- BC Games
Cover Story: Odd jobs
Elaine Joy Carlin spends eight minutes with up to 100 people in a 300-square-foot steel box suspended high above a forest of trees — 32 times a day.
“You are bound to hear people’s stories,” she says.
Carlin is one of approximately 10 Grouse Mountain employees who helm a Super Skyride, also known as an aerial tramway, but definitely not a gondola. There is a distinction.
“I had no qualms with confusing the two,” says the Kalamazoo, Mich. native.
Hailing from an area where the tallest mountain is 2,000 feet about sea level — Grouse’s peak is double that altitude — Carlin didn’t have a lot of experience with heights.
Part of her training involved lowering herself through a small hatch on the Skyride and rappelling 50 feet into the darkness down to the parking lot below. This passenger evacuation system, in the 47-year history of aerial tramways at Grouse Mountain, has never been deployed.
Carlin also had to climb a narrow ladder on top of the Blue Skyride, while carrying a hefty wrench, to reach a pizza box-sized platform. Once she reached her precarious perch she practised resetting the Skyride’s emergency brake.
“If I am on the ledge really high up, of course I will have the instinctual fear of heights,” concedes Carlin.
Because the Skyrides are governed by the Ministry of Transportation, each operator has to pass a written test demonstrating superior knowledge of both aerial tramway systems at the mountain.
Over the course of a week, these employees are also trained in radio communication, customer service and Grouse Mountain products. And they must memorize a three-minute speech highlighting the scenery and mountaintop activities.
“I remember being a little nervous,” says 22-year-old Carlin of the first time she gave a speech on a packed Skyride.
One obvious perk of the job are the unparalleled views of the Lower Mainland and across to Vancouver Island. After 10 p.m. each night, operators take in the twinkling lights of the big city while riding solo to the top of the mountain to bring down the remaining guests.
“I get a lot of reading done during that time,” says Carlin.
Other perks include unlimited skiing and celebrity sightings. Carlin encountered the stars of the TV show Psych on her Skyride.
“I was kind of giving them too many looks; I think they knew I knew,” she laughs.
An unwritten employee rite of passage is conquering the Grouse Grind. Carlin’s current personal record climbing the 2.9-km grueling hike is 59:07.
“Well it’s just a giant staircase. And while it was a physical struggle, it was more of a mental struggle,” she describes.
Carlin will get to spend one winter on the mountain before her work visa expires — and for that she’s grateful.
“For now I’d just like to be outdoors.”
Passengers aboard the Queen of Surrey queue for B.C. burgers and kids chase each other outside on the top deck — it’s a typical, bustling Friday evening scene on the ferry in the summer.
“People don’t have a clue what goes on below the main car deck,” says Girija Emery, clambering down the steep ship’s ladder.
Emery, one of three female marine engineers working for B.C. Ferries, is taking The Outlook into the heartbeat of the ferry — the engine room.
Entering the first compartment you are immediately overwhelmed by a giant panel of endless dials, buttons and gauges — at the center of it all, a large digital clock.
Randomly, a loud and penetrating alarm will sound, the ship’s chief and first engineer poised to press a button or answer a call from the bridge.
It’s 9:30 p.m. and there’s a shift change underway down below the ship. Emery is just beginning her second-to-last graveyard shift in a 12-day-on, six-day-off schedule.
She moves into an adjacent room where there is a kitchen, an eating area, lockers and a bathroom with shower facilities.
Wearing a sleeveless black shirt, yoga pants and her hair in two braids, Emery opens her locker. Two photos taped up inside are revealed: one is of Emery’s husband, who, wearing a cowboy hat, easily passes for a country music star — and the other is from her skiing expedition in Rogers Pass.
Emery throws on a pair of white coveralls over her clothes and slips three tools into her pockets: a multi-wrench, an adjustable spanner and a cutting tool. Now it’s time to head into the main engine room so she can do her rounds.
A loud pulsating siren is activated as the steel, watertight marine door opens — a prelude to the unrelenting roar of the twin 5,900-horsepower engines. Fresh air forced through overhead vents offers a small reprieve in the stifling conditions.
Down here, all five senses are working overtime. If a pipe bursts, Emery is tasting that water to see if it’s coming from the freshwater or saltwater system.
She sprints up and down ladders in the cavernous engine room — about half the length of the car deck above — checking dipsticks, inspecting dials and turning valves, essentially looking for anything out of the ordinary. You wouldn’t expect anything less from the daughter of an Olympic distance runner.
Marine engineering is also in Emery’s DNA. Her grandfather was a Vancouver harbourmaster, and a captain on one of the last tall ships to ply B.C. waters.
She came to this career late in life. At 46 years old, Emery sought out the marine engineering program at BCIT’s Marine Campus located near Lonsdale Quay. The median age of her male classmates was 25.
“It’s not that a person of age can’t adapt; I think I was unusual, in that I was energetic,” says Emery.
During the intense program — including sea time hours, it took five years for Emery to earn her marine engineer third class ticket — she flexed her mental muscles more than anything else. Emery studied a considerable amount of calculus and physics, alongside thermal dynamics, naval architecture and applied mechanics, among other courses.
“You have a ton of homework. You don’t breathe. The theory work is what separates the wheat from the chaff,” recalls Emery of her BCIT days.
Now 62 years old and a recent first-time grandmother, Emery turns to yoga and mediation to decompress from the demands of the job. She is also Local 19 president for the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union.
Emery, who says she has never experienced any gender bias in this career, wonders why there are so few female marine engineers.
“I think there is a positive influence that can be achieved by having women in a male-dominated industry.”
Derek Palmer knows farm animals never sleep in.
A veteran at Maplewood Farm in North Van, he arrives at the break of dawn to 200-plus animals who need to be fed, cleaned and shown a bit of love.
Palmer, head farmhand who has worked here for 30 years, has deep relationships with many of the animals, some of whom are getting up in age. Take Minnie the Shetland pony, for instance. She’s now the ripe old age of 40.
While waiting to get into a mechanics program, Palmer took a part-time job at Maplewood Farm when he was 18.
“At the time my dad worked for the [District of North Vancouver] and he mentioned there was a part-time job,” he says as the farm’s resident rooster cock-a-doodle-dos.
Starting out as a farm attendant, he is now a wealth of knowledge on the domestic animals who live on the five-acre farm.
Despite making the same rounds every day, Palmer — clad in the standard farm uniform of jean overalls and a white T-shirt — says the job never gets routine because it’s impossible to tell what the animals will have in store.
The chickens, for example, each have a unique personality. They “suntan” out in the open on warm days, causing people to mistake them for dead. In another part of the farm, a young donkey brays a load, harsh cry alongside the loud sirens of an ambulance.
As for Palmer’s favourite animal, it’s difficult to say. But Suzy, a brand new pony, is “the love of everybody.”
Maplewood Farm, an extension of the district’s park department, was visited by 103,000 people last year, many toting kids.
The staff describe it as a busy “hidden world” within an urban city.
Thirteen-year veteran Nadine Gibbon and newcomer Dominique Bulmer start work at 6:30 a.m., cleaning the stalls, milking the cows and feeding the goats, among countless other tasks.
“Well before I came here I worked with little kids in a rec centre, so I wanted to keep the kid factor and add the animal and outdoor factors,” says Gibbon.
The animals need numerous bags of food and even more water each day. Dairy cows, for example, drink 60 to 100 litres of water a day, while horses need half that amount.
Many of the animals live in a big barn to keep them protected and warm during the colder months.
“They spend all night resting and making a mess in here, doing what animals do,” says Palmer.
Most days are good and sure beat a desk job, he says. One exception is when dealing with a sick animal who may have become a long-time friend.
“I’ll retire from here,” says Palmer.
Armed with his hand-held GPS device, David Mudge is fighting West Vancouver’s knotweed infestation block by block.
Today he’s at Ambleside beach tracking a dense patch of Japanese knotweed along the seawall. Unbeknownst to passersby, the tall green weeds with heart-shaped leaves and green-white flowers can look like a purposely planted hedge.
But the alien plant can strangle native foliage, severely damage building foundations and is listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species by the World Conservation Union.
By the end of September, Mudge will have dozens of knotweed patches and other invasive plants mapped out so the district knows more precisely what it’s up against.
“Cutting actually encourages its growth,” warns Mudge, standing beside a stem that shoots more than six feet into the air. Instead, herbicide — in this case glyphosate — shot into the roots by a weed control company is the best defense.
A hearty plant that thrives in many kinds of soil, knotweed in Ambleside is quickly growing between the rocks on the seawall. It can grow one metre in only a month and underground stems can remain dormant in the soil for 20 years before producing new plants, according to an environmental agency in the U.K., where the “superweed” has become severe enough to affect the ability to get mortgages on dozens of houses.
“See over there, there’s another patch,” says Mudge pointing a stone’s throw away to another cluster of the alien species.
The large underground network of roots allows it to be transferred between sites relatively easily. So far, knotweed has been spotted throughout West Van, including Dundarave beach and along the highway.
Mudge’s maps will be a key resource for West Van’s invasive plants working group that will also look at lamium, which blooms bright-yellow flowers between April and June but acts as a dense blanket that smothers other species, and ivy, an enemy of native species that is also a favourite of gardeners looking for an old-world feel as it climbs up trees and houses.
As for private property, Mudge says, “We rely on people to tell us where it is. It’s important not to cut it and if you call the district we can tell you how to get rid of it.”
Tackling knotweed in West Van definitely isn’t easy, he says, but in the long run it will help native species thrive in the community.
The stout-looking 92-foot Seaspan Eagle tugboat is a 441-tonne workhorse with a pair of 5,000-horsepower Caterpillar engines that give it the necessary oomph to maneuver the mammoth tankers and container vessels that frequent the Port of Vancouver.
And while it might look like a marine brute, with just a few gentle toggles of his controllers, captain Mark Robson can make it pirouette with the grace of a Russian ballerina.
The tug is part precision, part power.
“They’re fun to run,” says Robson, leaving the dock from Seaspan’s North Van headquarters. “This is a state-of-the-art boat for tanker escorts. Within seconds we can change the direction of a ship.”
The tug, which purrs so quietly the engines are hard to hear, also boasts unobstructed visibility, with the captain perched nearly 40 feet above the water.
Robson’s shift began at 6 a.m. this morning, so it’s a good thing his early-morning work commute doesn’t take long; just up a couple of steep flights of stairs and into the skipper’s seat.
During his week-on shift he sleeps aboard the well-equipped tug.
He’s part of a crew that includes another captain, two deckhands and one engineer that are available 24/7 during their week-long shifts.
As Robson welcomes The Outlook aboard the impressive-looking vessel, the captain, whose got greying hair and a bushy goatee, notes with a touch of reverence that the vessel was designed by the marine architect firm Robert Allen LTD.
Robson’s first call from the dispatcher today was to meet a vessel outside the Lion’s Gate Bridge and guide it into the port for fuelling, he explains as he nimbly guides the tug through the harbour.
“I like being on the water,” he says.
Robson’s seat is situated between two banks of sophisticated-looking instrument panels. He points to the computerized chart program that gives real-time position of all the ships in the port.
“That’s the ship we brought in earlier,” he says, pointing to a bulk carrier moored on the other side of the harbour. “It doesn’t look that big but it is.”
With a click of his computer mouse he can bring up the ship’s name and other information about the vessel.
Robson began his ocean-going career in 1974 as a deckhand and made captain in 1986. He joined Seaspan in 1995.
And while he’s away from his family for a week at a time, when he was working on the B.C. coast he could be away for up to three weeks.
The tug crew is like a second family and rely on well-timed teamwork to get the job done.
“I like being out with the guys,” he says. “Great guys. You learn from all the guys here.”
Eagle’s other captain, Dane Hoyurp, is asleep below deck as Robson makes his way along the north side of the harbour past the Lonsdale Quay.
“You get used to it,” Robson says about sleeping aboard a ship.
The rest of the crew includes deckhands Ian Anderson and Brad Carter, who also share the cooking duties, and engineer Glen Titerli.
The crew’s work is varied. They may escort an oil tanker under the bridges and down to Victoria, take bulk carriers up to Port Moody to get loaded with sulphur or help dock a container ship. In a typical week-long shift they may interact with up to 30 or more ships.
Asked about the hardest part of his job, the veteran of the sea doesn’t have ready answer.
“I don’t find anything about it hard; I can’t think of a negative thing,” he says before adding, “working in fog and limited visibility can be a little stressful at times.”
Today, under a clear sunny sky, is not one of those days.
“It’s a great job,” he says.