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  • Ken Ilgunas

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 huge 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.

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