Into the Cold

Mike Violette

The daffodils now warm their necks in the sun, but we remember winter…

A sheet of sleet grips the ground and freezes wipers to windshields. This winter has been brutish and, except for an occasional glimpse of Mother Sun, this is Yukon. Even when the snow stops falling there is no relief: the wind bends the trees, rattling branches thick with frozen slick that she can’t knock off, so she swoons mournfully through leaky windows. The dog won’t stand outside either, just long enough to do her business, because she’s a city creature with a physique fit for couch, not a snow bank.

This time of year harkens back to the last trip we made together to the Northern Territories in western Canada, flying in from DC, chasing the sun in the late afternoon to Seattle, jumping the border just north into Vancouver. There, we met with three local engineers—Tyler, Terry and Bill—who would accompany us north, and crowding our gear and bundled-up bodies into an eight-seat puddle jumper out of Vancouver.  We set down in a stiff cross wind onto the single runway at Prince George, an outpost town along the Trans-Canada/Yellowhead Highway.

“The rental car will be parked at the terminal.” the agent on the phone told me a few days before. “The keys are on the visor and the contract on the dash.”


“Just fill it with gas when you’re done and I’ll send you a bill.”

Hmm. OK. Things are done differently in this part of the world.

We exited the gas-station-sized terminal, tended by a bored gate agent who was reading the local paper for the fourth time that day. In the lot, the cars all had electric plugs lolling out the front of their grills because if you don’t plug in the crankcase heaters overnight, no battery & starter combination in the world will turn the frozen sludge smothering the crank.

We unplugged the sedan and the reticent V8 groaned and turned over and we headed to the only hotel in town. Along the way, one of the veterans directed us to a quick pit stop: the local beverage retailer, where we loaded up on our own individual selections.

“The nights are kinda long out here.” Terry laughed. “And cold.”

“Ya, ya. And the men come out of woods in Spring to shower.” Bill replied in a mock-Russian accent, grabbing his brown bag from the counter. “Let’s go.”

WestCoast Transmission, founded in 1949 by the late Frank McMahon, provided a few billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to the United States and the more populated East Coast cities of Canada. The pipeline, called the Big Inch, pushed the gaseous gold between remote pumping stations throughout the territory to hungry consumers south of the border. The stations were spaced at intervals of a few hours drive. Our task was to make some measurements and take a look at a noise problem afflicting one of the stations.

Along the big inch were two kinds of pumping stations featuring old technology and new, the first installed in the late 60s and the others, within the past few years.

Our first visit was to an older station with pumps powered by V-12s, not your Jaguar sports-car variety, but freighter-sized boat engines adapted for the job sporting cylinders large enough for fit a man. The machines were as big as a house. The newer stations were powered by jet turbines. The boat engines cranked out about 10,000 horsepower and the jet turbines whined with ten times that.

The pump house with the V-12 housed ten motors, all lined up all in a row on a concrete deck. The building shook and the behemoths grumbled, thumping chest and rattling pelvis with enough motion to induce vertigo.  To reach to spark plugs–two serving each piston–you needed to climb a ladder. Everything here was working fine. We made some measurements and shrugged our shoulders.

The next pump station, powered by the turbine, was four hours away; we’d go the next day. So we beat feet back to the hotel as the sun dove into the snowy plain, shot some pool and watched a few hours of national championship curling on the tube in the bar, a fascinating sport and the only one I know of that is played with a broom.

The following morning we set out North of Prince George, driving through near-virgin forest; the only car on the road in either direction.

Arriving at the earth-bound jet, whose insult was an über-sonic scream that pierced ear plugs and ear muffs, we set up our antennas and spectrum analyzer and mapped the space, collecting some data and performing quick checks of the control instrumentation: what the heck were we looking doing here?

Outside, we packed up our gear and puzzled. “So, where’s the problem?”

Tyler shouted over the whine of the machine, still cutting through at 80 dB although we were sitting in the car parked outside the building.

“No problems here! This is just for reference. But we’ve got some noise at the next pumping station. We’ve got the big V-12s there.” He turned the car around in the parking lot and we headed away from the scream. “You’ll see. The control feedback loop signals are bouncing all over the place. And we just installed new systems in both places.” Back at the first stop everything worked fine.

“Remember the lower quad-station?” Bill asked. “The first place…yesterday afternoon?”


“Well, this next station is exactly the same: same layout, same engines, same control, same everything–or it’s supposed to be.”

We drove while Bill and Terry chatted about the curling match. “You owe me five loonies, Bill. Saskatoon’s number one. Again.”

“I’ll pay ya in beer when we get back.” Terry laughed.

By mid-afternoon we arrived at the third location. Indeed, it was the same building, a large weather-beaten steel-paneled building that thrummed. “Let’s go inside.”

Engine 3 was down and a technician was crouching down inside the crankcase. We looked over and he peered up at us through the cylinder casing. Huge wrenches were laid out on the ground. I kicked one; it didn’t move. Terry waved at the mechanic, who was wrestling with an enormous thrust-rod nut.

“Take a look over here.” Terry motioned us to the wiring that fired the dual spark plugs that sprouted from the enormous heads. Not much different than a ginormous lawn mower engine. The wiring was tied to the natural gas supply lines that fed injectors on the heads—these monsters ate what they were pumping. All was tied neatly back to an enormous distributor. Grey sensor cables were wrapped on the same array.

We asked to see the sensor collection point. The shielded twisted pairs that carried sensor data were pulled neatly into the breakout box, same as the first place.

“Look at the shields, Norm said.” We all looked down. There was the problem.

“Two different guys wired these systems.”

What did Norm see?

Big Inch Petroleum Pipeline

The “big inch” referred to pipes that were 20 to 48 inches in diameter, first envisioned during WWII to provide a backup to shipping of oil by sea. In the larger branches, a man could crouch and walk a half a mile inside before he’d have to stretch.

Laying of the Big Inch petroleum pipeline network between Texas and Illinois in the United States during World War 2.

Article by Mike Violette

First Published in EMC Magazine