Notes from the Man Camps of the Bakken

February 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

I just got back yesterday from an extraordinarily productive three days in the Bakken Oil patch in North Dakota. With a great team of collaborators, I continued to document the social and material conditions of “workforce housing” in the oil patch. We collected more interviews, did some photography, revisited some camps we saw last summer, and got basic data on the growing group of camps clustered around Watford City.  

I can offer some immediate impressions that contribute in a general way to our observations from this summer. These impressions are straight from my field notes.

1. What folks leave behind…

One of the most interesting things about this trip is that we visited some camps from which residents had recently departed. There were three interesting examples of this.

The first camp was a Type 3 camp and there was clear evidence that the camp was broken up in haste. The tractor wheels in the newish snow maybe hint that the campers were pulled out by someone other than the residents. More evidence for this comes from the scatter of material left behind at the camp. The remains of the camp included coolers filled with canned food and beer, pots and pans, cooking equipment, grills, a tent, various trash, and the remains of the camp fire.

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The next example came from a Type 2 camp. The majority of what was left behind was wood. The skirts built to keep the cold wind from passing under the RV remained stuck in the ice leaving an outline. Around the area are pallets used to to create a deck and plywood set up to protect the sewage and water pipes from the freezing North Dakota wind. Plastic cups, buckets, a tool box, extension cords, bits of foam insulation, and piece of aluminum also litter the area.

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Another unit removed since the last major snow from a Type 2 camp in the area of Watford City (perhaps a week ago?) left behind less debris: a propane tank, a bucket covering the sewage pipe, and some wood. A smudge of scoria served as a slab for the resident’s vehicle, and little else.

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2. How folks stay warm…

We observed a range of practices to keep warm in the brutal North Dakota winter. The most common practices at Type 2 camps involve sealing the underside of the camper with wood and insulation. In some cases, this involved installing wood “buttresses” to support the insulated word around the base of a camper so that it would not break free as the unit shifted in the North Dakota wind (in a few cases people used snow to reinforce or as an alternative to these buttresses). The cold and the shifting of the units in the wind could cause the foam insulation to shatter littering the area with debris. In a few cases residents used hay bales. Sewage and water pipes were insulated with heat tape, pvc piping, and foam. Windows are sealed on the inside or outside with insulated, reflective pads. We noted in some camps that residents even sealed the south facing windows. 

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The best way that we saw to stay warm was probably in indoor RV park near Watford City where each unit stood in a heated bay.

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3. How towns respond to booms…

We continued our work to document small and nearly abandoned towns that have seen an influx of new residents as a result of the boom. I am particularly interested in how mobile homes, RVs, campers, and trailers infill vacant lots, parks, and marginal areas of these towns. In the photo below you can see a house, a trailer, and an camper sharing a lot. The house looks like a standard first-half of the 20th century North Dakota house. 

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4. The limits to the temporary…

The Target Logistics Williston Complex has beds for over 1000 people and was built in less than 100 days. The entire complex is modular and included units purpose built for this installation and units brought in from other installations (including the Vancouver Olympics) and Colorado. The entire facility can be removed to another location on semi trucks in weeks. On a smaller scale, individual campers can be removed abruptly from their location and relocated. The use of generators at both large facilities and around smaller units (that use electric heat!) indicates that the local utilities infrastructure cannot necessarily keep up with the increased and fluid population. 

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On the other hand, some folks have lived in their campers for years and see them as home. People have invested in their space and attempted to make it as functional and comfortable as possible. The idea that these spaces are just temporary seems to challenge our very idea of domesticity. The home is permanent, represents individuality, and is deeply embedded in our idea of private space. Life in the large institutional camps embraces the provisional character of their architecture and their residents (a one site, the manager told us that people don’t live in their camp, they stay there.)  Elsewhere, however, there continues to be indication that people do live there.

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5. The artist’s eye…

The most remarkable thing about our trip this time was getting to watch Kyle Cassidy work. He is a photographer from Philadelphia who lent us his creative vision. After a few days in the patch, it became clear that we needed to collaborate to document what is going on in the Bakken. His photos, which he’ll release on his blog capture the determination of so many of the people living and working the patch. Our interviews and efforts to document bits and pieces of people’s lives can only go so far to show how people think about themselves and their place in the world. Kyle’s photos can do this in a way that is neither patronizing nor cold. His images brought to life the experience of living and working in western North Dakota in way that our research can only allude. 

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Looking through my pictures and field notes has forced me to realize how important my experiences in this place have been. Ten years ago I defended my dissertation on the Early Christian architecture of Greece. I was living in Athens and thinking and talking about Greek history, architecture, and archaeology for days on end. Nothing has moved me like being in the field in February in western North Dakota, trying to get my head around what living and working in this landscape means to people.   

For more on our project go here and follow us on the Twitter hashtag #oilcampsnd.

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