apparently they were also in on this one with the appliances.  I suspect I won't be happy with tomorrow's budget which is why I'll just mention it now as an aside and we'll just leave it at that.)

But as my parents would tell me, sometimes you have to spend money to make money and given that I've also read that the rental vacancy rates here are something along the lines of 32%(!)  I'll gladly take a few lumps to keep my tenants happy (and in clean clothes).

Friday, April 8, 2016


We weren't biologically related.  But that never mattered.  In the end, I was always treated like a grandson.  He wore many hats during his life and was known by many names, as a father, a grandfather, Sgt. Beamish among others.  To me, though, he was quite simply, Cliff.

A sad day it was to learn he had died in his sleep a few days ago but a great life lived and I never tired of hearing all his great stories, whether they be about his time in uniform or his service in Germany. (No doubt he would be proud to know that my nephew, the only great grandson he met, will be graduating basic training for the air force in the coming days.)  One tale he was always fond of relating was leaving Whitehorse, YK for a posting overseas and having to drive all the way to Halifax, NS with family in tow in a mere 5 days.  Its one of those epic tales of family lore that grew with each recounting.

He taught me how to play cribbage and it was an activity I enjoyed with him well in to his autumn years.  I seldom won and we always joked that he must somehow be cheating.  This always elicited a deep baritone laugh that I will always miss.  I recall only beating him once....and I really had to work for it.

While he slowed down considerably toward the end of his life and was hit with dementia and survived open heart surgery in his 80's, he was always a man full of life.  In many ways he seemed bigger than life.  I recall once seeing an old photo of him taken shortly after the war I believe of Cliff in his uniform along with Grandma Ferne happy and full of life.  They were married for well over 60 years, something that is becoming a rarity in this day and age.

Thanks for all those epic cribbage matches, Cliff.

Thanks your humour, your stories and your laughter.

Thanks for being YOU.

Thanks for accepting a 10-year-old kid as your own grandson.  You will be greatly missed.

Rest easy, good soldier.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Elephant in the Room

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year and change, its hard to ignore the fact that the price of oil tanked (no pun intended) and things are very different from the way the used to be.  Paradoxically, I've found work very busy the past few weeks due to plant outages and maintenance but I'm wary of the fact the despite the steady work it isn't all sunshine and roses.  November through most of January was actually very slow and I found myself getting anxious at times about the proverbial hammer falling.  Indeed I've seen a number of people who have decided to move on or who have been laid off by my own employer so far this year.  Two of my three tenants actually work for the same company I do and I count myself extremely fortunate that I haven't lost any tenants through all of this.  I'm not sure too many landlords here can say that.

Truth be told all the economic turmoil was one of the reasons prompting me to go on the little concert hiatus over the past several weeks.  Seeing gloom and doom all over the press and seeing how things slowed down locally, I felt it was a good time to recharge the batteries by rekindling old passions for    music.

In a moment of bravado, I joked at work that my job was lay-off proof because the lay-down yard I normally work occupies a strategic location such that it would be downright foolish for Suncor to do away with it.  Of course, the yard needs to be there, the guy in it not so much.  So it was a bit of a shock to find myself relocated to a different part of the plant a couple weeks ago as "my yard" wasn't going to be as busy for the shut-downs (maintenance work) going on at the moment.  In all likelihood, I'll find myself back in my old stomping grounds eventually, but that won't happen until sometime later this summer.  It just goes to shoe you that nowadays ANYTHING can happen and nothing is predictable, if it ever was to begin with.

At the moment, I just try to make the best of things.  There's no sense in fretting over something I have no control of.   I don't make make the money I used to a couple years ago but money has never been that important to me other than it relieves the stress of not being self-sufficient and it allows me to see the odd little concert.  I'm grateful that my stable rental situation has allowed me to offset less hours at work.  I certainly don't mind fewer hours as I find it much easier on both mind and body.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Walking Through Time

I spent the remainder of my time in Calgary taking in some of the buildings that I didn't see of photograph during my previous trip.  Calgary might have a large number of office buildings per square foot of its downtown core but it also sports some wonderful little historic gems as well.  The number of buildings dating from the 1880's up to the end of WWI is actually  quite impressive and I only wish I had had more time to see more of them as I know what little I say only began to scratch the surface.

Knox United Church 1912

Central United Church 1904

Bank of  Nova Scotia 1930

 Imperial Bank of Canada 1886

Bank of Montreal 1932

Alberta Hotel 1886

Historic Stephen Avenue.  I did my best to identify what I could remember.  Generally, most of the buildings  along this stretch were early businesses and remain so to this day.  The building on the far right is the Jacques Jewellery Store, dating from 1893. Next to it sits the Merchants Bank Building, 1889, the white building just past the lamp post I believe was a Bank of Nova Scotia (1904), now unfortunately covered in metal siding.  The building past that is the Calgary Herald block, built in 1887.

Starting from the right, we have the Calgary Herald Block, 1887, Lineham Block (2nd from right), 1889, and the MacNaghten Block (3rd from right), 1888

More historic gems.  Not the best lighting or angle which makes identifying individual structures a bit tricky.  The first structure is the old Imperial bank shown identified above.

Molson's Bank 1911

Grain Exchange Building 1910

Palace Theatre, 1921

Inside the Palliser Hotel, 1914

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Walk in the Park

The weather a bit cooler this past weekend in Calgary compared to the weekend previously but with the better part of a day to kill I wasn't about to let that stop me from enjoying some otherwise clear skies.  My initial plan was to wander down along the Elbow River but I found myself instead at Prince's Island Park.  I hadn't initially planned to do any birdwatching this time around since I had just been here a week previously and didn't have any expectations.  The park has a number of small stands of trees so I wandered about rather aimlessly on the odd chance I might find something interesting.  Appropriately, enough I caught my first glimpses of Pine Siskins in some of the pine trees.  Another species for my life list.  


Down by the river I saw my first Red-breasted nuthatch.  While we do get them here in Fort McMurray, particularly along the Birchwood Trails, this particular bird has been a bit of a nemesis bird for me.   It was nice to finally be able to add this one to my life list.  I also got a sighting of a Junco which I have yet to spot here so far this year.  All in all, not a bad last couple of outings for exploring such a small area.  Four new species for my life list in just under a month.  Thanks Calgary.

This statue commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicholas Copernicus seemed a bit out of place and more in line with what I might see during my last trip to Europe but it did mark pretty close to the spot where I sighted the Pine Siskins.

Monday, March 21, 2016


I had the opportunity to see another amazing concert this past weekend courtesy of the Calgary Philharmonic. It will be the last one I will be able to get to for a few weeks now and as always, it was outstanding.

Featured on the program was Sibelius's "Finlandia", the Grieg Piano Concerto and a Symphony by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.  The guest conductor, Rune Bergmann, hails from Norway, making the evening a truly nordic affair.

The Grieg Piano Concerto easily ranks among my favourites piano concertos.  Written in the same key as the Schuman Piano Concerto that I saw last month, the two are often paired together on recordings and indeed these two pieces were among the first that I ever owned on an old LP.    Having the opportunity to see both of these works performed live was definitely one for the "bucket list" for me.

All of 21 years old, the soloist, Conrad Tao, was absolutely brilliant.  It's a rare treat to hear such a technically outstanding performers at such an age.  He had me at the piano's opening flourish and I was left with the impression that an alien has descended from the sky.  It was one of those rare performances that leave you breathless and wondering how playing as he did is even humanly possible.   He played with great power and emotional depth.  The finale bordered on the transcendent.

The final piece was a work by Nielsen, his Symphony #4, titled "Inextinguishable".  Written against the back drop of WWI, it a powerful piece indeed.   It contrasts themes of good and evil and human struggle, much in the vein of Beethoven.  The finale features 2 sets of tympani which engage in an epic battle mimicking the sounds of competing artillery.

While dark and chaotic at times, this is a work that is ultimately life-affirming.  In a note attached to the score, Nielsen wrote, "The composer has tried to indicate with a single word that which only the music itself has the power to express fully: the elementary will to live.  Music is life, and like life, inextinguishable."

Jack Singer Hall, home of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.