The Hinton Gas Field Christmas Tree Incident

Shale, I imagine, lies below the undulating terrain in the gas fields north of Hinton, Alberta, and that usually means bad gas. Any steeper a country and it would have been a dynamite program. The surveying was done with Wild T16 optical equipment and without reciprocal vertical angles, zero backsights. This meant we had to apply a mean correction for Earth curvature and refraction. By surveying to a forward working rod man, though, we could run several kilometers of survey each day. This is not a theoretically correct procedure, but large regional loops closed year after year with decimeter level accuracy, it increases production four fold, and this technique was used
industry wide in the Seismic Industry, in Canada only.

Courtney Aindow was a hard-working man and always set up in perfect tangent the way I liked it. The cover was all poplar interspersed with birch and the odd bluff of evergreen trees. Courtney and I were traversing West on a sunny winters day, mid eighties.

The buggy vibes were set to chain up and were accompanied with a D7 Cat for when they hits the hills but today they were doing SIMS, testing. They were crowded up on the only cleared flat area large enough to hold them all, a wellsite. In the center stood a wellhead. This was sour gas though and no normal wellhead, we called them Christmas Trees, and was two foot taller than a man. Nowadays they’re safely isolated but in those days, this one, was unprotected. We channeled the radios to match the Recorder and had to 'Steady  Up' when Rob sent the tone, as we were on the Spread. As we went through the wellsite there became a Turn Point close to the wellhead and I Occupied the Point. Courtney was West five hundred meters and had just given me the next Turn Point. I had just finished the Horizontal Angle and was still set up when one of the Line Drivers in a one-ton jug buggy backed into the wellhead. I yelled to, “Hey STOP,” and watched it happen. One of those things you remember in slow motion detail. The heavy welded steel bumper hit straight on to a valve on the Tree and a yellow brown liquid released horizontally into the chilled air. On the radio, I called everyone off the site, abandoned my instrument set-up, checked each vehicle on site and then left the site in my truck. It was eerie. Silent. They’d all taken my radio call and ghosted away through the woods.

High and upwind, I called to Courtney on the radio. I explained all that had happened and gave him a choice. The shot he had given me, completing
the forward traverse, had placed Courtney through a creek Dragout, accessible only by foot. "Either return high and upwind," a course I mapped
out for him, or wait on his side of the Dragout while I went on a two-hour detour. The Recorder, Vibe Ops, some from the Line Crew not on Layout duty, and me, were all sitting on a hill, high and upwind, and I knew Courtney was making his way back toward us. The radio sparked, and there was Courtney. We all heard the sounds of a dying man. It was from the way he gagged between words that I drew this conclusion. A sound of black bile, rasping for air. I thought a picture of green smoke wisping from his mouth.

In Exploration, two dimensional Lines are often projected through a tie wellhead so the Geophysicist can utilize the core information in conjunction with and the seismic data as a controller. Courtney had taken the Line straight back to it walking the path of least resistance. He was in shock. He said later in Hospital that he’d felt the same eerie silence as I so loud it blocked out all other sound with a deafening hum. He made it known between gags that he couldn’t make it, needed me to come and get him. I told him to start walking away down the Access Road—I was on the way. We’re all trained specifically not to do this. Sour Gas is a bad deal. Rob advised me this on the radio, real
diligence, as we all have heard the sour gas second man down stories. I throttled up, took a deep breath, and released the brake. When I got there I reached over, threw open the passenger door, dragged Courtney in by the scruff of his collar and sped reversed back up the hill.

I turned around at the top, we slowed and, almost stopped as we went by the Recorder on our passenger side. Rob and the Boys had a close-up face to face encounter with Courtney. He was green in pallor and frothing, bubbling white spittle with something black in it. Deadly concern reflected back in their faces and was on mine. The winter road which snaked South toward Hinton was in good condition and I flashed lights when I met the Ambulance that Gus Lorenowicz had sent out to meet us. Shining Knights, all.

We had also been in communication via XJ Radio. The XJ System was vital in the province prior to cell phones and affordable satellite transmissions. Spanning the entire province, and North East British Columbia, this system was the only external system of communication in all remote areas. Huckleberry Tower. Zama. Simonette. They all had
names and voice operators. Lots of times I had to drive up to a high area and scan channels until I found a Tower that could pick me up my broadcast. Occasionally, on a cloudy night, the signal would bounce off of the atmosphere and once I picked up Rainbow Lake from hundreds of miles away.

Rob Brink. Rob ran the recorder and he is one of those guys where you talk to him for five minutes and you know he’s an Ace. A humorous Bill Gates look-alike. When people are isolated by language and culture, they are predisposed to group together, and to become friends. I had been in country already a year or two, Chief Surveyor of a 150 man Trocha crew, when Rob, his wife Marlene and their adventurous child Sarah moved to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia. I hadn’t remembered that Rob was on
site in the Hinton gas fields from nearly a decade before. But he remembered. We worked a schedule six weeks in the Jungle, two weeks off.

Grande Cache is an old hometown of mine having spent there the last of my teenage years and I know the rivers, and the lakes. I was on a fishing trip up there between a couple of stints in Argentina with a friend of mine named Bernie Cavan back in the nineties. Bernie worked as a hand at Dufferings Transport in Red Deer but he otherwise looked and lived the stereotype of an author and everyone at the pub, on the hill, thought this was so until they asked him. He had this one trick where he pulled out a small blade swiss army knife and could stick it in the bulls eye every time at a dart throwers distance. He wrote a letter to me once that held truth. He talked about the true meaning of the word “Friendship”. Big Jim from Inisfail would know what that means. We were in the Valley Pub in Grande Cache after a day seeking Victor Lake for one of the big Rainbows of old, but they were all gone, stocked over now with Eastern Brook Trout. I was telling some of the old people some stories of the southern lands, El Otra Lado, the other side. The river Madre de Dios. This river system winds through the very heart of the continent, an area deeply remote from even anything along the Amazon, which the river eventually joins. We were in a tributary system in from that. The bartender, in Grande Cache, was a jovial sort, tattooed and boisterous. He thought the jungle was a dangerous place and wanted to know what type of firearm I carried.  He just couldn’t understand there was no need to carry one. In most respects the jungle, triple canopy even as it was there, is no different than walking through a forested Alberta Park. The forest isn’t dangerous if you learn how to move in it. Neither, too, is the jungle. Only it
is a different forest, differently populated.

Rob was mostly town based but there were times, on a start up or firmware update for example, when he spent extended days on the crew. I stopped in for Rob and to see Marlene and their small child on some of these occasions if I was around Santa Cruz, where I kept an apartment at Hotel La Quinta during breaks. She would be so happy
to see someone who spoke some English and we would hang out. She told me she was very glad to have someone like me working with Rob. Someone that she knew would take a risk and bring her man back to her. This trait runs in the family.

I remember a story about Uncle Stanley saving a mans life in the back woods of New Brunswick. If you’ve ever poled a canoe, you’ll understand it takes some talent. I heard Grandfather once compare Uncle Stanley to my Father, Gary. "They’d both get up the river," he’d said, "but differently." Uncle Stanley was burly and rock strong. Grandfather said Stanley would defeat the river using brute strength whereas Dad, strength unseen at a glance but there the same, would finesse his way through the currents and rocks, working with, the river. Stanley and another man were working big wood and a timber or a railroad tie broke. To save his companion, Uncle Stanley stood the weight of the timber on his shoulder until the man could be freed and there was absolutely no doubt that he had saved the mans life the way it’d happened. Fate

had marked this man though, and he lost his life a week later in a car incident.

Courtney. Courtney had taken some poisonous gas, deadly in small amounts, into his lungs but was rescued before ingesting a fatal amount. He was a Calgary man and though I found Mike from the crew the next time I came to town, I never heard of him again. Courtney Aindow where are you now?

FOOT & CHAIN