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‘My golden handcuffs’

KILLARNEY — On a quiet spring morning, Mike Rozander stands in his kitchen overlooking Killarney Lake, brewing a pot of dark-roast coffee.

Rozander pours two cups, then stops and adds a glug of Bailey’s Irish Cream into one of them.

"Want a shot?" he asks.

Rozander is on holidays. The directional driller — or DD — who has spent two decades working in the oilpatch, has the next six to eight weeks off due to a provincial road ban that limits rigs from moving.

I, however, am not on holidays, having been tasked with interviewing this man who has drilled more horizontal wells in the Waskada field than anyone else.

I’ve known Rozander for more than 20 years and went to school and worked rigs with his younger brother.

"Sure," I answer.

During the course of the next hour over coffees, Rozander shares stories from a career that has taken him all over Western Canada, led to him falling more than 50 feet, resulted in his launching of his own business and provided a stable life for his wife and family.

"(The oilpatch) is my golden handcuffs," he jokes, sitting down at the table across from me.

In the oilfield, a sense of humour isn’t an asset, it’s a necessity — and Rozander has a good one.

In 1994, one year after graduating high school in Killarney, Rozander and his best friend, Dean Dixon, who has since passed away following a battle with cancer, loaded up their vehicles and headed west in search of riches in Alberta. The idea of working two weeks and getting one week off was appealing to the young men.

At the time, however, there were no roughneck schools or training programs for new employees. The patch was a much different place, with about 400 rigs working mostly in Alberta — a number that today has more than doubled to 810, and now includes substantial drilling in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"It was much harder to get on the rigs back then," Rozander said. "We drove around to different locations, left our names with the tool push, had a cup of coffee with him and tried our best to make a good impression."

The tenacity paid off for the pair, as Rozander and Dixon would eventually get hired by different companies.

Three years later, the two would finally get a chance to work together on a rig in Fox Creek, Alta.

It was there that Rozander, working as a derrickhand, fell 50 feet, landing on the rig floor less than five feet away from his friend.

How and why he fell is a complicated story that involves freezing rain, a motorhand having trouble up the stick, jammed shaker screens and tight hole due to shale falling in, forcing the crew to ream each joint of pipe back into the hole.

But Rozander, now older and wiser, admits he was impatient at the time.

"I yelled ‘Heads up, boys’ on the way down."

The length of fall also gave him chance to think, he said. Envisioning himself falling backwards, he told himself, ‘I have to land like a cat,’ so he pointed his toes down toward the rapidly approaching rig floor.

While the impact shattered his feet and ankles, his quick decision helped mitigate the force on the rest of his body — and may have saved his life, doctors told him.

Never one to slow down or "milk the system," Rozander fell in November of 1997 and was back working in the company’s Calgary office on light duty less than three months later.

Soon after, he was back on a rig floor drilling for Precision Drilling in the Northwest Territories.

It was there that he brought his younger brother, Trevor, into the industry after firing a roughneck.

The two got off to an ominous start, however, when during his first week on the job, Trevor dropped a dog-collar pin down the hole. The incident forced the rig to mill through the pin for three days and was followed by several magnet runs to clean up the debris.

"I was losing my mind on him at the time, but he straightened me out and we’ve always got along ever since," Rozander said with a smile, adding he’s never brought up the incident since.

"I haven’t forgotten it though."

The following year, he went direction drilling.

After working as a DD with Computalog for several years, he became a consultant, running his own business where he contracts his services to oil companies.

In 2005, he brought Trevor into the fold and over the next several years, the brothers worked together in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, steering bits through formations thousands of metres away from the rig floor.

In 2012, Rozander’s youngest brother, Eddie, joined their crew as a measure-while-drilling — or MWD — hand.

If DDs steer the bit under the ground, then an MWD hand tells them where it is located through a series of digital surveys.

For the first time last winter, all three worked together as drillers.

"We’re all a team and it’s our ace in the hole when things get busy and it’s typically hard to get days off."

Two decades ago, Rozander could count the number of guys from Killarney who worked in the oilpatch on one hand. Today, he said there are at least 30 guys from the town currently working in the industry, from pressure testers and roughnecks to MWD hands and DDs.

When the industry took off in Manitoba, Rozander and his wife, Debbie, decided to move to Killarney.

After years of witnessing an erratic housing market in Alberta, the couple liked the stability and small-town atmosphere the community of 2,300 provided their growing family.

Rozander said the biggest change in the oil field has been the steady introduction of technology. Advancements have made it possible for decisions to be made from central locations, such as Calgary, on rigs hundreds of kilometres away.

He suspects one day there won’t be the need for a DD to be physically on the location of the rig.

But not in his time.

"If I get 10 more years out of it, I’ll be happy," Rozander said taking a sip of coffee. "I really have no complaints. The patch has been good to me."

» Twitter: @CharlesTweed

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 19, 2014

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