On any given morning in the corner of our local early morning breakfast hangout at Humpty’s in Fort St. John, you will find the pioneers of the industry.
Orders of bacon and eggs are whisked out by the servers in amongst the outpouring of laughter. A steady stream of coffee runs deep with the barrage of stories, swapping tales of ole from back in the day.
Many have grey hair or no hair at all; the wrinkles and scars on their faces are signs they’ve weathered the test of time. A time when the oil and gas areas were wildcat holes and simply dreams for investors. No high-grade roads, no luxuries, just boundless mud, hours in the seat and, with any luck, enough cigarettes to get you back to town.
Coffee Row, as some like to call it, is a place where the trailblazers of years gone by talk of simpler times, where the nights were cold and seemingly endless, but you did what you had to do to get the job done. Four hundred hours in a truck or two days without sleep wasn’t uncommon and the running joke of safety was “nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.”
Look down the row and you’ll see cat skinners who broke ground on some of the first leases in Peejay and Ring Boarder; truckers who hauled the first loads into newly developed oil and gas fields on the Sierra by Fort Nelson.
One thing is for sure: They all knew what the 90 days of hell were. The first three months of the year when winter bares down on the Peace and time was running out to finish drilling programs and completions on the frozen ground. After that, the temperature started to rise and mud season would begin, and the dreaded break-up would be in full force.
Some made millions, some a decent living, and some lost it all — it all depended on the risks you took, the work you got, and a little luck to get you through break-up. There have been millionaires made in this region, and many more who only get out with the clothes on their back.
The pioneers understood this, and doubled down, buying more equipment, getting workers, spooling up for the next job. One more pipeline, one more rig move was all it took to get you to the next level.
They’re all at the end of their careers now at Coffee Row, riding motorcycles in the sunshine, wintering in Arizona and playing with their grandkids.
The next time you’re walking through a coffee shop and hear a ruckus in the corner, a table of grey hairs — or experience, they like to call it — it just might be the pioneers on Coffee Row.
Chuck Fowler lives and works in Fort St. John.