Recovering Fort McMurray

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As I was writing my June column, the forest fires west of Fort McMurray flared and invaded the city. My daughter was living and working there and of course was part of the evacuation. Fortunately, she lived on the south side of town and did not have to endure much of what many had in order to leave the city—none-the-less, a very stressful time for all involved, including we outsiders who were waiting for word about loved ones caught in the crisis. As of this writing our daughter is safe with her family in our home, and for that we are grateful.

Over the last few days, we have been hearing many stories of courage and generosity on the part of so many people. What was particularly amazing to me was how 88,000 people were successfully evacuated from the city with no loss of life to the fire. As Albertans, we should be very proud of our fellow citizens, especially first responders, who stepped into the fray and ensured the safety of all. We should also thank the many people in communities across the province who opened their homes, businesses and community centres to the evacuees, ensuring everyone had a place to shelter and decompress. As well, the Alberta and federal governments deserve praise for not hesitating to bring the resources needed to safeguard citizens and fight a monumental fire. I have never been more proud to be an Albertan and Canadian.

Charles Lake

The author’s daughter Joanne with a northern pike she caught out of Charles Lake north of Fort Chipewyan.

As a result of all this, I lost my focus on the subject I had been writing about, and instead decided to discuss what Fort McMurray has meant to me over the years and why I think she will recover. While listening to CBC radio’s excellent and continuous coverage of the catastrophe (much appreciated by evacuees and their families) and waiting for Joanne’s text messages describing where she was in the long line of evacuees driving south on highway 63, my thoughts drifted to the many experiences I have had at Fort McMurray over the years.

The first time I visited was in the mid-1970s when I worked for a biological consulting firm on a major gas pipeline project in the Arctic. We had hired Contact Air, out of Fort McMurray, to provide us with planes and pilots to fly aerial surveys of caribou and muskoxen along the proposed pipeline route. I had the good fortune of flying with one of Contact’s owners, the legendary Jack Bergeron. Jack was quite a character and he made the many hours we spent in his airplane anything but boring. He taught me a lot about bush flying, and perhaps most important, navigating in the Arctic. We had many adventures I won’t forget.

Because our surveys were based out of Resolute Bay, NWT, I only visited Fort McMurray once during that time, and unfortunately didn’t see much more than Contact’s hangar at the airport. At that time, Fort McMurray was a town of just a few thousand people with oil sands development just getting underway.

I had a better look at that town several years later when I drove up with a group of fishing buddies to fly into some lakes on the Canadian Shield north of Fort Chipewyan. If memory serves, Contact Airways flew us into those lakes (although I believe Jack had moved on to other adventures flying wildlife surveys in Kenya). At that time, we spent a night at a hotel in town and were able to do a little looking around before our flight the next day. The town was obviously growing and thriving as more petroleum companies were realizing the oil sands’ potential. We visited the local sporting goods store and picked up some lures. I remember the affable owner regaling us with stories of the legendary fish we were going to catch. Sure enough, we indeed caught many large pike and lake trout, and saw some amazing country.

Heritage Park Shipyard, Ft. McMurray

Fort McMurray’s Heritage Park reminds visitors that the city is much more than petroleum development. It includes a shipyard museum where historic dredges and other river boats are on display from a time when the river was a major means of getting supplies to northern communities.

I returned to Fort McMurray over the next few years to fly-in to other lakes on the shield with various people interested in seeing what the north could provide in terms of adventure and excellent fishing. We either flew out of the Fort McMurray airport to Fort Chipewyan, where a floatplane waited to take us to our lake, or we flew from the floatplane base on the Snye waterway in Fort McMurray directly to our lake. Each trip was a special adventure that embedded many fine memories in my mind.

On one trip I took my young daughter Joanne along so that she could have a taste of northern Alberta. This too was a special trip, made even more so by seeing my daughter catch some really big pike and wrestle with them while waiting for her old man to take pictures. You can’t put a price on those memories.

Now, over the last couple of years, it was Joanne who showed her mother and me around the ever-growing Fort McMurray: the new state-of-the-art airport, the Oil Sands Discovery Centre with its oil-sands tour, Heritage Park with its displays showing visitors that the city has a long history; and where to eat, where to sample craft brews, where to walk dogs and hike trails. We came to know the city pretty well, and met some pretty interesting people along the way.

So, it was with a heavy heart that we watched Fort McMurray take the hit it did during the first few days of May. What many who haven’t visited the city do not understood is that Fort McMurray is so much more than just “an oil town,” where you come to make your fortune. It is also a gateway to some magnificent northern country and adventures, and a vibrant community of people who want to make social and cultural, as well as financial contributions to society.

That is why I got upset when I read about some recent, insensitive social-media postings about Fort McMurray “getting what it deserves” from the fire because of the contribution oil sands development makes to global warming. Anyone who regularly reads my writing knows that I’m a firm believer in man-caused climate change; and yes, the oil sands operations add to the problem. But so do we all! Every time we drive our vehicles, fly in airplanes, heat our homes, lubricate a hinge or buy something made of plastic, we emit carbon and create the demand that causes the oil sands to be developed. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, the sooner the better. But until we do so without catastrophically upending our economy, we will be using oil and gas. As well, we will be challenged by more catastrophic wildfires and storms. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can learn to deal with them and reduce their consequences.

Of course, the crisis in Fort McMurray is not over and there is much work to do. But it will be done. People will return and rebuild their lives. Fort McMurray will be different but I can’t help but feel it will be better. Its citizens will have a new unifying sense of themselves that will spur the city along. We are all facing challenges in this new world forming around us, and Fort McMurray will show us how to be resilient.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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