Friday, August 19, 2005

a b.c. travelogue - 7


When I lived in this area before, I never visited Kitimat. In my mind, it was synonymous with two things: a lot of precipitation (rain and snow), and aluminum.

On Wednesday morning after visiting Ksan, we made the several-hour drive to see this off-the- beaten-track city. We stopped for lunch at Lakelse Lake, and got to the Kitimat’s city limits about an hour later. On this day it wasn't raining - though it was overcast.

Our first stop was at tourist information to pick up a map and some brochures of things to see, and then we drove into the lovely pullout where you could look out over the town and glimpse the ocean, as Kitimat is actually on the Douglas Channel of the Pacific.

The drive through town didn’t take us long; it isn’t a big city. Ernie also wanted to see the Alcan plant. With map in hand, we soon found the right road and in due course there appeared to our left a huge and sprawling jumble of buildings, towers, connecting walkways or tunnels, and odd-shaped appendages. We drove into the parking lot and found a visitor’s center thinking, as long as we were here we might as well find out a bit about this monstrosity (they’d already told us at the information center we were too late to catch the daily tour).

The visitor building was manned by a young employee, who let us browse the information posters on the walls. In the next 30 minutes, I learned more about aluminum and this mega-project built to process it than I ever knew before.

Kitimat was actually a planned city, built in 1950-51 to accommodate the people who worked in the Alcan plant. This site was chosen because of the availability of hydroelectric power and the fact it was a deep sea port.

Here is how one of the tourist brochures describes how Kitimat and the Alcan project came into being:

Invited by the B.C. Government, Alcan established the Nechako Reservoir in central B.C. behind the massive Kenney Dam, south of Vanderhoof. Water was carried through a 16 km. tunnel through the Costal Mountains to a hydro generating station built at Kemano.

The narrow Kemano Valley could not accommodate an aluminum smelter so Alcan built its plant and its deep-sea port facility in Kitimat, at the head of the Kitimat Arm. Power to supply the community and the smelter was carried over a 60 km. transmission line built through some of the most rugged mountain territory in B.C.
Here are some things I learned about aluminum.

1. The actual ore that contains the unrefined aluminum (bauxite) comes from mainly tropical countries – Australia, South America, Guinea, Ghana, India.

2. The Alcan plant in Kitimat refines the raw bauxite into pure aluminum. This happens in several-stage process which includes adding chemicals, crushing and filtering to get a product called alumina.

3. This alumina is dissolved in a material that conducts electricity, after which it is placed in special pots where an electric current passes through it. This causes the alumina to separate into oxygen and hot aluminum which is poured into molds and cooled. This process is what's happening in the building complex above.

4. Of course aluminum is not used in its pure form, but combined with other elements (like copper, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc etc.) to make alloys. Then it’s processed by rolling (beverage cans, aluminum foil) or extruding (squeezed under pressure through a mold to make different shapes like window frames, light poles) or casting (melted and formed into molds).

(Weren’t you just dying to know all that!?)

Time for recess! We found Hospital Beach from where we saw the ocean liners. Then it was back in the car for a circuitous drive through town past several more Kitimat projects: Methanex - a methanol plant and Eurocan, a pulp and paper mill (so that’s what we were smelling!)

A final stop at Robin’s Donuts for a muffin (he) and a sticky bun (she) with coffee, fortified us for the drive back, first to the village of Kitamaat (the original aboriginal settlement in this area) and on to Terrace (which, when we got there we were too tired to explore – just enough energy for dinner at Denny’s). The hour-long drive back to our motel in Hazelton finished us off for that day!


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