Thursday, September 27, 2012

Day 14: Consort, AB

The Alberta prairie is not as flat as one might suspect. The prarie, rather, can be furrowed, and hilly, and cloud-like, dotted will lake pools and stitched with forest in the between adjoining hills. They are fields of gently undulating mounds of grassy earth, as unimposing as the chocolately soiled turned by the farmer's plow.

The land is the color of butterscotch. There are bushy tails of waving wheat and strands of moist green grass. The character of the land is mostly pastoral, but in the early hours of the morning, when the sun slips its head above the covers of night, a thick fog settled over the land will become visible. Above the fog, all I can see are birch trees, only bearing leaves at their uppermost branches, sprouting from an ocean of mist, towering above the fog. The prairie, then, is no longer the prairie but a Jurassic rainforest, full of life and mystery. A cow "moos" from beneath the fog and behind the trees; I imagine a brontausaurus.

Today is the fifth day of my walking journey, and I feel I have enough for a book already. I set out from Hardisty, Alberta late and walked along the edge of Highway 13 from Hardisty, through Amisk, through Hughendon, and on and on, occassionally taking detours along train tracks, wherever my map indicated the pipeline would be.

This is oil country: there are pipeliness of oil and gas that seem to run beneath most of the barb wire fences. Giant tank farms, pump stations, pump jacks dipping their heads into the earth.

The walking was easy for the most part, though my right hip quickly bruised from the chafing of my hip belt, and I felt a tightness in my right ass cheek, so I decided to call it quits early, as I knew to pace myself for a marathon, not a sprint.

The next day, I walked along the southern edge of Shorncliffe Lake, then through the town of Czar, and made my way off the road system into farm country.

Naturally, I was pretty nervous about trespassing across landowners' property, but I felt a bit more at ease when I appreciated how open the country is. The roads are few, and the houses fewer. The prairie, here, is cattle rangeland, of forest and lake and creek, but mostly curvy grassland, for miles and miles and miles. Each farm is its own national park, domesticated but wild at the same time.

As I approached a cluster of wood, I saw the behind of a great brown mammal in the woods, perfectly still. I figured it was a horse, but also thought it could be a moose. I took a few steps closer and it stepped out into a clearing, my path, and watched me from beneath its hulking mountain chain of antlers. Certainly a moose. I snapped a picture and walked away, only to startle a cow (female) moose from the same set of woods. I kept walking, briskly, only to see ahead of me, the bull moose running in my direction, to the point where I was headed. I took off on a sprint for another set of woods in the distance. My only thought was to get to the woods and climb a sturdy tree so as not to get trampled. In mid-stride, I let loose one of my backpack straps, pulled my arm around to the side of my pack, and retrieved my canister of bear spray, all while sprinting toward the wood. The bull moose, thankfully, relented, but as much as I was relieved, I began to wonder about the feasibility of this trip, which requires that I hike through rangeland like this for hundreds of miles.

I hopped over barb wire fence and I rolled underneath barb wire fence, perhaps 20 times in my third day. Cows curiously paralleled my route while other scurried when they caught sight of me. A wolf, startled by the noise of my step, leapt out of the bush, ten yards and front of me, and took off on a long spring across the prairie.

On the road, when I could, I'd ask a roadside household for water (as clean creeks and rivers are few and far between in this area), but when there were no more houses in sight, and after I'd been walking for nearly three hours without water, I gathered three liters from a lake whose perimeter was made muddy by the hoofs of cows. When I poured my chlorine dioxide mix in to purify, 20 cows from the opposite shore mooed ebulliently.

I began to feel that the tops of my feet were being rubbed raw, but decided to plod on, as I still had two hours of daylight, good hard ground beneath my feet, and all other parts of my body--back, hips, and shoulders--were in good shape.

The next day, my fourth day, I began walking over more prairie toward the town of Consort, AB. My feet were in miserable condition, and I realized that I'd erred considerably in deciding to push on the previous night. I draped my toes in moleskin and duct tape, but by the end of the day I could walk no more. The pain was unbearable, and I was chaffing my feet more with each step.

I stopped by at the public library and a teacher inquired about my trekking poles and giant pack. He'd invite me over for dinner with him and his family, and later, offer me a shower and a bed. My toes are in horrid shape, and I must take it easy on them for the next couple of days, but I know that I can go long and far, if just from the aid of generous strangers.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Day 10?: Hardisty!

When leaves fall on my tent at night and scrap against the fabric, I wake up terrified, thinking someone is unzipping my door and trying to get in. When I realize it's just a leaf, my nerves are momentarily calmed but the worry is merely replaced with another: winter is coming and I need to move south fast, as I have neither the clothes nor gear to deal with bitter winter.

After two days spent in Fort McMurray, near the Tar Sands, I started hitchhiking south. My destination was Hardisty, Alberta--the northern terminus of the soon-to-be Keystone XL Pipeline. From there, I'll walk 1,700 miles south to Texas, the southern end of the pipeline.

My first driver was Travis, a giant man, half Native American, half Norwegian, who told me he was an alcoholic and a crack addict, though he'd been off the drug for three months. I was tense the whole ride south to Lac la Biche, largely because of his intimidating size and an open can of Budweiser in his cup-holder. He said he was quitting his job in Fort McMurray, despite the "disgusting" money he was making ($4,000 a week apparently), because his wife threatened to leave him if he didn't come home in Saskatchewan. He said he was leaving because he only got to see his kids eight weeks of the year and because of the terrible culture of camp life.

He said that after 12 hours of work, the workers would come home to their camp dormitory, more like "a jail cell," and many would rely on alcohol and drugs to cope with the strange living arrangement. They were in a "rut"--in which they couldn't leave because of the addiction to big money, even though they wanted out of town more than anything. With the long hours of work, no family life, and uninspiring setting, the men turned to alcohol and drugs. "Some people smoke crack," he said. "And for others, the crack smokes them. Fort McMurray takes your life, man. Fucking vicious cycle."

On all of my rides, the theme was work. Work, work, work. Oil rigs, carpentry at 40 below in steel-toe boots, snow-plowing, construction, mining, potato-picking. I admired them for their diligence but felt sorry for them at the same time: there seemed to be no art, no culture, no literature, no beauty in their lives. Just work. Hard work.

Travis, like my other drivers, thought of himself as a "closet environmentalist" but called himself a hypocrite for working up there. "All they talk about is reclamation," he said, referring to pouring earth on the tailing ponds, hoping the land will reclaim the areas that had been pit-mined. "Reclamation. How do you reclaim a river? Suncor sends 18 liters of tailing into the river every second."

He dropped me off in Lac la Biche. I walked the highway, jumped a barb wire fence, and set up my tent in a forest colored with the reds and golds and oranges of autumn. At night, packs of coyotes cackled.

The next day, I hitched 7-8 rides. My second ride was with a pair of guys coming down from Fort McMurray headed to Edmonton, where they'd resume work with their landscaping business. The driver was adamantly pro-oil, telling me about all the jobs it creates and how men can support their families with the money. "There will be jobs," he said. "It's going to happen."

He said that anyone who uses oil shouldn't complain about oil. "Hypocrites," he called them. I thought his position was pretty ridiculous.

Oil, I thought, is part of our way of being. It's ubiquitous and it's unavoidable. I tried to make this trip as oil-free as possible. I hitchhiked and took buses, so as not to use any oil that wasn't going to be used anyway. But all my gear has petroleum in it, and the food I bought has been made or transported with oil. How could I possibly get food and gear with no trace of petroleum? It's darn-near impossible. Doing anything without oil is pretty much impossible. Oil runs black in our country's lifeblood. It's a disease that's no longer a foreign substance, but as much a part of us as our hills and streets, nerves and organs.

Shall we simply not complain because we can't help but use oil? To argue we can't complain about oil while using oil is to argue that we cannot complain about a president, or an elected representative, unless we're violently revolting or rebelling against his every initiative. That's impractical and insane.

The argument is especially ridiculous because reducing our carbon footprint, as a country, will not happen on a person-to-person basis. We need oil and gas and coal for social mobility: to get to work and school, to heat our homes, to equip us with useful products. Sometimes there aren't any other choices or affordable alternatives, and we can't help but rely on non-renewalble resources. It's human nature to wish to improve or maintain our station in life, so to "go Amish" while the rest of the world moves ahead, gorging itself on energy, would be an exercise in futility, not to mention incredibly disadvantageous to the wellbeing of one's self and family. While we, as individuals, may travel via bus or run our homes on solar, the rest of the world will go to hell, as the coal plants emit chemical clouds and the pit-miners bulldoze bitumen.

For large-scale global problems, change may start from below, but ultimately change--whether in the form of "fee and dividend" or investment in renewable energy infrastructure--has to come from above. If change is going to happen, it must come from government, and that's why complaining and fighting for change--even while using oil--seems perfectly reasonable and hardly hypocritical to me.

After my ride with the landscapers, I got several more rides, and, as the sun was setting, I finally made it to Hardisty: a small town of the prairie with a hard industrial exterior, with tank farms and truck stops, but a soft inner core of simple homes and a small, endearing Main Street lined down the middle with pots of overflowing purple flowers.

Today, I set off on my hike, and in my thoughts is the Chinese adage, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Pictures of Hardisty:


Oil Sands Discovery Center in Fort McMurray:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Day 7: The Tar Sands of Alberta

My goal: To walk 1,700 miles from Hardisty, Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The route is significant because it is the path of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (streching through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) that will transport oil from the Tar Sands of Alberta. The pipeline has yet to be approved or constructed, but probably will be shorty after the presidential election, regardless of who's elected. I plan to hike the proposed pipeline path because I thought I would be perhaps the last person to see and document the area before it's developed. (More on my motivations in forthcoming posts.)

But before I began my walk, I had to see something.

Two days ago, I took a bus from Leduc, AB, south of Edmonton, to the town of St. Albert, a few miles to the north of Edmonton. I was headed to Fort McMurray, Canada, 270 miles north, and I was determined to walk and hitchhike the rest of the way.

Fort McMurray is an industrial town that has no clear population because there are people constantly coming and going. One of my drivers, who's worked there for 15 years, estimates that the city, nestled in the boreal forest, has about 250,000 people, most of whom work for the oil industry.

I was headed to Fort McMurray because I wanted to see the Tar Sands of Alberta, just to the north of the city. Once in St. Alberta, on Highway 2, I struggled to get rides, but when I ditched the "thumb" method (which had worked nicely up until then) and started making cardboard signs, I finally made it to Fort McMurray, where I spent my first night in the woods next to a series of giant truck stops.

Most of my drivers, north of Edmonton, had some history up in the Tar Sands. Their work schedule varies: some of them work for several weeks or months straight before heading back home for a brief break, while others live permanently in Fort McMurray, a boom town where one driver told me a trailer in a trailer park costs as much as $300,000. If you bought a home before the recent boom, odds are that your property is worth millions, and you've won, as the workers call it, the "Fort McMurray lottery."

Like many boom towns, Fort McMurray has attracted a sector of society whose morals are loose and whose lust for money is voracious. My driver, Bob (I'm using a different name for him), told me that prostitutes have moved in droves up to Fort McMurray, where they make, rumor has it, $300 for 20 minutes of service.

"It's there. You got choices," Bob said, who is a software trainer making money some "doctors make."

"The workers don't give a rat's ass about the environment," continued Bob, who described himself as a "closet environmentalist." "The place is full of rednecks. Anyone with a half a brain knows we have a significant [environmental] problem. We just don't know what to do. If you start talking to them about the environment, they'll punch you. They'll get violent. They're here to make money. The people here are of the worst sort. It's the underbelly of society."

As I lay next to the highway in my sleeping bag, which was becoming coated in dew beads and frost crystals, I got a sense of the magnitude of this "boom." I listened to brand new jacked-up trucks and gargantuan semis hauling freight flow in and out of Fort McMurray for all hours of the night.

In the morning, I walked to the post office where I picked up my first food drop containing nine days worth of food, which my pack was barely able to contain. I ate a Mounds bar and a Pop Tart before hitchhiking 20 kilometers to the airport, where I'd buy a $200 flight and take a flight over the Tar Sands.

We began the flight over the boreal forest, a green hide of bristled spruce, dappled with clusters of golden-yellow birch leaves and dark sprawling pools of bog, or muskeg. The forest smothered the earth with a thick layer of biota, extending to all the viewable edges of the earth. Despite small sections that had been logged and long trails cut into the forest, the land still felt wild and mysterious, but also inviting. They were the sort of woods you'd like to have rubbing against your village. The cool sweet air and golden leaves reminded me of autumn, Halloween, hay rides, pumpkin pulp.

Several hundred feet beneath the boreal forest is something called bitumen (bit-chew-min) that is a mix of clay, sand, water, and petroleum. It's a thick tar-like substance that has the consistency of molasses. In northern Canada alone there are as many as 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen across 54,000 square miles of land, larger than England.

There are several ways to retrieve bitumen, and the most common and controversial is "open-pit mining," where giant bulldozers and dump trucks dig into the ground and transport bitumen to nearby refineries. (I learned the following from my drivers and online research. If any experts are reading, and see that I've gotten something wrong, please let me know.)

The method is highly controversial, not only because it requires the vast destruction of virgin boreal forest, but also because it takes so much energy to get to the oil and then refine it. The process emits 40 million tons of CO2 a year, and produces 12 percent more greenhouse gases than the standard methods of oil extraction. (Two tons of oil sand produce 1/8 of a ton of oil.)

I asked my pilot to show me the Tar Sands, and I was a bit stunned when he said, "you'll see some of them." I figured that an hour flight would give me thorough tour of all the open-pit mines, but I'd only get to see about 10% of the open-pit mining sites, and none of the other operations that use different methods to extract the oil, like Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).

As I flew over the Tar Sands, I was more amazed than appalled. The amount of human brain and muscle power put into this project was simply baffling. There were thousands of workers down there, bulldozing, maintaining roads, working in the refineries, working on restoration.... From above, the men driving vehicles looked like ants, each acting independently, yet functioning as a whole for a greater purpose. What feats were capable of, I thought, for better or worse.

I'll save the rest of my impressions for later. (I've hardly been able to process what I've just seen.) I must get back on the road, to Hardisty, where I'll begin my hike as soon as I get there.



The picture below is a tailing pond. To refine the oil, the process requires hugh amounts of water. The water is placed in a tailing pond, which will, eventually, have earth placed over it so the forest can hopefully reclaim the land.

Below, the dark area is called "coke," or petroleum coke, which is a pure carbon leftover after the refining process.
The yellow structures are sulphur pyramids stockpiled.
My drivers.