student columns

The Good and the Not-So-Good of
Winter in Saskatoon


On Jan. 6 blowing snow was creating the kind of conditions that put most Edmonton drivers into cardiac arrest. Yet 32 students (and one intrepid bus driver) left the University of Alberta, bound for the 41st annual Western Inter-University Geology Conference in Saskatoon.

The WIUGC is the only conference of its kind in Western Canada that caters to undergraduates, and it draws a large crowd every year. A less exciting locale than last year's conference boasted in Vancouver, Saskatoon nonetheless drew many attendees — with U of A taking bragging rights for the largest visiting group.

Most U of A students were debating the sanity of paying a lot of money to trade one frozen wasteland for another, but the conference turned out to be more eventful than expected. Unfortunately, it will be remembered mostly in a negative way, as a few rowdy students put a damper on the conference for everyone.

This year's conference was held at the Sheraton in downtown Saskatoon, which was a very nice hotel and a very bad idea. Part of the problem is that the first event of WIUGC is an evening mixer, which reinforces the notion that a lot of people plus a lot of free beer can result in chaos.

The hotel looked on without complaint as their banquet room and bathrooms were soiled and, unfortunately, vandalized. But when the hotel's owner heard about the actions of a couple of students, he sent the WIUGC organizers a message: everyone leave. Now.

In a show of excellent negotiating skills, the organizers managed to keep the conference at the Sheraton, but under a few conditions: extra security, police in the lobby, strictly enforced quiet hours, and no outsiders — in essence a police state.

It was an unfortunate turn of events, because the majority of students were well behaved. But that's how the next two nights had to be spent in the hotel.

Potash Trek
While Saskatchewan may not be a land of rugged peaks and towering cliffs, it managed to provide a couple of the best geology field trips in recent memory. Those who managed to get up at 6:30 a.m. were rewarded with a tour to one of two potash mines near Saskatoon.

After a long elevator ride, visiting students rode jeeps down a maze of tunnels, 1,000 metres below the surface. The highlight for most budding geologists was being told to “collect as much rock as you want,” which, it turns out, is quite a lot. Our group also got to tour the production facility, which is running at full tilt thanks to incredible potash demand, primarily from China.

The second tour of the day was less visceral, but possibly more awe-inspiring — an in-depth tour of Canada's brand new synchrotron, the first in the country.

Thanks to the holiday shutdown, our group got to tour the main floor of the facility and even peek inside the electron storage ring. This area is usually fully encased in about a metre of concrete, owing to its status as a “death zone” during operation.

A walk around the currently operating beamlines rounded out the tour.

The last night of the conference brought the banquet, and a bit of a disappointment: the ceremonial bun fight wouldn't happen, because the hotel took away the crusty buns. This created another unexpected outcome: one of our students tried without success for two hours just to get a piece of bread to go with his meal.

After another evening in lockdown, we said farewell to Saskatoon and set our sights on next January's WIUGC. Despite some of the disappointments, almost everyone enjoyed the conference.
It was unfortunate that what is usually an exciting and boisterous conference was taken one step too far by a couple of students. Hopefully this year's events will be remembered by everyone next year, when Western Canadian geology students will converge on Calgary.


Author Credits

University of Alberta
Student Contributor