Three months in the frozen North.

After nearly a hundred days in the bush with just a few days off over December, I return south tired and well-travelled.  I joked with Suzanne that my search for oil and gas was unsuccessful and that my suspicion was that it was all underground somewhere and that they should probably just give up looking for it as it seemed pretty inaccessible.

A primer on what I’ve been so busy doing.

In order to determine where to drill for gas or oil, a map is constructed of the layers of rock.  This map is created by placing explosives in the ground at precise intervals, then recording the difference in wave propagation speeds using hundreds of seismic recorders.  These charges and recorders are laid out on a grid covering hundreds of square kilometers over whatever terrain happens to be there.  My job was to pinpoint and mark the  drill hole locations for the explosives, and locate and mark the position for the geophones both on the ground and as part of a computer database.  This was done using very sophisticated gps equipment.

In the picture above you can see my gps computer and data logger.  In the yellow milk crate is the mobile dish which radios a confirmation signal to a temporary  base tower we set up over an established position.  This setup gives a position precise to the centimeter.

The first step is for cutters to cut a line in a massive grid so that drill machines can roll in and drill the holes for the explosives.  On our first project there were thousands of such holes to drill so mobile drills on tank treads roll up and down the line drilling in the locations I designate.  Below is one of the tracked drills i shot with my cellphone.  The drill is on the back.  Once the hole is drilled, they pack it with dynamite and wire it up leaving the wires out to be hooked up and fired together.

 Complicating matters though is a flotilla of regulations of how far away these explosives must be from existing infrastructure such as pipelines, wells, buried cables, creeks, etc.  My day consists of solving many geometry problems to relocate those charges into other locations to get the best possible data.  Also complicating things is the ground.  The grid is laid out in Calgary, but the real world contains ravines, canyons, gullies, cliffs, mountains rivers, lakes etc.  Since big machines can’t roll over these terrain features, much of the work must be done on foot.  

The map above is what I produce each day.  The yellow and black dots are the points where I’ve designated to drill.  The spaghetti is pipelines, power lines, creek buffers, and a million other things.  This map gets updated everyday with what cutters, surveyors and drillers have done has and is the daily bible.  The mapper works from 8pm to 5am taking everyone’s data and making news maps ready for the next day.

I’m so used to walking through the bush using the easiest possible way, it’s a real switch to have to walk dead straight when the terrain has other plans.   Of our small survey crew, I had the most hiking experience in difficult terrain and ended up getting most of this difficult footwork carrying my mobile satellite dish and computer in a special backpack along with everything else I need to work in the winter all day.  I found it pretty challenging to scale cliffs loaded up like.  Many times I wondered how they were going to drill the holes I surveyed in these locations but later found out they would lower in equipment with helicopters.  I was told that hundreds of thousands of dollars means little if the information leads to an oil well which will pay for the exploration costs thousands of times over!

Safety on big jobs like this is not like it used to be.  With over 100 workers spread out over a hundred square kilometers,  on drills, running chainsaws, driving ATVs, locating pipelines and mapping drill points, we have 3 ambulances on site with snowmobiles and quads at the ready as well as helicopter landing areas strategically cut to transport someone in an emergency.  Every hour I must get on the radio and check in to one of the medics who puts my position on a map. Above, medic Randy with his big board with crew locations. If you don’t check in by radio, they start looking for you!  I would also check in before crossing ice or any dangerous terrain.  If something goes wrong in a hazardous location, I don’t want to wait an hour for help to arrive!

Radios are also required for driving many resource roads.  As most are narrow and sketchy, if you were to drive at a speed safe enough to meet unexpected tankers and heavy equipment, you would only go 5 km/hr.  So you must use special radio frequencies to call out when you are on the road, where you are, what you’re driving, and what direction you are headed.  If I’m at km 5 and I hear “On and down at six for two supers” I’m finding a spot to get off the road and the two massive semis will thunder past me taking up 90% of the road.  With lots of traffic, it can be pretty stressful making the correct calls for yourself while listening for what’s coming at you while you try and drive, look at a map and drive down an icy oil road all at the same time.  After a while it seems perfectly normal and in fact when you get on public roads, it feels weird not knowing what’s driving towards you!


I was interested in doing this work because it was new and different to me.  Perhaps most different of all was working in the far north in the wintertime.  I just returned from the Kiwigana Encana oil camp, a temporary Atco village set up in the middle of Ecana’s exploration license, a quad ride from the BC NWT border.

It was my great fortune to work up here during Alaska’s coldest January on record!  Weather records seem to find me like a rat on cheese!  It was a bit like working in outer space.  The protective clothing  I had to wear to be outside in -45 all day was pretty unreal.  Most machines break down.  My ATV died a quick death.  The batteries in my mobile computer and satellite dish were kept warm using chemical heating packs otherwise the batteries would drain in minutes.  My radio I kept going by keeping it next to my body under the 30 layers of clothing!  After going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, I would enter the atco camp airlock like I was finishing a spacewalk.  Next I would get my supper and take it down the miles of corridor to my cubbyhole room and eat while doing my paperwork.  Above is the hallway leading to the living pods pictured below.

Luckily you’re too tired to need a room for anything more than falling dead asleep in!  The food was tremendously varried and gormet  which was good as I needed vast amounts of calories to burn just to keep warm.  I froze the tips of my fingers just a little bit even with chemical heaters in my gloves but nothing that a few warm days won’t take care of.

Many beautiful sights up here but temperatures did not allow for a working camera, nor the ability to really take photos.  Touching anything even with gloves on really makes your hands cold at those temperatures.  On the worst day I wasted most of my day doing jumping jacks to try to keep warm!  In some ways, it felt like a really well paid gulag.

Above is a typical camp scene taken out my porthole.  Time of day unknown.

Above: Kilometer 457 on the Alaska Highway.

An amazing, well paid experience for sure.  Saw more wolf, cougar and wolverine tracks than I’ve ever seen before.  A bit disarming seeing the tracks  following my footprints from the day before!  Below is a picture I took during the first job west of Rocky Mountain House where a pack of wolves hung around me for a week or so.

I even put my work on hold to track a wolverine through knee-deep snow for nearly an hour hoping to finally get my first sighting of this elusive creature, but with no luck!

But finally I’m safe and warm back home.  I’ll likely soak in the hot springs and soak the cold right out of my bones if I can.

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6 Responses to Three months in the frozen North.

  1. fadedearth says:

    Welcome back, Doctor.

    So next year… maybe Tri-Oceanic will send you to the bottom of the sea for a 90-day project?

  2. Mike Diakuw says:

    Glad to have you back. Sounds torturous and facinating. The lack of photo ops would make that I real bummer for me.

  3. Dave says:

    Re lack of photo ops: Made worse by the fact that the whole day was sunrise merging into sunset! Basically 5 hours of amazing sky and light each day with the air filled with ice crystals wonderful frost crystals coating everything.

    Worst of all was my first sighting of Nacreous clouds without a working camera!! One of the top 3 sky things I’ve ever seen. This link shows some similar to what we saw:

  4. Kevin says:

    You know, I have often read accounts of people in extreme cold conditions recounting that they did jumping jacks to keep warm. Never have I been in that situation myself and always thought it somewhat an odd situation. So maybe you did not see your wolverine, but you did get to do legitimately do your jumping jacks!

  5. geof says:

    Wow. I’m a little bit (but obviously not too much) envious of your extended -45 cold experience. This year has been absolutely rotten for cold weather looniness. It’s only been below -30 a few times, and I’ve only had to fully suit up 7 times. Although, there was a bit when it was -38 that I thought the bike might break when I hit a nasty bump, but no such bad luck. I can’t even imagine being in a situation where batteries die in minutes. Fantastic.
    Also: cm precision on a gps is slightly mind blowing. That such a thing even exists, really.

    • daviditron says:

      Funny how brittle the world becomes at that temp. Re cm precision, the precision comes from setting up beacon at a known Earthican reference point then combining the satellite signal with the radio signal. It’s pretty cool but only accurate if you’ve set everything up very carefully.

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