snippet of memoir from Syncrude Project 1974-75


As a university student I was fortunate to use a family connection, something I rarely did, to get a job for the summer on the Syncrude Project in 1974 and 1975.  These two work stints helped enormously with tuition and expenses.  I was an “oiler”, an apprentice operating engineer helping with backhoe operations out on the mining area of Syncrude.  This was in the very early days.  While the plant was being constructed, we were out on the former muskeg swamp digging first generation drainage ditches to drain the swamp and to get larger draglines in to dig further drainage ways.  My second summer I worked more in the “Upgrading” area where the plant was coming in to shape.

I am in the slow process of writing a memoir of those two summers.  Here is a snippet of scribbling looking back to those days:

spill pile slide

I was standing in one spill pile when it slipped and the avalanche of loose soil carried me down toward the excavation hole about fifteen foot of travel downwards and I ended up buried in soil up to my waist.  If it had been a larger pile I would have been at risk of having the pile cover me completely and I might have easily suffocated. There was just my operator nearby and he would have had to jump off the backhoe and run to the spot and dig me out.  Not sure how easily he could have reached me if the soil was loose.  Not sure he could have walked over it quickly.

Near Miss

In the Upgrading area, an awkard digging situation with some risky aspects. Digging one hole late on a Friday with the Frenchman from Saskatchewan, Guy, operating and the area crawling with supervisors and engineers and the hole flooding in with water, a local First Nations fellow working as a labourer down in the hole.  Guy could see me across the hole but the labourer was below his line of sight.  Rain pouring, loose soil, soft soil, and traces of soil caving in on all the sides.  Someone suggested the labourer use the bucket to lean and support himself and use his spade shovel to uncover some detail below the visible line of the hole. It was getting later and later and the light was poor, overcast from the rain clouds.  Part of the issue was that no one was coming out to work on this part of the site on either Saturday or Sunday.  Perhaps it would rain all weekend and cave in everything. Finally somebody warning me to get Guy to  stop and me giving him the hand signal to stop the machine.  We came close to injuring the labourer.  One of the superintendants said to me, “Nice work, you were getting close to breaking that kid’s legs.”

Good thing I had learned the hand signals that as a hoe oiler I was supposed to know to communicate with the operator.  Boom in, boom out, hoist down, hoist up,  and of course, STOP everything Right frigging now.

mud pile quick sand

I did get stuck in some wet soil one day.  I was lucky that the bank that all the spill piles were set was hard dry soil.  Gave me a solid bottom to stand on.  but I was stuck in up to my hips.  When I tried to get one leg out that worked fine but I then had nothing to push against to get leg number two out of the muddy goop.  My operator had to walk the hoe over and set his bucket next to me.  Then I had something to push against and was able to get both legs free and crawl into the bucket.

This was pretty hilarious for my operator and a couple of other backhoe teams working way out on the Mining area digging drainage ditches.  My General Foreman came by in a Nodwell Swamp Buggy, the vehicle we used to transport crews out in the morning, carrying diesel fuel drums for refuelling, mechanics, and carried crew out at the end of the shift.  He suggested I might want to go back into camp and change clothes.  I said it was okay, it was a warm day and was willing to look a little silly and I suppose not draw any more attention to my misadventure back in the bunkhouse area of base camp.

Base camp was doublesided Atco trailers, we had small, single rooms, communal washroom/showers, and a laundry room, mess hall, camp store, recreation hall with TVs, pool tables and straight board shuffleboards.  I got pretty good at the no bank straight shot shuffleboards.  Sadly the non-bank boards were not that popular back in Ontario.

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Author: William J. Gibson

62 year old - writer/photographer Canadian, survived open heart surgery, received kidney transplant, sometimes dour, sometimes amusing, over six feet in height, severely follicle challemged

2 thoughts on “snippet of memoir from Syncrude Project 1974-75”

  1. looking this over, I noticed my use of the term “tar sands”, which was the term of choice back in the mid 1970s…..I don’t know when the culture switched over to “oil sands”, possibly it was a choice to make the material sound cleaner, “oil” sounding less nasty than “tar”. When we were out digging drainage ditches in the “Mining” area, the “overburden” as it was called, was a variety of muskeg, clay (tough digging), sand, and permafrost. I am in the early stages of scanning some colour slides I took in the two summers of work at the Syncrude Project. I will be posting some of them over the next few months.

  2. Hello Bill
    I like the reminicences, but try to describe in greater deail what you were doing on a daily basis.You give a good sense of your own work experiences.Maps and a photos will be great.
    Jamie

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