Photo by Emily Wampler
The first and most abiding experience of working on an Alberta oil rig is the feel of thick, wet mud on your bare skin. When I arrived at the tool house, a small room bedecked with cable, wrench and screw, one of the nightshifters thrust a muddy chain into my hands and told me to hang it up. The chain was cold and heavy; bits of shale and gravel that had been ground up to the earth’s surface scraped my hands. I awkwardly heaved my new hardhat and coveralls into a corner and slung the chain over the nearest hook. “Hey, clean that shit off before you hang it up!” The second most persistent experience is being cursed, shouted at and otherwise bitched out.
The main operation of a rig, apart from cramming huge steel rods into the earth to extract oil, is the creation of mud. The mud, a chemical concoction brewed in holding tanks the size of mobile homes, is pumped down the pipe and squirts out the drill bit to clean the newly-bored hole. Mud abounds. It bursts from pipes, splatters across every surface, coats your clothes, mats your hair, fills your pockets and dries to your cheeks. You lick it off your lips, smoke it in your cigarettes and eat it with your lunch. Since we were drilling horizontally under rivers to connect pipelines, we pumped water from the river to make the mud. Inevitably, water seeps everywhere, and the oil site is transformed into a grey-brown swamp.
Sometimes the mud finds its own way back up to the surface of the earth. This is called “frakking out,” and it is disastrous for all parties with vested interests, such as oil execs and frogs. All at once, the mud just stops circulating back out of the hole, and the roughneck finds himself thrashing around in the brush, shouting to scare off bears and trying to figure out where the mud went. Usually it disappears down a fissure in the earth or an underground stream, or else the pressure of the pump forces it into the air like a geyser. The hunt for these geysers (which usually come out like dull streams) is called a “frak walk.”
I experienced my first frak on my third day at the rig. I had been posted on the other side of the river with another roughneck named Dylan. There was a circular hollow carved into Dylan’s cheek by a broken bottle, and he explained to me that he was working to pay a lawyer for rape charges. Dylan was twenty, arrogant, rural and violently beautiful. He was to lose his job on payday a week later when he got drunk and rolled a company truck in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It was from Dylan that I learned the simple mathematics of roughneck finances: two weeks of work equals one week off. This translates to spending roughly $700 per day. I asked him what he spent it on. “You know…fun shit.”
The hole frakked out while we were sprawled on logs listening to the chatter on our hand-helds, and we were told to go find the mud. We found it quickly enough, as it was pouring out of the base of the cliff and filling a large depression a few hundred metres back from the river. Within twenty-four hours, it created a chemical bog more than fifty metres square, and it continued to swell every day. After three days, when Dylan and I were told to roll up all the wire and head to the top of the hill to get ready for the pipe to come out of the ground, the bog had grown knee-deep. It would take weeks to clean up.
Fallen trees crisscrossed the bog, and so in order to gather in the wire we found ourselves tracing out this network of logs. The sun poured down between the leaves as we tottered along and grabbed at branches. The cliff we’d have to scramble up loomed over us, the roar of the rig echoed across the river, and mud curdled at our feet like the collected filth of the civilized world.
Not long after that I began to notice the butterflies. At first they caught my eye at odd moments, but then they seemed to appear in astonishing numbers. No animal would ever dare approach the roaring generators and screaming roughnecks—even the mosquitoes seemed to avoid us—and so I developed the impression that the butterflies were the only other living things on the rig site. There certainly weren’t any flowers. They flitted crazily over the muck and alighted in places that would cost a roughneck his fingers.
I decided not to broadcast my fascination with the butterflies. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would earn me respect among my new colleagues. “Green workers” have a brief window of opportunity to make it on the rigs, and there is a harsh system in place for getting rid of those who can’t cut it or don’t fit in. It’s called being “run off.” Dylan explained it to me succinctly: “Imagine if all of us hated you.” Imagine being kicked between the legs every morning as you went down to breakfast by a lunatic roughneck named Farmer. Right, I thought. Maybe I’d just count butterflies by myself.
I finished my first job and began doing research while I waited to be called out again. It was at the library that I learned the reason for the dazzling abundance of butterflies on the rigs: butterflies eat mud. Or to be more specific, they eat the salt and other minerals that are found in mud. Lepidopterists call it “mud-puddling,” and they describe bogs, marshes and other muddy places as prime butterfly-hunting territory. So it turned out that butterflies, which scramble for cover from even the most innocent cloud, were in paradise on a rig site.
When I moved onto my second job, I realized that if I wanted to become an amateur lepidopterist, I had to first become an expert in covert butterfly retrieval. This I strenuously concealed from my roommate Bruno, who worked the mud tanks. Bruno had been run over by a truck when he was a teenager. Two tires went straight down the middle of his body and split his face apart, and it had been sewn back together crooked. Deep scars ran across his cheeks and forehead, pulling his left eye open when he slept.
I spent the first few weeks of that job gazing longingly at Folded-Wing Skippers and hot yellow Sulphurs, wondering how to capture them for quiet identification at night. I tried fashioning a net on the sly out of a broom handle, a hose bracket and some wire mesh, but failed. Once I managed to pounce on a beautiful blue-and-black Swallowtail when no one was looking, but having nowhere to keep it, I stuffed it in my breast pocket. At the end of the shift, all that was left was a crumbled mound of papery blue-and-black dust on my fingertips. You can’t be a roughneck lepidopterist if you can’t identify any species. It was a problem.
Surprisingly, the answer came from another roughneck named Forrester, a fellow Montrealer and the only other person with whom I tentatively shared my secret. He suggested that I might look on the radiator screen for the main generator in the pump house. And there they were, dozens of them, sucked through the wire grate and pinned to the screen by the fan. In that first crop I could make out at least half a dozen different species, along with assorted wasps and moths, though most had been slowly shredded away over time. One or two flopped around, still alive and trying to escape.
It wasn’t a perfect system. I couldn’t get my fingers through the grating that protected the screen well enough to get a good grip, so I had to use pliers to peel them off. Most butterflies didn’t survive the retrieval process, though every now and then I managed to recover a good specimen. I learned that butterflies will live up to forty-eight hours on a radiator screen, a fairly wide window of opportunity for slinking off to gather them. I also learned to smuggle them home inside folded candy bar wrappers or empty cigarette packs. Once back at the hotel, I would sneak my field guide into the bathroom, turn on the shower so as not to arouse suspicion, and study my bounty in relative peace and quiet.
Toward the end of my second job I was again sent across the river to take pipe off as it came out of the ground. This is called working “exit side,” a dangerous and back-breaking job. The steel rods rise slowly out of the earth, each of them ten meters long and weighing eight hundred pounds, and the task is to break off each piece from the rest of pipe still in the ground and stack them to the side. I would attach two large wrenches called “bukup tongs,” each weighing 180 pounds, onto the joint between the individual pieces, one tong sticking up into the air at an angle and the other braced on a board on the ground. Another roughneck would drop the bucket of the backhoe on the tong sticking up into the air, thereby breaking the seal and loosening it enough for that section of pipe to be taken off with a spinning chain.
I was installed in a camp alongside three other roughnecks: Forrester, who ran the backhoe on dayshift with me; Ras, a large black man with long dreadlocks who worked nightshift, recently out of the penitentiary; and some new guy who ran the hoe with Ras. Along with the medic and the cook, there were six of us. The medic tanned nearby while we worked and lured roughnecks back to her trailer with pornos. The cook was a tiny man, viciously hard-bitten and sarcastic. He brought us drinks and dessert every afternoon. That final week in the camp was my most pleasant and satisfying time on the rigs.
My last night there, as I prepared for the long bus ride the next morning to see my girlfriend in Vancouver, I decided to burn my work clothes in a sort of slapdash ceremony. I filled a coffee cup with oil, stuffed my grimy t-shirts into a garbage bag, and trudged up the clear-cut hill above the site. I piled my clothes in the dirt, drizzled oil over everything, and lit it on fire.
I don’t remember any great epiphanies as my clothes shriveled into a poisonous black heap on top of that hill. I do remember that they didn’t stop burning. Maybe it was the oil, or maybe I was impatient, but I waited and waited and still they continued to blaze. I tried to stamp them out. I kicked the pile apart, smoke rising around my legs. Several times I tried to leave, but knowing that it was forest fire season, I always went back and continued my dance. Finally, feeling thwarted, I kicked them back into a pile and fell on my knees to bury them. The smoke billowed up into my face as I scratched at the ground and heaped dirt and rocks over the flaming clothes. At last, I stumbled back down the hill, wondering if the fire still smouldered under the ground.
At the bottom I stopped to talk to Ras for a second before I went to bed. We chatted about the tongs, wondered if the mud coming out of the hole was a bad sign, and talked about going home. Then, in a lull, he looked up and shook his head. All around the spotlight was a thick cloud of moths, each catching the light high up in the air, like heavy snow.
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