Life in a Small Town

Tumbler Ridge Panorama
A panoramic view of downtown Tumbler Ridge.

I know, I’ve been negligent in updating this blog! I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post, and frankly, I’m a little embarrassed… But, let me try to explain.

For the past 9 months, I’ve resided in the small “frontier” town of Tumbler Ridge. Nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in the Murray River valley, Tumbler Ridge is like many small towns in Canada. It is quiet and peaceful, surrounded by mostly untouched wilderness (if you discount the coal mines, the occasional cleared area, and natural gas pipelines). Settled in 1981, Tumbler Ridge was a town built by coal companies to house a thousand (mostly single male) workers in a man camp, which eventually attracted a curious number of female hairdressers. Tumbler Ridge has since grown to become a respectable town complete with a quaint town hall, a golf course, and its own music festival. Every morning, workers donned in high-visibility clothing and carrying their lunch boxes gather at street intersections as they await the white bus that will take them to work in the coal mines. The town’s one and only tavern is also fondly named “The Coal Bin” and is located around the backside of the Tumbler Ridge Inn. Instead of a historical figure mounted on his trusted steed, you will find a large bucket from a coal excavator taking centre stage in the park across from the Town Hall.

Like many small frontier towns, Tumbler Ridge rides with the ever-fluctuating prices of natural resources. In late 2008, when over-inflated coal prices plummeted, mines closed down, workers were laid off, and the town stood nearly abandoned. In 2010, when coal prices recovered, mines re-opened and new mines were founded. It was also at this time that the Quality Wind Project commenced, bringing a diverse mix of workers from all over North America to a town that was suddenly struggling with lodging. In just a few short months, the town’s population doubled and every hotel was at maximum capacity. Houses, which previously sold for under $20,000 a few months earlier, were suddenly valued at over $300,000 as coal companies fought to find rooms for their employees.

While the town is endowed with the basic amenities one needs to survive, prices are inflated almost everywhere. The nearest town with a No Frills, Walmart, and Tim Hortons is Dawson Creek (approximately 140km away), famous for it’s “Mile Zero” monument for the Alaska Highway, where thousands of prospectors once passed through on their journey to their great gold-mining Meccas of Alaska and the Yukon. Grande Prairie, a booming town of 50,000 is located just across the BC/Alberta border directly east of Tumbler Ridge and is about a two-hour drive away (that is, if you are adventurous enough to navigate Northern BC’s network of unpaved resource roads). Located at the Western reach of the Oil Sands, it is truly the place to stock up on supplies and enjoy the finer comforts of modern society. At some of Grande Prairie’s many fine establishments, such as Starbucks, Costco and The Keg, the parking lots are packed with more Dodge Rams and Ford F150s than you will find at your neighbourhood dealer.

So what did I learn from my experience in Tumbler Ridge? First off, living in a small town constitutes that you plan ahead. When I flew into Grande Prairie after some days off work, I would immediately head to Costco where I would stock up on all the supplies I needed for the next month. When work is crazy, there is simply no time to afford a four-hour drive to pick up supplies. And if I do have a day off, the least thing I want to do is spend half my day driving just to buy groceries. While the majority of my time spent in Tumbler Ridge was during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, there were enough freak snowstorms to teach me that you can never take the weather for granted. A sudden squall can immobilize you in Tumbler Ridge for a day or more, as the only two paved roads out of town can take as many as 2 or 3 days to be fully ploughed. And if you do manage to slide and skid your way into Grande Prairie, you might just find that your flight home was cancelled. Already this fall, we have had two significant snowfalls and it’s only mid-October.

Bergeron Cliffs
A well-deserved view after climbing to the top of the Bergeron Cliffs.

It took me some time to get over the fact that I’ve been spoiled by a modern society for nearly my entire life, but once I accepted my fate, something curious happened. I suddenly enjoyed my 20-minute drive to work every morning in my Dodge Power Wagon as I beheld the views of mountains and wildlife in the early morning light. I embraced the proximity to nature and spent my free time bushwacking (exploring new roads and happening on unexpected surprises like a mother doe teaching her newborns to walk, or finding a spectacular vista). There are also a plethora of waterfalls to discover and riverbanks to wander. The local golf course, just a 2-minute drive from my house offers a bucket of balls at the driving range for $4, and an impressive community centre offers everything from an arena to an aquatics centre. I also capitalized on living in British Columbia by exploring Southern Alaska and the Canadian Rockies on two separate occasions. Skiing at Powder King, BC’s best kept secret, was truly a treat as you are guaranteed to find fresh powder there from early November until late April. With just four hours of darkness in the summer, many nights were spent around a campfire enjoying some cool brews, and the summer highlight was a terrific day spent heli-fishing at an otherwise inaccessible lake in the mountains.

My catch at Hook Lake
A fresh catch of Bull Trout at Hook Lake in Northern British Columbia! (Photo credit: Antonio Baldovino)

The most gratifying moments of my whole stay in Tumbler Ridge, however, were spent with the people of Tumbler Ridge, who were both welcoming and accepting. I’ll never forget my first weekend in Tumbler Ridge, which happened to be Easter. While most everyone from work managed to fly home to be with their families, I stayed, having just arrived in town. What I thought would be a morose and lonely weekend, became one that I now cherish the most. Ray and Josh, an amazing couple that truly embraced living in Tumbler Ridge, hooked me up with some avid powder seekers who were going skiing the following day. So, not knowing anyone in town, I immediately befriended Mark and James, two Brits who found a new home in the mountains of BC, and we were off to Powder King. On Sunday, Ray and Josh invited me to Easter dinner with their family, and I was simply blown away by their kindness after just meeting me a week prior. This good nature is shared by others in town as well! In fact, it was just last weekend that another family, whom I’d met at church, invited me to their Thanksgiving family dinner.

In a small town, everyone plays an especially important role in the continued success of the community. From the diligent workers at the post office that receive truckloads of mail-order goods every day to the local newspaper editor who patiently listens to each excited resident that rushes into his office and divulges the latest breaking news story. No matter someone’s place in society, they are happy with who they are and where they live because it takes someone with a deep love of their surroundings to weather blizzards, extreme cold, and long drives into town.

Certainly, the most important lesson from Tumbler Ridge is that small gestures make all the difference, because when you’re in a remote town, nothing is ever taken for granted. The community spirit in Tumbler Ridge was often surprising and refreshing. I saw people rush to help in the aftermath of a potentially fatal car accident. I saw strangers help a struggling old man lift his new mattress from the Sears Catalogue Order Store onto his car and tie it down. More so than simply good spirit and kindness, residents of Tumbler Ridge realize that if something serious were to happen, they must help themselves. When a heli-logging chopper had engine trouble and started a wildfire in a field, it took the local fire department over half an hour to respond with nought but a pickup truck. It was a water truck from our construction site that extinguished the blaze. This is in no way a poor reflection on public authorities, it is simply a fact that small towns have limited resources and they do the best they can with what they can afford. As a team at the Quality Wind Project, many individuals brought forth initiatives to help the local community, and the response was always immediate and overwhelming. We raised money to replace the gymnasium floor of the local high school, we raised over $10,000 to help a family who’s son is diagnosed with terminal cancer, we collected enough food for the local food bank to fill an enclosed trailer, and we helped a local church repair an overhead door that was left broken and unused for over 3 years.

Leaving Tumbler Ridge is a little bittersweet for me. While I am excited to move on to my next project and spend time at home with my family, I had just started to feel like a member of the Tumbler Ridge community. I will always remember those who welcomed me in this town, and surely hope to visit again in the future!

Are you from a small town? What’s your story? Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts (p.s. you can now login using Facebook!).

Is 99.9% good enough?

I’ve been working in the construction industry for a grand total of two weeks, and while this may not seem like much, it has already taught me a valuable lesson that can be applied to almost any situation: the concept of doing everything 100%.

As children growing up, we are bombarded with reminders to finish what we started and to see our chores all the way through before starting something else, and yet it is always so hard to finish things in their entirety! It seems to be so difficult to keep a room perfectly clean because there will always be a stray sock somewhere and so we conclude that having our room mostly clean, maybe even 99.9% clean, is the best we can humanly achieve because perfection is simply an unattainable goal.

In school, we strive for 100%, but are ecstatic with anything over 90% (in university, I was frequently ecstatic just to get a passing grade)! Besides, unless it’s math, marking is subjective and it is humanly impossible to achieve a 100% score! Even if it is math, it’s so easy to have a careless mistake somewhere in the midst of your calculations, that we are willing to settle for a 95%. We often joke about some students’ parents who, in response to their child receiving a 95% would demand to know why they couldn’t achieve 100%! And yet, despite the seeming impossibility of achieving 100%, is there something we’re missing and is it possible that anything less than 100% is simply not acceptable?

For many years in the construction industry, injuries and fatalities were considered an inevitable risk and therefore, such tragedies were most unfortunately accepted by society. While there are strict rules and regulations in place (enforced by organizations like OSHA in the United States and the WSIB in Canada), to hold a company accountable for injuries and deaths is accepted by law so long as they are compliant with all applicable rules. So, if a company has a 99.9% safety record, is it acceptable? While many would argue that 99.9% is extremely good, in my company of just over 2000 people, it would mean that at least 2 people would be killed or seriously injured every year. The same record applied to the automobile industry would imply that it would be acceptable if over 5,000 cars sold in the United States every year could have life-threatening problems. Applied to the aviation industry, it would imply that it would be acceptable if at least one plane crashed every day when landing or taking off at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. In medicine, it would mean that over 300 million prescriptions in the United States (roughly equal to the American population) would be incorrectly fulfilled every single year.

Clearly, in many different industries, 99.9%, no matter how impressive it is, is simply not good enough. So, as a field supervisor with Mortenson Construction, I take my responsibility to perform quality control and assurance very seriously. When I test to make sure that each and every one of the bolts holding a rotor in place is correctly tensioned, 100% is the only acceptable standard, and the same should apply to everything else that we do when the safety of other people is at stake. Furthermore, to ensure our 100% commitment to quality, most work is often checked and re-checked by at least two different people to ensure proper scrutiny.

Working in construction, for me, has caused a paradigm shift in my thinking, whereby I now stand by my commitment to do a good job because failure is simply not an option. If we can apply this same principle to everything we do in life, than we cannot fail. Every catastrophe can be avoided if we are diligent, if we take the time before we act to consider possible consequences of our actions, and if we take the proper steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Here’s a great clip that really exemplifies what it means to be the best you can be and to give it your 100%:

Life in the field

Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and as they also say, the end is just a new beginning (could my opening line be any more cliché?). My life as a student is over, and so is my 4-month post-graduation vacation! Is it weird not being back in school? A little.. but overall, I’m glad to be moving on with my life and starting something anew.

This past week, I’ve started my new job as a Field Supervisor with Mortenson Construction. It’s a field position, which means that I travel a lot, work in rugged environments, and live a nomadic lifestyle. It’s also a supervisory role, which means that I don’t actually do the work, but observe, question, and inspect it. Mortenson Construction is a well-known general contractor with an incredible reputation in the construction industry. Their growth is impressive, and they have recently ranked #19 on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors List. While they are based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, they have initiated their expansion into the Canadian market by opening an office in Toronto and taking on a number of renewable energy projects.

First day on the job site. My smurf boots help prevent mud from getting inside the parts I'm inspecting 😉

My first assignment is the Comber Wind Project, located in Comber, Ontario. While the project is nearing completion, there’s still a lot of work to be done as we complete the erection of the towers, and mount a nacelle (a fancy word for ‘enclosure’) and rotor on each one. So far, I’m enjoying field work immensely. Not only is it a break from being inside all the time, but it is my first opportunity to do some real-world engineering and see some incredible structures being built before my very eyes. I get a good balance in my work between office and field so that I don’t have to brave the elements all the time, and can go outdoors for a bit when I start to get stir-crazy in the office. I also have the benefit of not being too remote on this job so that I can still enjoy the comforts of civilization (like grocery stores, tim hortons, etc.). I found a nice house by Lake St. Clair to stay while I’m there and my home in Oakville is just under a 3 hour drive away.

People at work are generally quite social since they are all away from home, and this has made my time off from work quite fun! Every night there’s usually something happening, typically dinner and drinks. I’ve also found my co-workers to be really great people: a testament to Mortenson’s ability to attract great people to work with them!

Stay tuned for more updates and you can check out more pictures on my Picasa album below:

Some pictures of my new job and the house that I’m renting.