Monday, July 30, 2012


With most of my efforts over the weekend focused around the house, I knew I would be hard-pressed to get any birding in over my time off. While I had begun to feel a bit rusty having not ventured out much the past month, there were just a few things on the home front that needed dealing with. As it turned out, I was able to get out late yesterday afternoon, if only for about an hour. As it turned out, it was well worth it. Because of the rain earlier in the day I decided against heading out on any trails, if only to keep my feet dry and avoid mosquitoes. Instead, I made a bee-line (more or less) for a marshy area on the other side of Wood Buffalo. Its a spot I only came to appreciate recently...and it never disappoints. Yes, some my think of this as good old northern Alberta swamp...but I see opportunity.

Turns out, the avian goddesses were with me since I was painfully aware of not having added any species to my year list in at least 5 weeks.  No waterfowl to be found anywhere, but I did spy a couple of birds on an old scraggly tree out in the water that had me hopeful.  Through the glasses, I made out what I thought might be Eastern Kingbirds but it was difficult to make out enough detail as I was looking into the sun.

Fortune then smiled on me as a couple passing cyclists spooked the pair into a tree on the other side of the road.  From my new vantage point, I was able to get a much better view of them.  The black bill and white tips on the tail feathers  confirmed my initial suspicions.....Eastern Kingbirds, who I'm sure were having a smorgasbord with all the insects brought by the rain earlier in the day.

....and is if to make doubly sure July wouldn't expire without an addition to the yearly bird list, I encountered a small group of Barn Swallows in a residential area on the walk home.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Saga Continues

With temperatures expected to top 30C this afternoon I figured it would be best to do a little indoor work today and what better thing to do then get a little more work done on the second floor washroom. Yes, in what is probably the longest bathroom makeover in modern times, the sage continued today.  Specifically, I wanted to get the painting finished.  I had to wait until I had a day off so that I could get what I needed downtown in order to do some touch ups with some dry wall...the shower head and part of a wall where the old vanity had been.

Here's a little before and after of that shower head.

I could afford to be a tad on the messy side since the lino is definitely going to be replaced....eventually.

For some reason, the paint looks more green through the camera lens than the blue its supposed to be and I still have to do a few touchups around the mirrors and the vanity but its still a major improvement over the '80's-style bathroom I inherited when I moved in to the place.

...and now with new paint and the vanity I had put in back in the Spring.  I'm sure I'll walk back in there an hour from now and fret over all the little imperfections but seeing the before and after photos myself as I type up this post, I'm reminded of the great progress so far.


It's amazing what a fresh coat of paint will do!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Stonewalling from Northland School Division

It was a pretty stormy day here, which turned out to be rather appropriate I suppose.  After a long work day I received a response back from Northland School Division regarding the email I had sent them in recent days.  A reply from the Associate Superintendent, Don Tessier, no less.

Dear Mr. Steele

re: Housing Concerns

Further to your emails of June 30, 2012, July 11, 2012, and July 19, 2012, and following up on Dr. Barrett's e-mail to you of July, 14, 2012, the Division has reviewed its handline [sic] of the matters addressed in your e-mail.  Upon our review, it is our opinion that all matter were handled appropriately by the Division and its staff.

Please be advised that the Division will provide no further reply to your correspondence on these matters.

I found the last sentence of the letter particularly rich.  Only, they DID reply further, because you see, I called him, on his cell phone.  His response was rather dismissive...a review had been done and the board had acted appropriately.  When pressed to answer why the board didn't ensure the house I was assigned was decent PRIOR to moving in....?  It got a little fuzzy at that point.  Mr. Tessier told me he'd discuss it with me tomorrow.  Except, no.  As I pointed out, I don't have time to deal with mindless bureaucrats and play telephone tag with them.  It took over two years just to get this far in getting some answers.

I'll admit, things got a little heated.  But really.  Two years to get answers on why Northland School Division assigned me a house with so many issues.  Yes, they were fixed.  The sewage issue took a mere 6 weeks to be dealt with as I recall.  But still.  A review was done?  By who, exactly?  Northland School Division?  That's rich.  Of course an internal review by a public entity would prove itself blameless.  The man was rather vague.    I was pretty much told he didn't have to "put up with any crap from me"....his exact words.  Evidently, it never dawned on the man that, after what they have put me through, I'd be a bit steamed.  Who wouldn't be?  Rather than show some accountability the bureaucrat took the coward's way out and hung up on me.  Subsequent calls went unanswered.

Note to Mr. Tessier, I know the majority of people in the education profession are honest, hard-working people.  BUT you know how when there's a strike or job action of some sort and some say "those people don't deserve the money they make.  They are paid enough and besides, they don't really deserve it, anyway."?  Well, Mr. Tessier, its exactly scenarios like this that lead people to say that!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hive of Activity

I feel pretty fortunate to have some great trees in my yard, particularly the two big ash trees out front.  They provide relief from the heat, such as we had during last week's mini-heat wave and produce great bunches of red berries that attract both bohemian waxwings and grosbeaks during the winter months.   I'm sure they were planted when the house was built which would make them about 30 years old.  They pale in comparison to the mighty maples I saw growing up in Ontario but compared to much of my neighborhood they are fairly sizable.

In fact they were getting downright bushy and since I pruned my backyard tree last month I started thinking I should take down a few branches out front too so I wouldn't feel as though I was walking into a forest as soon as I stepped out the door. I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive.  I mean, if I screwed up on the backyard tree it's not like anyone other than myself or my tenants would see it.  If I messed up out front, my butchery would be there for the whole neighborhood to see.  I considered taking a couple of before photos so I could see the difference but I was tired from work and just wanted to get it taken care of so I could kick back for the evening.  In any event, the pruning went well and things look much tidier. I was a bit distracted by how the end result would look yes.  And also, I was wary of a branch coming down and hitting a couple tenant vehicles in the driveway.  No worries there though.

What I completely forgot about were the little "house guests", whose nest I had taken care of with a garden hose a week or so ago.   They had regrouped....and rebuilt.  Oh I knew they were there.  But as I turned my back to the nest so I could attack a branch from a better angle, one of them embarked on a kamikaze mission and hit me on the side of the head.  I actually heard an odd noise as it hit my skull.  At first I thought part of the branch I was working on had hit me, but a little red mark told otherwise.

Fortunately, the sting didn't last long.  I was annoyed at my lack of focus more than anything.  In any event, I won't have to worry about any more pruning for a long while now and a small sting was worth the end result.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I admit I'm still trying to wrap my head around the bureaucratic goofiness of it all, so bear with me. Much of the subject of the post is actually explained in the letter below that I wrote a couple weeks ago, but to further flesh out the story...

When I bought my house here two years ago it was with the relief that I wouldn't have nearly the amount of housing issues I had was then experiencing while employed by a certain northern Alberta school board.....that would be Northland School Division 61. Well, I certainly did have an "unparalleled wilderness experience" as they mention on their home page, just not quite the way I would have imagined.  Anyhow, I digress.

Anyhow, the house had certain issues (just read on).  Serious ones.  Ones that should have been addressed but weren't.   In the fall of 2009, I emailed then superintendent Dr. de Paola explaining my concerns.  No response.  My principal was informed and while we had some sympathy (which came across as rather patronizing I felt), nothing seemed to get done.  Certainly, the school board's maintenance department were aware of the issues as I had every possible phone number I could find for them attached to the fridge.

Needless to say I was not impressed.  In April 2010, I had had enough, I packed up and moved an hour  north to Fort McMurray.  While I tried to follow up on the housing issue, I got busy.  It was my first time living in a city in a dozen years so there were many adjustments.  I made mistakes.  Life got in the way.

Still, the issue did nag at me.  How is it possible for people to get away with this kind of incompetence?  I mean, I understand they are basically bureaucrats and as such don't live in the same world or occupy the same head space as most normal people.  But the fact they still get paid (with public money) to bumble along, burned me.

The superintendent that was with Northland has since moved on but I decided late last month to take one more kick at the can.  I emailed the new superintendent, that would be Dr. Donna Barrett (phone number 780-624-2060 x6102), and laid out my concerns.  Funny how both the former and current superintendent are both "Doctors".  Apparently two people with Ph.D's are not enough to respond timely to a simple email.  (And people like this teach your kids.)  Anyhow, here is the email I sent dated June 30, 2012.

Dear Ms. Barrett,

I am writing regarding my concern with the board-supplied housing in your school board as I have some concerns I would like to see explained or at least acknowledged.  I realize that these events took place prior to you taking over as Superintendent, however, while I have tried to bring them to the attention of Northland, I have received no response or acknowledgement.

In August 2009 I moved with my fiancee and 3 children to Janvier and moved into board-supplied housing (205 Northland Dr. Janvier, AB)  During my short time in Janvier we experienced no end of issues with the house.  The most important of which was the broken sewage system which resulted in raw sewage leaking from the pipes into our basement. Perhaps Northland thinks it is acceptable for a family of 5 to live in these conditions but I certainly don't. 

This was of great concern because not only did the children have their play area down there but our water pump was also a problem with the result that for a period of 6 weeks we had no water at our house.  I had to resort to filling jerry cans at the school for water and we had to pick up a water cooler in Fort McMurray.  This was of great concern as our youngest was only 7 months old at the time and obviously still in diapers.  We had to resort to using either a neighbor's washer and dryer for laundry rather than our own and had to bathe our 7 month month old in a sink at the school which I find completely ridiculous. While the problem was eventually fixed, I think waiting over a month is a bit extreme. 

I brought my concerns to my principal at the time, John Proctor, but getting any sort of action or guidance out of this incompetent was impossible.  I phoned maintenance countless times and could either never reach them or was told the problem was being looked into.  I also emailed then Superintendent Dr. de Paola directly about this issue and never received a response or even acknowledgement of the email.

Indeed, during my first week in Janvier, a colleague told me the housing unit had sat vacant for a couple years and she thought it had been condemned.  She told me further that at some point the basement had flooded and indeed a watermark was clearly visible on the furnace.  

My fiancee strongly suspected mold in the basement as a result.  The children, whose health had always been excellent seemed to suffer a lot of headaches and nose bleeds after playing in the basement.  When my fiancee's mother visited that winter from Ontario  we had her set up in the basement on our sectional couch and after a couple of nights she complained regularly of headaches and problems breathing.

In February 2010, while at a conference in Edmonton, I received a frantic email and phone call from my fiancee telling me the furnace wasn't working and she was unable to get hold of maintenance or my principal.  Fortunately, a friend of my mine was able to use a  contact in Fort McMurray to help set up temporary accommodations for them there at his own personal expense.

In addition, the dryer also died on us and needed to be replaced and the freezer also went resulting in the spoiling of a good deal of food.

All this begs the following questions...Is housing regularly inspected by Northland School Division?  Why would the school board provide a house for a family so poorly maintained that I would hesitate to keep a dog in it?  When I brought my concerns with the house forward , why were they so slowly addressed?  Is Northland so desperate to fill teaching positions that they will put them in any structure so long as it has four walls and a roof?

I am writing to you as a last resort, as I am tired of this issue.  It has been discussed a great deal in my family and they are concerned about the conditions we experienced there. Why does Ms. Willier [the current assistant superintendent, phone 780-624-2060 x6158] not acknowledge there is a problem here as she was with the board during my time there?  Is she incompetent or does she simply not care?  While she may want to throw me under the bus, I must firmly draw the line where my family's health and welfare are involved. 

Your  maintenance logs for the property, if indeed they even exist, will clearly show there were many issues with this property. Please, acknowledge there is an issue here an answer some basic questions for me, I beg of you.  I'm at the end of my patience with this issue.  Frankly, if I don't get some actions on this matter, I have no qualms with posting photos I've taken on my blog.    

I'm not asking to rebuild a house from the ground up but rather some acknowledgement that a problem exists, that action wasn't taken and that something will actually be done about it so that another individual, couple or young family does not have to suffer through the nightmare we certainly did while working for your school board.


Darcy Steele
A couple days went by and I got no response.  Then a week.  Well, it's summer I figured.  I'm sure she was busy with interviews trying fill the positions vacated by fleeing teachers. (Northlands has one of the highest staff turn over rates in the province.)  Not to be put off, I emailed the woman again with a gentle reminder, dated July 11.  I was pretty steamed but somehow kept it civil.
Dear Ms. Barrett,

Again, I respectfully submit my last email correspondence to you in hopes that it may have been missed due to a heavy workload.  I eagerly await your response.


Darcy Steele

And finally success!!  A mere three days later, on Saturday, July 14, I got a response back.  Wow! And on a Saturday too!....bureaucrats work weekends?!  Perhaps there's hope after all.....but no.

After a mere 2 and a half years of delays, I received the following one-sentence response....from an IPhone...

I have  noted your concerns and reviewed them with our housing department.

Wow!  Thanks.  Now, its my experience that such bureaucrats are shy creatures.  They loathe the limelight and would much prefer the familiar environs of their offices than the bump and grind of reality.  However, I have found if you speak persistently in slow, simple language, it is possible to coax them out.   With this in mind, I emailed back a very easy to understand response.... 


Now, I'm hoping to get more than a one-sentence response.  Because I'm sure it would be uber-embarrassing for Northlands to have the photos I am in possession of wind up on a lawyers desk or in the media.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Almost Two Decades Later and Still Going Strong

In today's throw-away society I still have a few things from my past that I hang on to and treasure.  When I graduated high school my mother took my childhood teddy bear, a small denim jacket, and a  baby spoon and had them framed.  I think there were a couple of old photos in there for good measure. I have a University of Windsor sweater I bought that's been shrunk in the wash so I no longer wear it and a t-shirt I bought in Yellowknife in 2000 that I rarely wear as well.

The one item I have that I do use on a regular (almost daily) basis, is an old University of Windsor canvas backpack I bought during my first year there in 1993.  As backpacks go, it's racked up many miles in the nearly two decades that I've owned it.  It's been from Point Pelee, Ontario in the south to Resolute Bay, Nunavut in the north and from Halifax to Victoria.  I couldn't count how many hikes its accompanied me on or the number of times its been slung around my shoulder as I snowmobiled across Arctic ice.  It's been to Michigan state a couple times as well  as Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.....and its still fully functional and usable.  

Yes, it has few holes and the shoulder straps are beginning to fray but its been a very trustworthy, if silent, companion, always at the ready for the next big adventure.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Tomorrow marks a change in the morning bus schedule for site buses.  In order to cut down on the amount of morning traffic on the highway, most, if not all contractor vehicles on site are having their plates removed.  I'm assuming this applies not just to Suncor but all sites as well.  Because the Thickwood overpass is open but the Confederation overpass is not, we tend to get quite the traffic bottleneck west of the bridges (which are also being worked on).  I think any move that helps cut down on traffic volume and increased ridership  of the site buses is a great idea, though I'm sure some will disagree.  At any rate, I expect to see a lot less white pickups on the roads in the morning.

In order to accommodate workers, a number of new bus routes will take effect tomorrow.  Mercifully, I won't have to get up any earlier to catch my bus, though the new route will be much shorter and the direction of travel now reverses.    It's pretty much the same route as I have now except the parts north of Thickwood Blvd have been chopped off.  But I still get on the bus at the same stop right around the corner from the chateau which is nice.  The only downside to this change is that currently my bus home makes its first stop at a grocery store so on nights I need to pick up groceries I can stop there, pick up what I need and walk home.  Now that the route is reversed,  it becomes a bit less convenient but I'm sure I'll adjust.  

At least my pick up time remains pretty much the same.  Getting up at 4:15am every morning is early enough for me.

UPDATE.....since today is Sunday and there were only 4 of us on the bus home, my driver actually did tomorrow's new run for us.  As it turned out all four of us just happened to live along the updated bus route, allowing the driver to do this without having to backtrack.  True, I'm one of the first the get picked up...but I'm also one of the first to be dropped off.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Oil Can Tavern....I'll Drink to That

Initially I thought it was a joke but it turns out the rumours are true....the Oil Sands Hotel is closing its doors for good in the coming days. In a city so full of rapid change, the Oil Sands has been around for awhile...since the 1930's as a matter of fact.

The Oil Can actually contains a number of businesses. Along with the hotel itself there is also the Oil Can Tavern, Diggers (a club) and Teasers (a strip club). While the business is often the focus of media who wish to highlight a seedier side to the city (like Fort McMurray is the only city in Canada with a bar and a strip club), it has been a mainstay here for decades and I'm sure there are many who hold fond memories of a place to unwind after a long work day. Sure, it's a bar but it still holds a place in local memory. I can't say I've ever patronized the place myself but it's always a bit sad when a piece of history slips away. As it turns out, the building next to it contains Campbell's Music, another local business which has been here for something like 40 years. As a child of small business owners, I can appreciate more than most perhaps the challenges facing businesses trying to make a go here.

From what I've heard the building will be torn down, although there seems to be some speculation as to what will be put up in its place. More office space, a pubic square and downtown parking......these are just some of the things I've heard.  Time will tell.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Compared to last year, we've had it pretty good when it comes to forest fires, in terms of the amount of area burned. The wind has picked up this evening a bit blowing in smoke from a few smaller fires further to the west. I took this shot around 8:30pm local time from the back deck before retreating inside and closing the windows.

We're in no real danger here  at the moment other than having to put up with the poor visibility and the odour which has an "eau de camping" feel to it all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bridge Construction

Construction continues apace on the bridges connecting downtown to the west side of the river. This shot shows the Athabasca River Bridge which opened last year, the biggest bridge in Aberta in terms of road deck. Behind the bridge, and not clearly visible, are the two other bridges, the Steinhauer and the McEwan bridge, undergoing some extensive rehab.

The McEwan bridge, which had its distinctive trestles pulled down earlier this spring, is being lower so that it will hook under the other two bridges and lead to the new underpass below, leading to a more direct route for those heading downtown.
Completion is due in 2014.  Between the bridges, highway re-alignments and the Thickwood and Timberlea overpasses, there's been on-going construction ever since I moved here.  It will be strange, but also greatly welcomed once it is all completed.

Monday, July 9, 2012

2 Million Man Hours

Prior to the weekend I hadn't had many opportunities to get out with the camera (or do much blogging either really). This likely explains my I was snapping away between thunderstorms the past couple days. Anyhow, I guess I've developed a thing for interesting structures or I just don't see enough scaffolding at work. Anyhow, that's how I explain a couple of photos I took down at Mac Island....because, you know, everyone flocks there to see the scaffolding. Truthfully, though, I've always been fascinated by how different structures stay upright ever since taking a grade 11 history course and reading up on the development of different architectural styles. Sure, scaffolding isn't exactly architecture, but there is a certain beauty behind it and many great structures that exist today would be impossible without it.
On a serious note, though, it does play an important role here and its great to see how involved some of these companies are in the community. Scaffolding is kind of the invisible trade. It's put up until a certain job is complete and then its taken down so most people likely don't it a second thought. I know I sure didn't. It's nice to see my former employer recognized for its accomplishment as this can be a dangerous line of work. (The banner recognizes Aluma's milestone of one year and 2 million man hours without a recordable incident.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New House Guests

A couple weeks back when I was pruning my backyard tree I had to deal with a lot of hornets which meant it took longer then planned to get a few large branches down. I was a bit stymied about where they were all coming from since I they weren't an issue the past couple summers. This morning while returning from a grocery run I happened to notice a nest in one of the ash trees in the front yard. Its a bit hidden away and even when you come out the front door and face the tree it could be easily missed. It will have to go eventually given its close proximity to the house but for now I'm content to snap a photo and brood over how to get rid of it. I'll gladly stay inside today anyhow since the temperature will likely surpass 30C this afternoon.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Evening Hike

Hard to believe it but I hadn't hit the Birchwood trails in a good long while. Early April, if memory serves me correctly. So I was itching to get back but rather than going during the day and enduring the crazy heat I decided instead to wait until cooler evening temperatures took hold. This was actually my first night hike and I was quite looking forward to it.  I planned to take full advantage of the long hours of summer light to see a few sections of trail I hadn't seen in awhile and to see some new sections as well.  The good part was that the air temperature cooled off rather nicely as I descended down into the valley.  The bad part, was that at times the mosquitoes were out in full force.

Other than the odd robin and a mouse-like creature that scurried across the trail in front of me at one point, there wasn't a soul to be seen.    Beaver dams but no beavers.

I crossed criss-crossed Conn Creek several times.  At least a couple of the bridges had been re-built since the last time I was in this particular area.

I remember this bridge had been completely washed out, the creek banks eroded.  Metal supports and a retaining wall along the bank will hopefully give this bridge more staying power than its predecessor.  The sounds of the rushing water was all that broke the still calm of the forest and I was grateful for a chance to splash a little cool water on my mosquito-bitten legs.

As I reached the top of a rather steep section of trail, referred to rather disconcertingly as Divorce Hill, I noticed this amusing sign someone had put up on a tree.

I managed to make my way all the way over to the Timberlea on the other side of the valley.  There were some rather steep sections of trail here but I had energy to burn and was making good time.  The  cut line in the photo below is where Thickwood and Timberlea come close to touching each other on the east side of the trail system. I knew of the existence of this cut line and hoped to be able to cross it to save having to head back up the valley to cross the creek on one of the bridges.  Down the hill I went, not realizing just how long and steep it was...and more importantly, that there was no bridge to cross the creek at the bottom over to the other side.  I did spy a log across the creek but getting to it meant picking my way through some rather dense brush.  The creek isn't particularly deep but I didn't trust the log and didn't relish the thought of going for an evening dunk should I misjudge my footing.   I had no choice now but to head back up the valley to find a better crossing point.

It was a long slog back up the hill...but I did stop to smell the daisies.

It didn't take too long to find a better crossing point.

...because I'd rather look at Conn Creek from above than from being immersed in it.

At one point I saw a Flicker (they seem to be everywhere this weekend) take flight from an embankment along the trail.  I took a quick peak for a nest but it was pretty muddy and I didn't want to disturb whatever critter called this niche its home so I was soon on my way.

Over two hours later with my spirit of adventure sated, at least temporarily, and nursing a few mosquito bites on my legs, I was ready to call it an evening and was treated to a nice little sunset to end the day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

An Hour at the Snye is Good For the Soul

I caught a break in between the bouts of intense weather we've been experiencing the past 24 hours to get a few errands done downtown and decided while I was at it to take a stroll down to the Snye. It's always a great place to unwind after a long stretch at work and other than a rower on the water and a jogger, I had the place to myself.
I followed a few Northern Flickers darting between the trees (Yellow-shafted versions actually) and managed to spook a mallard into flight as I made my way down to the shoreline. The water was higher than usual with all recent rain so it was difficult to follow the waterfowl out on the water and watch my footing at the same time so I didn't get wet. It's a pretty sandy area and these bluffs always catch my attention.

I probably should have been closer attention to where I was stepping though as I soon found myself under attack by numerous ants that apparently make their home in this sandy area. Yes, I know. I really need a tan on those legs.
Flat calm, a nice reflection and a nice way to spend an hour on your day off, however.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When the Master's Away...

...the cat will apparently manage to somehow drag the duvet cover out from under the bed and use it for her day bed.

How she accomplished this I have no idea. I mean, cats never drag large objects anywhere.