Field Notes: Fort McMurray

On the plane to Fort McMurray, most people stop talking to me when I tell them my profession. Granted, “Environmental Consultant” isn’t what they expect to hear— it’s the oil-sands equivalent of a party crasher. But these people’s apprehensions aside, I’ve come to love and loathe the place as the bottomless pit of crazy, wild, and bizarre that it is. Multinational corporations spend billions to mine and suck bitumen out of the earth, but there’s an equally rich resource to exploit here: people.

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Leaving the airport the first time, all I could see were various shades of dust hovering over the road and the hacked-out boreal forest. Swaths of buildings were arranged haphazardly, devoid of order and place, an architectural orgy. Grimy men were hanging out on hotel balconies adjacent to highways drinking beer and spitting, wiping sweat off their brows with their arms, laughing and staring into their drinks, the smoke of their cigarettes furling around their fluorescent construction helmets. As we drove down a long hill, the radio informed us about the Alberta Provincial election. I looked out the window and saw a large display of election signs dotting the hillside like a floral display, which on closer inspection spelled out the phrase “Vot PC.” It was a potpourri of grammatical imperfection, a classic foreshadowing for what was to come.

As we got closer to town the traffic got horrendous, a daily commute reminiscent of a natural disaster evacuation scene in a movie. The city, far too big for its infrastructure, was littered with makeshift traffic lights stuck in orange plastic barrels and grounded by sand and jagged rocks, easily targets for a game of “let’s get drunk and move the traffic lights around.”

On my way to get dinner from Earl’s that night, my co-worker Ann told me to keep an eye out for the “Earl’s Girls,” scantily clad sixteen-year-old hostesses hired purely to appease the clientele of burly, slobbering oil workers. They didn’t disappoint, lurking around the main entrance, pandering to each sloth as he came in, making him feel like the only guy in the world.

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These were my first impressions of Fort McMurray. Regardless of where you stand on Oil-sands development, what isn’t debatable is that resource booms create boomtowns, and in them you find little gems of humanity. It’s a gold rush in itself and together these nuggets form Field Notes: Fort McMurray.

Words by William Farrant, photography by Ilijc Albanese.