Saturday, Aug. 2
On Highway 63, farmland gives way to thick boreal forest near the small town of Grassland. Long stretches of forest are burnt, the tree trunks sticking out of the ground like charred bones.
Sunday, Aug. 3
The tiny plane that’s about to take us over the oilsands looks more like a toy than an actual aircraft, and the eggs we had for breakfast that morning rumble their objection. Once we’re in the air, though, the beauty of the dense boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray takes over. As we fly over the actual oilsands operations, there’s a faint smell, like someone on your block just paved their driveway. The huge Syncrude and Suncor tailings ponds are much less impressive from the air than the Greenpeace photos from their recent protest, but the desolate land at the end of the line before we turn around, which looks like a desert or moonscape, does pack a devastating visual punch.
Monday, Aug. 4
The downtown library is filled with young men. Some are well-dressed, as if they are heading to job interviews. Others are sporting the classic Fort McMurray dirty jeans and T-shirts. They are seated in low chairs near the front, waiting for their turn on an Internet terminal, supplied by Syncrude and Suncor.
At the Damal Internet Café on Hardin Street, a group of young to middle-aged black men are gathered around a computer to watch a Barack Obama biography. The owner, 38-year-old Keyse Serar from Somalia, has spent the last six years in Fort McMurray, “to make money,” he says simply.
The condo-turned-business isn’t exactly state-of-the art. The computer desks must have been painted after they were nailed to the wall, because brown paint smears the white walls where the desks sit. On the far side of the room, a homemade table has nails sticking out of it. But the Internet connection is faster than at the public library.
At Helen Arong’s Fine Fashions, also on Hardin Street, Menchu Malubay finds her retail job much less exciting than her work as a pharmacist in the Philippines.
She moved to Fort McMurray on a two-year contract as a temporary foreign worker, and has been in town for two months. When she first arrived, the trees surrounding Fort McMurray brought on a feeling of claustrophobia, and all she wanted to do was turn around and go home to Cebu.
Inside the welcome air conditioning of Chow’s variety store on Franklin Avenue, a couple of kids are standing at the far end of a long counter and till, debating what they should order for lunch while watching Star Wars on a TV mounted above the video rack. They eventually agree on chow mein.
Tuesday, Aug. 5
At the Oil Can, security guards run a metal detector over us before we enter the deserted bar. The coat check smells like men’s cologne, something along the lines of Old Spice, only muskier.
On the left side of the stage where a new country group mangles a couple CCR tunes is a cigarette machine and, around the corner, a wooden Native Canadian statue. On the wall directly to our left is a bison head, the only one we’ll see the entire trip.
The metal detector was hardly necessary, on this night at least. Two obviously drunk women in ripped jeans start dancing together to new country. And then kiss. That’s the wildest thing we see all night.
Wednesday, Aug. 6
Downtown Fort McMurray isn’t really a downtown. There’s a mall, a strip mall, a bunch of townhouses and apartments, another strip mall and then the looming big-box stores — Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Rona. (Outside Wal Mart, a bottle of water costs a whopping $2.75.)
Franklin Avenue, the main drag, is a bleak stretch with few trees or shade and almost no street level storefronts.
Thursday, Aug. 7
In the van on the way home, the boreal forest gives way to the flat prairie landscape of home, and some of the bigness of Fort McMurray fades away.