I'd never imagined that Alberta's oil sands could be a tourist attraction. But here I am, a 20-minute drive north of Fort McMurray, filing out of a chartered bus behind 20 or so vacationers. We're parked beside a gray complex at the edge of Suncor's Millennium Mine. From an airplane you'd see desolate black fields and dusty roads -- the kind of panoramas that inspire monikers like "most destructive project on Earth." There's hardly any view from the ground. Workers in jumpsuits light cigarettes to our left. And a blackish ridge runs north to south behind them.
The reason for our stop -- first on a sight-seeing tour called "Experience the Energy" -- is the chance to photograph a mounted tire. It's not just any old tire. This one stands four metres tall and comes from a Caterpillar 797B Heavy Hauler. These so-called "world's biggest dump-trucks" can move 400 tonnes of black soil mixed with heavy petroleum. They're a common sight north of Fort McMurray, where open-pit mines sprawl to the horizon. Almost everyone wants a picture. Greying men in khaki shorts pose for the camera while smiling wives giggle nearby.
Far in the distance, I see two heavy haulers rumbling down the ridge. The clouds above are shaped like countries. "Okay, time to get back on the bus," announces Kailyn Park, our tour guide. I take a seat near the rear and rub my arms. The air conditioning is giving me goose bumps.
The sweet life
The evening before, I eat rhubarb crumble in suburban Fort McMurray. I'm sitting on white deck chairs with a middle-aged married couple who work for Syncrude, one of the biggest producers in the oil sands. They're flipping through the latest issue of "Synergy." The company newsletter has just profiled an attractive employee. "I wouldn't mind having her set down next to my office," the husband jokes. "I didn't hear that," his wife replies.
I scrape the last rhubarb from my bowl and watch the family cat stalk birds in their backyard. Some evenings the couple goes for long bike rides. Tonight is more relaxed -- just bottled water, rhubarb and the newspaper. A lawnmower roars faintly in the distance. You'd never know this backyard scene is intimately connected to the biggest energy project in North America. The wife teaches corporate leadership skills for Syncrude, while her husband, an oil sands geologist, commutes early each morning to an open-pit mine north of town. Bitumen pays well. They're renovating the house, and got back not too long ago from a trip to the Canary Islands. Like many in Fort McMurray, the couple isn't oblivious to the huge ecological impacts of extracting energy from the oil sands. But they tend to focus on "opportunities" and "progress" instead of oil-drenched ducks.
Out on the deck, the evening air starts to cool. We move inside. The husband hunches over a game of computer solitaire for the next 35 minutes. Everyone's asleep by 10:30 p.m.
'Quest for Energy'
The next morning, I show up 45 minutes early for my oil-patch bus tour. I'm the only tourist in the front lobby of the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Picture a gray building at the edge of an industrial park and just down the road from a Ford Lincoln dealership. The centre is considered one of Fort McMurray's top tourist attractions. A chipper receptionist suggests visiting the theatre, where a screening of "Quest for Energy" is about to begin. I get distracted by the "dig and sniff" station instead. Pull on a handle to drag a metal claw through oily sand, and then lift a panel that reads "sniff". It smells mostly like old tires.
I decide to check out the gift shop. The shelves here are stocked with plastic construction hats, eating utensils shaped like forklifts and a children's toy called "Barrel-O-Slime." My favourite gift is the large print of an oil sands mine lit by the Northern Lights. Ghostly wolves hover above heavy haulers and other industrial machinery with sorrow in their eyes.
By this point, almost all the other bus passengers -- mostly older couples and a few children -- have gathered. The gift shop starts to get crowded. I go outside for some fresh air. The first thing I notice is the dozen or so bird silhouettes painted along the exterior wall. The colour choice, black, seems a bit odd -- especially with a recent guilty verdict against Syncrude for allowing 1,600 ducks to fly into a toxic tailings pond. But there’s little time to ponder. My motor-coach has just arrived.
Strap in for the ride
Suncor is the only company right now to offer an oil sands bus tour. It costs $36.75 with tax and you have to play by their rules. That means no voice or video recorders. And all photos are for personal use only -- you can't even publish them on Facebook. All this is relayed by Kailyn Park, our tour leader, in the peppiest of voice tones. "Everyone got that?"
Myself and another freelance writer are the only ones with notepads. Many of the riders are older couples from Ontario. As the bus exits north onto Highway 63, Kailyn regales us with local trivia -- stuff like mobile homes selling for $465,000 at the height of the oil boom. Not long past Fort McMurray limits, she puts on a slick video about Suncor's environmental progress.
Highway 63 is pretty dead in the late morning, but every so often a pickup truck roars past. Ongoing University of Alberta research is examining the 25,000 oil-patch labourers who live in work camps outside Fort McMurray. Some do just fine. But others are driven near insane by long hours, social isolation and living conditions they compare to prison. They'll sometimes jump in their trucks and blast down the highway at 160 kilometres an hour, just for the feeling. Kailyn comes on the intercom to announce we've arrived at Suncor's oil sands property.
"Up ahead, you'll have the chance to get off the bus and take some pictures," she says.
Looking for Bit-u-Men
Forty minutes later, everyone's finished posing in front of the big truck wheel. Kailyn does a quick head count. Across the aisle, a young kid from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, stares out the window. His feet don't touch the floor.
"My dad works up here," the boy says.
"Do you see him often?" asks a man holding an expensive camera.
The bus drives parallel to a blackish ridge. It crosses the Athabasca River and loops through Suncor's onsite refinery, a forest-like tangle of steel girders, twisting pipes and rigid towers. Two workers speckled with wet dirt struggle to control a high-pressure hose. Kailyn runs up and down the aisle. "Does anyone have any questions?"
Past the refinery, we curve alongside a toxic tailings pond. Small metallic figures wearing hard-hats -- known in industry parlance as "effigies," "scarecrows" or "Bit-u-Men" -- bob on tires. They're meant to scare away birds. One lies face down in the shallows, his orange outfit turned gray. The bus now enters Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine. Our destination is a major tourist attraction just off Highway 63 called the "Giants of Mining".
We pull over beside a "bucket wheel reclaimer" and "dragline" the size of small apartment buildings. In the distance, across dark and barren fields, Syncrude towers spit flames into the sky. Everyone is snapping pictures. Two nearby cops aim a speed gun at passing motorists.
"My dad once got pulled over," the kid from Saskatchewan remarks.
"Your dad doesn't know the meaning of slow," replies his grandmother.
"My dad," says the kid, "doesn't know the meaning of 'live' either."
She chuckles cautiously. "Yes he does."