Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Greb Glides Away

 A quick scan of my Facebook feed and I see it; a heartbreaking post sharing the news that Greb, Fort McMurray's canine superstar, has been found by his equally locally beloved owner Sandy under the deck when he came home. But Greb was not asleep. He was gone.

I can’t even quite believe what I’m reading. The death of Winky several years ago was a hard blow at a time when we really didn’t need any more of those hard blows. It was the fall of 2016 when Winky passed away, and part of a year that was deeply troubling for anybody who experienced it. The death of Winky felt like just another punch in the gut after the wildfire and the evacuation and everything that came after it, and of course the biggest punch of all was felt by Sandy, who had loved Winky in the deepest way.

I feel a flash of anger as I read the post, as how unfair it is for Sandy to once again feel this pain after losing Winky. Not right, not fair, not even the slightest bit expected; sort of the way you know life is when you are old enough to have been through more than a couple of these unfair experiences.

How is it that one man and two dogs have had such a profound influence on an entire community? it can only be because that one man is remarkable and special. And somehow he managed to find not one but two dogs who shared those qualities

Whether they were out zooming around on the motorcycle for which they became known or whether they were raising funds in the community for the local SPCA or other causes, Sandy and his companions showcased the best of us. It was quintessential Fort McMurray really, a little bit quirky, and a little bit unusual, and a whole lot of compassion and driven by love for each other and this place.

I had often described Winky as a elder statesman while Greb was a bit more charming ruffian. Regardless, they both somehow had that ridiculous smile and an amazing way of connecting with everyone. You could say that’s genetics or the breed but I think that it was Sandy. I think it’s the way that he raised them  and the way that he treated them and how they were truly his best friend. 

And so Sandy has lost his best friend. Again.

A friend recently told me that they didn’t think they could have pets because they didn’t think they could handle the loss. I understand this, because the hardest part of loving an animal is that their lifespan is so much shorter than our own. But can you imagine what you would miss by not having them in your life? Can you imagine missing the joy and the craziness and the love and the occasional goofiness, and sometimes even the frustration? I cannot, and so I balance the loss with the joy, and the scale weighs more heavily in favor of joy every time. And I do so knowing that one day, I too will feel this pain once again too.

Whenever we experience a loss, I think it’s a reminder to tell those around us how we feel about them. None of us know how long we have here. We don’t know how long anyone else has either and that includes our beloved furry friends and so on days like today it is a chance to express how we feel. It’s a chance for us to say I love you. 

And that is why today I just want to say I love you to Greb and Winky and Sandy. I want to thank them for all they have given to us over the years - and by "us" I mean all of us, this entire community who benefited from the amazing partnership between a man and two dogs. In so many ways it feels like Greb, and Winky before, belonged to all of us in some way, and that is because Sandy so generously shared them with us, and he bravely shared their entire journey together, including this very sad end of yet another incredible story.

One man, two dogs. And yet these three captured the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of people, including my own. That's one helluva legacy. I have had the honour of writing about Sandy, and Winky, and Greb, and so their stories have interwoven into my own. What a privilege it is to know them; what an honour is to be able to remember them and their impact.

My heart hurts for Sandy as he navigates a new journey of grief. I know that Greb has gone to join Winky for a thrilling ride in the sky, somewhere over the rainbow bridge and a place where every day is perfect weather for taking out the motorcycle and hitting the road. Wherever they are, I know they are loved, not just by one man alone, but by all of us.

You can donate to the Fort McMurray SPCA in Greb's memory here:

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Why I Stopped Musing

My contributions to this blog have been sporadic - at best - in recent years. There have been fits and starts, brief moments when I felt inspired and pushed something out into the universe, and moments when I withdrew again into silence.

There were a lot of reasons, I thought:

  • The world has moved towards visuals, not words, and with the rise of platforms like Tik Tok the written word almost seems antiquated and heavy, and our attention span seems shortened
  • The pandemic blew in like a hurricane and while bowling us over with the winds of fear quietly stole joy and with it some of the motivation to write, well, anything
  • Fort McMurray has changed so much over the years, and so many of those I wrote to and for have moved on, calling new places home
  • Topics seemed elusive as the world centered around the pandemic and the impacts
The world has normalized for the most part now, the pandemic becoming part of our history rather than our present. As time has elapsed and I still did not put pen to paper (or in this case fingers to keyboard) I realized a truth. None of those are the real reasons I stopped musing. I stopped musing because I stopped seeing the value in being vulnerable.

When I first started writing I did so with some tremendous naivete. I thought I would write some things, have some opinions, and both they and I would be respected even if not agreed with. The truth though is that when you share who you are or what you think, you are taking a risk because the world is not always kinds to those willing to be vulnerable. It has taken me some time to recognize that and then to move past it, to decide that being vulnerable is actually how I arrived at where I am. 

However there have been many times I have sat at the keyboard and stared at it intently. Have you ever gone to start your car and you hear the small whirring noise of something but whatever it is doesn't quite click and the car doesn't start? This is what not writing feels like, too. Something is happening and the desire is there, but for some reason it just doesn't...start.

But here we are. Right at the start of 2024 and once again I am going to try to spark something here. There are things I want to say, even if I am the only person who reads them. Some are about Fort Mac, and some are not. But all of them are in some way relevant to me - and maybe to someone else.

And we go, again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Go Fourth

Over the past year, I have posted in this blog exactly four times.

Four times in a year, for a blog I once posted in almost daily and which had a readership that astonished me on a regular basis.

Today, I had reason to go searching for an old blog post I had written, and tumbled down a rabbit hole of reading post after post from 8 years ago when I was younger and bolder and maybe (a lot) more naive.

How times have changed! Back in 2013 readers would spend a solid chunk of time reading words, while now even I find myself addicted to the short, sharp bursts of serotonin TikTok provides, all emotion and no need for thought.

I stopped writing for a very long time, at least writing anything of substance other than what was needed for work, and virtually nothing of a personal nature.

Why? Perhaps in the intervening years I drew inwards, more reluctant to be vulnerable as I began to understand how cruel the world can be to those who are vulnerable. Perhaps I lost faith that people would read my words, and perhaps I lost faith in my ability to write words worth reading. Perhaps I just got busy; or perhaps my focus slid elsewhere as it does when our life begins to fill with other things.

Recently though I felt the pull again, perhaps not to write the same kind of paragraphs long posts that I once did, but short "bursts" of thought, microblogs inspired by whatever caught my eye or my mind long enough to be remarked on.

And so, here I am. Will I blog more than four times next year? Will I even write again this year? Will anyone read it? Who knows, really. And does any of that matter, either?

No. In the end, I will write when the inspiration hits me, when I feel the words clambering to be released, when it feels good to tap my fingers on the keyboard. I will keep it short and simple and tight and true to the spirit of this blog, which was to always be honest, even if I wasn't always right.

It is time to go forth, and maybe this time around achieve more than four in a year.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Put It In the Rear View Mirror

Perhaps it is just me who hesitates when it comes to touching a keyboard to write about May 3rd. 

Maybe I am alone in this maelstrom of emotions as I try to figure out how I feel, exactly, about a life-altering, community-altering, event five years ago.

Sometimes I recount my story to people who weren't here five years ago, the tale of a day unlike any other I've ever experienced.

The beautifully warm and sunny morning, filling the dog's water bowl before work and thinking of the day ahead.

Settling in at work and sensing rising apprehension in those around me, but staying calm as staying calm is just what I do, even when I am not calm.

The moment when I saw flames rising from Abasand from my office window and knew.

The moment I stood in a field and watched the flames as I called my daughter in another city simply to tell her I love her.

The moment I drove back to my house and in thirty minutes packed an SUV full with a small suitcase, a mountain of pet supplies and some bewildered animals.

The moment I placed three cats and an elderly dog in my office, promising them I would figure out the next steps soon.

The moment the Premier announced the mass evacuation of my home.

The moment I loaded up three now completely flustered cats and one anxious dog for a trip down the highway that would last over 8 hours.

The moment I drove by Abasand hill and it was on fire. And so was the hill by Beacon Hill. 

And so were the buildings.

The moment the fire was exceptionally close and I could feel the temperature rise, both physically and emotionally.

The moment during that trip I gave an interview to a radio station in New Zealand, at the same time figuring out if I had enough gas to make the next town, realizing I had failed to bring a coat, and that the dog was now at the howling stage of disapproval.

The heart-stopping moment when I cleared the edges of my beloved community, looked in the rear view mirror, and saw nothing but roiling black smoke.

I remember the entire day as clearly as if it were yesterday, and yet it seems as shrouded in smoke as that final view of what I was leaving behind.

Of the three days that followed I remember virtually nothing. I realize now I was in some form of shock. Like every other person on that day, mortality felt terribly close and for the first time in my life I wondered if I might die. 

I spent those days in the limbo of not knowing what had happened to my home, my friends, my colleagues; a blur of check-in phone calls and tweets and pajama-clad visits to the front desk of the gracious hotel in which I was staying for milk and Coke Zero and Tylenol and human connection.

May 3rd changed my life. Forever.

There have now been four anniversaries of that date, the first and second and third and fourth. And each year I have grappled with the emotions, brushed up against the memories while trying to shove them further into the recesses of my mind as they hurt and burn and feel sharp and yet dull at the same time.

And this year, in another year unlike any other, a year in which mortality again felt far too close and the fear I felt seemed awfully familiar, I finally found some sort of peace.

And put it all in the rear view mirror.

The 2016 wildfire happened to me, but it doesn't define me. 

And it doesn't define Fort McMurray.

I'm not going to lie. When people who didn't experience the fire begin to speak about it, I can feel myself bristle. It's the ultimate "unless you were there" experience, another time when we all experienced the same thing but with different impacts, so similar to our most recent global experience with the pandemic. 

The 2016 wildfire is now five years behind us. It happened to us, but it isn't who we are. It's a small part of who we are, this community of "big" - big spirit, big oil, big energy, big visions, big community - and big fire. A big fire, perhaps, but a small part of us, because we are truly so much bigger than any fire.

Just as we each had a different experience during the fire, I am certain we are all at different points in our journey with it. Some probably can't even see it in their rear view mirror anymore, while some are still close enough to it to smell the smoke.

For me, though, year 5 feels a lot like that moment when I looked in my rear view mirror, and while I could still see the smoke what I mostly saw was bright blue sky.

2016 is in my rear view mirror now. And instead of looking back, I am looking at the road ahead. It looks like it's going to be another long drive, but you know what?

I like road trips.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Regional Mutiny of Wood Buffalo


It's a bold word, one with a long history of ship crews overthrowing their masters to seize control. Undoubtedly, sometimes it was without cause, but often it was likely rooted in a determination to preserve the health and safety of the crew, which may have been of secondary concern for ship captains and owners more focused on profit than people.

Enter the recent debacle - or calamity as Mayor Don Scott has called it - regarding the determination of the current Alberta government in transitioning local emergency services dispatch to a centralized model. This is despite previous governments (four, in fact) suggesting the same strategy and backing down when confronted with the facts.

The truth is that our region is unique. When an emergency arises, it is as likely to occur on some unspecified point on Tower Road or some remote corner of the many rural spots in our region as it is in urban Fort McMurray. The difference is that local dispatchers know the region. They know the hidden spots, the nicknames, the best ways to get there from here...but a central dispatcher can never hold that information.

So what does that mean for our region, our communities, our people?


In an emergency, the adage that every second counts isn't just a saying. It's true. Every. single. second. 

The difference between life and death hangs on if a dispatcher knows the region - or not.

For the last several months, RMWB Council has been trying to work with the province on this issue. Trying to show them the facts, how our dispatchers are faster than a centralized service, how this change will negatively impact our community...and how it will, eventually, cost lives.

All to no avail. The Government of Alberta has turned a deaf ear to us, not only suggesting our concerns were invalid but that we were in some way lying about the consequences.

And so, they moved ahead with the transition, without any consideration of our concerns and fears. Despite the offer from our municipal council to pay for the service, since our provincial government indicated cost was the issue (and one has to wonder if we were going to pay, was cost really the issue? Cue conspiracy theories here). Despite everything.

And we are already seeing the real cost, just days after the transition. Stories are already rapidly emerging about delays, about mis-steps, about tragedies in the making. 

And still the province refuses to budge.

And so, mutiny.

Today, at their regular council meeting, RMWB Council voted unanimously to approve a motion that would see our local dispatchers refuse to transfer calls to the centralized dispatch.

Defiance, the same kind the province has exhibited, but defiance in support of saving lives by saving time for every emergency call requiring medical services.

It's perhaps the boldest move I have ever seen made by a municipal council. And I have never seen it more necessary, more courageous and more critical. And for this I say bravo to our council, bravo indeed. And brave, too.

In 2016, this region's determination was forged by fire, and this past year by flood. We have been going through an economic downtown (more than one, really) and a pandemic. And we remain resolute.

We are committed to each other, to our community, and to our safety - and ship captains focused on profit (because surely that plays some role in the provincial decision) be damned.

And so, Regional Mutiny of Wood Buffalo.

It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Vulnerability is 2020


2020 has been a year that has exposed some of the most fragile aspects of the human psyche; fear, anger, disbelief. And for many of us it has exposed our vulnerabilities in ways we never thought it would; the things that keep us awake at night, staring into the dark as we play out myriad “what ifs” that seem to pale as soon as the morning light hits our faces.

As a writer, 2020 coincided with some events in my personal life that impacted my confidence – and my comfort level with vulnerability.

When I first began writing this blog, I never even thought about vulnerability. I just wrote what I wrote, blissfully unaware or uncaring what anyone else thought. The freedom was exhilarating, but like many freedoms, it did not last.

Over time I began to pull myself closer in. And in the last couple of years wound it down so tightly that I struggled to write because for me, writing is sharing. It is the height of vulnerability.

Recently someone posted something I had written a few years ago, with the intent to point out how misguided I had been. I read my own words and saw that freedom I once embraced. And I saw growth, and change.

Some of the things I have written in the past I still believe to be true. Others I do not. And thank goodness for that, because perhaps one of my only fears in life is that I cease to grow and change, becoming stagnant over time as I grow too old – or too stubborn – to change.

Someone who was once a friend said, at the point where our friendship was seeing its timely demise, that I had changed and was losing people who were once close to me as a result. And I recall thinking what a tremendous relief that was, because it meant that while they were once “my people” that I had changed, and for the better, too.

Change is not bad and not good; change is inevitable, and whether it is good or bad is often how we react to it rather than the actual nature of the change.

Over the course of the past year as I began to put pen to paper (or more accurately fingers to keyboard) I have hesitated; and more often than not I walked away, rejecting vulnerability and both the weight and the freedom it creates.

Until recently. I attended a course discussing vulnerability in leadership, and realized that over the past three years while I had remained vulnerable in my professional life I had moved away from doing so in my personal life; and with that change went my desire, and even my ability, to write in the personal, honest and vulnerable manner I have always done in this blog.

Like many people this year, I found myself in occasional dark spaces, not the physical kind but the sort where everything you see seems a bit more opaque and darker than it should be. And like many, I chose to seek some outside help to fight the darkness and see colour again, reaching out to a therapist I have spoken to before. Her suggestion?

Write again. Write about shoes or cats or snow globes or whatever crazy ass thing you want to write about, just write.

And so, here I am. It’s hard to know what to write about, which is perhaps why I have walked away so often. It is hard to know where to start again, and it makes me take a short, sharp breath when I think about being vulnerable again.

And yet what I know is that who I am – what I have and where I find myself – is because of writing with vulnerability. And I know that when my writing resonates with someone else I have always found myself at peace with being vulnerable.

2020 has been a blender. In our community – this place I love, this place that makes me crazy, this place that has been the best thing that ever happened to me – the challenges of 2020 have been compounded by a natural disaster and an economy that looks very different from just a few short years ago. We are in a very large blender, probably the Ninja kind with very sharp blades that whirl at light speed and could chop your hand off. And we know a bit about blenders, because many of  us lived through May 2016, which was perhaps the most blenderizing experience one could imagine.

Which brings me back to change, and vulnerability. We have been through change. We have been vulnerable. We have seen the darkness, stared into the blackness and thought “what if”.

And yet, here we are. Shaken, but not broken. We have the chance to embrace vulnerability – the fears, the what ifs, the honesty – and come out of the blender whole, not in pieces. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, if there is a lesson to be learned in 2020, this is it. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

In April of 2016, I made the decision to close this blog, posting a farewell message at the end of April.

Mere days later, the devastating wildfire that changed our community forever struck.

In February of 2020, I embraced this blog once more, realizing I had missed writing about the community that has been in my heart for two decades.

Mere weeks later, the pandemic that will change our world forever struck.

Coincidence? Absolutely, but it was enough to give me some pause when considering that this blog seems tied in some intimate way to these significant events.

Since the beginning of March I have struggled, immensely, with writing in this blog. Like, what else could be said about this pandemic that wasn't already said, written, broadcast, Facebooked, podcasted?

Well, maybe nothing. I wrote a couple of heartfelt posts that I never published, not knowing quite why but knowing that I just didn't want to, perhaps because they felt too close and too vulnerable.

And maybe that's the point. Maybe the pandemic - like the wildfire, like the price of oil, like the flood this spring - made us feel vulnerable. Made me feel vulnerable, much like sharing my personal thoughts in a very public place do.

The older I get, the less I like feeling vulnerable. And the longer I am here, the less I like this community feeling vulnerable, too.

Fort McMurray has now officially been pummeled repeatedly by forces beyond our control. One of the mantras I have always lived by is that while we cannot always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it.

That's true for me and my experience so far in 2020 (and frankly 2020, I can't believe I stayed up late to celebrate your arrival given what a rotten guest you've turned out to be). And it's true for our community.

We have a lot to think about in terms of our response. Recently I have been disheartened to see an increase in negativity about life here, likely fueled by the many changes we have seen. And I have felt it too, dismay over the closure over local stores and services, the sense of things changing and not necessarily for the better.

And while we cannot control much of what is happening to us, we can control how we respond to it.

And so I have chosen to write again, to lean into the feeling of vulnerability, and to begin to explore how we can respond to the changes we are seeing while working towards a stronger and better community.

Because here is another truth: no level of government is responsible for building community.

Governments build roads. They build schools. They build critical infrastructure.

They don't build communities.

We - you and I - build community. It is what we do that determines the tone of where we live; it is our actions and choices that define what type of community we live in.

And given that truth, the question we must ask is what we are doing to build our community. What is our contribution? What is our goal? 

What is our response when we are caught in a situation we don't control?

This is what I find myself pondering lately as we continue to face unprecedented (word of the year right there!) challenges.

While I don't have the answers, I know it's something I want to explore. So I am kickstarting this blog (again) and starting to write (again) and hoping it doesn't result in another "coincidence" (NOT AGAIN, you hear me universe?).

Being vulnerable is hard. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. But it is where growth happens.

Here is what I know: Fort McMurray has changed, and is changing. And to some degree we have zero control.

Here is what else I know: We can control how we respond to these changes. We can define and determine the community we want, and we can build it.

Where do we go from here?

We have a new challenge. And a new opportunity.

And I've never known Fort McMurray to back down from either.