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Freight Focus: Workin' the Patch

by Jim Park

About the only way to get your feet wet in this business is to, well, get your feet wet. Muddy actually. Really muddy. You see, one doesn't drill for oil on a downtown street or even at a suburban warehouse. Oil can only be found a long way underground, and frequently that's in some pretty remote and inhospitable territory.

The oil company geologists have a pretty good idea where to look and when they've found a likely spot, the rig movers bring in the gear and set it up so that the drillers can do their thing. But they often miss the mark; sometimes by a mile or two, sometimes by a whole lot more. That means the rigs have to be torn down again, trucked off to a new site and set up once more. The drilling rigs are moved around a lot in pursuit of the sticky black stuff, and to the folks who move them, that muddy trail into the bush is paved with gold.

The only way to start off in the oil patch - The Patch, as they call it - is to hire on as a swamper. Swamping can seem rather unappealing at first because that job means you're the guy outside the truck wading through the mud and doing whatever the driver tells you to do.

"The swamper's job is to hook the dog-house slings to the pole truck so the driver can suck the draw-works off the sow and get the hay shaker who hauled it onto the lease out of the way so that the matting can be laid down."

What? Well, that's the way it sounded to me when Marcel Bisson first described the process (the second-hardest part of becoming a rig mover is learning the lingo).

Bisson is a native of Alberta's Peace River district who currently lives near the town of Grimshaw, Alta. He works for Mullen Trucking's Oil Field division, and he's been in the rig-moving business nearly 14 years. He started as a swamper, but he worked his way up to one of the biggest trucks you're ever likely to see on a paved highway.

Bisson's truck is a twin-steer 1998 Western Star pole truck, sitting on a 410-in. wheelbase (it's 45-ft, 7-in. long) with a 475-hp Cat under the hood, an 18-speed transmission, with a two-speed tandem rear axle. It has a 75-ton winch behind the cab and a smaller 30-ton winch at the rear of the truck, both hydraulically driven. The whole thing weighs a mere 27,000 kg and can go anywhere, move anything and get him back again, at a top speed of 92 km/h.

But back to our swamper.

"That's how you learn the trade," Bisson says. "There's no instruction manual out here. You have to learn by watching and doing."

Typically, a swamper will work with a single driver for a season or two. It takes time to sort one another out to the point where they work well as a team. Eventually, if the swamper has the desire and the skill, the company might move him onto a tractor or a bed truck where he can't do too much damage by thinking for himself. He may be behind the wheel rather than under them, but he's still a 'hay shaker' until he has several dozen rig moves under his belt.

Troy Lorencz, the 25-year old son of the owner of Lorette Truck Service in Grimshaw, Ernie Lorencz, says, "You have to do about $100,000 damage before you're any good at this game." He's only half joking. The Troy Lorencz currently splits his time swamping for Lawrence Sokoloski, an owner-operator with Swanberg Bros. Trucking (see last month's cover story, 'Mud in the Blood'), and running one of his Dad's trucks.

There's plenty of work for good experienced drivers, with a real sense of adventure, to haul the gear around from lease to lease. But the guys who run the pole trucks and the pickers are the ones who've earned their left seats by spending many a winter outside the truck, wading through the mud.

Choreographed Chaos

Depending on the size of the rig, the rig-moving crew can be anywhere from six to a dozen trucks strong. All the gear is hauled in to the lease, the site where the drilling is to be done, and set up by the crew. They don't run the rig once it's up, they just move on to the next job. The area around the site is supposed to have been cleared and graded by a prep crew, but that's not always the case. The rig movers often have to get pretty creative in doing their jobs.

The first item on the set-up agenda is the matting: 40-ft long by 8-ft wide fabricated steel and wood slabs that form a stable base for the rest of the rig. The matting is lifted off the highboy trailers by the picker trucks, which are mobile cranes mounted on flat-deck trucks, then arranged around the drill hole. The sub, or substructure building, which contains parts, tools, and operating gear for the rig, is then dragged into place above the drill hole.

One interesting thing about rig moving is that all the buildings, storage tanks and what have you, have skids on the bottom so that they can be dragged on and off the back of a trailer and through the mud with relative ease. Once the sub is in place, with the mud tanks and whatever else forms the substructure, the work gets really interesting.

As you can see, there's occasionally a little lifting involved. The truck on the left, with it's gin poles extended, must lift the truck hauling the draw-works so that its bed is level with the top of the sub. This makes it easier to winch that heavy assembly into place. The draw-works contains all the winches, motors, and power equipment required by the drilling apparatus. Depending on the site, it's not always practical to use mud ramps, as seen in this photo. In that case, two pole trucks positioned beside the sub will lift the draw-works off the bed truck, while a third pole truck positioned at the other end of the sub pulls the unit into place. The whole effort takes a great deal of choreography, co-operation, communication and teamwork.

The last piece to go up is the derrick. Depending on the size of the rig, the derricks are often trucked onto the lease in a single piece. If the derrick is long enough, the rig movers will use two bed trucks rather than an over-length trailer because the bush roads demand extra power and maneuverability. One truck has to make the trip in from the road pushing in reverse while the other pulls from the front. When was the last time you had to back in a 20-mile long driveway?

Once the derrick is in place and pinned down at one side, the winch trucks hook onto the derrick and tip it up. But because of the weight, it often takes another truck, or a Cat or two, to hold the winch trucks in place.

The one chap who's responsible for this dance with the devil is called a truck push. Generally he has put in his time as a swamper, a gin-poler and a bed truck operator, and knows the rig installation process like he knows how to pull on his pants. He's a combination of trucker, engineer, foreman, dreamer and leader of some of the roughest, toughest guys to ever jam a gear. He makes all the calls, and takes the heat if he's wrong.

Mud & Blood.

One of the best in the business is Tony Lalabertie of Mullen Trucking in Aldersyde, Alta.. He's been moving rigs for more than three decades, and he's seen a lot of changes over the years.

"Mostly, it's the rigs," he says. "They keep getting bigger, and the mud keeps getting deeper." The trucks are as big as allowed by law, but the rigs get bigger and bigger. Lalabertie says that they do more of the large jobs in the winter when they get a 10% allowance on the truck weights. "The ground is frozen then too, making the trip into the lease a little easier. But that doesn't mean the job gets any neater."

It's pretty easy to get hurt on a job like this, but Lalabertie stresses that the companies take safety a lot more seriously today than they once did.

"There's a lot of equipment moving around out there. There's cables and chains everywhere and the whole thing can be waist deep in mud at times," he says. "It's a job that demands your complete attention, and a lot of faith and trust in the guys you work with."

In contrast to the solitary nature of most driving jobs, rig moving really is an exercise in teamwork. There's friction from time to time, obviously, but the fellows we spoke with in Grimshaw are as tight a bunch as you're likely to find. They joke and carouse as much as anybody, but when they're on the clock, it's business all the way. I also noticed a sense of camaraderie you don't often see in other vocations. These guys will go through hell for one of their own, no matter whose name is on the door. It must be a nice feeling to know you're never alone, even when you're 500 miles north of nowhere.

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