Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sweet 16

Well, time certainly flies when you're not paying attention.

The holidays were a mixed bag of tricks and emotions. Sad to be away from family and happy to be making new friends, but the roller coaster of emotions takes its toll.

However, it is new year. Speaking of years, it was 16 years ago this week that I was diagnosed with MS. Sweet 16.

I was concerned, after accepting a job so far away and all that the move entailed, that the stress of all of it might exacerbate one or more of my MS symptoms. In the past, I've noticed that I will get a little more fatigued, have a little more pain, or whatever at the 6 week mark. Meaning 6 weeks after a stressor, I will have more symptoms.

Well, here I am, 3 months post-decision, and 2 months post-move, and no signs of any flare up or worsening of symptoms.

So that's the good news.

I suspect the cold weather has assisted my current health status. It's freakin' cold up here. And dry. Yeah, that famous dry cold. And that was before that polar vortex. At least the frizz has left my hair.

I have a neuro appointment in a couple of weeks, but it's in Edmonton, which means a few hours on a bus to get there, a stay overnight in the city, then home the next day. I need to be assessed by a neuro in the Alberta Health Services, despite having been on Avonex for 14 years (albeit in Nova Scotia). That seems a little foolish to me, but that's the way our health system works in this country. Sadly, each province handles things differently, which means red tape here and there.

Interestingly, Alberta has a high number of MS cases. To be fair, the country has one of the highest rates in the world, if not the highest. I keep reading different numbers on different websites about who leads in that race. I still haven't reached out to the MS Society, Alberta division, but hope to do that soon.

I have met a couple of people who know other people with MS, but haven't met any of them yet. Maybe they're hibernating.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Oil Sands or Pushing Dirt

The oil sands industry is a big one in every sense of the word. Unless you've been involved in some aspect of it it's difficult to really imagine a machine so huge and all-encompassing as it is. There are literally thousands and thousands of people involved. There are billions and billions of dollars involved. The heavy equipment used at the mines and at the refineries is so massive it is almost beyond imagining. And the entity that is the oil sands industry runs like a very well oiled machine (forgive the comparison) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. I've been watching and learning for 7 weeks now and I still have a hard time comprehending it's enormity.

 These guys and gals work long hours. A lot. You think you've got a bad commute. Some of these folks have a 1.5 hour bus ride to the mine. And of course, a 1.5 hour ride back. Each shift. And a shift is 12 hours. There are some pretty strict rules in place for these folks as well. No phones. No drugs. No drinking. No exceptions. And for good reason. Safety is number one, not because the companies are that compassionate, but because injuries and death slow down getting to the bottom line. It's bad for business in a number of ways. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are many people in those companies who genuinely don't want to see a worker injured but the reality of business is that it's all about making money. And if the people uncover dinosaur bones, fossilized or petrified, the site has to be shut down so the paleontologists can come in and painstakingly remove them to get them to a museum as intact as possible. I've heard a few stories of guys just continuing on with their work and reburying their find. I understand the thinking, but at the same time, the scientist in me cringes.

 But it all comes down to the bottom line. Speaking of which, the bottom line for the people in the industry is a good one. They work hard for their money and quite often, family life is sacrificed. A lot of the workers live in camps closer to the mines. Some of the camps are very nice, I've been told, with quite a few amenities (including a Tim Hortons coffee shop at the site I visited earlier this week), but as Kyle (my fellow boarder) has told me, living in the camps means you're with the same people 24/7, working and living, and it can really get on your nerves. A lot of folks come here on a two year or 5 year plan, intending to sock away some money and go back home. There's money to be sure, but few actually save enough to make it worth while. All of a sudden they're getting a huge pay cheque and they start buying all the toys that go along with living in the north: big trucks, skidoos, ATVs, vacations down south a couple of times a year...I have only encountered a few people who actually saved money.

The demographic that works here in the oil sands industry is young, early thirties, blue collar and these are the guys (and gals) who best exemplify the "multiplier effect". These folks get a pile of money and then spend it on consumer goods, thus keeping those dollars in the economy. The use of the money has been multiplied. There are a bunch of formulae to determine the numerical value but it's way beyond me. The point is, if you want to stimulate the economy, give good paying jobs to construction workers, labourers, etc. and they'll keep the money circulating. And that's exactly what's happening up here. I really didn't mean to turn this into an economics lesson, but am I ever glad I took an economics class when I went back to school. It's all coming back to me now and I'm actually seeing it in action. Not just with what I'm observing, but I have been writing news stories of late on the financial end of things that a few years ago I wouldn't have understood, let alone been able to write.

    This is Syncrude operations. Well, a little bit of it.

  That's Kyle (6 foot 3)  in a bucket of a drag line. Some of these giant machines are on display close to the Syncrude site. You can't begin to imagine the size of them until you're right next to them. Or in them.

    And that's a bucketwheel.

Each bucket is about 6 feet long, the whole wheel about 3 stories tall. They don't use these machines in the oil sands anymore as traditional trucks and shovels are more cost efficient. Mind you, the trucks are huge as are the shovels. The tires on the trucks alone are 12 feet high and the trucks have a capacity of 400 tons. Kyle and Joe both drive big-haul trucks as part of their job and Joe sometimes will haul 18 loads in a shift. You do the math.

And now I've figured out how to properly format the blog again. Should be easier to read.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I finally had a chance to actually leave the town limits yesterday and head out on the road for a little exploration. Anyone who knows me, knows there's little I love more than to explore my surroundings. My schedule (and everyone else's actually) and fewer daylight hours mean that in the 6 weeks since I've arrived I've had no opportunity to get beyond the neighbourhoods of the town and out by the airport (which was actually work related, so no time to lolly gag). My fellow boarder, Kyle, was off at the same time as me this week, so he agreed to take me for a spin to search for wood bison. There's a herd of them north of the town on reclaimed land. However, we got to the look off point and none were in sight. It's always a gamble with these creatures anyway, but we came to find out that they are kept in an area away from the look off point for the winter. Kyle and I did a little exploring anyway and found Crane Lake which is also reclaimed land. Once the oil company had finished mining the area and cleaned up the tailings, what they left behind is a beautiful and functional wetland. We weren't familiar with the trail system there so didn't venture far, but there is a trail that circles the lake for about 4.5 kilometres. There are interpretive signs and birdhouses to encourage birds to take up residence. We did see a woodpecker in a tree on the edge of the lake, but that was the only one. The only tracks we saw at first were canid, probably coyote. And they weren't recent so little chance of running into anything. It's definitely a place to explore in the summer time, so that's one to put on my list. We ventured farther on the road to Syncrude's operations site. I'll get into that more next time, but let me just say that although I've known this industry is big, you never really get a sense until you see the coker in the distance and then closer. The sheer enormity of the machinery is one thing, but the size of the oil sands industry in general just boggles my mind. We also stopped on the way back at the Wood Bison Gateway Trail head with its ginormous bison stone carvings. I'll hike/bike the trail in the spring, but wanted to take a picture of me in my MS bike shorts next to the carving. Yes, it was closing in on -30, but I whipped off the ski pants, the sweat pants, and Kyle snapped a pic. I'll post that one next time. My legs weren't cold at all but my fingers were numb. Anything for the cause.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Here we are, December 7 and Christmas is just around the corner. I will be wrapping presents tomorrow and putting them in the mail Monday. I have to be ahead of the game this year as I'm thousand of miles away from mom and dad. Or something like that. The guy I'm renting from and the other boarder are both working Christmas Day, so we're going to have our dinner on Christmas Eve and invite friends to join us. I have no friends yet. Just kidding. But I have invited a couple of co-workers who are going to be in town over Christmas as well. On Christmas Day I'll be over at a church hall helping out the Knights of Columbus serve up dinner to anyone who wants it. That's another way to get to know some people here. I spoke with the guy who organizes the dinner and he said all walks of life come in, from CEOs to homeless, so it will be interesting anyway. A good way to spend Christmas I think. And if the windchill is negligible I may go for a walk, too. The year before last I was lucky enough to see a seal in the Bedford Basin on my Christmas day walk. No seals in Fort Mac, but maybe I'll see signs of other creatures. Here's hoping!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Week 6

The week has gone by rather quickly. Let's see if I can remember what I did... I attended a Canadian Immigration Services ceremony last Friday (I was there for work). About 100 new citizens took their oath and became Canadians. It's truly amazing to see people who are so excited to have a new nationality. They have worked extremely hard to get to a new country, make a life, and bring or start their families. And it's kind of funny, in a cute sort of way, to see them all wave little Canadian flags. Quite heart warming really. There is a very large immigrant population here - the figures indicate some 60 or more nationalities working here. One couple I spoke with had been here for 30 years and felt in their hearts they were Canadian already so delayed actually making it official. Until now anyway. Although about 30% of the population here is from the Maritimes, there is still not the same level of friendliness you find there. No one is rude, just not as friendly as back home. But that doesn't stop me from talking to almost everyone I encounter, like at the gas station, the grocery store, the bus stop... I've been to the main recreation facility here where I have a membership.It'san amazing facility and I'll probably go for a swim tomorrow after my workout...yay! On the MS front, no problems. Which is good. Navigating the provincial health system is going to be interesting. I actually have a neurologist lined up before I even have a family doctor. That will be my next task to attend to. And find a dentist, too... I have done a little Christmas shopping as well. This Christmas will see me having a meal with the guys on Christmas Eve, as I believe both are working Christmas day. The Knights of Columbus put on a Christmas Day meal for anyone who isn't going to be with family on the holiday so I think I'll head there (the Catholic church)as a volunteer(I heard they need people for the meal). And I was speaking with someone today who is connected to a number of non-profits, so she'll help me find a group to volunteer with. So as you can see, I'm settling in. The 6-7 hours of daylight thing is a little disconcerting, but not completely bizarre. When you think it's later than it is, it actually isn't. Lol. Still haven't seen the Northern lights though. I'm looking for them. S.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tomorrow marks the 4 week mark since I've landed in Fort Mac. In Nova Scotia we thought it was cold when we got the end of an Arctic high pass through. Nova Scotians don't know what cold is. We had a system come through Northern Alberta this week that brought lows of -33. Going to work this morning, I felt it was a lot warmer. It was. -17. Once you hit -20 and lower, it doesn't much matter. It's. Freakin'. Cold. Your nostrils glue themselves together when you inhale, so everyone learns to breathe through their mouth. Covered with a scarf, of course. And I'm not being funny. And this is still November! I guess this system is a little out of character for November. More of that type of thing coming our way for longer in January/February. My schedule leaves little time for recreation. Actually, the weather and my schedule leave little time for recreation. When it's this cold, you have to prep for every time you step out the door. Winter gear on. Check (and that takes a while to get into and out of, so you have to allow time for that). Warm up the plugged in vehicle. Check. Get to your destination. Check. Got your cloth shopping bags? (They have a ban on plastic ones here) Check. And do everything in reverse for the trip home. I have a new found respect for grocery baggers back in NS. There are some stores here whose staff will bag your groceries in your cloth bags, but not all. So if you've not done it before, it's a learned skill. Especially with a line up of people behind you. Still haven't seen the Northern lights. But I'm looking for them.....

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The main thing you need to know about Fort Mac, as it is affectionately called, is that it is not a city. It's actually one of several communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The population of Fort Mac seems to be a bone of contention since no one can easily say how many people are here at any one point in time. Best guesses are 64,000-120,000. That's a big variation, I realize, but Fort Mac is not like other cities, or towns for that matter. The economy is driven by the oil sands and the industry surrounding them. Men and women come in droves to work for a time, then commute back home for their time off. And the commuters are travelling from one end of the country to another (and this is a big country). There's also a large contingent of foreign workers, too. There's big money to be made here, if you're in the oil and gas industry. If you're not, it can be difficult to keep yourself afloat. Living accommodations aren't tough to come by, but decent affordable housing is. Most residences have more than two people living in them and that goes for one bedroom apartments. I'm currently living in a house owned by one guy and he and I and one other boarder share the space. Of course we each have our own rooms and kitchen and laundry privileges, but if you're not used to sharing space with others, it can be a big adjustment. The oil and gas workers have really tough schedules. Company buses come early to get those on day shift (usually between 4 and 5 in the morning) and the guys get home between 7:30 and 9 PM. Night shift is usually picked up around 5 PM and dropped off between 7 and 8 the next morning. 3 days on, then the net 3 nights on and 6 days off or some such similar schedule is the norm. Some guys work for 3 weeks straight then get a lump sum amount of time off. And I haven't even told you about the camps where a good number of workers are housed. The town of Fort Mac is dirty. That's the only way to describe it. Even though it is in a beautiful part of the province and is an hour away from the nearest mining operations, the town seems to always be coated in a fine layer of dust. The mining operations move tons (literally) of earth every day and of course particles get carried away by the wind. And land in Fort Mac. That being said, the town is laid out fairly well, with a very decent public transit system. Green spaces abound with miles and miles of hiking/walking/cycling trails within the town. And there are several recreation facilities here with another one in the planning stages right now. I think that after almost 3 weeks of being here, I would describe Fort McMurray as a machine. A borg, like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, only functioning when the individual people work together. That sounds slightly negative and I don't mean it to sound that way. Perhaps comparing it to an ant colony or beehive would be more appropriate, with all the workers heading off to the oil sands sites and the rest of us heading to the city centre to support them in our jobs. Borg, beehive, or anthill. We're all just trying to make a living and keep well. And then there's me. I'm having another adventure... S.