Allford: Innovation keeps rolling in Alberta

A decommissioned pump jack in Alberta. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

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I had a surprisingly emotional drive to Edmonton a few weeks ago. No, I wasn’t dreading spending time in Deadmonton. And no, I didn’t pack my good sweatpants to wear out to dinner. I was heading to my hometown to see old friends, watch the Oilers win a game (sorry, Calgary) and bring my elderly aunt an order of steak and frites; medium and hold the arugula.

The sun was shining, the roads were clear and the traffic sparse as I started driving north. Sticklers and newcomers to Alberta call it the Queen Elizabeth II Highway. At least one local radio personality insists on calling it the Number Two, adding, perhaps, a little editorial comment with every traffic report. But to this born-and-raised Albertan, it will always be Highway Two. And I know it almost as well as the back of my hand.

As well as taking in favourite landmarks — like the back-to-back coulees carved into the eastern landscape north of Calgary — I counted three dead deer in the ditch, two anti-choice signs and one big ole’ “I heart oil and gas” billboard. I saw a dozen or so pumpjacks but couldn’t even begin to count all the black rail cars loaded with bitumen on their way to refineries in B.C. and Texas. I wondered whether it was artists in B.C., Texas or somewhere in between that painted the grain and other rail cars with their colourful signatures. Railways probably detest the graffiti but I love it. I always think of tagged-up rail cars as a travelling art show.

I turned west to check out the vistas on the back roads up to and through Sylvan Lake. I love that stretch of highway just south of Innisfail. Years ago, I slowed the car to a crawl as I watched a massive beast — a feral horse? — run toward me through the green of a farmer’s field. I sat agog behind the wheel as a giant moose ripped across the road maybe 10 metres in front of me. If you’re going to see a moose on the highway, that’s the way the way to do it.

A little further on, hay bales dusted with snow were glinting in the sun, flashing me back to the afternoon we pulled over on the quiet road, the kids snug in their car seats, so their dad could snap a few pictures of the early autumn landscape. An artist, he made a lovely little print of those hay bales and every time I see it, I am back in the car that day with our happy little family.

Heading back east on Blackfalds Road, I crossed over the Blindman River and could almost hear my father, a pioneer of the dad joke, asking “Why do they call it the Blindman River?” (Because, d’oh, a blind man saw it first). I wonder what crack he’d come up with about the sign for the new Blindman Brewery in Lacombe. One of these days when I’m not the designated (and only) driver, I’ll drop by and toast my late pops with a pint of Blindman River Session Ale.

Back on Highway Two, I passed a truck hauling giant sections of pipe somewhere for some such thing and was reminded of the days you’d see entire convoys taking huge, industrial-looking bits and bobs to the oilsands. There are fewer of those trucks rolling north now and way more pieces of equipment locked behind chain-linked fences up and down the highway.

But I am curious to see what other incredible feats of engineering this highway will see in the coming years. What other bits and bobs will breakthrough as we keep exploring how best to power our lives — innovations like reducing the amount of carbon it takes to produce a barrel of bitumen, upcycling carbon nanoparticles to create coatings for solar panels and getting hydrogen out of existing reservoirs with zero emissions and unlimited potential.

It’s easy to take a drive down memory lane and get wistful looking back at the ups and downs, booms and busts. It takes a little more imagination to look ahead and envision how we want things to be down the road. The future is coming. 2020 is just weeks away. 2030 will roll in five minutes after that.

As I parked in downtown Edmonton, not far from where huge rail yards once lay, I wondered what people thought when coal-fired steam engines first rumbled across the prairies. The trains transformed lives and created huge opportunity while also simultaneously killing the once-thriving business model for long-distance ox cart drivers.

Innovation and ingenuity are still rolling in Alberta. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes, improvements and opportunities will come along for the ride.