Small Frye Episodes

Small Frye’s Pipeline Part Five

Leonard Lea Frazer

Mike tries surveying through a boggy area, his transport vehicle sinks in the swamp, he becomes a Pipe Inspector, he helps to lay long lengths of pipe in the ditch and he avoids taking a bribe from the main contractor. All in a day’s work!

My first day on the new job, I got acquainted with the Alberta mud and swamps! We started at a point near Carrot Creek, crossing the highway not far out of Carrot Creek settlement.

The easiest place to get a point for surveying from, was right at the highway and head north toward Windfall Refinery, up through Old Man River. We had a crew of seven men and as it was fair going, we soon were well on our way into virgin country. We came upon an old wagon road in the area. Here we found wheel ruts three feet deep in some places where the pioneers had fought their way through the mud. This was the road that my parents had taken in 1909 on their way from North Dakota to the new homestead at Albreda, in British Columbia. It was not long after they reached this destination that yours truly was born at Tete Jaune Cache in a covered wagon.

We crossed the old wagon road and continued on through the swamps and timbered country. The going was rough, and we were forever trying to make our way around the swamps. These detours took us off our proposed route and this would entail rerouting. However, we fought our way as best we could through most terrains. The Odwell, with its wide two-foot rubber treads, would hold us up in most of the swamps and the brush and willows did not deter us at all. We smashed them down and went right over the top.

Leaving the hotel at Edson at six in the morning, we always took our lunch. We would go as far as we could with the four by four, then taking the Odwell, where we left it the night before, and travel back and forth. We soon had a semblance of a road that we could always travel a bit further each day with the four-wheel drive. But, it got worse as we moved further from civilization till at last it was nothing but a cat trail. Quite often, in some of those places, I would have to take my life in my hands and pray that I would get through. I always had the crew walk around, through dangerous places, and then I would pick them up when I reached safe ground again.

I was always the silly one to offer to drive through rough country. In those days I didn’t know what fear was till one day we came to some real boggy ground. It was a long swamp and we had to go right through it.

As I drove, we could look out the window and see the trees sway as we passed. I knew we were in for a dunking and I told Syd. Before it got too bad, I stopped and told the crew to take off on foot and work their way across the swamp. All but Syd took my advice. The ones on foot took most of the maps and transit.

Looking it over, I said to Syd, "If I go back, I will surely break through the crust, if I go ahead, we may break through." It was then I started to do a bit of sweating. "What shall I do Syd, it's half a dozen of one and six of another. We don't have too much choice!"

In the top of the cab of the Odwell there was a trap door to get out of in an emergency. Syd looked at that and then at his oversized stomach. "Guess I can make it through that trap door if we sink. Go ahead Mike, but try and take it easy and don't panic whatever you do, just play it cagey."

These Alberta swamps are sometimes bottomless as I very well knew. If the Odwell started to sink I could always run for the closest tree and I could walk out on it to sound ground.

I very slowly put it in gear and let out the clutch. We went forward for a short way then I noticed the trees swaying more than usual and the entire ground waving. Then, my hair stood on end as I felt a sudden lurch of the vehicle. One tread went through, then the other. "Jump Syd," I shouted and he took off out of that trap door with me right behind him!

He jumped to one side and I made a leap to the other from the top of the sinking Odwell. I scrambled as fast as I could on my hands and knees and then I turned to see how Syd was making out. He was still scrambling as fast as he could. Then I saw the Odwell disappear with a gurgling sound then a big hole appeared for a few seconds where it went down through the muskeg.

We had made it to solid ground but lost the Odwell and we had twelve miles to walk back to the four by four! Not a pleasant thing to look forward to after a long days work! But, we made it back to the car around midnight and got into bed about two o'clock in the morning.

We did not get up very early the next morning, but when I did, I phoned our main office in Calgary. I told Mike Boyle what had happened and he hardly reacted. He just said go back to bed and rest up and he would do what he could. I expected to get fired so I had a cup of coffee and went back to bed. I woke up around two in the afternoon and had just finished breakfast when I was paged in the café.

I found a young man waiting in the lobby for me. I was surprised when he told me that our new Odwell was outside the hotel in the back. He then gave me a few pointers on it and then, with a smile, he said, "Mike also sent you some life jackets. Better put them on next time." I was really surprised at the turn of events and very grateful to Mike Boyle.

Eventually, I moved from the surveying crew to the one that was actually laying pipe.

As we progressed with the line, we were getting into rocky country and here the ditch to hold the pipe would have to be blasted out of rock. This made my work a little harder as now I really had to be on the ball working as the Inspector that was looking after the laying of the pipe in the ditch. The former Inspector had quit Canadian Bechtel, or rather he had been caught taking a bribe from the contractor and would have been fired anyway so it was much better, to all concerned, that he quit. But, now I had to do both jobs - look after the dope (tar) and the laying of the pipe and pipe inspection. The ditch had to be six feet deep and, being in rocky terrain, had to be ‘covered’ (that is, the bottom had to be covered with a light layer of sand). This was so the tarpaper and dope would not be torn as each pipe was laid in the ditch.

This was a very touchy operation for the contractor and the engineers. Although the side boom operators could carry a half mile of welded pipe at one time, considering the weight of the entire pipe, they could lay it to an eighth of an inch or less where it belonged. The long string of ten, huge side-booms were spread out along the line. When it came to lowering or moving the pipe the machines had to move at the same speed as each operator lowered his sling. They had to be accurate and all move together. I have seen half a mile of continuous pipe travelling along at one time in this way. They never went very far, possibly fifteen feet at one time, then, from a command from all the signal men, this pipe would be ever-so-gently laid back on skids all in one section.

The timing of the procedures had to be very close and the cat skinners had to be of a very well trained crew. Most of the time the dope machine would drive right up to where the welded pipe was laying on skids and one side-boom ahead of the dope machine would gently lift it and swing the end over so it could be cradled in the slings of the dope machine. After the tarring and wrapping, a side-boom would be directly behind the dope machine and the pipe would then be laid in the ditch. When we reached rocky country, all of us had to be on the ball. I would walk as close as I could to the jeep operator and also watch as the pipe was laid in the ditch. One rock, sticking up through the sand, would rupture the wrapping and the pipe would then have to be lifted and rewrapped.

We were all trying our best to get enough pipe sections in and covered each day in order to make our allotment. We did the very best we could. And then I was confronted by the contractor working in my area. This was the same fellow I had worked for in the past and that had given me a hard time.

The contractor knew of the rough country coming up and before we got there, he came up to my room one night. When he came in the door, I knew just what was up so I offered him a drink from the bottle of Scotch he had given me some time before. We both sat down. I knew there was no possible way we could lay a mile of pipe per day in that part of the country and Mike Boyle, in the Calgary office, had warned me. So, I was ready for him when he asked me how I would like to leave this job with a brand new car of my own. I told him I would like that very much.

As he never really out and tried to bribe me, I took him up on his offer. And, I never asked what the car was for. I just tied it up near my hotel and never drove it at all. But, one night he came up to my room again and the first thing he said was, "Now Mike, we are coming to some pretty rough pipe laying country and will have lots of trouble (this I already knew as I had a map of every inch of the ditch ahead of me) so, for goodness sake, have pity on me, give me a break!" Then, he walked out.

I never said a thing to him as he walked out the door, but next morning I watched everything closer than before. In the first place, I did not have any intentions of keeping his new car. I just wanted him to suffer a bit for what he had done to me so I made him sweat for some time. One day, as I had stopped the machines, at a very critical spot, to be sure that a bad place on the pipe was rewrapped, he came along and said to me, "Now look here Mike. You had no reason to stop us. Just show me where that pipe is leaking dope." So, I ran the loop along the pipe and it squealed like a stuck pig. "Here is your leak, my good foreman, just look at that fire flashing from the bare pipe."

He had nothing more to say till that night. He came up to my room again and, as he walked in the door, he said to me, "Just what sort of a person are you anyway? What do you think I gave you that new car for?" Then, with his eyes flashing, he said, "You just put me two days behind schedule."

I became upset and said to him, "Look here, Mister, when I came on this job I told you I was going to do a good job for Canadian Bechtel. It may mean a lot to the Transmountain Pipeline Company to have this pipe laid in good shape and when I was working for you, you wanted a good job done and I did it. You paid me starvation wages and here I am now working for a good outfit that treats me like a man. I am going to do a good job for them. So, here are the keys to your damn car," and I tossed them in his face. "Now, get to hell out of here and never try that again. Your car is out behind the hotel where you left it."

With this, I turned my back on him and started to read my reports over for the day.

He never bothered me any more after that but he left the car right where it was and sent me the keys by mail. I sold the car after the job was over and gave the money to charity. He never came near me for over two months and all I saw of him was when I turned in the reports of how much fuel was used at the end of every day for the job.

To be continued . . . . . .