Posts Tagged ‘ Fort McMurray ’

Fort McMurray

When I first drove into Fort McMurray on April 30, 2012, it was a gorgeous sunny day. I’d just spent the past three days driving through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, finishing off with my first-ever drive up Highway 63, just a few days after a fiery head-on collision claimed seven lives on what is commonly referred to as ‘The Highway of Death.’

I was 23 years old, and had just done something I never thought I’d be able to do: graduate from college. I was restless, bored of my hometown and, finally equipped with an education, I was ready to get out of town. In fact, at that time I was exclusively applying for jobs out of province, that’s how badly I wanted to leave Winnipeg behind.

Fort McMurray answered my call.

I vividly remember hesitating for just a moment when I was officially offered my position as a reporter at the Fort McMurray Today daily newspaper, my false bravado finally giving way to anxiety and uncertainty as I realized all at once everything saying ‘yes’ to this opportunity would mean.

I sold the large majority of my possessions, sublet my apartment, packed everything I owned into my brand new 2012 Toyota Corolla, hugged my mom and dad, and I drove away.

I called Fort McMurray home for 13 months after that. From fist fights at black-tie galas to 8-hour city council meetings to black bears shot in backyards, I became a journalist, made lifelong friends, fell in love with photography, and grew into the person I am today.

Fort Mac wasn’t perfect. Far from it. Everything you’ve heard about the place is probably true, to a lesser extent, and everything you’ve heard in defense of that is probably also true, to a lesser extent. People like to exaggerate. So just marry the two opinions together and I’ve got a crisp $5 bill that says that’s a perfectly accurate depiction of Fort McMurray.

But to me, Fort McMurray was an opportunity that nobody had to give me. I wanted to find out what I was made of and Fort McMurray was there for me to make as much or as little of that opportunity as I chose.

It’s been an interesting feeling the past few days, watching footage of the city burning, the journalist still in me longing to be there just for that one photo…

I may not miss the city, but I would be ignorant to deny owing it a massive debt of gratitude, and I think that sums up many people’s feelings toward Fort McMurray lately. Much of the time it’s but a pit stop for the transient who are looking for something missing in their lives; in many cases, you’ve had it with you all along, but people seem to find it in Fort McMurray.


Mental Health in Elementary Schools

I don’t normally cover anything school related here at the Fort McMurray Today, but thanks to a co-worker’s illness, had an opportunity to do just that a couple of weeks ago. Frankly, I might have passed on it if it was some fuzzy-wuzzy fundraiser story — not that I’m Satan and don’t support fundraisers, they’re just all the exact same to cover and if you’ve done one, you’ve done ’em all — but it happened to be about something that I was genuinely interested in learning more about.

Maybe I’m influenced by my own experiences through elementary, middle and high school, but I think almost all kids experience some varying degree of depression or anxiety at some point — or multiple points — between kindergarten and Grade 12. Of course, looking back now and weighing our current problems against being called into the principal’s office for throwing a snowball, we realize things weren’t so bad back then. But at the time, you felt like Tupac Shakur; “It’s just me against the world, baby.”

I had the opportunity to visit one of multiple schools in the Fort McMurray area that were implementing this FRIENDS Program, in order to help prevent depression and anxiety, or help kids deal with it better if they’re already going through it.

I had nothing like this when I was a kid.

I had a school counsellor who, as far as I know, was just “there if you needed her.” I can honestly say that I really have no idea what it was that she did at my elementary school, because I think the only time I ever saw her doing anything at all was when she was brought in for a brief Sex Ed lesson, and that was probably in the 6th Grade, I can’t really remember.

But you would think she would lend a hand or sit down to chat with a kid when he or she was being particularly troublesome, to try and find out what was going on. And believe me, I was “particularly troublesome,” and if you don’t believe me, I’ll be glad to provide some references.

There’s no doubt that I ultimately reached a point where I was depressed, and according to my mom, it was painfully obvious. But I still never saw the school counsellor; I don’t think it was even suggested to me that perhaps I should. I find myself wondering now what the difference was back then as opposed to now, when we have entire programs implemented in schools to help kids deal with depression and anxiety. Was it a more taboo subject back then? Was there not enough awareness to understand that, although their problems are comparatively more insignificant, kids can still be legitimately depressed? Maybe it was just the staff at my elementary school not doing their jobs.

During my interview with the psychologist I was shocked to hear her say that more kids now are coming forward and identifying themselves as having some sort of mental health issue. Maybe it’s kids that are different today.

I could speculate all day long about why mental health seems to be taken a lot more seriously today than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but more than anything I was just pleased to learn that something like the FRIENDS Program exists and is making a difference in the lives of the kids who need it.

Anyone who wants to weigh in on how mental health issues were handled in their schools, feel free to leave a comment, I’d be interested to hear.

What’s my age again?

In a fit of narcissism (okay, maybe nostalgia) I was reading through some of my old blog posts the other day, specifically the one I wrote when I first made the decision to leave Winnipeg and move to Fort McMurray.

It was only eight months ago but, no exaggeration, it feels like years — multiple years — since I wrote that. You may be wondering whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but just don’t ask me, because I don’t even know.

I was leaving my hometown for my first post-college job, and had no idea what was in store in for me, if I’d like it here, or even if I would be moderately successful at this whole journalism thing.

I mentioned to someone just the other day that I really only started to feel officially comfortable in my position at the paper about a couple of months ago. I probably felt like I was comfortable two months or so in, but around month six I realized I wasn’t even really comfortable back then, because now I feel this whole new level of comfort. So I suppose around the one year mark, I’ll renege on these comments as well, and say NOW I’m comfortable here…

There’s still no question that if I plan to stay in journalism (of the print or photo variety) I’ll need to make the move over to sports eventually. I had the opportunity to cover two Fort McMurray Oil Barons games over the weekend, and the difference in my passion and enthusiasm between that and the regular, day-to-day news can’t even be properly measured. To this day, covering hockey, be it university, AJHL or NHL, remains the only work I’ve ever done in my life that I can truly say didn’t feel like a job. And, to Darren Dreger’s dismay, I fully intend to pursue sports journalism as a long-term career.

By far what has surprised me the most since coming up here is my relatively new-found love of photography.

Fun fact: I didn’t touch a DSLR camera in my entire two years in CreComm. I even had assignments that required me to take my own photos with a professional camera, so… you do the math, just don’t tell my instructor. Thanks.

Fact is, professional photography was just one of those things that intimidated the crap out of me. I’m not really sure why, since I spent probably over 100 hours of second-year college with a professional camcorder, shooting a video documentary for my final project of the year.

Even once I was at the paper, I was pretty afraid of picking up a DSLR camera. And it goes without saying that the dial was pretty consistently set to Automatic every time I went out with it. 593079185

Then I went out to an Ellis Hall concert on June 3, and snapped this photo —————————————————————–>

And I think I can pretty honestly pinpoint that as the moment I got the “bug” for photography.

As someone who hasn’t studied for a damn thing in his life, when I begin to independently research something on my own time, that’s a pretty good indicator that I have a genuine, and pretty strong, interest in something. I started reading up on the manual shooting modes, trying to learn the terminology, techniques to make my photos look better, but most of all, I just tried to get in as much “practice” shooting photos as possible.

I also think a “good photo” can only be 50% (at the MOST) credited to the photographer who took it. Are there great photographers out there? Of course. They know exactly what settings to have their camera set to in a given situation, but at the end of the day, what did they do to capture the moment? They moved their index finger a fraction of a centimeter and pushed a button. The great photos that exist today, wouldn’t if it wasn’t for their subjects just happening to be doing whatever it was they were doing. The photographer was just there to capture it.

I did get my first real taste of shooting a hockey game over the weekend though, and listen, I’ve never tried crack, but I would hazard a guess that photographing hockey, for me, is a very similar sensation to doing crack.

Over the two hockey games I worked, I shot more than 1,000 photos, which were ultimately narrowed down to about 30 or 40 that I kept.


At at a smaller newspaper like the Fort McMurray Today, we don’t have the luxury of being able to send two or three reporters to a hockey game, meaning I had to stay on top of tweeting, and write the game story for both games on top of taking photos. I can only imagine the level of enjoyment I would find in only being responsible for the photographs.

Some of my other personal favourites can be found on my Flickr Photostream.

But as much fun as I have here doing some of these things and keeping busy, I’m ready for a vacation, and looking forward to going home for almost two weeks on Dec. 28. My brain may not know how to properly react when the combination of no work, being home, and World Junior Championship all comes together at the same time. I just shivered.

I suppose what I’m trying to say that I’m beginning to feel like I’m accomplishing things I wanted to come out here to do, and even things I had no intention of conquering when I decided to move here eight months ago. It’s been a great, educational, sometimes very tiring, experience thus far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2013 has in store.

(Assuming we all make it past Dec. 21.)


So yeah, I’m moving to Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Making this decision has been, and continues to be, quite a roller coaster of different emotions for me, so if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to need to get a little bit personal and introspective for just a brief moment. I promise it won’t happen again.

I have had my fair share of personal obstacles to overcome to reach the point I’m at now, and, quite honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that I even managed to get a high school diploma, not to mention a post-secondary education.  And I’m not trying to portray myself as an incompetent moron, it’s just that school and I have never gotten along.  I’ve always known that I’m an intelligent and capable person, with skills in certain areas, just like (most) everyone else.  But in a classroom setting, I drown.

I’m also independent, at times to a fault, other times to my credit.  As my parents will back-up, I’ve been disobeying them since I was probably a few months old. And at 23, I’m apparently still doing it.  I was the kid who reached out to touch a hot lightbulb, and stopped when my mom would yell, “Don’t touch that, you’ll burn yourself!”  I stopped to listen to her. When she was finished, I touched the damn thing anyways, and burned myself.  And I’ve been burning myself ever since.

I’m the type of person who has to learn lessons for himself.  I have to.  I don’t think I’ve heeded a single warning in my entire life.  I just can’t leave anything to chance.  I need to make my own mistakes, so I can truly understand how to avoid making them again.  And I have made a LOT of mistakes.

But when I think about the person that I would be today if I hadn’t made those mistakes, it’s hard to regret having made them.  In a sick way, it’s almost an incentive to continue making mistakes.

I also know that doing things that scare you is one of the best ways to learn, and grow.  And moving to Fort McMurray scares the fucking shit out of me (don’t tell anyone, though).  I’m just glad that, through the infinite number of mistakes I’ve made in the past, I’m a strong and confident enough person to know that I’ll be fine.  As hard as it could possibly get out there, as much as Fort McMurray might try to throw at me, I know I’ll be fine.

Because when I think back to the eighth grade, and the fact that I was somehow failing elementary school, if you had told me back then that I’d be in this position today, I probably would have done the Riverdance on my desk.  I’ve worked my ass off to overcome a lot of different things that were stacked against me, and I know that no matter what happens in Fort Mac, there’s no way that I can come out of it worse off than I ever thought I’d be.

The truth is, I don’t feel like I can ever reach my full potential in Winnipeg. As corny and cliché as it sounds, I’ve suffered way too many setbacks here, and have too many bad memories that I associate with this city, that I feel pigeon-holed for failure here.  There are a lot of things about myself that I want to change, and change for good, and I feel like starting over in a new city is the best way to get there.

I think everyone eventually has an opportunity in front of them that they can use to find out what they’re really made of.  And the reward for success is something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, and that will ultimately define you as a person. The hardest part is just the decision to do it.

So, I’m moving to Fort McMurray, where I’ll be working as a reporter for the Fort McMurray Today, the town’s only daily newspaper.  My beat will be municipal issues, crime, and the editor, mysteriously aware of my love of sports, even said I could cover a sporting event here and there.

I start May 1st, which tasks me with getting rid of my apartment, packing as much of it as I can into a new car that I’ll also have to get, selling everything that won’t fit, and saying goodbye to anyone who wants one, in the span of about… a week and a half, and then I need to hit the road.  Easier said than done, I think.

I imagine I’ll be blogging quite a bit about my experiences out there, so there is likely more to come on this development.  I feel like I owe the city of Winnipeg a farewell letter, as well.  Stay tuned.

(And anyone who wants to hang out before I go, please just let me know!)