Toxic Travel: Paddling the Tar Sands

Written by Ned Morgan.

You don’t have to travel to China, Russia or Bangladesh to find landscapes devastated by industrial pollution. They’re right here in Canada – namely, Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands development. At last count, tailing lakes in the Athabasca oil sands contained approximately 830 million cubic metres of toxic effluent produced during the bitumen extraction process. According to the Pembina Institute, tailings contain such long-lived and deadly toxins as naphthenic acids, cyanide, and phenols, not to mention arsenic, cadmium, and lead. The lakes also emit air pollutants including hydrogen sulfide, mono-nitrogen oxide, and methane.


article continues below


Unchecked oil sands development has transformed Canada into a world-class polluter and petro-state. But many in the Big Oil camp point out that environmentalists condemn the oil sands without acknowledging their massive contribution to Canada’s GDP. And now the “tar sands” – a faintly derogatory name that environmentalists prefer to use – may be spawning a commercial enterprise that nobody saw coming: guided kayak and paddleboard tours of tailing lakes.


Photomontage by Brennan Fournier. Original by Larry MacDougal/CP PHOTO.
Photomontage by Brennan Fournier. Original by Larry MacDougal/CP PHOTO.


A company called Toxic Travel aims to be your ferry crew, leading you safely across these lakes of brimstone.

“Toxic Travel is about actively experiencing the poisonous places of the earth – the ones we have manufactured,” says CEO Wade O’Brien. But why, we asked, seek out poisonous places? Doesn’t this go against our every instinct as outdoor adventure people? “Regular adventure travel is a tapped-out market,” O’Brien explains. “Not only has everybody done everything, they’ve done it ten times backwards. And we’ve wrecked most of our once-pristine environments, so it is time to embrace that. We believe there’s a rich seam of paddlers and travellers demanding new and ‘dirty’ experiences.”

The Calgary-based start-up consists of O’Brien and a dozen employees including guides and product developers. Last month a group of Toxic Travel employees mounted an expedition to an undisclosed location inside the Athabasca development region. When we asked O’Brien for details he refused, adding only: “I will tell you one thing we learned: don’t ever light a campfire on the shore of a tailing lake.”

We wouldn’t fault you for believing O’Brien insane – who would ever dream of adventuring in such an environment? But he assures us he’s very much compos mentis, and driven to see his start-up through to viability. Among his R&D plans is a line of “ToxicWear” designed to protect paddlers and allow them to venture into places even the most courageous would never dream of.


Tailing lake. Courtesy
Tailing lake. Courtesy


O’Brien also plans to mount tours internationally but his initial focus will be the Athabasca tar sands, giving Canadian adventurers what he calls “’100-Mile’ toxic travel.”

“Sure you could find whitewater playspots in the benzene chemical spill of the Songhua River, China, or in the Niger River delta [poisoned by decades of carcinogenic hydrocarbons from spilled crude],” O’Brien adds. “But these places are not set up for adventure tourism. So why not instead forge these experiences in your own worry-free backyard?” O’Brien feels that since such as the tar sands are here to stay  – “anyone can see that our federal government is bound and determined to squeeze every last cent out of [the tar sands]” – adventure seekers might as well start taking advantage.

We press O’Brien: Does he really believe anyone would want to do a Toxic Travel tour? Why put anyone through such an experience? “Most people ask me this first-off,” he says. “A big part of my motivation came from looking at people I know who work in the tar sands patch. They’re making shitloads of money but they’re not happy. They’re toiling in hell.”

When we ask him where he stands on the political issue of tar sands development, he waxes thoughtful. “At the end of the day, most people are numb to it. I mean, large-scale industrial pollution barely registers anymore. I guess this is because it hasn’t wrecked our own home yet, and because most of us benefit from it every day. One of the aims of Toxic Travel is to take you deep inside Canada’s energy sector, for better or worse. So at least you can say, ‘Dirty Oil? Been there, done that – paddled the tailing lake.’”