Posters and Internet Radio: Surviving and Settling in the North
Back to Camp – Wapasu Bus Lot, a Sloppy Day in Late Winter
No matter what the industry, working in a remote northern site can be either a fascinating experience or a stretch of loneliness, boredom, and isolation. Preparation, finding ways to make home away from home, and being open to every interesting element in this new environment can make all the difference. What follows are some suggestions for making the most out of your camp experience.
Northern camp living can be a miserable experience. As I mentioned in the accompanying post, Wapasu Nights, one camp clinic nurse confided to me over an evening cup of tea, “This is a tough life. I don’t know how many strong men have closed my office door and then burst into tears.” Yet others, myself included, have found time spent in northern camps both fascinating and rewarding. Here are some ideas that I have gleaned from my time in the north:
HOMEWORK, HOMEWORK, HOMEWORK:
Homework is essential, both before and after landing a job.
I am not going to focus on advising you how to find a job. This is an enormous topic, and any good book store will have at least one long shelf of books on job hunting. I will, however, mention two critical points about this process. First, do your homework; research each company before you contact them. Then, whether it is on the phone, during an interview, or at a job fair booth, you will sound intelligent, interested, and informed. Hopefully, it will come across that you care enough and want badly enough to work for THAT particular company to have learned a bit about them. Otherwise, don’t waste your time and theirs. A senior recruiter from one major energy once commented sadly on the number of job-seekers who wandered up to her booth saying “You got any openings for…..” when it was clear that they hadn’t a clue what the company did or needed. Their resumes ended up in the round filing cabinet.
Secondly, try to make a personal contact within the company. A significant proportion of jobs are landed this way, but making these connections can be very difficult. Almost all companies use some form of online application these days, and prospective employees are often brushed off by harried front desk staff with “We don’t give interviews and Mr. _______ doesn’t talk to people. Submit an application on our web site.” The digital age has brought employers and prospective employees closer, but what employers don’t admit is that online application sites are often deluged with hundreds or thousands of applications, and they may use search robots to crawl though each resume looking for keywords, thus missing many qualified applicants who fall outside the search criteria.
How to make that contact? Leaping this particular hurdle is different for every company. The simplest way is to identify the department head and call him or her. Once again, research is critical – check company rosters, look for contact staff on the web site, etc., etc. Use every bit of ingenuity and chutzpah you can muster. Buy a book or books on job-hunting and study the suggested techniques for making contacts. Lean on friends of friends of someone who might know somebody. Don’t make a pest of yourself, but keep in touch regularly with key staffers. You may need to work on this for some time, politely but persistently keeping your name in front of key people, preparing for that moment when an opening surfaces and they remember you. This is where survival of the fittest and most persistent operates in the modern era.
Wapasu West Hallway, Outside Dining Room
Once you have a northern job, do more homework. Look up the weather pattens. Coldest temperatures? Snowfall? Is my clothing adequate? Where’s the nearest town? Can I get out for an evening? What specific work am I doing? Do I have/need tools? How do I get my tools up there? Note that this latter question is an important one – much northern travel is on Canadian North, and Canadian North does not allow ANY tools on many of its charter flights, even in checked luggage. Companies often make their own arrangements for shipping workers’ tools to each site. Know the airline weight and baggage restrictions. For example, Canadian North to the oil sands limits baggage to two bags, one a maximum of 45lb and one a maximum of 15lb, plus a couple of pieces of cabin baggage. See if there is a meal on the flight. One can often save considerable money by packing a lunch if meals are not provided. Also, check arrival times. Many workers have arrived late to camp to find the dining hall closed and the coffee room out of sandwiches. A bag of trail mix isn’t a bad survival tool.
The Bag-Up Room
Make sure that you have good contact information, both for travel and for work once you get there. Who do you call if your flight gets cancelled or delayed by weather? Is it a 24 hour number? What time is the orientation meeting the next morning? Who do you call to connect with your department or work crew? Make sure you have a good contact on-site. Unions often do a good job placing their workers, but give them minimal or incorrect contact information. Some companies are very careful about this, but I have seen many blank-eyed stares when I ask at the end of an orientation, “Does everybody know where they are going?” I hate calling around to find anyone who will take a lost sheep to his particular pasture, but I’ve done a lot of it.
Read your travel documents! The travel coordinators with whom I have worked have been experienced and detail-oriented, but errors can happen, and charter carriers are, surprisingly, often more particular about document details than commercial airlines. Finding errors on the last day or at the flight desk can lead to missed flights and lost days on precious rotations home.
Check out everything that you can find on line about your camp, your job site, and the surrounding area so you know what to expect. A Google search will bring up a wide spectrum of information, from corporate websites for lodge administration companies to individual posts. Many lodges are featured on Facebook and Google maps as well.
Here is where you need to carry a large grain of salt and use it generously. Reviews vary enormously from corporate websites extolling the luxuries of camp living, to disgruntled ex-residents enjoying a “bitch-and-moan” session:
Civeo corporate management site posting: “Wapasu Creek Lodge features 5,174 standard and deluxe rooms, equipped with Internet and cable TV. Daily housekeeping, three meals per day and full access to fitness and recreation facilities make working away from home healthier and more productive. A Tim Horton’s and a convenience store are also situated onsite to bring the comforts of home to you….”
Personal post on a blog: “…I can totally relate to Wapasu aka Wapatraz being a total hellhole. The food sucks, the housekeeping as well: they change the linens literally once a week and the overall vibe and aura is creepy…”
My impression? A somewhat austere, institutional building, three classes of rooms, housekeeping good to adequate depending on the wing and that week’s staff, food somewhat salty but not bad considering the sheer volume of meals to be served. I actually enjoy the place. So the truth is very much in the middle. However, it is true that some lodges are newer and quite luxurious, while others are older, tackier, and may have communal showers and/or bathrooms. Try to ascertain the conditions ahead of time; this may play a role in your decision to accept a position.
Note – Someone in the Civeo camp company must have either a sense of humour or delusions of grandeur: one camp is called “Pebble Beach.” It bears no relationship to the famous California golf beach resort, but was so named because it was built in a gravel pit. Can you guess which one of these rooms is in Pebble Beach, Alberta???
However, even the basic “craft” rooms (such as the one above at Pebble Beach), although austere, can be made cozy with a bit of ingenuity – more about this next.
One of the most important ways to maintain your mental and emotional health during long Arctic nights, when you leave for work in the dark, see the sun rise only through your office window, and go back to camp in the dark, is to make your room and your office (if you have one) a place where you LIKE to be, rather than an austere cubicle that drags down your spirits. In this respect, I am way off the spectrum of what most people do. But the place where I sleep and the place where I work are cozy, comfortable, and arty, and the hour that I spend each rotation setting up my room is worth it for the sense that this space is mine rather than just another institutional box..
The extent to which you get into nesting depends on the type of room you land and how long you are going to be there. Executive-level rooms, such as these at Beaver River Lodge, are equivalent to a good hotel room, and do not need much to make them comfortable:
“Executive” Room, Beaver River Lodge
The workers’, or “craft” rooms, as they are called, are smaller and rather austere. The worst feature is that the main light comes from a single large fluorescent ceiling panel that casts a stark glare over everything; turning it off and using only the desk lamp leaves the room dim and gloomy. I went to Wal-Mart and for $10 bought a cheap, low-wattage little desk lamp, then put it out of sight on top of the coat closet. It cast a warm, indirect glow on the ceiling that gently lighted the entire room. My loving wife gives me cards that she secrets into my luggage; I put these in front of the light, and add a couple of my older vintage cameras. A couple of photo magazines with bright images propped against the wall make nice spots of colour that brighten the room.
As a photographer, I have a lot of unused artwork. I shipped some of this up bit by bit, replacing the picture glass with Plexiglas after trying to dispose of large shards from pictures broken in transit. I struggled to find ways to hang these without putting nails in the walls. After experimenting with little brass clips that grabbed the ceiling moldings, I finally discovered that standard sewing pins are extremely strong – two will hold a medium-sized picture – yet are so thin that their holes are basically invisible. An easier solution if you don’t have bundles of free artwork is to purchase some colourful posters, have them laminated in plastic, and put them up with either pins or the little squares of removable tacky putty that you can buy in office supply stores. The latter is a much easier option than transporting and storing framed pictures.
To cover the cold linoleum floor in the craft room, I dug around in my basement and found a discarded but colourful kitchen mat to make another splash of colour on the floor. I brought up a sturdy little glass vase and, even in midwinter, collected bulrushes from the ditches or reeds from frozen swamps to make a corner decoration. Next, I brought up an old set of computer speakers, plugged it into my computer, hooked into the camp wireless, and had 24-hour background music from my favourite internet radio station. With some experimentation, you should be able to assemble a compact, lightweight kit that is quick to unpack, yet makes your room a place in which you like to spend time.
The same principles worked for my office. Most people just work in a cube or office with nothing on the walls. This doesn’t work for me – the arty part of me needs to make comfortable surroundings, then I settle in and really get things done at the max. Making an office or cube into a pleasant place is fun, and can be done during breaks. I printed out some my favourite images and thumb-tacked them to the walls. I bought a small, old-fashioned mason jar for $2.50, put in some bulrushes and dried weeds, and filled it with ice melting crystals, which set hard in a few days.
The other corner got a cheap little yellow flowerpot that had been knocking around in my garage; I scavenged some interesting-looking dead branches, some dried grass from a walk and filled the pot with ice melting crystals. With fossils around it from my evening walks, I soon had the other corner filled. A couple of lightweight photo books on the shelf, a CD of Edith Piaf on the little clock radio on my desk, and my office felt like home…
With the exception of the smallest camps. which can be merely a collection of trailers, a kitchen, and a mess trailer, most camps have a gymnasium, a TV room, dining rooms that double as meeting rooms, and a small store. Gymnasiums vary from simple workout rooms to large, well-equipped facilities with indoor running tracks. The store is often quite basic, with a collection of essential items such as vitamins, aspirin, snacks, earphones, batteries, razors, deodorant, and magazines. Some have a limited selection of reading material. There is often a Tim Horton’s. Prices are variable, with some items close to outside market value, while others, such as cold remedies, being very expensive. It is advisable to bring your own supplies and, in particular, to bring an adequate supply of prescription medicine, with a week or two extra in case you are asked to stay longer or extreme weather delays travel.
If you do decide to explore the northern forests around the camp, there is one rule that you must never forget: the north country is beautiful and ever-changing, with miles of snowshoeing in winter and fascinating wildlife and flowers in the summer, but it IS a wilderness, and the land has no tolerance for stupidity or carelessness. This is a harsh and unforgiving land, that will kill you in a few hours in winter if you are unprepared for the cold, or in a few seconds in summer if you are not respectful of large wildlife. Tell someone when you are going out, and check back with them when you return. Carry basic survival gear, invest in reliable equipment, and check skis or snowshoes for fraying straps or failing buckles. Tramping a mile from camp, then having to flounder back through snowdrifts carrying a broken snowshoe is a situation that may have serious consequences. Do not leave camp unless you have at least the essentials needed to survive a night in the forest.
Always carry a compass, know at least the basics of how to use it, and be aware at all times of the direction to camp or the nearest road. I find it easy to become lost in the boreal forest. In my native British Columbia coastal forests, one usually has visible landmarks of mountains, ocean, or streams to help with orientation, and hikers still become lost. The northern forests are gently rolling and lack major features; one area of forest can look much like another, and I find it easier to become disoriented, especially under cloudy conditions when one cannot see the direction of the sun or stars. Winter is actually easier than summer, as one usually has one’s snowshoe or ski tracks to follow back to safety.
With respect to wildlife, the major source of problems is most commonly human stupidity and ignorance. Drive through any national park and observe individuals outside their cars snapping pictures ten feet from a herd of elk. Feeding sandwiches to coyotes is a good way to get bitten, as one worker at Kearl Lake discovered in the summer of 2013.
Conversely, many northern workers are overly frightened of venturing into the forest and meeting wildlife. Wolves get the worst rap; in reality, if you encounter a wolf in the wild, feel honoured rather than frightened. In the last century, there has only been one questionable case of wolves killing a human. Most wolves are extremely shy, avoid human contact, and are rarely seen. With moose, in most cases, if you respect a moose’s space, it will respect yours. It is not generally known that the city of Anchorage has a population of approximately 500 moose year round. They wander suburban streets, munch gardens, and occasionally grab naps on lawns. With the exception of the tendency of most moose to have absolutely no sense regarding automobile traffic, residents and moose coexist comfortably. The major concern with northern wildlife should be with bears, who do attack, maim, and kill humans. In May of 2014, a bear dashed into a crew at Suncor and killed a female worker. Educate yourself on bear safety and behaviour, and carry a canister of bear spray.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING:
I firmly believe that, with the exception of the small population of cranks, boors, soreheads, moaners, and just plain nasty people, in most cases what you get back is strongly related to what you give out. So this is my pitch for politeness and tolerance when living in a crowded, stressful environment like a camp. I have found most of the people I meet anywhere in the camps, especially the staff, to be considerate and polite. People who come north may be tough, gruff, unshaven, adventurous, and sometime just plain weird – but in general, solid, fair, and polite. Front desk staff in camps especially seem to be chosen for their ability to deal with tired, cranky, and stressed workers with politeness and tolerance.
I also think that I must have missed something in my experience – I don’t detest security people. Coming back from one of my evening jaunts, I stopped to say hello to one of my acquaintances, a plump old fellow with a luxuriant mustache, smoking on the back steps of Wing 45. He suddenly growled, “God, I hate security people! I’d like to take every one of them out and shoot them.” I left feeling saddened. I am not sure what negative experience left him so embittered, but I cannot share his sentiment. After my work day, I explore every part of the area around camp with my camera, poke into odd corners, appear in strange places at odd hours, and make expeditions into the woods with my tripod over my shoulder. However, I prepare for these trips carefully, dress appropriately, and carry spare lights and batteries, an emergency space blanket, penknife, lighter, and a large belt canister of bear spray. On these expeditions, I have had many encounters with security staff, and every one of them has been polite, helpful, and mostly just concerned that I not get attacked by a bear. Once they see my camera and realize that I am well prepared, they leave reassured.
Camps can have many rules. Some of them make sense, some seem irrelevant and unnecessary, and a few are a true nuisance. I found that with time, I gained more sympathy for those who wrote camp rules. A rule book is not needed by 95% of the camp population – most workers would do fine with just a few basic camp regulations – but they are written for the 5% who will always push the envelope. Also, I found that where rules seemed silly or overly restrictive, it was frequently a training issue, with staff trying to enforce rules that had been poorly explained, and which the staff themselves did not understand fully.
THE HOME FIRES:
The success of a northern work experience is intimately linked to the success of family and dependents left behind. The income is often essential, but managing relationships at a distance presents challenges for everyone. This is particularly critical for young families, where one partner going north leaves behind another dealing with the stress of children, finances, pets, and keeping up a home.
First, talk with your partner and children before you go . Try to develop a plan of how you will cope, and who will do what. Try to determine roles and responsibilities in advance – who will pay the bills, how the house will get painted, who will feed the dog. Modify the plan and job list as things change. TALK!
Remember that, while taking a job away from home can be a major adventure and challenge for you, it is also likely to require your partner to make major life changes, even if you do not have the pressures of a young family. This is true not just with practical tasks – starting the lawnmower, fixing a hinge, managing the finances – but with the gap left when one half of a couple is suddenly not there. Isolation and loneliness are problems that are not restricted to the far north. When one partner leaves to work, the balance of a whole relationship changes. The partner left behind often has to restructure their life and relationships. My wife joined a choir and an international charity, took voice lessons, and hired a friendly gardener to help with heavy tasks.
Give serious consideration to hiring help. Hopefully, your willingness to venture away from civilization will have significant financial rewards. Spend some of it to get tasks done. The worker who arrives home, exhausted from two weeks of 11-hours shifts, only to be greeted by an uncut lawn and a list of chores to be done, can begin to feel that work never ends and become drained and irritable after a few months of this schedule. There are usually dependable underemployed handymen, retirees, or students looking for work in any town. Hire one of them to cut your lawn, weed your flower beds, fix the screens, and paint the garage, so that you can arrive home, sleep, spend some quality time with your loved ones, and work on the limited number of tasks that only you can do.
Stay connected as much as you can, especially with children. This is much easier since the advent of the internet. Phone conversations can be costly and cell service can be spotty (especially when the sunspots are active), but Skype is free and reliable, as are Facebook and Twitter. Take a few pictures (to the extent that it is allowed) and let your kids see where Daddy or Mommy works. Encourage your family to send pictures and use Facebook creatively – we see our distant grandkids’ Halloween costumes and candy haul half an hour after they are home, thanks to the cell phone camera and Facebook.
Getting adequate and restorative sleep is one of the greatest challenges in any camp position. I also firmly believe that fatigue is an unrecognized and under-appreciated factor in a significant proportion of safety incidents. I an sensitive to this, as I cannot count the number of workers who have nodded off in my classes, even when I am not being boring.
Sleeping in Camp
There are good reasons why sleep and fatigue are tough problems in northern camps. First, many workers start by flying long distances and changing time zones. During the Canadian winter, weather problems and flight delays are frequent; one may arrive late, only to have to get up early. These are things that noone can change, but they can create a bad start to a demanding two or three weeks in camp. Do your best; sleep in the airport or on the plane, and try to start out as rested as possible. The company charter is often the most direct flight if it can be worked into your schedule. For example, I found that flying commercial flights between Duncan and my site at Fort McMurray could take 11 hours, much of it spent sitting around in airports. Adjusting my work week to travel on Tuesdays, allowing me to use a direct charter to Vancouver, then walk three blocks to a seaplane that dropped me ten minutes from my front door, cut the journey to six hours and put me home just after lunch.
Many workers compensate for lack of sleep by spending the day propped up by high-caffeine beverages. Modest caffeine intake does not seem to be a problem, but using a high-sugar, high-caffeine drink like Red Bull gives a short burst of energy followed by an energy slump, requiring more Red Bull. Some workers spend their days riding this energy roller coaster. If you use these beverages, at least stay off them in the evening, as high caffeine doses can create restlessness and insomnia.
Take time to relax before bed. Get some exercise if you don’t do physical labour. Try to develop a relaxing evening ritual. I go snowshoeing or walking, then write on my web site. Spend time with friends, or go off and get some quiet and alone time, depending on what works for you. Some big men simply cannot sleep comfortably in a single bed. If this is a problem, approach camp staff to get moved. If this approach does not work, talk to your supervisor or HR department. A good company will do their best to make sure that workers are rested, and will push for room changes.
Soundproofing in rooms can be variable, and shared bathrooms do create night noises. I hear a lot of complaints about noise at night. Some people are more sensitive to this than others. If you have a noisy neighbour, speak up to camp staff. Try ear plugs if you are especially sensitive to camp noises. Conversely, quiet background music at night can be soothing. I leave my computer tuned to my favourite internet station all night, or go to sleep listening to an audio book.
Finally, if you really have consistent sleep problems, see your doctor. A short-acting sleeping medication may be what is needed to let you settle down. You may need to try several before you find one that works and has no effects the next morning. Rule out sleep apnea, especially if you wake up tired after what should have been a good nights’ sleep, or your partner complains about your snoring.
(which has nothing whatsoever to do with anything discussed in this post)
End of rotation, waiting in the departure lounge with a hundred other workers with heavy jackets and backpacks. My immediate group is a bunch of bus drivers, and there is much chatter. Groups one, two and three are off, and we are the last group for a bus.
Very small security person of the female type: “OK, now, everybody else! Out the door and onto the bus!
Equally small driver, also of the female type: “Everybody else! I thought we were special!
Me, loudly: “Bet we get the one with the bad wheel.”
Tall female driver: “Shut yo mouth! Don’t even think about it!
Very small and plump female driver: “That’s OK. We’re bus drivers. We’ll just go up to Fort MacKay and STEAL a bus and drive it to Albian.”
Big tall male driver with grey hair: “Yeah, and leave it running and then call and tell them to come and get it before it runs out of fuel.”
We trundle out the door into the cold and climb on a lovely new bus with black leatherette seats, not like the usual old buses that leak oil and come up here to die.
Drivers, swarming over the bus and caressing the seats: “Oh, look at this lovely bus! (Stroking the seat backs) What lovely leather!’
Finally the drivers stop exclaiming over the bus and cuddle into their luxurious seats as we roar off to the airport. Fortunately, none of the wheels falls off.