Rig Tales: Prairie Chicken

Part I

I’m working on the oil rigs. We’re drilling in Northern Alberta and my crew and I are heading back to camp after a frozen 12 hour night shift outdoors. The morning brings an awakened sun glittering over a crisp blanket of white. Outside is -31 c degrees and an open sky mixing a tray of paint on the horizon. There are six of us in the Ford 350 Super Duty crew cab — the driver, my driller, derrickhand, motorhand, and leasehand.

As the roughneck I am squeezed between the driver and my driller in the front seat, leaving the other three in the backseat. Two of them are cousins both from the same Indian Reserve. The motorhand and leasehand refer to themselves as ‘half-breeds,’ that is, half Native American and half European. I’d get myself in trouble if I called them that, so I don’t. They call this northern habitat home. Here, days off meant hunting.

It’s after 7:00 AM and despite bouncing along through snow filled pot holes, I still manage to fall asleep. It was a busy night tripping 4000 meters of four inch pipe out of the hole. You know, just another day in the office. I’m exhausted and looking forward to meeting my mattress. Snow laden pine trees surround us on all sides as we barrel down the road. We are deep in the bush.

I’m nudged awake as the tires drop through a bumpy patch and notice a flurry of activity on the road in front of us. What’s going on here? Hundreds of birds are walking all over the ice, covering the road ahead. The driver doesn’t slow down much, but its enough for her to maneuver around the birds that don’t realize five tons of steel is about to run them over.

Me: “What’s that?”

Leasehand: “Prairie chicken!”

They resemble pheasants that walk around and don’t fly real well. As the driver maneuvers around the chicken —

Motorhand: “Hey! Slow down and drive over one of those chickens.”

Me: Huh?

Driver: “Really?”

Motorhand: “Yeah. You boys hungry?”

Me: “Hows that?”

Motorhand: “When the truck passes over the chicken it’ll pop its head up and break its own neck on the exhaust pipe.”

Leasehand: “Yeah it’s an easy kill. Don’t need to worry about it getting butchered with bullets. Real nice to eat too.”

Me: “It breaks its own neck? Why’s it go and do that?”

Motorhand: “I dunno, they’re dumb. They get curious or maybe they’re scared, but they lift their heads, never knowing what hit them.”

Motorhand: “Cruise over top so the chicken goes underneath the carriage. Don’t hit it with your tires.”

Driver: “If you say so.”

She drives over the chicken, while the others scurry out of the way. We look out the back window as we pass and see it lying on the ground behind us.

Motorhand: “Stop!”

He gets out with his cousin and they jog over to the chicken. They roll it around examining the kill. Watching through the back window, I see him step onto both wings of the dead bird with each foot. Grabbing the feet, he pulls them up, and out slide the legs of the chicken with its backbone, neck, head, and the rest of its internal organs still connected as one piece away from the breast and rib cage. Whoa!

He chucks the entrails into the bush. Picking up the remains he breaks off the wings from the chicken breast, quickly plucks the feathers, and separates it from the rib cage. Within 30 seconds the two of them are back in the truck holding two smooth fresh chicken breasts still warm and pulsating with blood.

Now, I’m a city kid from New Jersey. Up in the Canadian bush, I was an easy target for jokes. In fact, the first time I saw one of the crew throw a piece of garbage out the window into an untouched pristine wilderness:

Me: “Yo! What do you think you’re in New Jersey? You tryin’ to leave a mark? You’re the only one out here.”

Righand: “So?”

Me: “Imagine ten million of you all hucking your garbage out the window. You know what that looks like? New Jersey. Take New York City — it was built on top a giant garbage pile. Is that what you’re trying to do here?”

Righand: “What? Is that true?”

Me: “You bet. After living in the mountains for a year, know what the first thing I noticed coming home was?”

Righand: “No.”

Me: “Garbage! All over the fucking road. Driving down through upstate NY to Jersey, you can smell it through the windows, like a skunk. It’s all over the highways, just blowing in the wind from New York City down to Philly, like a big ‘ol landfill. Who knew? I grew up there and never noticed it until I was away long enough breathing in that rocky mountain air. I think I’ll take this rig money and start a new business and bottle mountain air. It’ll be bigger than Nestle. Care for air?”

Righand: “Ha! Okay. That explains why you’re a strange one.”

Me: “So what I’m 3000 miles away from landfill city, in the middle of nowhere, and now I gotta look at your garbage on an ice road? Put it in the trash, know what I’m saying?”

Unpacking his cigarettes, he rolls down the window and throws the plastic wrap out the window.

Righand: “I’ll think about it.”

Humans and garbage. We leave our shit everywhere. Perhaps, it’s part of our nature. Despite being in some deep northern recess, I would often find trash left behind by someone. I never knew whether to interpret the piece of garbage as “fuck you” or “you are not alone.” It could have gone either way. We are not alone. In fact, there are 8 billion of us! I hear there are islands of garbage floating in the middle of the ocean the size of small countries. Can you imagine? Where else will it go? The difference between us and animals is our waste will take eons to decompose. And as soon as we start fighting over floating landfills for space — I quit. But I digress.

Leaving the chicken entrails to decompose behind us, we get on the road again. I ain’t ever see anything like that. I mean I’ve seen road kill, but that’s the ‘ol turnpike road kill. They only eat that in the Pine Barrens along with the Jersey Devil. I had never seen an animal stripped down and prepared before. I was appalled and fascinated. How savage and efficient. Here, the pair of chicken breast looked just like one you buy in a super market. Talk about free range. Lynyrd Skynyrd would of been inspired to write a sequel and you would have probably dropped extra bills for that taste.

We arrive back at camp. My motorhand takes the chicken into the kitchen and shows the cook. Getting permission, he lights the stove and prepares the meat. Throwing a pan on with some melted butter he cooks the chicken on low heat. When it’s ready he cuts it up into six tender pieces — no salt and pepper needed.

“Come on Jersey, try the prairie chicken.”