COAL 16: 1992 Ford Explorer – And a Seismic Shift or Two

My family of 5 growing up could go to town in our VW Bug if need be, when the Valiant was unavailable.  But there were no enormous backwards facing car seats, off road strollers and all the things that accompany today’s babies. We didn’t need an SUV or a minivan but it would make life easier. I was pretty biased against transverse engine V6s  so minivans were out.  Apparently at that time, I was also biased against having money so that’s how we ended up with a high mileage Explorer in the garage.

The imminent arrival of a second child meant we were looking for something bigger than our Honda Civic.  The maternity leave my wife was about to take would cut our income drastically.  I looked at my fleet and as I was possibly done with contracting I decided to liquidate the gray Toyota 4×4.  I took the cash and went to Calgary to find a clean SUV.  The best one was a 1992 Explorer that was in nice shape despite its 300,000 plus kms. The owner had been fastidious about maintenance. Buying in Alberta meant an Out of Province insurance inspection so I spent a week going through the checklist making sure it was ready and it passed with no issues. We lived in town by then and it would be mostly doing shorter trips anyway. Owning an Explorer was not on my life’s bucket list but I was trying to be a grown up.

This was the first automatic I had ever purchased which annoyed me to no end.  These were a pleasant enough drive other than the emergency handling was a bit alarming. Braking hard and steering at the same time was something to be avoided. The AC was not working well but there was enough ventilation without it.

A lot of things had changed in my life in the year prior to acquiring the Explorer.  After my 6 months of work at a normal job, I had ended up in a very small hamlet with nothing on the horizon for the winter.  I started to put in some feelers about getting some contracts but Forestry was going through a bad time and I thought I’d better try something else. I had sent my resume to an exploration company that phoned me and wanted me in Calgary in two days. I grabbed my bush gear and hopped a bus to Calgary.  After a day of H2S safety training, I was crammed into the back of a Dodge extended cab for a long trip to a camp a few hours north of Fort MacMurray.

Exploration jobs had a low hourly rate but a huge amount of hours per week, usually 12 plus hours per day. They started me at a higher wage because of my bush experience, a lot of people didn’t last more than a few days. I’d done tougher work so I was fine, other than being a bit elderly, mid 30s, older than nearly everyone on the crew.  The first morning while they were getting the new crews assigned the line supervisors picked their new teams.  I had major flashbacks to junior high volleyball while I stood there not picked until the last round.  When there were just a few of us left one supervisor said he would take “Junior,” meaning me.  Luckily my feelings are not easily hurt and I made it through the first day and retired to my spartan accommodations.

Seismic exploration, if you are not aware, is the measuring of the refraction and reflection of waves as they pass through various underground strata.  A disturbance is set off with dynamite or mechanical means and a huge number of geophones are set out to capture the seismic waves.  This takes miles of cable and many people to lay out. It’s a bit like setting up the most elaborate holiday light display imaginable.

Primitive winter tracks are put in to facilitate laying out the cables.  There are a lot of logistics to this which means vehicles of all types. Crew cabs and Suburbans move people. Larger trucks like 5 tons and semi tractors are used to move equipment between sites.  If the lines are long it is more cost-effective to have a helicopter drop a set of 6 cables every so often than try and carry them by hand.

This picture shows just how many cables it took.  The crew is looking a bit sad as someone left a $14,000 recorder in a cable bag and we had to unload the entire semi-trailer to find it.


There’s really only one thing to know about ex-oilfield trucks and that is never buy one.  Put a new truck in the hands of a 20 year old kid and the potential for calamity is always there, not even taking into account the terrible conditions.  There was a permanent mechanic on site with us, who drove a Dodge. He hated Suburbans as they were hard to work on in the bush and said he would quit if any more showed up.  The Party Chief had a Tundra, the supervisors had GMC 3500s and the line crews got Ford F-350s and 450s. F-450s can actually be jumped as I witnessed once.

I think everything mechanical thing broke at some time while I was there.  Suburban fuel pumps, a V-10 Ford spit out a spark plug. The Dodge Batt Shack lost 5th gear in the first hour of a 20 hour relocation to the BC Yukon border making for a long trip with a low-revving Cummins. The F-450s would sink into the muskeg when the ground got soft. This Chevrolet lost an alternator at 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in Peace River.  Nice to have a common truck where you can get a hold of a part in an hour though.

The funniest fail though was on the diesel Ford Excursion used for transporting big wigs and some days the crew around.  A nose-ringed hyper-cool young lady who was one of the field accounting types, (per diems were in cash!)  managed to get her Britney Spears CD stuck in the stereo. With no radio stations in that part of BC, it was Baby One More Time or Sing in that vehicle for the rest of the winter.

Halfway through the contract we had to relocate from Northern Alberta to Northern BC. This turned out to be an outstanding adventure that bore a lot of resemblance to some movies I have seen, like Convoy, The Cannonball Run, and a touch of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas for good measure. The boys had all got their cash per diems and were sick of camp life. Somewhere around Dawson Creek we lost the fellow who had been driving the International 4900 HIAB truck.  I don’t remember the circumstances but I think he had to retrieve a hijacked company van we had seen on the news, which was being utilized for a crime spree in Edmonton, as well as bailout some young men who had been rolled by a couple of ladies of questionable moral standard.

Being a grown up and a father of an infant I had been responsible and avoided going on a drug and alcohol-fuelled binge, so the next morning I was appointed truck driver and headed up the Alaska Highway behind the wheel of the International. I enjoyed driving the DT466 Diesel with Spicer 7 speed combination.  It took some concentration on the ice roads with massive and high speed oil and gas traffic everywhere.  There was one big police check we luckily got through unscathed as the RCMP officer was from Prince Edward Island as was most of our crew.  There were Arsenault, Gallant and MacDonald boys in every vehicle. Luckily I knew all the words to Bud the Spud, though sadly no one else wanted to sing it.

Just before spring break-up, I had a job offer from the organization I had worked for the summer before so it was time to head south. On one of my last days, we got a radio message that if we wanted a quick ride out rather than an hour walk there would be a helicopter to pick us up half a mile away but we had to get moving. The snow was knee-deep and I made it but started to have the feeling that maybe it was time to consider working with some heavy Excel macros rather than hoofing it in snow boots through the bush. I hopped the bus in Fort Nelson all the way to Kamloops, where after a bunch of time doing bush work, fell down the Greyhound steps. My only injury in all the time I was up there. I got picked up, went home for a few hours, moved to a new city Sunday  and reported for desk duty on Monday morning.

And that was that for a whole phase of my life.

Anyways the Explorer.  It was almost strictly a vehicle for taking the kids around to all their appointments and maybe a Sunday picnic or two.

Somewhere along the way, the Wife with the Motorcycle had become the Wife with the Horse which led to a temporary title of Wife in the Wheelchair. The Explorer was a good way to pack saddles and horse gear around.

It pulled our little travel trailer around for summer vacations quite easily and became a veteran of family camping trips.

It didn’t do much tough off road work though it could.  Here it is all chained up with V-Bars on a mission to rescue the Mighty Alpine after a relative who I told to not pull the starter cord too far out did exactly that thing which I told him not to.

One day my dad was doing some concrete demolition work.  There was a utility trailer hooked to the Explorer.  He overloaded that trailer so badly it broke a spring on the trip to the dump.  And a few days later there were red spots under the Explorer.  The A4LD transmission had started to go.  These were a crap transmission based on the C5.  So I did some research and figured I could solve this problem by swapping in a 5 speed manual.  I sourced a parts car in Calgary, and being very careful not to mention the word Explorer to U-Haul Trailer Rental, dragged a manual transmission Explorer home behind the White Truck.

The swap was pretty straightforward.  The pedal assembly just unbolted.  I swapped the computer and hooked up a few wires and now we had a 5 speed brown wagon.  The automatics had a lower rear end than the 5 speeds so this truck was a hot rod compared to before.  Fun to drive other than the diabolical handling.  I remember my dad, a friend and I hitting the scrap yard after hours to drop off the donor car.  It rolled off the trailer and kept on going down the road.  My dad and my friend’s reaction was to run and get the hell out of there.  Luckily it stopped before doing any damage.

So I never did seismic work again and I’ve only once been north of Kamloops since.  The first couple of years after I avoided gravel roads.  The horse was replaced with a motorbike.  I think Britney Spears is in the “Where Are They Now?” file along with Taylor Swift but I could be wrong as I don’t follow pop culture much.  Stomping Tom Connors died in 2013 after writing a lot of songs about Canada.

So again, a faithful family vehicle carries on in the background with little fanfare. My second daughter came home from the hospital in it. I sold it for not much. The buyer came back to me about a problem that I didn’t know about and I paid for a part to fix it.  I saw it listed a few years later with a ton of kms. on and still apparently running.

Next week I realize I haven’t been using enough gasoline so I rectify that problem in a big way.