Vacationing at Alberta’s Oil Sands

9 Jul

Forget the Stampede and Niagara Falls. Instead visit Fort McMurray and behold the fulcrum of 21st century Canada.

The trick of Edward Burtynski’s photos is that there is no trick. They’re inherently neutral. He only says: “We all partake of what comes from this place, but we have no idea what it looks like.” It was this fact that excited us. Our trip would not be like The Grand Canyon or Disneyland or a scramble around some ancient ruins. It would be a modern experience to the most relevant place in Canada.

“This was a visionary act. So much so that half the environment needed to be invented.” 
                                          —Jim Harrison, Sundog

When you live in Calgary, you eventually get sick of taking people to Banff. “You could go to the mountains,” we told our friend Pia at the airport, after she arrived from Germany. “But really, it’s just big mounds of rock and wood and hoardes of tourists.” I made an exaggerated yawning sign. Then laid the trap.

“There’s another thing. Imagine Mad Max and a Chevy truck commercial.” I told her to imagine a bad hangover. Cold coffee. Dinosaurs. Optimus Prime. The stage of a Motely Crüe concert. Ozymandias. Dolly Parton. Angkor Wat. The planet Mars. The Moon. Falco lyrics. The planet Pluto (in the winter). “Imagine the world’s biggest trailer park and it costs more to rent a room there than an entire flat in Dusseldorf. That’s where we’re going.”

Pia was so eager to get a look at this place she didn’t let us finish. You don’t actually have to sell Fort McMurray to a German—they just get this kind of journey intuitively.

We discussed Andre Breton’s “castle problem.” Breton was concerned that the human psyche had developed such a fixation on the Gothic castle—and everything that went with it—that it had become imperative to establish an equivalent for our time. I believe the 21st century equivalent’s been established four hours north of Edmonton, where the road ends beneath the Aurora Borealis.

Tar sands excavation project north of Fort McMurray, March, 1981. (CanadaGood via Flickr.)

As we prepared for the journey, I began receiving weird phone calls. “What are you doing?” one friend told me. “It’s a total shithole,” said another, an engineer who had recently returned after five months there, and said there was nothing for a tourist to see. Their vitriol towards Fort McMurray surprised me. To keep Pia’s will strong, I showed her photos by Edward Burtynsky, who grew up in St. Catherine’s, and has been hailed as the most poignant photographer in the world. Burtynsky travels to remote mines, quarries, oil refineries, tire piles, factories—the hidden fountainheads of the global economy. He went to the Alberta Tar Sands before it was a household aphorism. And although his photos do not look the same on a seven-inch iPad as when they’re ten feet tall like at the Guggenheim or Bibliotèque Nationale, Pia got the gist. The triumph of Burtynski’s photos is that they are inherently neutral. He only says: “We all partake of what comes from this place, but we have no idea what it looks like.” It was this fact that excited us. Our trip would not be like the Stampede or Grand Canyon or Disneyland, or a voyage to some ancient ruins. It would be a real 21st century experience.

Aerial view of plant at Athabasca Tar Sands project near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Date: 1967. (Glenbow Archives)

Your ears pop as you plunge into the valley of the city of Fort McMurray (pop. 77,000+), and if it’s your first trip, your stomach swells with butterflies. You feel as if you are journeying to the end of the world, and in many respects you are. Dick Cheney had been scheduled to visit just after our own trip. Consortiums from China, India—all the emerging global powers pass through regularly. It’s not like any of the boomtowns you see in movies. It is, in fact, something of a letdown to finally arrive. It was not, to Pia’s initial disappointment, “such a shithole.” To get our bearings straight, we circled Franklin Avenue, which is the main drag through town (as indicated by the overhead banners proclaiming what I imagined was the town’s motto: “a great place to lead”). There’s a Walmart. A grocery store that stocks food by nation. The Boomtown Casino. Help wanted signs. A sign on the front lawn of Fellowship Baptist Church that reads “MY LAST NAME IS NOT ‘DAMN.’ SIGNED GOD.’ African men walk on the sidewalk in sandals. There are Arabic women in hijabs. There are Chinese kids. There are old aboriginal men and  Latino familes. A dozen blocks in all. Just off Franklin is a mosque, where the cab stand is located.

By our third lap, I had noticed two things. One: most of these trucks had what looked like a very long tail, not unlike the flag on the banana seat of a hot bicycle. These tails were stretched down from the tailgate to the back of their cab, as if held in place for some other task. The second thing: each of these trucks appears to be doing laps like we were, and as the sun drifted, highlighting a haze over the town, the traffic actually began to pick up. We got out to watch from the sidewalk, sucking in tale smoke; the revving strains our eardrums as young men sped up and suddenly slammed on slammed the breaks, sped and breaked, like the savage bikers in Mad Max. Pia was beaming. “This is really REALLY great!” she yelled, clapping her hands. A red Dodge truck darted out of the loop, over the sidewalk and grass into a parking spot in front of a Taco Time with the precision of a Smilodon. Moments later, an early 1980s Mustang darted in beside him. There was honking. Doors opened. Two goofy looking kids, maybe seventeen, got out. They swore at each other. And then shook hands. The goofier looking Mustang kid yelled over at us, “Can you believe this guy. Fifty grand for this fucking thing.” No money down, no credit history, only proof of six months on the job. “It’s a beaut,” I yelled back. Pia agreed. It looked powerful as Triceratops. Over the next three days, however, we would learn that in the grand scheme of the industrial savannah, which stretches north of Franklin Avenue, such one-tonne Dodges are a minor creature in much abundance.


Once you’ve been in Fort McMurray for a couple of hours, you begin to hear about The Oil Can Tavern, in the way that those far away from home must speak of the Mos Eisley Cantina. The Oil Can’s doorman, who was legally deaf, uses a magnifying glass to check your ID. The inside is dark wood and brass rails and stained glass lamp shades. And despite everything I’d been told for several years about Franklin Avenue, it was packed with both males and females. There’s a freelance men’s room attendant, who turns on the tap for you, dries your hands with a towel and shoots a couple globs of aftershave on you when you’re done. He was a short man with dark skin and refused to tell me how much he made in a night, but on three different trips, spanning about six minutes, I saw him collect at least $30. The Oil Can’s main customers are what they call “rig pigs,” but there were also carpenters and engineers and geologists wearing golf shirts and jeans. Fort McMurray’s shadow population is estimated in the thousands. They live in the camps, on couches and more than 2,000 hotel rooms. (A true “local” is anyone who has stuck out since last boom turned to bust in 1980.) Although the average age of the place is 32, and median income over $100,000, everybody in Fort McMurray has bags under their eyes. You’re constantly asked to pick up a shift or two or three of overtime. There is a general wariness about the job itself. There are men sitting by themselves in the corner with vacant stares. There is an unspoken ceaseless acknowledgement to that thing to the north.

You’ll overhear: “It’s been eight months since I’ve seen St. Catherins street. I’ll be there tomorrow.” It’s all one big country and western song. Their bodies in one place, souls somewhere else.

We asked everybody we met at the bar about the pits they’re digging outside the city. “What are you doing here?” they keep asking. “We’re on holiday,” Pia would smile back. They looked at her as if she was insane. And as more people asked us if were insane, we grew more insistent. There are two basic arguments.

“There’s nothing to do here,” they’d insist.

We’d respond: “What do people do at the Grand Canyon?”

I had recently returned from Knossos in Crete, which is a glorified quarry, where the guides implored tourists: “use your imagination!”

The second, more complex objection about our trip to Fort McMurray: “You’re slumming and rubbernecking. What they’re doing to the forest…the environmental damage…the First Nations people. It’s just sad.”

But the same people don’t bat an eye at touring a catacomb or former concentration camp. Alcatraz is San Francisco’s most famous tourist attraction. Adventure travellers rush to be the first to recently stabilized war zones. Disneyland bases rides on the kind of thing that was seething just up the road from where we were drinking on Franklin Avenue. North Americans collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to see sci-fi blockbusters. It’s not for the fresh, gripping story. It’s to see the gnarly set pieces.

Source: Jeff McIntosh/AP

The gnarly set pieces begin about forty minutes north and have names like all-inclusive resorts: Aurora and Albian Sands. The two biggest consortiums Suncor and Syncrude run bus tours on alternate days through the warm months. I managed to get on the Syncrude bus, which was full of other giddy tourists, including a handful of retired geologists on a sort of pilgrimage. They’d say things like “there’s nowhere else like this on earth.” At the time, Syncrude would use 90 buses a day to pick workers up and take them to the site.

As you get closer to the pits, where the boreal forest thins, the flags that were pulled over the backs of the trucks in town are now unlocked, streaming up at full mast in the grey wind. “Buggy whips” was what one of the roughnecks at the Oil Can called them. Drivers fly them so they don’t get squished by those Daliesqe elephants that haul the earth beneath. In 1975 these trucks were 60 tonnes. By 1986 they were 200. Now they’re 400 tonnes and cost $5 million a pop. The tar sand is so abrasive that enough material is worn off their mining equipment every 24 hours to make two full-sized pick-up trucks. It takes 12 hours to wash one of these trucks—and it will weigh 14-tonnes less once clean.

Such is the hierarchy of trucks in this strange land.

What’s going on here, really, is a whole new ecosystem. Oil companies boast about how much energy it takes to operate. Our Syncrude guide told us: “the utilities plants produces enough electricity per day to supply a city of 300,000 people.” This is this the kind of waste it takes to solve the central mystery of this geological wonder of the world: how do you get the oil out of the oil sand? They’ve tried adding detergent to it, heating it to ungodly termperature. The thinking goes that if God didn’t want us to burn up oil, he wouldn’t have put it 91m beneath the earth for us to suck out with five hundred billion dollars worth of equipment, and 600-tonne trucks. (Could the Almighty have made it any easier?)

They sneer at Saudi Arabia, where gravity pushes it down the pipeline, and that same barrel costs about 1/20th to produce. (“It basically moves itself!”) No rational business model in the history of the world would accept the production of a barrel of one product for 20 times what the competition produces it for “a triumph,” but this kind of new fantasy world is what makes this place so extraordinary to visit. For they are not really getting the oil out of the sand in an economical way.


Aurura is a system unto itself. It is a constantly changing shape. The day I visited it was a slowly oozing hole to the northwest. To make way for this immense pit, Muskeg is drained, the forest pulped a year before the pit moves where it must move. Watching from the edge, you feel like you’re looking down on The Lost World, on creatures from some other age whose every act of being are directly causing their own extinction. The walls of the pit drop 75 metres deep in places—it drops in tiers, confirming that this is not the work of some comet.

There is relentless activity that can be summed up as: scooping, hauling, dumping. A million tonnes of earth are moved in a 24-hour period. Two twelve-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, these trucks never stop. This pit can’t be allowed to stop under any circumstances. Temperature can plummet below -50C. Lunch and coffee breaks are taken inside the cabs of these trucks, which have GPS positioning systems. (“Night Shift 4” does a weekly karaoke night over the radio system.)

As these creatures thunder by on the “haul road” in and out of the pit their force of motion moves so much dirt into the air as to create a dust storm. In this pit, a brand new half-tonne truck has a lifespan of one year. The map of the haul road is constantly changing, and for the first time the driver of our tour bus begins to look uncomfortable. “We don’t want to confront one of those trucks,” the tour guide reminds him, forcing a smile. For several minutes, as we swerve through the dust, lost on the new haul road, without a buggy whip, everybody on the bus feels the urgency of this place. And more literally than I have thought it yet, I think this repeating thought of wonder: My God, we have come a long way much too quickly.


Burtynski is always asked if his portraits are intended to condemn or to glorify these places, but he never gives a response. It is for you to decide.

Just before what’s called “the facility,” there is a roadside turnout. It is a wonderful place to come out at night, when it is glowing, and ponder your existence. Better than any mountain I’ve been to. Trucks streak towards it and then seem to be swallowed. Cranes hang off 600-foot stacks, which shoot steam and smoke and gas and fire into the heavens. Some of the facility is shaped like an accordion, other parts like brass and woodwind sections, anothers like a shuttles that will be released for outer space. The wonder of how something can bubble to the verge of out of control, and at the same time gentrify.

And it’s so calm. Air cannons explode sporadically in the darkness without disrupting the symphony of crickets. A pool of water shimmers at my feet. The smell sneaks up on you, a little bit like tar. “Up here we call that the smell of money,” one of the guides told me at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Mapping out the Northwest Passage, Alexander Mackenzie gave the first account of this thick black substance, which the Chippewa and Cree used for the bottom of kayaks.

Syncrude has very conspiculously reclaimed more than “3,4000 hectares of land, including the planting of more than three million trees and shrubs.” They don’t miss an opportunity to remind you that they’ve parachtuted in 200 buffalo. I explored this forest one day and was eaten as tenaciously as mosquitos eat in other boreal forests—but it’s a different forest than existed before. In addition to the industrial environment, they have now reinvented the natural one too. With miraculous speed. Each year, Alberta’s oil and gas industry clears the same amount of forest that Alberta’s entire forest industry clears. A third of Canada is covered by boreal forest. The mentality is: who’s going to miss it?

The answer you always hear, when someone from some well-meaning faraway place asks, can’t we do a little bit better? is that we don’t want the investment to go somewhere else. We are constantly worried they will take their business somewhere else.

Except there is nowhere else like this on earth.




Regarding the well-meaning someone from some faraway place, consider the August issue of Esquire, which features several well-intentioned pages by John H. Richardson at the back of the magazine about a little Canadian town that might just destroy the world. And then consider the article that runs just before it called “The Third Car”:

The first car you drive to work. The second is for your family. The third is the one you dream about.

The world will be destroyed not by the little town and big pits, but by the cars we won’t stop dreaming about.


4 Responses to “Vacationing at Alberta’s Oil Sands”

  1. davidniddrie July 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Excellent piece Chris. ‘Take an Alberta Break’ indeed.

    • veryethnic July 10, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

      Thanks Dave. It’s an eye-popping trip—especially for a creative photographer like yourself.

  2. shapeofthingstoni July 10, 2013 at 4:45 am #

    Wow. Just… Wow. Thank you so much for this!

    • veryethnic July 10, 2013 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks for taking the time to read.

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