Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Written by Luticia Miller, Project Controls Manger, PTW Energy
Rainbow Lake, near the Arctic Circle in Northern Alberta, a town at the end of a road. A place where the winter air is heavy with diesel fumes, and the summer horseflies will chew you raw, but a place of pure opportunity back then. I've heard it said - never go to a town where the road ends, but that's where my journey began. I landed in the area via a Greyhound bus, having taken the summer off from college in Ontario, to learn the hard way that tree planting in Northern BC was not my thing, and taking my dad up on an offer to come do safety in the oil patch. He picked me up in High Level, and we headed straight west from there. And I mean straight. Turns out safety wasn't my passion either, but my eye was caught by the jacked-up welding rigs around town, and by the trucks with the cool arrowhead logo. Flint.
By Winter, I decided I needed to work there. I dropped off my resume at the office and was turned down. But acting on some advice I heard, I just kept showing up. Every damn morning. It was January 2003, and in that northern tundra the temperature regularly rests at -40 degrees Celsius. For those unfamiliar, that’s a temperature where hydraulic lines on heavy equipment freeze, and vehicle engines won't start. Where working spans are 15 minutes long, and the porta-potties can't be emptied as they're a frozen block. Despite the cold, and despite the rejections, early every morning I donned my giant black Baffin steel-toed winter boots, and my winter Carhartt’s, and I walked across town under the diesel clouds to the Flint shop. I listened in on the morning tailgate meetings, as those on crews got their daily orders. After they dispersed to their assigned work locations, having not been picked up I walked back across town to my dad's house. I did this for about two weeks straight until I got an assignment. And I got my hardhat.
Jon was my welder. This poor man was assigned a girl from Ontario to be his helper - not a farm girl who knew her way around tools, not even a girl who grew up fixing cars with her dad. At best I had Infantry experience to build some toughness in me, but that man taught me everything from the ground up. I remember arguing with him over what a crescent wrench was - growing up with my single mother, she called that a 'monkey wrench!' In light of what little I knew, he schooled me. He was kind and he was patient; he picked up my slack that I didn't even know I was leaving he told me what welder's helpers I should take ques from. I learned to premeditate his movements and bring efficiency to his workspace. I was lucky enough to spend two winters with that man, and I still affectionately refer to him as 'my welder.’
That hardhat I carried with me from job to job, gas plant to gas plant. Husky Bivouac, Husky Rainbow, Shell Jumping Pound, Shell Caroline, Moose Mountain Pipeline… she came with me. I switched her out for a welding helmet when appropriate, and I learned the faux pas of putting your hard hat on the lunchroom table. Who knows what type of toxic dust could be in there, that you don't want mixed in your food? I labelled her with my 'tag,' back in the days when I was known as 'Tish.' I adorned her with stickers - my favourites being the Mammoet mammoths (have always had a soft spot for those magnificent beasts, those cranes.) That hardhat saved me from many a 'headbanger' as I crawled through the racks, marking heat numbers, or inspecting fillet welds.
I carried that hardhat with me, and I hung it up when I left the field to raise my babies. But not until I had first built those boys - zipping up my coveralls around my pregnant belly twice, up until about the 6-month mark for both of them. That was no easy task - battling morning sickness with the smells of a sour gas plant or working 70-90 hours a week during the heavy fatigue of the first trimester. But I had the support of the crew, and mainly an office-based gig by then, and managed to survive.
That hardhat has been a part of my kit as our best laid plans went to waste, and I found myself the divorced mother of two babies, having to re-enter the workforce. My company managed to have an opening for me in the City, where I embarked on a new journey in Project Controls. Among the chaos and disorientation that is the aftermath of a family breakup, I pulled my hardhat out of retirement, put on my big girl panties (and new office attire,) and I went to work building a solid and safe financial future for me and my little boys - my driving prerogative.
I have built gas plants. I have built pipelines. I have built schedules and execution plans, and systems and processes and procedures. I have built a career. I have built security. I have built a story. I am not a sentimental person, and I don't hold on too many physical things. In fact, I purge almost to a fault. But here, almost 20 years after I started, I carry this relic as testament to what I have built. A reminder of where I've come from. I carry this hardhat as a reminder of who I am.
When I fear am too 'office' to relate to the field, I look at this hardhat. I remember cracked and calloused hands, slag burns from molten metal dripping down my shirt or down my gloves, and the smell of grinding dust that I loved so much. When I battle Imposter Syndrome, wondering if I really do know my industry as well as I think, wondering if I can manage and lead in this field the way I want to, I look at this hardhat. I remember 12-hour days, 24-day shifts, the weight of that sticky rainbow lake springtime mud, and driving the pipeline right-of-way in winter. And as I look forward to the adoption of more sustainable and cleaner energy solutions, I look back at that hardhat. I give thanks for the opportunities my industry afforded me, honour the way we excelled at what we did, and think with confidence of the quality tradespeople I worked with - those who will take us into this bright new world.
This hardhat is a part of who I am. It is a part of my history, a part of my future, and a part of my story.