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The Life of a Seismic Gas Explorer in Canada’s Wilderness

You barely need a pulse to get a seismic job, as long as you are physically capable of the work. That's why it's a haven for ex-cons, high school drop-outs, and guys looking for the fastest way to clock enough full-time hours to claim employment...
August 22, 2014, 8:23am

Slogging through the mud and muskeg. All photos via the author.

Tyler Hicks had been avoiding the water all summer, despite understanding that he should barrel through anything in his path. He figured if he could walk around the water, he’d walk around—he didn’t need to work the rest of the day soaking wet. But the Calgarian was down to his last few days of a seismic job in southern Alberta and he thought: Fuck it. If they want me to go through the water, I’ll go through the water.

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“I’ve got this one,” he told the other guys in the crew, and waded in. When he was up to his waist, the water turned deep crimson. Thin flakes of flesh emerged from the murky depths and he suddenly noticed a fetid cow carcass complete with head, hooves, and legs half-floating on the bank of the pond. Jesus Christ, I’ve got my junk in this thing. Gotta get the fuck out of this water quick!

Hicks jumped on a barbed-wire property fence. He shimmied along until getting out, boots full of red-tinted swamp water. “It was fucking nasty," he said.

Seismic surveying hovers around the outer frontiers of the oil and gas industry. The whole oil patch wouldn’t be anywhere without the exploration conducted by geophysical land acquisition companies. You barely need a pulse to get a seismic job, as long as you are physically capable of the work. Many say the job is the closest you can get to the military without picking up a gun. Ex-cons, high school drop-outs, and plenty of guys looking for the fastest way to dock enough full-time hours to claim employment insurance in their respective provinces are prime candidates for jughounds—the line workers who do the basic grunt work that keep the spokes of the machine spinning.

The point of the work is to discover oil and gas deposits under the earth using seismic vibrations. On land, companies do this by setting off explosive charges underground or using seismic vibrators—trucks that pummel the earth with hydraulic plates. It all starts with crews who use GPS satellite data to map straight lines through the bush, with little respect for geographic abnormalities such as cliffs or swift-flowing rivers. Slashers cut paths through the bush, and then drillers are sent in to bury dynamite at even intervals. Jughounds follow with miles of cable, planting geophones into the ground at regular intervals, seven days a week. When enough of the bush has been wired, the dynamite is set off by shooters and the geophones read the resulting vibrations, transmitting the earth’s darkest secrets back to a data truck. They return to collect the trash, and pick up the cable and geophones. When the jobs are deep in the bush, the gear is usually dropped off in bright, pumpkin-looking bags by helicopters.

A river at least five feet deep entirely covered in muskeg. The vegetation was thick enough to support human weight. Working on the line crew, you carry as much as 70 lbs of gear on your back, plus food and water—and with 12 hours of strenuous activity, you better bring a lot. Then there are the million different possible forms of bullshit that rarely work out in the crew’s favor. The pumpkins could be caught high up in a tree, or you might have to thrash around in thick bush looking for lost equipment. You could be forced to wade through swamps, across rivers, and scramble up mountainsides to lay your cable. Climbers are sometimes called in to handle the difficult parts, but behind all the safety meeting bullshit is the understanding that a good jughound sucks it up and deals with it.

Adventure

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It was around -35 degrees before the wind chill on the side of a 250 foot cliff 40 miles south of Nahanni Butte, in the Northwest Territories—and the wind chill was substantial. Flurries seemed to blow right through Tyrone Burke’s clothing. He was a 1 mile slog through knee-deep snow on rough terrain to the nearest helipad, and with the light quickly fading, he had ended up in the better of two bad choices.

The first involved staying in the woods overnight. It was late November 1999 in the Northwest Territories, and he was already clocking in at around 20 hours without a sleeping bag. The good news with that one was it came with the general understanding that if he survived the cold and the wolves, Burke would be packed off to Fort Nelson for a three-day all-you-can-drink trip on the company’s expense.

The second option was a little less adventurous depending on the way you looked at it. It involved jumping from the side of the cliff onto the three inch skid of a hovering helicopter in climbing boots prone to slipping on metal.

The latter option was approved after a radio discussion, but the wind made the approach shaky enough that it took two attempts for the chopper to get close enough. “If the blades had hit anything, they would have destabilized the helicopter, sending it spinning into the cliff and crashing into the trees below,” Burke said.

But on the third try, the chopper “wasn’t much of a leap” away, and once the pilot saw Burke was on board, it banked away with the six-foot-three New Brunswick man hanging onto the outside and hovered at a distance far enough from the cliff and trees for Burke to climb into the cockpit before it flew off.

View from a helicopter. It was the summer of 2007 in my case, and field briefing had been brief. There was a lot of stern finger-wagging about wearing hardhats, reflector vests, and safety glasses in the bush. There was a crash-course on the perils of swamp gas—the deadly hydrogen sulfide that sometimes wafted from old gas wells or elsewhere in fossil fuel-rich areas. The bosses tried to convince us the local cops would bust anyone caught outside the vicinity of our alcohol-free camp. They’d charge us with some obscure criminal offence that involved hefty fines and a few months of jail time. They told us there were an estimated 200 grizzlies in the area, and there was a rumour that the government bagged all the problem bears from national parks and dropped them off in the mountains near town. We then spent an uneasy hour watching videos of bear bloopers.

The next day we were up at 7 AM. On the way to helicopter staging, we heard someone yelling about a grizzly sow with two cubs chasing him down over the radio—the coordinator said he’d send a chopper to try to scare it away. Soon I was jumping out of the first helicopter I’d ever set foot in, hovering a few meters above the side of a steep mountain. I spent the rest of the day wondering over the poor bastard’s fate while I picked up trash from a previous job.

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Drugs and ex-cons

But bears, swamp gas, falling trees or helicopters and the elusive threat of cougars aside, the largest danger a jughound faces sometimes comes from himself or other jughounds.

A ‘recovering’ crack addict named Spider once disappeared from Hicks’s crew completely. His hotel room was broken into a few days later, and his stuff was stolen. He finally reappeared after four days and told the bosses he’d met a girl in a bar and gone on a three-day crack bender. They didn’t even fire him—they told him to get himself cleaned up and come back to work.

“The seismic industry is the most forgiving industry that I’ve seen,” Hicks says in regards to the kind of characters they sometimes hire. “There’s got to be somebody better, you know, somebody more reliable. Sometimes I’m shocked to think How the fuck are you back here? They know you’re going to fuck off again as soon as you get paid.”

But things have changed a little over the years from the wilder days, and some companies tout a zero tolerance for drug use.

“Because it’s a safety-sensitive environment—we work with lots of heavy equipment and we work around helicopters and that kind of stuff—we really just can’t have people that aren’t fully coherent working for us,” said the general manager of a multinational company who requested to remain anonymous. He said the company did random drug testing pre-screening before hiring people and didn’t see a lot of failures.

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But if there’s one thing a jughound does well, it’s getting around obstacles. You could get a solution to drink from bong shops in Calgary a few hours before a drug test that would produce clean results. One guy apparently even walked around with a spare bag of clean piss in his jacket in case the bosses sprung a random test on him.

A guy I worked with on a winter tour in 2010 in the northern prairies named G had just got out of jail in the east, where he’d done a year and a half for attempted murder—something involving vengeance for money owed on a coke deal. When he was released, he came out west to work seismic. He told us about stealing telephone cables for the copper wire. “You can get $1,800 for a line between two poles…” He joked about walking into random weddings and pocketing gift cards full of cash. He was a decent guy to work with, but you didn’t want to get on his bad side.

Camp at Tumbler Ridge, BC. G only lasted a couple of weeks on that crew in any case. I’m not even sure whether he had enough hours to claim EI at that point. It was a hotel job—meaning we were given hotel rooms—so they didn’t feed us. Without a dollar, he’d partly fed himself up to that point by locking himself in the hotel pantry at night and stuffing himself with pre-cooked bacon and sausages. At the hotel’s free morning breakfast, he filled up his pockets and ate the hellish stuff for the rest of the day. After 10 days we finally received our first dose of hot shot—the daily $40 the company paid out to fund groceries. The $400 cash and the money we made from our regular shift combined to nearly two grand by that point. G immediately hopped on a bus back to Calgary.

There was no shortage of characters in seismic surveying. One of my helicopter pilots was supposedly an ex-Belgian secret service pilot, while one of Burke’s crews had a retired ex-wrestler, as well as a Swiss doctor who’d lost his practicing licence for undisclosed reasons. There were Sudanese pastoralists recently immigrated to Canada, who spoke of hunting lions, and I heard of a massive guy who used to be a child soldier in Africa. He would throw his 30-kilogram pack over his head and power through a river up to his chest like it was nothing. My first line boss on the job was a guy just out of rehab, who liked to abandon naked girls on hotel balconies, and once stole a girl’s car and credit card the morning after her birthday. He chewed on match heads because he’d heard from his friend in the army that the sulfur in your blood kept the mozzies—mosquitos—away.

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Most guys heard about the job through word of mouth, though some companies will run advertising campaigns when they are desperate for employees to fill a big project. Some of the major ones are Sourcex, SAExploration, CGG Veritas, and Eagle Canada Inc., though their names change and rearrange into obscure acronyms as they merge or split off. These days some of them send you through a physical to make sure you can hack it—there’s a huge wasted expense if the company has to ship you back to Calgary from god knows where after a few days in the field.

But the need for people with enough adventure—or desperation—to keep vast projects rolling can result in a lack of hiring standards.

The Wild West

Drugs weren’t always an issue. When the camp was too remote to sustain a steady supply of drugs, there was always foot hockey. With a lack of anything else to do, Burke and some of the others made an improvised ball, set up a couple of nets and kicked it around in the heated trailer with full contact. After weeks or months in isolation from society and its booze, women, and other aids for sanity, everyone was in varying levels of being bushwhacked. Foot hockey was a great way to release some tension.

“The guys just wanted to tear each other apart,” Burke said, but in some sense the relatively clean fun was a relief. As for the trailer, it was fucked.

“Absolutely everything got trashed in that place,” Burke said. The TV got smashed, the pool table ended up with a bloodstain and a couple windows even got broken—a grave situation at -45 C. “We ended up with a ‘No Foot Hockey’ rule.”

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Jughounds don’t have a reputation any better than the rest of the oil patch for fighting. When I worked, there was an old adage that if you got in a fight, you’d better win—because the loser would get sent home or transferred to another crew. It happened often enough that the company I worked for felt a need to give prospective employees a test during the hiring session that basically amounted to a bunch of ways of asking whether or not you were prone to settling your quarrels with your fists. But even the dumbest jughound realized he had to play pacifist in a situation like that.

“Seems like half these guys scrap every time they go to a bar,” said Kim Marks, a Greenland-raised man from British Columbia. “They’ve done it for years, they know what they are doing.”

“Sometimes your crew is really awesome and sometimes they’re a bunch of dickheads,” Hicks noted.

Marks narrowly missed a massive brawl once in a town near Sparwood, BC, by staying in to avoid having to do 12 grueling hours climbing mountains with a hangover. Around 15 crew members went out to a bar in a nearby town and caused an ensuing rumble; while the details weren’t entirely clear, it was likely over a girl. The fight was so big, it ended up spilling out on the streets where passing locals jumped in to help defend against the unwelcome invaders and eventually greatly outnumbered the juggies.

“You know how bad of a reputation seismic has with locals, trying to pick up local women,” Marks said.

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If the regular bush was bad, sometimes they would skid half the crew onto the night shift. It tended to screw up the whole rhythm. Nights were colder, and the work went slowly in the darkness.

“I hated working in the dark for hours,” said Hicks. His eyes would adjust to the skull beam on his helmet so that everything outside of his tunnel vision was pitch black. Sometimes he’d even hear wolves howling. “You’re trying to walk and you’re stumbling and the bosses are putting pressure on you to finish. That’s when people get hurt.”

Once they even made him do a 22-hour shift, and on another occasion a jughound fell through the ice up to her knees near the end of a shift on a 5 degree night. They radioed in to have her picked up on a nearby road. But the bosses ordered her to finish with her crew, laying out a couple more helibags worth of gear, soaking wet, before anyone would get picked up. “They didn’t care. They thought: if there’s a problem, she’ll quit and we’ll get someone else on the bus to replace her.

Reset

A lot of the guys don’t really know what to do with the kind of cash you make in the bush. After four weeks you can sometimes get a reset, which usually amounts to a three- or four-day vacation in a hotel in some patch town in northern Alberta. Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie are almost like Vegas. They are rife with casinos, drugs, prostitution, and department stores full of electronics—everything a jughound missed most about civilization.

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Burke said some guys did enough coke on their seven-day resets back to Calgary that they would come back with nothing more than a bottle of whisky and five or six bucks left from the 10 grand they earned over months of going crazy slogging through the bush.

Troubleshooting near Tumbler Ridge. “There were guys who would take a three-day reset, get driven into town, and go on a bender,” Hicks says. “They would blow their whole check.”

“Casinos or getting hand jobs,” said Nick, a guy I met on a job north of Fort Mac two years ago. “One guy got three hookers in one night.” Others would get hammered in the middle of the day, go to the shopping mall and buy $800 watches and $200 sunglasses. “They’d call it accessorizing.”

Unless you played poker, money was no good back in the bush, after all.

“In that kind of job you don’t really have a life back home—life is basically seismic,” Hicks said.

Hicks finally swore off seismic in stages. The lure of decent money and expense-free living is hard to forget when you need to earn a dollar, and he had to swear off winter seismic on three separate occasions before it actually stuck. The first time had been a safety matter. The dumbest man he’d ever met—a massive Newfoundlander who reminded him of Sloth from The Goonies, but with a short fuse and a penchant for heaving an eight-foot metal stomping pole at people’s heads—pushed him backwards and nearly impaled him on a slashed sapling.

Three years later, a sandwich was the deciding factor. The veggies on it were frost-burned by the time he sat down to eat his lunch, and he figured he wasn’t getting paid enough for this shit.

Back for a third bout in 2006 with a modest raise, he managed to last it out until his face got frostbitten. Two days later, his cheeks scarred black, he made his resolution—winter seismic was a thing of the past.

He did a few lighter summer seasons, but hasn’t worked the job for a few years—he’s now an archeologist.

But once the spring ends every year, the companies begin calling old employees they laid off during downtime and the seismic machine starts rolling once again. If you’re looking for a quick buck and a spring layoff rife with employment insurance checks, you should give them a call.  @joshualearn1