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Early Days of Seismic Field Operations
In Western Canada
About Bob Rintoul
Gordon Robert (Bob) Rintoul was born in Calgary in 1930 and completed his education in this city, graduating from Central Collegiate High School. Bob initially worked for Safeway but in 1950 joined the oil exploration industry where he was primarily involved in the geophysical field, where he attained the position of Party Manager, and also in slim hole exploration. In 1957 he joined the explosives industry and in 1967 started his own explosives distribution business - Ace Explosives Limited. Ace distributed in Western Canada and the Territories for Canadian Industries Limited (CIL) and subsequently for Dupont of Canada Ltd. His employees bought him out in 1984 at which time he retired. Bob has been active in business and professional organizations related to his work and in the community where he has been involved with the Calgary Flames. He is also a noted philanthropist and a member of the 2007-2008 Board of the Petroleum History Society.
First of all I would like to advise, this is not a scientific paper but one which gives us a first hand look at the trials and tribulations of personnel, equipment and living conditions during the early years (post 1947 - 1957) of seismic exploration in western Canada.
The first seismic operations in Canada were torsion bar and gravity meter. We will look at shot hole seismic, primarily reflection. On occasion refractive shooting was also employed.
To refresh our memories - the early shot hole seismic operations consisted of a surveyor and rod man flagging in shot hole points every ¼ mile and geophone intervals every 110’, then surveying the elevation and horizontal readings which were noted. The government provided vertical elevations at all railway crossings. Benchmarks were provided by the federal government on the borders of provinces. Horizontal locations were determined by federal government topographical maps. Then the drills would drill a shot hole (any where from 60 to 300 feet deep) every quarter of a mile. The reel truck crew would lay out a cable a ¼ mile on either side of the shot hole (a large power driven drum on the back of the truck facilitated the laying out and picking up of the cable). The reel operator also dropped off the geophones at the required intervals. The jug hustlers attached the geophones to the cable, one every 110’ and two every 55’, in other words 3 phones per trace for a total of 24 traces. The shooter loaded the shot hole with up to 100 pounds of explosives and detonated the charge. The shock waves generated by the explosives energy were picked up by the geophones, connected and transmitted by the cable to the instrument truck where the results were recorded on a strip of paper to be analyzed by geophysical interpreters. After the first hole was shot and recorded the back cable and geophones were picked up and laid beyond the next shot hole and so on.
A seismic field crew consisted of party chief (usually doubling as the interpreter). If there was no interpretation on the crew then a party manager ran the crew: a surveyor and rod man; an operator; a junior operator; a shooter and helper; two to four ‘jug hustlers’; a reel truck driver and reel man; 2 to 3 rotary drills complete with a driller, roughneck and water truck driver, an interpreter and a couple of assistants. Usually the interpreter group was located in the nearest major centre to facilitate communication with head office and the oil company geophysical supervisor.
The first shot hole seismic crew was employed in Canada sometime during the 1930’s. Seismic exploration was very sketchy in Canada up until the late 1940’s but really boomed after the Leduc find.
Up until the late ‘40’s seismic crews would be deployed to Canada from the United States. They only worked in the summer. Some were oil company crews and others were contractors such as Heiland Exploration and Geophysical Services.
After the Leduc ‘find’ seismic exploration really blossomed in primarily western Canada. At one time during the middle ‘50’s there were approximately 175 crews operating in western Canada. In most cases the crews would work the prairies and foothills during the summer and decamp for far northern regions after the muskeg froze over - usually from late November until early January depending on the year. The work in the north subsided late March to mid April as the muskeg started to thaw and before the highways to the south were hit by road bans.
Seismic exploration from the late ‘40’s to the early ‘70’s was a much different operation than it is today. In those days nobody gave a second thought about leaving their family for up to four months at a time. The working conditions were very different than today. Work was carried on in all weather conditions in temperatures as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit. The provincial governments and employees would not condone those work conditions today.
During road ban of 1950 I contacted a few seismic contractors and was hired by Northwest Seismic Surveys at $150 per month. Northwest were repairing and outfitting equipment in rented facilities in Calgary. I worked for a few days at that location and was sent to Edmonton with a senior and one other employee to prepare newly purchased ‘Simplex cables’, the latest innovation, for work in the field. The prior cables were made up of individual wires taped together. The new model had the wires encased in a cold weather resistant solid rubber cover. I was advised many times that they were very expensive, $1800 each so don’t screw up. We spent a week in Edmonton making the necessary connections approximately every 55’, single outlets at 110’ and double outlets at the 55’ interval.
Each day we drove out to the Carter Oil lab (a division of Esso) in west Edmonton - we had to wind our way on a dirt trail through the bush to where the current 148th street is located. The lab had the necessary equipment which was attached to both ends of the cable to allow us to fabricate the proper outlets (commonly known as pig tails) in the proper order. It took us a week to complete the job and we carried on to Bashaw with our new cables for a contract with Imperial Oil. The life as a ‘doodlebugger’ was all new to me and I loved it. I was fortunate to start one leg up on a ‘jug hustler’ and was the reel man laying out the cable and dropping off the geophones at the proper intervals (these geophones weighed about a pound a piece - in the early days they weighed up to 10# - later on after the 70’s they weighed as little as ¼ of a #) . We were digging 60’ shot holes and detonating 5# charges of dynamite. We were shooting between 15 and 20 holes per day covering about 5 miles. On some occasions due to the wind noise the geophones were buried.
The recording truck was equipped with the instruments and developing pots - in those days and up to about 1957 the ‘wiggly lines’ were recorded onto film paper and developed after each shot. We worked as long a days as possible as our monthly quota was 220 hours. The recording operator was the determining factor in the length of days we worked depending on his plans for time off.
After the day's shooting and back in town - the records were hung up to dry and any repairs to equipment were attended to. It was then off to the beer parlor. We would pull a few round tables together (you remember - the ones with towel like material covers ) and proceeded to drink as much beer as possible (10 cents a glass). At that time the Alberta government required the beer parlors to shut down for one hour from 6 to 7 so the married drinkers could go home and have dinner with their families. We would leave whatever beer we hadn’t consumed on the table and after dinner would return to continue drinking. The beer parlors closed at 11 pm and we usually bought some extra beer to continue the party. The day to day work continued until we had completed our hours for the month and the equipment was repaired. The crew then departed until the next month.
In June Imperial Oil provided us with a new assignment - a summer’s contract at Fort Vermilion.
The reel and shooting truck hauling the explosives magazine were the advance group traveling to our next assignment. We were advised that the camp was situated 2 ½ miles beyond Fort Vermilion. We drove straight through from Bashaw to Peace River town alternately driving and cat napping in the truck. The only road north in those days was from Edmonton on Highway 2 to the end of pavement at Clyde - west on Highway 18 to Westlock and north on Highway 44 to Smith. At that point we rejoined Highway 2 to Slave Lake, skirting the southern edge of Lesser Slave Lake to High Prairie and on to Peace River town; across the Peace River to Grimshaw (the start of the Mackenzie Highway), Manning and on to High Level.
We refueled in the town of Slave Lake which consisted of a hotel, grocery store and a gas station (now it is a thriving community of 6700 souls). After traveling a few miles the pick up quit. We were hauled back to the gas station and found our tank was full of, not gas but water. Apparently independent tanker trucks would deliver gas at a cheaper rate - this one sold the unfortunate gas station owner a tank truck full of water. After a few hours to remove the gas tank, clean, replace and refuel we were on our way. One of the vagaries of working in the north in those early years.
We stayed in Peace River overnight and started up the Mackenzie Highway (completed in 1949 ) with an 18 ‘ wide top and covered with Texas pea gravel (you know - small boulders ). The road from Grimshaw to Hotchkiss prior to the construction of the Mackenzie Highway consisted of a county road, impassable in rainy weather and difficult in the winter. The cat trail from there to Hay River prior to 1949 was only passable in the winter using caterpillar tractor “cat trains” which supplied points such as Indian Cabins, Hay River and Yellowknife. Summer travel was not an option and supplies for Fort Vermilion were by boat down the Peace River. We arrived at High Level which was uninhabited.
The mosquitos and black flies were unbelievable - clouds of them and they were hungry for new blood.
A questionable “road” (more like a cat trail) proceeded east to Fort Vermilion. Using the winch on the shooting truck it took us 12 hours to arrive at the ferry cable across the Peace River some 48 miles in distance. We arrived at 2 am and it was still light. The ferry came across the river at 8 am and we all piled into the reel truck and crossed the river. After being apprised of the fact there was not an oil camp nearby we recrossed the Peace and after another 12 hours we arrived back at High Level and continued north on the Mackenzie and found our camp 2 ½ miles north of the Fort Vermilion - High Level junction.
The camp was set up for both a big rig and our seismic crews - in those days big rig service company personnel remained at remote locations until the completion of a well or their services were no longer required. Our camp grew to nearly 60 people and for entertainment we set up ball diamonds and had inter crew competition.
We were the contact point for an Imperial company seismic crew working northwest of us in the Caribou Mountains. The two way radio power in those days were about 2 ½ watts and reception was sporadic. This was one of the first portable crews using horses, drilling shot holes with hand augers. Most of the crew were university graduates and one in particular had a masters in physics. They worked continuously until October when the crew was disbanded. I was in Peace River when they finally came out and had the opportunity to talk to the Masters graduate. He said “I’m doing this kind of work with a Masters !!!! I’m going for my doctorate. He did and IOL shipped him off to Venezuela. Typical of the early days.
We moved the camp half way through the summer to Rocky Lane just north and a little west of the Peace River ferry crossing. It rained a lot that summer and we were mired down in mud most of the time. Head office finally sent us a couple of power wagons but they weren’t the entire answer. The recording truck caught one of our new $1800 cables in the dual wheels and severed it in about three places. We spent the entire night repairing the cable and without sleep were on the job the next day.
An extremely large forest fire crossed the Mackenzie Highway about 80 miles south of us and we were unable to get supplies from Peace River town as they closed the highway. The Mountie from Fort. Vermilion provided our essential supplies on his return trips from Peace River. The fire raged most of the summer and for two weeks we did not see the sun. The fallen ash was ankle deep and the smoke carried by the prevailing winds caused the London, England airport to shut down for a number of days. Quite an experience for us - the Mountie enforced a no smoking ban in our camp and work area - we all started chewing tobacco - and with one 48 ounce juice can as the receptacle for unwanted tobacco juice in each 4 man sleeper trailer - it wasn’t a pretty sight.
We worked monthly shifts - 20 days in and 10 days out. We returned to civilization in two power wagons - some 10 men each - we rigged a canvas over the box of the trucks and took turns riding in the cab. We were some sight when we hit Edmonton - dust covered but glad to have some time off.
We completed that contract in October and moved to Camrose. I was promoted to rod man. We covered an area from Pigeon Lake to near the Saskatchewan border so we had lots of traveling. In those days the rolls of survey flagging were made of crepe paper and you always had a supply in a bucket of water to soften the paper. This made it pliable enough to tie. You can imagine the condition of the hands of the rod man after flagging 10 miles on a -25 degree day.
Some years later it was announced that carbon tetrachloride was carcinogenic. We used this fluid to clean our survey instrument known as an alidade. Carbon tet was the liquid in portable fire extinguishers - you may remember them - they were made of brass and were about the size of large coffee vacuum bottle. I remember many an evening cleaning the survey instrument with carbon tet in our vent less office in the basement of the Alice Hotel !!!!!!!!!
The early part of December we moved to our next contract at Hondo, Alberta. Hondo is just south of Smith on Highway 44. IOL had run out of camps so they contracted an Northern Alberta Railway work crew camp for us. This consisted of two 12 man bunk railway cars, a cook car and a water tender. When we arrived at the camp site the cars were infested with bed bugs so we fumigated and white washed the inside of the cars as the walls were filthy dirty. When we returned them to the NAR the following spring they complained to IOL that we had whitewashed the walls !!!!!!!!!!!
There was no wash house and our sole source of water was a large steel drum complete with a log floating on the surface so it wouldn’t slop too much when the NAR moved us to Smith to allow a through freight to pass. One small basin and a mirror were our washing facilities - rather hectic when 12 men carried out their morning ablutions.
Our heat was supplied by coal fired metal stoves - a person was hired to keep the fires stoked day & night. Our lighting was coal oil or high test gas lamps.
That was quite a winter 1950-51. The snow was extremely deep and the temperature hovered around -25°F, sometimes plummeting to the minus ‘40’s with constant winds. We worked primarily between Highway 44 and Highway 2 north of Athabasca where the terrain consisted of burnt out forests and open muskeg. The drills were equipped with 9” cylinder pumps for drill mud circulation and would freeze up before we could move from one shot hole to the next. The solution was to leave the mast in the upright position and continue circulation of the pumps. Due to very rough dozed seismic trails this was a slow process.
That spring we moved back to Camrose and I worked there until July when I was transferred to a slim hole crew (that's another story). While slim holing I was married in November 1951. In February 1952 I was transferred to one of the first track driven portable bush crews. I flew to Peace River (my first flight) in a Ford tri motor plane complete with web bucket seats. That winter there were 58 crews being supplied out of Peace River.
The crew was located about 75 miles by bush trail west of Keg River in the Chinchaga area. The equipment consisted of the recording unit - a bunk house and the dining unit on skid mounted Athey wagons pulled by D2 caterpillar tractors. The crew moved 2 or 3 times a week. There were two auger drills mounted on D4 cats. The drills were converted Boyles Brothers mining drills. The survey transportation was a Fordson tractor with a tracked third bogey wheel. This unit would roll over backward if attempting to climb too steep a hill. Our crew consisted of an operator, 2 jug hustlers, a shooter, a surveyor and rod man, 2 drillers, a camp cook and helper who also substituted as camp attendant.
Our food was air dropped but we had the best of the best. Steaks, ice cream, fresh frozen strawberries etc. I was transferred to this crew because the surveyor and rod man had quit. The management at Northwest had an inkling that there may be a survey bust. IOL had indicated they were contemplating drilling on an anomaly located in the survey area. I started a resurvey of control lines and found the bust. It was pretty obvious - on a long control line we arrived at a hill which dropped into a valley and rose up the other side about 2 miles away. The previous surveyor never carried his vertical readings up the other side but continued to decline. We contacted IOL after I had tied all the control lines and the intended deep hole was canceled.
This was a very difficult camp to live in as there was nothing to do after work but read. One of our crew members went a little hay wire, throwing knives etc. So we had to ship him out.
We didn’t receive orders to leave for Calgary until April 15th. Most of the equipment remained in camp except for our conveyance to the Mackenzie Highway which was the recording unit on the Athey wagon pulled by a D2 cat. We had many close calls as some part of the unit would break through the thawing muskeg. Fortunately we had shot a line east to within 5 miles of the highway.
The summer of 1952 I traveled Alberta developing surveyors and rod men. At the time Northwest had 15 seismic shot hole and slim hole crews. The winter of 1952-’53 we left Calgary on Boxing Day to a new contract with Northern Foothills Agreement which was a consortium of Texaco, Shell and Gulf who had a large block of land along the BC - Alberta border.
We arrived in Dawson Creek on December 29th and were advised we couldn’t continue to our camp site as the tractors dozing out the trails were sinking into the muskeg. After a week cold weather firmed up the muskeg. This was a large crew with the same personnel as noted in the early part of this paper with the addition of a garage, mechanic and helper; a cook and helper and a camp attendant. We also had a very large power plant to provide electricity. Our camp was located north east of Charlie Lake very close to the BC - Alberta border.
This was an extremely cold winter with temperatures dipping to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. We worked every day!!!!! Our trucks were V8 Fords and when we returned from the field we plugged two block heaters to each truck, one for each bank of 4 cylinders. We could start the vehicles in the morning but couldn’t move them. We had to thaw out the grease in the wheel bearings with blow torches. Even the heating oil used to heat the bunk houses froze.
I was the surveyor and you can imagine the difficulty operating the survey instrument with bare hands. My wife knit and sent up a pair of mittens with the tips of the fingers cut out. The party manager, a friend of our president had no seismic experience whatsoever, so for all intents and purposes I ran the crew and was one of a few on the crew with previous bush experience.
We broke camp near the end of March and headed back to Calgary with the equipment. We traveled the shortest route possible which required a crossing of the mighty Peace River. The Dunvegan bridge, had not been built so we crossed on the ice, the water was running over the surface. It was a scary moment.
In the spring of 1953 our crew was sent to Assiniboia, Saskatchewan 70 miles south of Moose Jaw for a three year contract with Mobil Oil. Mobil located a regional office in Regina and we set up an interpretation office in the same city.
My family stayed with Nola’s mother in Moose Jaw. Money was at a premium. Accommodation was really tight in Calgary so we retained our rented suite in at $75.00 per month - we were paying my mother in law $40.00 per month for Nola and the baby’s keep. I believe I was making about $225.00 a month as a surveyor. I found a room that cost me $ 35.00 per month and ate at the local Chinese cafe. Breakfast and a bagged lunch bent the budget. For dinner I would purchase a bowl of soup - Chinese cafes in the early ‘50’s would include a basket of crackers and a block of butter. - I would make a mound of butter and dish the centre which I filled with ketchup and that was my evening meal. It didn’t take the owner very long to smarten up and thereafter the soup was served with 4 crackers and 1 pat of butter. This required a hunt for board and I found a place that supplied 3 meals a day for $40.00 per month. All went well until one day I opened my lunch bag to tomato soup between 2 pieces of bread. After some consultation with the lady of the house this practice was discontinued.
The drillers had an understanding among themselves - only so many holes drilled per day. The three drills, 2 company and one contract, were drilling only 6 to 9 holes per day and there was lots of room for improvement. We had the same inept party manager from our winter operation.
In June they transferred the party manager to Calgary and I was promoted to his position. I received a substantial increase in salary which made our family life a little easier. I was 23 years old - my first duty was to up the drilling production. I advised the drillers that I was aware of their union and if we didn’t improve production we would lose our contract with Mobil Oil. They didn’t take me seriously and I sent the most inept driller, crew and company drill back to Calgary - I hired a contract rig from Hussein Shibley in Radville and advised the driller if he was the top producer they got to keep their contract. Our daily drill production rose to 16 to 18 holes and from that point on we were one of the top producing crews for Mobil.
Each month during the summer and fall, when we completed our 220 hours I would pile the family and our dog into the pick up and travel to Calgary to clear up monthly reports with the head office. Highway #1 (now known as the Trans Canada) from Moose Jaw to Calgary was mostly gravel with a little hard top near Swift Current and Medicine Hat. There was no highway grade from Suffield to Tilley. It was necessary to take Highway #3 through Lethbridge and Fort MacLeod to complete the trip to Calgary. During the winter months Highway #1 was usually snow bound so I took the train to Calgary. On one of these summer trips I borrowed some money from an uncle and purchased a 28’ trailer so I could move my family from Moose Jaw to Assiniboia.
Normally crews worked the prairies in the summer and the bush in the winter - in our case we worked year round on the prairies which provided us with many unusual situations. During the winter of 1953 - 1954 we were working a prospect southwest of Rockglen near the badlands close to the U.S. border. In that area the ranchers and farmers during October stockpiled their supplies for the winter. The county never ploughed their roads and the farm & ranch houses were miles apart. We moved into the prospect in February and opened the roads for the locals.
Our operator was ill and I took his place on the crew - about 2 in the afternoon these ugly clouds started to form in the west and I sent word up to the drills to finish whatever hole they were on and head for home. Before we could pick up the cables and phones one of the most severe blizzards I have experienced enveloped the crew. The drill crews were long gone by then. I had to have a crew member walk in front of the recording truck to define the edge of the road. We made it to a farm house and were holed up for two days. Fortunately the farmer had been able to get out to replenish his supplies when we opened up the roads. We had the recording and shooting crew of seven and a dozer operator holed up in the farmer’s home. About 10 pm that night we heard a faint knock on the door and it was one of our water truck drivers who had not made it to the highway. His truck was bogged down in a drift and he had crawled 2 ½ miles hand over hand following a barbed wire fence back to the farm.
I replaced the food supplies for the farmer and gave him another $200 for his poker losses to the crew. He wouldn’t take any other compensation.
We were caught in another blizzard east of Assiniboia but it was only overnight and we had communication with headquarters.
We moved the crew to Willow Bunch, 35 miles south east of Assiniboia for a short job. The residents except students spoke French only. This necessitated my wife shopping after school so she could communicate with the student help.
In the spring of 1955 , during road ban we moved the crew to Bromhead, located near the U.S. border south east of Regina. Mobil had a farm out from Central Leduc who wanted to drill an anomaly and Mobil didn’t. Road bans had not been declared in the county where the prospect was located. Bromhead was so small we doubled the population when we moved into the community. It was a hot shot all expenses paid job. The crew resided and ate at the hotel.
Finally road ban was declared and I had a crew of antsy young men whose only off work occupation was trying to drink the bar dry. After consultation with the owner of the hotel, he suggested we take a few cases of beer and a couple 26’s of rye and visit each councilor. We visited the councilors and by 2 am we had consent to go back to work.
We completed our contract with Mobil during the summer of 1955 and moved the crew back to Calgary where we finalized three year’s reports. We had an interpreter who unbeknownst to me was an alcoholic. I finished my reports and gave them to him to add to his final reports. I received a call from Gordon Gibson, Mobil Oil’s geophysical supervisor asking about the reports. I finally located the interpreter in a seedy east Calgary hotel in a severe state of inebriation. Jim insisted he had delivered the final report to Gibson.
Jim lived at Regina Beach and I drove out and talked to his wife - she noted that there may be some papers in and old trunk. On opening this old musty trunk there were the reports complete and in good order - three years of work !!!!!!! Many sighs of relief.
The summer of 1955 was one of many down turns in seismic exploration - I ended up taking crews out with as many as three and four party managers who performed duties such as operators, surveyors, shooters etc. These were very short term contracts.
That summer I also worked on one of the first water well injection jobs in Turner Valley but that’s a story for another time.
In October 1955 Northwest were successful in securing a contract with Home Oil in the Bashaw area. It developed into an interesting program as it was one of the first experimental multiple hole shot point methods of shooting seismic. The theory was if you dug multiple holes at one location (up to 30) to a shallow depth and detonated small charges you may be able to increase the energy as opposed to single deeper holes with large dynamite charges.
In February of 1956 I was transferred to a slim hole crew in Jamaica, again that's a story for another time.
I returned from Jamaica in august of 1956 and Northwest had been sold to employees Frank Hickey and Andy Anderson. The reorganized company was called Hasco.
Jack Macmillan president and owner of the former company kept the tool push on our Jamaica crew and myself on his personal payroll for the next three months. There was a potential contract in Guatemala and Jack was retaining us as the core of that crew. However the contract didn’t materialize so Luther and I secured a contract for slim hole work near Camrose but again that's a story for another time.
In October 1956 Accurate Exploration had been awarded a contract with Imperial Oil for three crews for three years to explore an area between Whitecourt and Fox Creek. They had only one party manager with bush experience and somebody suggested they contact me.
I was hired to take the first crew to the field but before that happened they charged me with the job of finding adequate office space in Edmonton to headquarter the administration and interpretation.
Our first location was on the south side of the Iosegun River valley. Imperial had purchased one of the very first sets of analog recording equipment which caused no end of grief due to debugging etc.
A sad situation happened on this crew. Our rod man was shot and killed by a frustrated elk hunter. This was a very traumatic experience for the entire crew. I was summoned as a witness at this chap’s trial - he was well over 60 at the time and I am certain he relived that moment many times for the rest of his life. He was acquitted on the grounds that after two weeks of hunting without success it was possible to mistake a yellow truck with only the top of a yellow cab visible, as an elk at a ½ mile.
In March 1957 I was offered a job with Continental Explosives as sales manager. Continental was purchased by Explosives Limited that fall and I continued with them until 1967 when I formed Ace Explosives. My employees purchased that company in 1984. I have been retired since that date
For a more scientific look at the geophysical industry I would recommend you read “Traces Through Time” by David Finch.
Also Allan Anderson who wrote “Roughnecks and Wildcatters” has a number of tales from my wife's' and my days in the seismic industry.
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