The Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range is 1,990 square mile block of muskeg, low hills, and small lakes in Northern Alberta, some 180 miles northeast of the City of Edmonton. For six months of the year its population is confined to the hardy creatures indigenous to the area, and a few Cree that venture out to trap or hunt them. There are no permanent roads and very few sustainable trails.
During the remaining six or more months of Alberta winter the area shows an increase in activity with the arrival of trappers, snowmobilers and tar sand explorers. At no time of the year is it a place that any sane person would visit by choice.
It was also a training ground for NATO forces testing and becoming proficient with airborne weapons.
The big attraction, however, are the tar sand beds and their vast reserves of oil that underlie the area.
In January, 1982, I was offered a contract by a major oil company to supervise the geology on a five-well drilling program in the Range. Against my better judgment, I took the job.
For the total stretch of the twenty-nine days of my tenure, the temperature never rose above thirty below. Lodging was in a wellsite trailer on the leases, which were located from five to thirty-five miles from the main camp. The trailers were plagued by heaters that broke down, propane stoves that wouldnít cook, frozen water pipes, and an intermittent supply of electricity. I could always get a hot meal at the main camp, providing I could get my truck thawed out enough to start. Needless to say, I ate a lot of cold meals.
January 11, 1982 is the coldest day I have ever experienced. We were on the second scheduled well, cutting a core through the tar sand zone. The rig crew pulled the core during the night, laying it out on the catwalk. At 3:30 AM they woke me to log and box it for shipment. As I went out the trailer door, I checked the thermometer. The mercury read 58 degrees below zero, with a slight breeze. Even bundled in heavy underwear, wool pants, and three sweaters covered by a fleece-lined parka, I was still shivering. It took me three and a half hours to complete a task that normally would have taken an hour. I inadvertently partially froze a finger by taking one of my gloves off for an instant.
By the time I finished, the land was starting to wake up and had actually warmed to only fifty below.
Brian, the engineer on the job, was lucky enough to get his truck running that morning and suggested we ride into the main camp for breakfast, an offer I was quick to accept. We were about twenty miles from the camp. While driving through a patch of muskeg, I spotted a bull moose. He was standing perfectly still, breathing slowly. I counted up to seven seconds between exhalations.
As we drove into the camp area, we could see a group of men gathered around the big propane tanks that supplied the campís heaters and stoves. One of the fellows had a blowtorch and was attempting to warm the tanks up so that the gas would flow. Since propane has a gelling temperature of about minus 45 degrees, it had obviously gelled up in the extreme cold. I suggested to Brian that we maybe should keep our distance from the group until we saw how the scene played out.
Since we were on the NATO bombing range, the French pilots had gotten into the habit of buzzing the drilling rigs at very low altitudes. The oil company had complained about the practice with little or no effect.
As the boys were trying to fire up the tanks a group of three jets came in low and broke the sound barrier just over the camp. Brian and I could see it coming as we had heard the jets approaching. Evidently, the boys around the tanks hadnít, because the sonic boom scattered them under any piece of equipment they could find.
We did finally get our warm breakfast, but I think the practice of warming the propane tanks with a blowtorch maybe ended that day.