My Crazy Experience As An Oil Patch Roughneck

It was late summer of 2010 and work had dried up in my work field, saturation diving. I knew a few friends of mine that had found jobs in Grande Prairie, Alberta working in the surrounding oil patch. Business was booming. Moving to Alberta sounded like an adventure. My friends were earning great money and another friend of mine had described Alberta as “The Land Of Milk And Honey” like  the biblical Promised Land. Working in big oil, living close to the Canadian Rockies, and starting over sounded seductive.

After living with some friends for a couple of months, finding employment proved to be a little more difficult than I had figured. I had visited job fairs, knocked on doors and submitted resumes in person. No bites. I discovered that my experience in the oil and gas industry as a Life Support Technician on dive support vessels had little carryover in the eyes of most Alberta oil patch employers. My friend, whom I had been living with advised me against working on the rigs, he said “you don’t want to do that". There was no excuse for not having a job in a booming economy, I had to get to work. After submitting my resume to a drilling company, I immediately got called for work. “How would you like to work as a roughneck?”. “Absolutely”I said. Of course I accepted.

After a week of safety courses I was ready to start working. My first day of work was memorable. I was picked up at home by the rig crew at 4:30 am. Drilling crews usually consisted of two roughnecks, a derrick man, a driller, a medic as well as a tool push (rig manager). I was a fill-in roughneck for two days with this crew. During our ride home from the rig, we were traveling along logging roads and my crew had spotted a wild turkey. “Floor it, hit the turkey!” The other roughneck shouted. The driller hit the turkey with his truck but only enough to stun it. Brakes were slammed and out climbed the roughneck who we’ll call “C”. C had run up to the stunned turkey and immediately snapped its neck with his hands. In one swift motion he had stepped on the turkey and pulled off all of its feathers. He threw the steaming carcass into the back of the truck bed. From snapping the neck to bagging the carcass took “C” less than two minutes. After climbing into the back seat of the truck beside me he turns to me and said “guess you don’t see that in the big city eh?”. C was grinning and checked my reaction.

A couple of weeks later I received a call from my employers office for me to join a new service rig crew, the one that was to become my permanent rig during my time in Grande Prairie. Winter had come early and temperatures plummeted fast and hard.  Grande Prairie was so cold in winter that vehicles needed to have their engine blocks plugged in overnight or plugged in while shopping so as not to have the battery drained. At 32 years old I was the oldest member of this new crew but I looked younger than everyone else except for the driller who was 25. My crew had affectionately called me “Junes”, short for “Junior" because I was the newest member of the crew. I wore a green hard hat to show to those around me that I was new.

Like the other crew, I was picked up at 4:30 am, and every morning we listened to Metallica as the driller barrelled down the logging roads in his pick up truck. The work commute was a few hours each direction. Each day we would have tool box (safety meetings) in the dog house (our trailer for changing clothes, lunch breaks). Many days we worked in -30C or colder, we wore many layers of clothing underneath our work coveralls, usually a thick, woolly one-piece stanfield’s over top of sweat wicking shirts. We had to store our coveralls outside as they were covered in grease and smelled like diesel and hydrocarbons. Our coveralls would be frozen and resembling a cast with plaster frozen to the last shape our bodies were positioned in. Nothing like a freezing set of coveralls to help wake you up on a cold winter morning.

Each new oil or gas well we worked at we had to “rig in” our equipment which was always very labour intensive. Nobody was lazy or they severely verbally abused by the crew. Working in the oil patch had a very old school ethos. I have never seen a work ethic anywhere else in the world like I have working on the rigs. These guys worked faster and harder than any other workers I had seen. Work on the rigs was very physical and crews took pride in how quickly they could get the job done. We were either running pipes or rods in and out of wells. Spinning rods was my least favourite job, I would spend hours snapping apart steel rods that were frozen at the joints with grease and ice. My elbows would be inflamed after an hour of using wrenches to snap apart the rod joints, I usually needed aspirin to make it through the day.

No matter how safe we tried to make the job or how many safe talks we had there was always a lot of inherent risk that couldn’t be eliminated. Some of the hazards included hydrogen sulphide gas which can be fatal with high enough exposures, damage or injuries from well blowouts, falling pipes from derricks, pinned under heavy equipment, and frostbite from severe cold. Sleep deprivation and fatigue were also serious hazards. Tripping pipe in and out of wells for hours meant crew had to maintain their focus and not have their minds drifting off thinking about women or new toys or anything else. I have seen minor well kick backs and I have seen a mobile crane have its operator cab separate from wheel base while under load. Due to the physical nature of the work, injuries due to strain and repetitive movements were not uncommon.

Workplace relations also carried risk. I had run into one of the roughnecks I had worked with on my first two days of work. I had asked him about “C”? Oh “C”? “C” got "the clap” (Gonorrhea) from sleeping with the medic on the first job I was one. Another roughneck got “the clap” as well from the other medic present on the job site on my second day of work. “C” also developed a drug problem that kept him away from work.

Drugs are widely used amongst oil patch workers. Before you are employed with any oilfield company in Alberta you must pass a drug test. After every shift, the driller, derrick man and whoever the other roughneck was for that shift, would share a joint in the drillers truck on the drive home. I would never partake and that made my crew really uneasy and suspicious of me at first. The other roughnecks joining our crew on any given day were uncomfortable with me not smoking weed with the other crew members. My crew eventually respected me for not being a follower and succumbing to peer pressure. The former driller of the crew I worked with had developed an addiction to crack. He would have micro-sleeps while operating the drill due to his late night crack use. The former driller was dismissed and the other crew members were promoted. While working in the oil patch I had several people ask me if I used cocaine, a common drug amongst oil patch workers. Although my crew never drank beers in the pick up truck while driving home, there were rig crews that did. A lot of guys would self medicate, the job was rough and there was little life when you were busy. My poison of choice was chocolate chip cookies, I would frequently finish an entire bag in one sitting. Falling asleep was the easiest thing in the world after a day of working. Physical exhaustion and working out in the cold, I would be out before my head hit the pillow.

My crew was chosen for a job in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, in the Canadian Arctic, for the month of March. My crew and I traveled by plane while our trucks were floated to Inuvik. We all made a pact to grow ridiculous facial hair as we were unlikely to know anyone in Inuvik and we didn’t care about being judged. Handle bar mustaches, muskateer mustaches and beards we wore. We surely created a stir wherever we went. We didn’t waste time upon landing. We met our trucks at a depot in Inuvik.

Before we mobilized from where our trucks were to the job site, we took a break. I hung out with the driller and our newly joined roughneck. The driller and roughneck were talking about work and school. The roughneck didn’t finish school like many in the oil patch. Both the driller and roughneck were complaining about school and how learning to spell wasn't useful. The two of them discussed how learning to use tools is important but school is gay. Reading books was a waste of time and gay too. Because I was present during the conversation with a book in hand, upon mentioning that reading was gay, the driller immediately asked me “hey Stokes, what book are you reading?” I told them I was reading the Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. I couldn’t have chosen a more out of place book title. Most guys working in the oil field had little formal education but were very mechanically inclined. Many rig hands were very knowledgable about oil and gas well construction and had an intuitive grasp of drilling physics, but getting them to sit in a company paid class for a day so they could get a two dollar an hour raise was like putting a cat in a bath.

Once we had our gear ready it was time to transport the trucks and rigs to our new worksite about 50 km away. Driving to the worksite was treacherous. We drove 40 km with heavy loaded trucks down the frozen McKenzie Delta just like the popular tv show “Icefield Truckers”. I give the driller a lot of credit as the rig with the crane on it weighed 47 tonnes and he drove it down the frozen McKenzie Delta to the worksite. Driving down the frozen delta we could see fissures that traveled for metres down the ice. The driller and derrickman were either crazy or brave, I’m not sure which. As I drove along in a Chevy Suburban SUV I could hear the crunch of the ice as we drove to our new worksite.

When we finally reached our worksite we rigged in our equipment and had our safety meeting. Right away I felt how cold Inuvik was. At three degrees north of the Arctic Circle and our worksite sitting next to the Beaufort Sea, icy winds would blow through the site and unlike Alberta, there were no trees to dampen the wind. Working outside sucked. Utility cables and water pipes were not buried in the ground in Inuvik but instead were encased above ground in bulky utilidors (box like insulation) as the ground is frozen year round.

Our first night in Inuvik we did what most rig crews would have done, we visited the local bar, The Trapper Pub. We were advised not to go there as it is known for fights. We kept a low profile and our Rig Manager kept a watchful eye on the crew while we drank. Nobody got severely drunk otherwise a hangover would have been hell while slugging in -30C. One of the first things my crew had told me was to never ever be late. If I was going to be late I had better have a good fuck story from the night before and the boys would have been happy to cover for me by picking up the slack.

My crew only took three days off work during the entire month of March. The only reason why the three days were taken off was due to the temperature being so cold that machines weren’t reliable or safe. I suggested going on a dog sledding trip, my crew thought it was a stupid idea and asked me why I would want to do that when I can go snowmobiling instead. My diet during the trip consisted almost entirely of grease. Vegetables and other produce was difficult to transport to Inuvik and the cost was prohibitive.

The job was completed without incident and we flew back to Grande Prairie on the last day of March. Work was beginning to slow down. At the end of March most rig crew were laid off because logging roads thawed and heavy oil rigs would damage these roads. I was laid off at the beginning of April. I had decided I would move back to Ontario and try my luck in saturation diving once again as there were vessels that were working on Canadian east coast waters and I preferred working in that industry.

After a month or two I joined my first vessel after leaving the oil patch.

Opportunities in the oil patch were abundant to anyone with a good work ethic, stamina and mechanical aptitude. The Canadian oilfields are experiencing a decline due to the Paris Accord agreement and other environmental incentives, but it did reward anyone who was willing to work.