FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta --- Four airports, two airlines, one fog delay and a missed flight.
A group of Kenai Peninsula delegates arrived in Fort McMurray on Wednesday afternoon after nearly 20 hours of traveling; another group made it to the site of the 2004 Arctic Winter Games a little more smoothly Thursday.
The delegates, members of the 2006 Games Host Committee, will spend the next 10 to 14 days watching and studying the 2004 Games in Fort McMurray in preparation for their job of hosting two years from now.
But while the trip to the Games wasn't easy for at least half of the 40 committee members, the peninsula residents said they're glad to be in the area and are looking forward to a positive experience.
"We're going into this joyously," said teacher Teresa Kiff-meyer. Her comment was made while standing in an unmoving line at the Edmonton Airport on Wednesday afternoon, about an hour after she and her group were scheduled to arrive in Fort McMurray.
"It's exciting," she said later Thursday. "It's exciting to not know anything about something and come and learn. When we came here, I didn't think (the Games) was as big as it is. I think this is going to open up doors for a lot of people."
Construction workers are pictured through a window as they labor on roofing for a five-story condominium building in Fort McMurray, Alberta, across the street from acres of brand new mobile homes. The booming community will open the Arctic Winter games Saturday. Local residents are here to prepare for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's turn at the games in 2006.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Kiffmeyer is on the care and comfort committee for the 2006 Host Society, which will organize the Games on the Kenai Peninsula. She and her fellow delegates from the society are on a fact-finding mission in Alberta to learn how to put on a successful Winter Games event.
The delegates will study the many elements that go into hosting the Games, from the logistics of the actual sporting events to more complex details, such as housing, transportation and food for the more than 6,000 visitors the event is expected to bring to the peninsula in a couple years.
The first step for delegates, though, will be to learn more about the community hosting this year's Games.
In many ways, Fort McMurray is similar to the Kenai Peninsula.
One of several towns in the larger municipality of Woods Buffalo, the structure of area communities is similar to that of the smaller towns and villages within the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Like Kenai and Soldotna, Fort McMurray is surrounded by a national refuge, and people spend the summers fishing and camping on the nearby river and lake.
Terry Szram of the Canadian Broadcasting Company prepares a camera for Saturday's opening ceremonies in a gigantic tent set up at MacDonald Island Exhibition Park. The CBC will use nine cameras to broadcast the event across Canada.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
And, like all host communities for Winter Games events, Fort McMurray is a northern city, blanketed in snow for the winter and boasting below-freezing temperatures this week.
Fort McMurray also shares a similar past with the peninsula, going back more than a hundred years to northern exploration and settlements and fur trading.
The area has a rich Native heritage and roots in the fur trading industry, as it originally was founded by the Hudson Bay Company.
For decades, the community remained small, serving as a home for hunters, trappers and fishers and as a bridge between the larger city of Edmonton and the Native communities further north.
"When I came here in 1926, the population was 400 -- mostly transport people and Native trappers and hunters," said longtime Fort McMurray resident Roy Hawkins.
He said growth was gradual until the late 1960s, when oil companies began exploring the area in earnest -- and finding plenty of black gold beneath the surface of the town.
These days, Fort McMurray is a booming oil town.
"When we came here, there was one oil plat," said Martha Stepanuk, who has lived in Fort McMurray for 33 years. "Now, they say there will be two new ones a year for the next 10 years."
Area oil companies plan to spend billions of dollars in the Fort McMurray area over the next several years, and with that comes the high-density housing and growing service area in town.
The construction industry is thriving, as subdivisions, condominiums and large apartment buildings crop up throughout the community.
"Normally, you see a house being built," Hawkins said. "They're building whole subdivisions."
Hotels dot the landscape, offering temporary residence for the oil community. Box stores, restaurants, phone and Internet companies and other businesses provide creature comforts in abundance.
And recreation opportunities -- from theaters to parks -- are plentiful in the remote but booming community.
Unlike in the Kenai-Soldotna area, Fort McMurray's thriving oil industry and subsequent service industries are drawing more and more young families to the area, which today boasts a population of 46,000 people.
Stepanuk said all three of her children have stayed in Fort McMurray and gotten into trade-based careers.
"There's no other community where you can make $120,000 a year when you're 23 years old," she said. "There's a future here."
That sense of future gives the community what Stepanuk calls a "young attitude" and draws a diverse cross section of people to the area.
"It's the mix of people, the youngness" that makes Fort McMurray unique, she said.
The average age in Fort McMurray is 30, and the town is home to only about 2,000 residents over the age of 60. Despite its Native and European roots, the city also has significant Asian and Arab populations, bringing a multicultural feel to the community.
Still, while homes are selling faster than they can be built and new residents are bringing more and more diversity to the area, Stepanuk said the Fort McMurray area has a sense of community similar to that of the Kenai Peninsula.
"It's a growing community, but it's still a little town," she said. "It's a volunteer town, I think."
Stepanuk works with the MS Society and Meals on Wheels and said people go out of their way to help one another.
"People just tend to look out for their fellow person," said Stepanuk,
"It's got every intention of being a big city," he said. "But one of the great things is the volunteer groups in this city. It gives it that small town effect, you know?"
It's that type of caring that both Stepanuk and Hawkins said makes Fort McMurray a great place to live.
And, Hawkins added, it also is one feature that makes the town a successful host for the 2004 Games.
"They were looking for 4,000 to 5,000 volunteers, and they had no trouble getting that," he said.
It's details like that -- how Fort McMurray handled the recruitment and training of volunteers -- that Kenai Peninsula residents at next week's Games will try to discover and analyze.
Because, while 2006 Games manager Loren Smith recently said the 2006 committee is ahead in its planning process, Stepanuk --who also coaches biathlon participants and has helped prepare for this year's Games -- said it's never too early to start working for the Games.
"Don't think two and a half years is far away," she said. "If I had to do it again, I'd work so much harder at the beginning. Two and a half years whipped around in no time."
Kiffmeyer agreed and said the 2006 committee already is working hard to get the groundwork in place.
"I think it's going to be interesting, because this is a bigger community," she said. "When you think about the facilities. They have lots of hotels. We're going to need every bed and breakfast and possibly some private homes, if people are willing to rent out rooms. I see a challenge for us.
"But it's a really neat thing to be able to come here and see that. That's why we're here. To observe and make decisions on what we can do and how we can change things."
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