Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dear Alberta Conservatives, all I ask is that you keep just one election promise and twin Highway 63

In light of the recent tragedy on Highway 63 I feel compelled to express my deepest concern for your complete ineptitude with twinning the highway.   I travel Highway 63 every day to and from work and on occasion to Edmonton as well.  I consider myself blessed that I avoided serious incidents on this roadway.  Sadly, this past Friday 7 people were not so lucky and become more statistics of the so-called "Highway of Death" and a government that has a funny way of showing it has its citizens' best interests in mind.

Fort McMurray plays a vital role in the economy of not just Alberta but Canada as a whole.  The city continues to grow a rapid pace and will only get bigger and the traffic will only become more congested in the future.   Why then are we connected to the rest of the province by a mere two-lane highway?  Your government announced that the twinning of the highway would be a priority and yet to date, only a measly few kilometres have been completed.

To be blunt, this is pathetic.  Between 2001 and 2005 there were over 1000 vehicle collisions resulting in 25 fatalities and 257 injuries.  In 2006 you announced that twinning of the highway would be a priority, probably because you were facing an election in 2008 would be my guess, and major infrastructure projects are always a good way to attract votes.  As of 2009, a measly 16 km had been completed and according to the information I've seen, you plan to have another 36 km complete by 2013.  Again, sad.

During the most recent election campaign we saw assurances that, once again, twinning Highway 63 would be a priority.  Forgive me for being a little cynical but I can smell bullshit when I see it.  The truth is that people here are growing tired....tired of an endless charade of excuses and red tape from getting the land freed up, to concerns over caribou to having the budget for it.  I find this last one funny.  The province gets something like $5 BILLION in royalties from oil and gas.  Media sources I've seen report it would cost $1.1 billion to finish the highway.  The money is there.  Don't tell us it isn't.  You just spend it like a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave.  (My apologies to sailors)

Dear Alberta Conservatives - you have been given a new mandate that frankly I don't think you deserve.  I find it particularly sad that the party responsible for the lack of action in recent years on this vital piece of infrastructure has again been voted back in to power.  Please, do your job and finish what you promised to do.  Twin Highway 63.  Fort McMurrayites are concerned, frustrated and DEMAND action.  Fortunately for your sake I maintain, through sheer grit, a modicum of decorum which prevents me from explaining how I really feel about this truly despicable situation.

The voices of the victims cry out.  Keep your promise.  I don't want this to be a promise in the 2015 election.  I want to see it dealt with.  PLEASE, do the right thing.  Twin Highway 63 now.

 Darcy Steele

A passionate resident and supporter of Fort McMurray

Friday, April 27, 2012


Working in the environment that I do I've certainly become more safety conscious over that past few months.  Every day you come home safe is a good day.  I've had a couple close calls in the past year but you stand back, assess, learn from it and carry on.  Given how much I work around moving vehicles, sometimes in tight spaces I have respect for what a 4-wheeled moving object can do.  So I find myself saddened and also frustrated coming home and reading about a tragedy on the highway south of the city.

This didn't have to happen.  Unfortunately, Highway 63 gets a lot of media attention and seldom if ever is it good.  I'm saddened because one person's mistake had such an unfortunate ripple effect, affecting the lives and families of 9 individuals.  I'm frustrated too because if ever there was a wake up call for the powers that be to take action on improving safety on this road this must surely be it.  While an announcement was made in 2006 that a 240 km section would be twinned a pathetic 16 km was completed by 2009.   At this rate, it will take 45 years to complete this project.

Safer drivers are obviously part of the solution but twinning the highway and improving  its driveability certainly wouldn't hurt either.  45 years?  Let's hope not.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


After several days of anticipation, the Athabasca River finally broke this past weekend, officially at 3:15 Sunday afternoon.  It comes one day earlier than last year and is about par for the course.  Records of the break up have been kept more or less continuously since 1875 and the median break up date I believe is April 19.

Given that this was a thermal break up rather than a dynamic break up and that the adjoining Clearwater hasn't broke yet (as far as I'm aware) flooding hopefully won't pose a major threat.  At any rate, I have no fear of that here as my house sits well above the river valley.  Unfortunately the best views I have of the river at the moment are from work where it's not particularly wise to be running around with a camera.  If this year is like last though, I'm sure the Athabasca will have more than its share of exposure on the blog here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fast And Furious

After a long winter, April is a breath a fresh air.  It is one of my favorite months for birding.  I get great views of our non-migratories over the winter without leaving the house but nothing beat heading out on a foray once the milder weather hits.  It seems that every day I catch a glimpse of a bird returning after its migration.  This year has been no exception as I've seen 8 species this month (5 birds in the past 7 days) that have been off my radar for some months now.

Here are my most recent additions to my year list, along with the dates they were first sighted.

-- Slate-coloured Junco (April 5)
-- House Sparrow (April ?)
-- Herring Gull (April 10)
-- Canada Goose (April 15)
-- Chipping Sparrow (April 18)
-- Rock Dove (April 20)
-- Tree Swallow (April 20)
-- Red-Winged Blackbird (April 21)

An interesting note about the red-winged blackbird as I had read on an on-line forum about a sighting at a nearby storm pond on March 17, if I recall the date correctly.  This piqued my interest since it seemed a bit earlier than usual.  Indeed there was still a generous amount of snow on the ground at the time.  Since there was still a decent amount of usable light in the evening I made a bee-line for this storm pond one evening during my last shift but came up empty.  Today though, I made up for it by spotting one among the reeds and a second in a nearby tree.  At first I wasn't able to make out what the one in the reeds was until it took flight, revealing its tell-tale shoulder patches.

I'm sure there will be more species turning up in the coming days and I look forward to adding completely new species to my life list as always.

Friday, April 20, 2012

.....And They Wonder Why Some People Don't Vote

Since I have nothing particularly pressing at the moment, I thought I'd throw out a few thoughts about the current provincial election. Unlike previous election campaigns, this one is different in many ways, not in the least because for the first time in 41 years, the Conservative juggernaut is facing a real challenge from the newly-formed Wildrose Party. At the start of the campaign, I thought the PCs would definitely bleed a few seats and would emerge chastened but still in power. With 3 days to go until election day, it seems it may more like a mass bleed as many polls project the strong possibility of a Wildrose majority. The campaign has certainly seen its fair share of goofiness and mudslinging, from poorly positioned wheels on a campaign bus to commentary about homosexuals and the benefits of being Caucasian. We can now add "robocalls" to the mix. And this is just the stuff I'm aware of the top of my head here. I had hoped that our two local ridings would avoid this garbage and focus on issues but no.

Accusations of illegally parked campaign buses and fake Twitter accounts.  Are you serious?  This riding contains the economic engine (love it or loathe it) of not just the province, but the country, and instead of intelligent discussion we get this.  And its a wonder why voter turn out here in the '08 election was 20% if I'm not mistaken.  Boutillier was elected a PC but crossed the floor to join the Wildrose in 2010.  He was first elected in 1997 and like the governing PC's, has reached his "best before" date and needs to go.  I have zero tolerance for floor crossers regardless of political affiliation.  Unfortunately, due our riding having been split into two, I don't have the pleasure of not putting an "X" beside his name as he is in the other riding.  I considered the PC candidate but I'm not sure sending a rookie municipal councillor to Edmonton is necessarily the wisest move.  Besides, 41 years in power is WAAY too long.  Heck, I wasn't even born when they came to power.   Will Highway 63 be twinned in the next 41 years?!  And since I'm on a roll here, PC's may want to take a look under the Thickwood overpass as I noticed today someone had spray-painted "Refine it here" in big bold letters.  Quit pumping it out of the ground and sending it elsewhere.

Growing up I heard the saying about how if you don't vote you have no right to complain.  Nonsense.  Frankly, from what I've seen, none of these clowns deserves my vote.  The options smell worse than a bucket of bitumen.  Any way you cut it, both ridings here are two-horse races between the incumbent PC's and the Wildrose.  Both Fort McMurray ridings have Liberal and NDP candidates but I have great difficulty imagining a scenario where they would come anywhere close to being elected.

Now, having said all this, I will hazard a prediction.  My gut feeling is that both ridings here will go to the PC's but I fear they will be on the outside looking in as a Wildrose government will likely be the result of Monday's vote.  At least no one can say this election was boring.  Just don't expect me to reward incompetence with 4 years of cushy employment.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Good Job Cole!

I mentioned a few days ago about my nephew getting called up from his Midget Team in Ontario to play for the local Junior C team. He put in a good showing and definitely turned a lot of heads, becoming the talk of the town (according to my sister, she couldn't go anywhere without anyone commenting or asking about him) and no doubt piquing the interest of junior hockey scouts. He even scored a couple radio interviews in Belleville and Barrie, Ontario.

His team made it to the semi-finals and made it to within one win of a date with Grimsby for the finals. Unfortunately, that's as far as the team gets this season as they bowed out tonight against Alliston. Cole played great but unfortunately the scoring wasn't always there when needed. He logged more minutes between the pipes than any of the other teams' goalies (something like 939 miutes) and made some spectacular saves. Of course, goalies rarely score goals themselves and when you face an average of 37 shots per game in a series....well, the laws of probability make it a challenge to chalk one up in the win column.

But hey, the guy's 16, playing against the 18-20 year-old crowd. How many 16-year-olds can say they played competitively at this level? I'm sure it was a great experience for him and any opportunity to further your skill development and expand your horizons is always a good thing.

Congrats on a stellar season, Cole! You've done your team, your community and your family proud!

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Bear with me if my posts become a bit spotty for the remainder of the month. Starting tomorrow I will be working 12 hour days for about the next three weeks. Without going into a lot of detail, which probably isn't all that interesting anyway, we have some new form work from a German-based company, very different from what I'm used to dealing with, that we are stocking in the yard. So there is a lot of moving and re-organizing that needs to be done.

I've known for a few weeks now that when this new material arrived I would be the main guy on my shift responsible for dealing with it, which has been a pretty interesting experience in itself. I'm enjoying the new challenge as this form work is very different from the rest of our gear. There are a few sizes and lengths which the North American stuff doesn't have and even some new pieces that look similar to what we have or ones that are completely different.

And who says a music degree isn't useful in a scaffold yard? As this particular form work is from a German-based company, a lot of the racks, baskets and technical info is written in German. Luckily my background has given enough of an idea of what the German means which enables me to figure things out and explain to co-workers and foremen alike.

Anyhow, I've packed an extra large lunch for tomorrow and am now good to go. So I'm not ignoring you or the blog, I'm just going to be a little extra busy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My List

I'm not really one to keep a lot lists when it comes to birding as I usually end up misplacing them. I do have a birding diary in which I write down new species that I see and a small field guide for recording various dates and observations. I'm not quite sure what my species count is up to since I moved to Alberta, but I think I'm running close to 50 now. A modest number but not too shabby considering the amount of hours I work. I could check my bird diary but after a long day I'm too lazy to get off the bed to go and find out. But 45-50 seems a good ball park figure.

One thing I thought I'd try this year since I've seen a few online, is to try to record a year list of all the birds I've seen in the year. So here is my list (in non-taxonomic order) so far, which I'm sure will grow quickly over the next couple months as the weather continues to warm. I might be missing a few as I just did this list up over the weekend off the top of my head to start out.

1. Common Raven
2. Black-billed Magpie
3. Evening Grosbeak
4. Pine Grosbeak
5. Bohemian Waxwing
6. Common Redpoll
7. Downy Woodpecker
8. House Sparrow
9. Slate-coloured Junco
10. Herring Gull (as of yesterday)

I suppose I could also add a couple "honourable mentions" to the list.....Canada Geese which I heard but didn't actually see over the weekend, and a hawk, either Sharp-shinned or Red-tail. I'm just taking a wild guess as it was atop a pine tree some distance away.

The other thing I started to do last year was to make a short of birds I've never seen before that I knew were in the area and try to add them to my life list. I had quite the breakthrough with the number of different woodpeckers I saw. This year I still have a couple species left over from last year I'd dearly like to knock off - the Belted Kingfisher and the Red-Breasted Nuthatch. This last one surprises me considering just how common they are here.....and yet I haven't seen one yet. But as for these two species I have a good idea of where the best odds are of seeing them so I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

The other interesting thing I should add for anyone interested is that I got a tip off a local online discussion board of sightings of a Red-Winged Blackbird. (Where it was sighted isn't a surprise as I know this spot well and go there specifically for some excellent viewing opportunities.) What was a bit unusual was the date...March 17, a bit earlier than they normally appear here. I made a trip to the general area a couple days later to see if I could spot any but came up empty.

Anyhow, these are my modest birding contributions over the past few weeks. I look forward to seeing my little list grow and I also have plans for a couple big hikes this summer to place I have yet to visit so I'm curious about what I might see.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Signs of the Apocalypse

Considering we are in the midst of a rather heated, high-stakes election campaign, I haven't seen all that many campaign signs around, although since the writ was dropped I haven't really been around too many parts of the city other than Thickwood and Downtown. Perhaps that will change in the next couple weeks before voting day. I can't actually vote for either of these candidates since my part of Thickwood isn't included in their riding, but I will most definitely be voting. No excuse, really, since I'm off work that day.

I'll avoid getting into politics here (that's a first, I know) except to say I hope Fort McMurray ends up with at least one voice at the government table. I also hope that the party leaders of both leading parties can stop their petty sniping (a tall order I know) about how one party leader doesn't have children and the other doesn't seem to like Alberta, and get on with business.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Back to Birchwood

While I figured it would still be a bit mucky I didn't want to let a day of decent weather pass without enjoying a little trail hiking before heading back to work. So, I decided to make my first trip of the season over to the Birchwood Trail. I have yet to hike the entire trail system here. My favorite short hike takes me from the trail head down into the valley and across Conn Creek, where I skirt the north side before crossing back over. The route is only about 2km (sometimes a bit longer if I get turned around in the valley) and is a great way to spend an hour or two. I took my binoculars along (as well as the camera obviously) for a little birding. While I did see plenty of chickadees and juncos, as well as the ever-present raven, I did have to be on the look out for other things....

Don't worry. I didn't see any bears, though I'm sure with parts of the trail in the condition it was in, any bear around would hear me. Walking up this little section definitely tested my agility. Skittering about and dancing like a squirrel on steroids, I managed not to badly.

Speaking of squirrels, the trails (for the Birchwood Trail is in reality several interconnecting trails) are all named after various this case "squirrel" and "bear". As if I didn't need yet another reminder that this is bear season here.

The photo doesn't really do it justice, but it was rather slick here with all the ice.

Passing some dead fall as I made my way further into the valley.

As expected, Conn Creek was over its banks. The ground around this area is actually quite mobile. With the spring flooding, erosion and the whole freeze/thaw cycle the trails are always shifting. A few spots I'm sure can be a real treat when it comes to maintenance.

Here is one of two bridges I crossed, this one to get back over to the south side of the valley.

Conn Creek waking up from a long winter's slumber.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Don't Take My Word For It

Since I am unable to magically transport myself to Ontario to watch my phenom goalie nephew I've been doing my best to keep up to date through my sister and the Internet. His team, the Campbellford Rebels, is currently in the semi-finals for the Ontario Hockey Association's Schmalz Cup. Actually, the Rebels aren't really his team as my nephew Cole was called up from his Major Midget team to play for them.

According to the Rebels' head coach, as quoted in the Northumberland News, after the regular goalie went down with an injury earlier in their playoff run, "the team called up Cole Mahoney from the Quinte Red Devils to take his spot on the roster." The coach goes on to say that while the team has played very well thus far, "when our players were on their heels, a huge save from Mahoney would cause a spark in our players. He really came up big for us when we needed him to....and many of his big saves led to team wins for us."

Since joining the team in their quarter-final series he has a 8 -3 record (if I'm not mistaken) with one shut out. The team is now in the semi-finals against powerhouse Alliston, where he has stopped 77 of 80 shots (that's a save percentage of 96%) in the first two games of that series, which they now lead 2-0.

All pretty impressive....and even more so when you consider that players at this level are 19-20 years old. Cole is 16.

You're doing AWESOME Cole! Keep up the good work buddy!

EDIT - Cole had yet another good game this evening, stopping 35 of 36 shots, helping his team to a 7-1 route and a 3-0 strangle hold in their series.

Almost Missed It

March 23, 2010 I took possession, paving the way for my first death bond,er, mortgage that is, and a few days after that, April 4 I believe it was, I officially moved into the house here. The bathroom is still an interior designer's nightmare but at least we haven't been hit with that big spring snow storm we had back then. Happy anniversary, House.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Normally I don't like surprises, especially when I'm just getting in the door after the last day of a shift. In this case, though, I gladly make an exception as I spotted a small group of 8 or 9 Juncos, the first of the spring season, out on my newly-shoveled back deck. We can expect them here starting in late March/early April. Today's weather was rather dreary but these two shots are the best of the bunch.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Kingdom For A Can Opener

I always find it amusing the reactions I sometimes get when people hear of my academic background. What?! You have three university degrees! You must be pretty smart!

Well, perhaps. Usually when I hear things like this my response is simply that yes, there may be a few things I know a heck of a lot about BUT there are also a heck of a lot of other things that I know very little about. International relations and politics, got it; Baroque-period music, check; how to play a few musical instruments, simple enough; various aspects of WWII history or bird watching, no problem. I've even picked up a workable vocabulary in a half dozen languages over the years.

However, some things escape me....the terminology in my mortgage documents, knots and lashings, general fashion sense, Justin Bieber fans. And now, apparently, can openers.

Seriously now. How hard can these things be to use? Earlier this week the one I had broke so I thought I'd pick one up at the grocery store so I don't starve before my shift ends. There was only one type of can opener there but it looked cool, and really, a can opener is a can opener. All it has to do is open a can. That's all I expect of it.

Only, after initial luck where I got it to work the first time I tried it, I haven't for the life of me been able to get it to work since. I'm pretty sure it's not broken since there are very few moving parts. It's one simple piece and not like those old-fashioned metal kind with the handles that you squeeze together like scissors. Speaking of scissors, that's what I eventually ended up using to pry open a can when I ran out of patience and gave up on the can opener. it wasn't pretty but at least I was able to finish making my lunch for work the following day.

So perhaps I'll eventually figure it out. I have 5 days off coming up in which to do so. At least the crazy contraption looks cool.....but still, it would be nice if I could figure the silly thing out.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Shout Out

As a quick follow-up to last night's post, the MOB blew a 2-0 lead and lost their game 4-3. Game seven is set for tomorrow night in Spruce Grove. I know I'll be following the live updates religiously. Go MOB Go!

And on another hockey-related note which I shamefully failed to mention, my sister sent me a quick text a few days ago to let me know that my nephew was called up from his Major Midget team to play goal for his local Junior "C" team back in Ontario and, at 16, is really starting to turn heads and get people's attention. His team had a pretty good season. They went a couple of rounds into the playoffs and my nephew's goals-against-average was something like 1.78. Not too shabby at all considering the teams' record for the season. Good job Cole! Keep up the good work!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sold Out

I haven't really mentioned it much on the blog here but I've been a keen follower of our local Junior "A" hockey team here - the Fort McMurray Oil Barons aka The MOB. My plan was to get to a few games this season since the arena is only a short walk away. Unfortunately, the best laid plans....blah, blah, blah. It's not that I didn't have plenty of opportunity but between work and other obligations, I was never able to make it. I had a couple decent chances last week to catch a semi-final match but with long work days and early morning get ups it just wasn't good timing for me. Missing last weeks' matches turned out to be especially frustrating as the Barons won both games.

Fast forward to tonight and I went down to see if perchance I could score some play-off tickets. A win tonight against arch-rival Spruce Grove and the Barons would be off to the Alberta Junior Hockey League final against Brooks. It wasn't to be however as I discovered what a hockey mad place Fort McMurray can be.

My first inkling of my dwindling chances of getting a ticket was a very crowded parking lot. The photo doesn't really tell the whole story as there were vehicles parked in any available space, including the grass, or at least the grass that was under all the snow we are getting at the moment.

And the coup de grace...

At least I can still catch live updates online though its not quite the same as being there. Hopefully the MOB makes it to the next round (they have yet to lose a playoff game at home so far) and I can see them in the league final.