Life in a Northern Town (Beginner)

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In this episode, Steve speaks with Al Wardale who is from a small community in Northern Alberta, in Canada. Al describes life in the North.

Hello Al.

Hello Steve.

Today I’m talking with Al Wardale who is from Northern Alberta and I’m going to maybe exchange some reminiscences about Northern Alberta, but Al is down visiting in Vancouver. How often do you come down to Vancouver?

Perhaps twice a year.

Twice a year. You live in which town?

Manning, Alberta.

And how many people in Manning, Alberta?

It supports about 2,500 people.

When you say it supports 2500 people, how many people actually live in the town?

There may be 1,400 living in town and then several small farming communities without a proper town centre, that Manning supports.

And what is the main activity up there?

Work-wise, forestry and oil and gas exploration .

And farming?

And farming, right.

Would most of the people be involved in farming, or not necessarily?

Probably would be something like a third. Most families have an interest in farming that are long-time residents.

And now where is this located?

How far are you from Edmonton?

Six hundred kilometres northwest.

Okay. And I gather that today, on May the 2nd, it’s 15 below and snowing.

It is minus 15, snow, quite different from the day before where it was plus 20.

So you get violent swings of climate up there?

Particularly at this time of year.

Now you work in the sawmills.


Right, and what is your job there?

I work in the sales department. We’re selling North American products to North American customers.

How are you affected by the recent softwood lumber ruling by the United States?

Its impact hasn’t been felt, but we definitely understand that it poses a huge burden on our industry and the effects we’ll hope to try to limit in our area.

When you’re not selling lumber, what do you like to do up in Manning, Alberta?

I love to hunt big game and birds and fish, whatever, outdoors.

And what are the good seasons for doing that?

The fall is the finest time of year in that country. September and October are unquestionably the best months.

And what do you like to do? How do you take advantage of the environment of nature up there?

I like to get out into the bush either walking or in different vehicles to hunt and to fish – in the winter time using snowmobiles to get into areas that you can’t get to in the summer months because it’s too wet. The ground freezes and access? you can go anywhere and see anything up there.

What kinds of animals do you see when you go into the forest?

There’s moose, elk, white-tail and mule deer, black bear, grizzly bear, any kind of bird anywhere, just about, and then lots of fish as well.

And when you go into the bush do you just go in for the day, or do you pitch a tent and stay, or? It all depends, you know?

everybody enjoys a nice day trip, but when we go after moose, the biggest of the big game, we’ll go in for 5, 7, 8 days at a time.

And where do you sleep?

We sleep on the ground, underneath a piece of plastic with a fire in front of us and just enjoy. It can be often 10-15 kilometres away from the end of the road where our trucks are parked.

And you sleep with a fire. Always a fire on while you’re sleeping?


Why is that? To keep you warm?

Warmth and to keep animals away too that may come and visit in the middle of the night, like the black bear.

I see. And just a plastic little roof on top, and that’s good enough?

Just enough to keep the rain off, or the snow off as it comes, and both have happened in times when we’ve been out.

Okay. And what do you sleep on? Just on the ground?

We’ll break off the branches of the spruce trees that are out there, the white spruce and lay them down in a mat that gives kind of a springy mattress below our sleeping bags.

And how cold is it when you wake up in the morning?

Usually there’s frost. It may be a few degrees below zero. That’s in October. But that makes for the best times out there. It warms up nicely through the day, but it can be quite cool.

And so typically what do you hunt?

Have you bagged the odd moose in your day?

I have taken some small moose and some enormous moose. They’re all big in that? the one last year that myself and my friends got would have been about 600 kilograms on the hoof, so quite an enormous animal, that’s for sure.

And what do you do with it?

Oh, there’s nothing (that) gets wasted. All the meat is taken back and goes into the freezers and all of us eat well for the rest of the year.

One moose can look after a whole family for the whole year?

A moose of that size could take care of a family of five for a full twelve months, I’m sure.

Eating meat everyday?

Eating meat certainly 4 or 5 times a week. And that’s fairly common for the people in that country.

What’s another popular game animal?

Deer. White-tailed deer probably is a very common animal, and it’s common throughout North America, but it is enjoyed up there as well.

And is it good to eat?

Oh yes, yes it is. But it’s kind of hunted in the farmland areas that are surrounding Manning more than the deep bush and woodlands that the moose are in.

And what about the farming? What do they farm up there?

Lots of crops. Canola and wheat, hay for the animals that they sometimes raise. Lots of different crops, pea crops and stuff that are a little more specialized. The people that are living there farm the staples that have always been?

and also some types of crops that are for export markets specifically I guess. I don’t know a great deal about what they do, but I know that they’re on the cutting edge of the agriculture industry, they’re not? because they’re very remote, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t with the times.

Right .

They’re very caught up and in-touch.

A typical farmer up there would have a major investment in equipment?

Oh yeah, typically a farmer will be running, probably, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 600 to 1,000 acres of land and their investment, just equipment alone, would be a half million dollars plus?


to do that. And that doesn’t include all the? they spread fertilizer, they use herbicides?and all that’s an additional cost. ?or most do.

There are some that do without herbicides but. Yes, it’s quite a costly venture. There’s a lot of money spent by people that don’t make enough of it anymore. It’s too bad.


And of course they have to be up on the latest developments in terms of seeds and techniques and so forth.

Yeah, I think that community of people, the agricultural community, is very well in tune with what’s required, and what’s new and available for increased yields and decreasing costs. Because it’s competitive, they have to be well in tune and try to make money because years ago the family farm? they could farm a very small area of land and make enough money off of it, but now the machinery is anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to nearly a million dollars in costs.

They have to farm huge areas of land to be able to make any money at all.

And now the forest industry is a big part of the country up there. I mean, you’re surrounded by the Boreal Forest, other than what has already been converted to farmland. What is the attitude of the people up there towards the forest industry?

I think that they are certainly very supportive. It’s a year-round industry in our area, whereas farming really is only the summer months and people that make money farming have to do things as well, so many people that farm in the summertime will run equipment in logging operations in the winter time, so they’re supplementing their farm income with working off the farm. So they are, of course, quite supportive.

But even those that aren’t, it’s an industry that’s done a lot better for the environment in the last number of years.


So I think it’s well regarded anyways as an industry.

Now Manning Diversified, I think, has been operating since 1994?


Have you been into some of the areas that Manning harvested say 7 years ago?

Yes, I have.

How are those areas regenerating?

They’ve done very well. Manning Diversified has put a lot of time and money and research into not just the replanting of areas that they’ve harvested, but to make sure how well they re-grow following. Some of this is required by the government, but MDFP is doing far more than expected.

MDFP is Manning Diversified Forest Products – that’s the company where you work.

Right, MDFP. It’s going the extra yard necessary to make it better and to be able to grow trees faster, but not so much for themselves, just to make sure the survival rate is far higher than what necessarily is expected. Some of the trees that I’ve seen that are six and seven years old are far, farther ahead than other areas that I’ve seen logged by other companies that have been 10 or 15 years old. We’ve had quite good success in reforestation in our area.

And this you attribute to a greater care in planting, or techniques that are used?

I think techniques for preparing the site is one, using the best of seeds to grow seedlings to be planted as well.

Proper quality control on the planting of the seedlings themselves, and then follow-up by the company afterward, is checking survival rates and understanding the competition that is growing against the seedlings on the same cut blocks.

A cut block is one little area that’s cut by the forest products company.

A block, that’s right, they call it a block, but it was just a stand of trees where we had taken.

Which is typically what, 10 hectares, or 15 hectares?

The average I think is under that even, maybe 7, but some can be quite large, upwards of 15 to 20.

And I gather that they cannot go back into that area and cut until the first area has grown back to two metres or something like that?

I’m not sure the exact age that it has to be, but they can’t go into adjacent stands of timber until that whole block has reached a degree where there is no concern that you’ll lose, or that anything can happen to that growing area of trees before you remove any additional areas around it.

And, of course the other big industry there is the oil and gas, and is that pretty active these days?

That’s quite active. Yet, it’s an industry that kind of has years of growth and years of decline and I think that it’s a well-regarded industry as well. It again, much like farming, is quite seasonal though, which makes it difficult on the town because you’re here today and you’re gone tomorrow.

Forestry, at least, is there year-round and the mill has its investment year-round and the people have a position with the company that lasts 12 months of the year. But the oil and gas industry is a solid foundation for the town.

Now, how old is the town of Manning?

It had its 50th birthday in 1998, I believe it was, so we’re talking 54 years now.

And I know when you look through a phone book there, you see names that are Slavic, German, French, gosh, I don’t know, every possible kind of origin.

There seems to be a hodgepodge of all kinds of nationalities of years ago, and it began with advertisements in newspapers across Europe for land that could be claimed. And I went to a birthday 2 weeks ago for a fellow.

It was a ninety-ninth birthday and he was living in Germany and saw in a paper “land if you’ll work it” and he bought a ticket on a boat and came across and made his way across the country and walked up the same road that I drive home on to claim his property that the land office, a hundred kilometres away, said you can have if you get there. Now, how many of his descendants are still living in Manning?

I was the photographer for that party and there were thirty-five people in the group picture that were all direct descendants from him and his wife who had several children, they had several more and they’re on to a fourth generation.

And they all stayed in Manning?

Some still are, most actually still are. Some have moved further away.

But not any further than the nearest hub which is Edmonton, 600 kilometres, and I believe that they’re still all fairly well in contact. It was kind of inspiring.


Everyone in Manning has a strong sense of belonging to Manning, wouldn’t you say?

I would say very much so. If you live in Alberta, but in Southern Alberta, you would consider yourself an Albertan, but if you live in Northern Alberta, then you are a Northern Albertan. I’ve never found that, other than in that area of the country. It’s not unlike other towns around Manning, but we stick to that adage (that) “We’re Northern Albertans”. Yeah. I’ve certainly sensed that when I go up there.

I’m a Southerner and I mean it doesn’t matter, even French Canadians who are from up there, they’re Northern Albertans. So that’s a very strong sort of local identification.

Yeah. There is a kinship that people feel for having lived there year round that’s for sure.

And faced hardships up there and I think that identification always strikes me as being much stronger than any identification with their original countries of origin or ancestry, or whatever.

That’s true, they don’t seem to say that they’re of German ancestry or Ukrainian. Many of them still speak, the older ones, still speak their language, but they consider themselves Canadians and Northern Albertans.

Which doesn’t prevent the fact that for your Christmas parties you get very good perogies.

That’s the staple of many tables around.

There’s a strong Ukrainian contingent living in that part of the country.

I always enjoy going up there and of course I know right away, as soon as I arrive, everybody in town knows I’m there and who I am. And I go into any store and everybody knows. Like everybody knows everything that’s happening to everybody in Manning at all times.

And people, as you come into town, people, everyone knows you long before you know who they are, because word spreads so fast. Hey, there’s a new fellow from here or there, and they will know your life story before you even know their first name. I found that many times over, moving to Manning.

And you, yourself are from Southern Alberta originally?


And from Calgary, I believe?

Exactly, yeah.

So, as a city boy, how have you found your experience living in a somewhat remote Northern Alberta community?

I really enjoy it. I wanted to, growing up in Calgary, I knew it was a wonderful city to live in, but I? there were things that interested me more and I didn’t need to have as much available to me because I thought I could make my own fun and to appreciate the outdoors. And specifically the ruggedness of some untamed wilderness versus the areas in the southern areas of Alberta that are quite well documented, and you know trails are set to hike on and don’t go off of them. You can do what you want in that country and people will respect you for that versus looking down on you for your impact on nature.

One last subject.

There are a lot of First Nations people up in that area as well, in the town as well as on reserves?

Yeah, there is a reserve about 125 kilometres north of Manning that’s a Metis settlement, actually. But a lot of residents of Manning have native ancestry as well.

I think the mill superintendent, Sheldon, is partial, or at least, is it his father or his mother that’s native? It’s his mother. He’s from Fort Vermillion, another northern community that’s on the banks of the Peace River, northeast of us.


Yeah, there is a strong group? a number of people living certainly that are of native ancestry and that have succeeded in their area of endeavours either, you know, in spite of it, or because of it, you know.


They’ve done well.

And, are a lot of the natives involved in trapping, and that kind of activity? Hunting, or whatever their main? are they working oil and gas or the forest industry or what sorts of things?

You know, you have to do pretty much what is available to you and those that live? typically, it’s kind of, it’s a worker or a labourer sort of attitude and? which is fine by them, because they most of the fellows don’t want to work all the time.

They want to be able to run a trap line and actually take fur off of the land for a few months in the winter time, and then they’ll run equipment in the bush for the oil field, you know, for the remainder of the winter and then they may be involved in farming through the summer months as well. So, their life isn’t like most. They do a lot of different things throughout the year. And certainly, it works for them. And looking at it, it might not be all that bad. Many of us want to do different things all the time anyway.


They seem to be making a life of it.

Well, I mean, it’s been a very, very interesting discussion and I thank you very much for taking the time.

Oh, I appreciate it.

Thank you.

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