January 3, 2021

Behind the Scenes: Camp Operations

A lodge manager from Brandon, a sous-chef from Vancouver Island, and two camp attendants from Edmonton and a First Nations community in BC walk into a camp…

It sounds like the set up for a one-liner, but it’s actually the reality for several hundred employees working in the dozens of camps that Horizon North operates. Few other workplaces see a group of people from widespread regions get together, in person, to run a successful operation. The unique aspects of camp employment – remote locations and rotational shifts among them – make it possible and, in fact, necessary.

A visit to a client-owned camp south of Fort McMurray where our team provides lodge management, catering, housekeeping and janitorial services gives an idea of ‘camp life’ and the stories of the people who make a living in their ‘home away from home’.

Sara and Shaylee – Camp Attendants

Sara and Shaylee – Camp Attendants

“Nervous and a bit scared” is how Sara and Shaylee both describe the first time they left the Horizon North’s Edmonton office for the first shift of their camp jobs. That was in December 2017 for Sara and July 2017 for Shaylee. Now, the two fast friends, who first met on the staff bus to camp, are seen as young leaders within the camp attendant team, the group responsible for ensuring guest rooms are a comfortable space for clients.

The nervousness about what awaited them in camp was to be expected as neither had any camp experience. Sara had some housekeeping experience, and Shaylee had only heard stories from a cousin who was working in the kitchen at a camp. Adding to Shaylee’s nerves was that she would be the youngest person on her team.

Now, the two women are thriving in camp. Their rotation starts on a Monday, with a 6 a.m. arrival at the office for a safety briefing and an overview of camp goings-on. At 7 a.m., the bus leaves the office and begins the five-hour journey to their camp. Almost immediately upon arrival, the team gets to work for their first shift, putting in five hours on a typical first day. The remainder of their rotation is 10-hour shifts, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing at 7:30 p.m. with a half-hour break.

As their two-week rotation moves through its cycle, the camp attendants’ duties shift from ensuring guest washrooms are neat and tidy to ensuring all check-out rooms – guests who have ended their rotation and left camp – are clean and prepared for new guests to arrive. Once these jobs are done for the day, the focus turns to linen changes for the rooms that need the once-weekly service.

Knowing that the group coming in on a new rotation is going to be tired from an early morning and long drive, the camp attendants look out for each other. During their last shift, they get as many things done as possible for the new team so that their first day back on the job is short and easy. That extra work is something they know will be done in return when they go through the same thing coming back from their week away. It’s a little thing, but it points to the unique team atmosphere that exists in a camp.

Just as it is throughout our organization, a key focus in camp is safety. Sara summarizes it this way: “Camp life wears off on you. Even when I go home, I say to myself ‘that’s a hazard’ when I see something I’ve been trained to avoid.” Shaylee quickly agrees: “I used to leave things plugged in when I went out, but not anymore. It’s the little things that you take home with you.”

Asked what they enjoy about camp life, Sara and Shaylee take turns listing off several items.

“I like the fact that I get up, get ready, walk out the door and my job is right there,” says Shaylee.

“I know it’s not in every camp, but the extras on this site are good for the times we’re not working,” adds Sara. “I like video games so having them set up in the rec room, along with other games like pool, is fun.”

Chris – Sous-Chef

Chris- Sous Chef

At first glance, a remote camp near Fort McMurray seems a long way from a 25-year career working at high-end resorts. By sheer distance it is, but Chris, a Horizon North sous-chef, sees a lot of similarities between the two when it comes to the overall goal.

“Camp food doesn’t have to be low-end food,” Chris says. “My philosophy is we can make great, world-class food here and I’m proud that Horizon North agrees.”

On the job since December 2017, Chris is settling in to his first taste of camp life quite nicely. “I work the same hours as I did in the Fairmonts of the world,” he says, “with the advantage that when I’m away from work and back on the island, I’m not going to be called in.”

‘The island’ is Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family, including two young children. Like Sara and Shaylee, Chris works two weeks on and one week off, catching a flight from Comox, BC to Edmonton on Sunday night so he is ready for his Monday morning trip to camp. As soon as the bus arrives back in Edmonton at the end of his rotation, he is on the reverse flight to Comox to spend the week with his family.

A sous-chef’s rotation in camp begins with twelve-hour day shifts before moving to night shifts of the same length for the second week. About four and a half hours of a day shift sees the team preparing that night’s fresh dinner for clients. Other duties on the day shift include tidying up from breakfast, ensuring the 24-hour food and drink service is stocked, and taking part in the 1 p.m. safety toolbox meeting. The 15-minute meeting covers a key safety topic to keep in mind and sees the staff discussing any recent hazard identifications and the corrective measures taken.

When the rotation moves over to the night shift, Chris takes on supervisory responsibilities. He spends roughly three and a half hours at the start of his shift preparing hot boxes for clients to take as lunch to their work site. That is followed by preparations for the night shift’s 1 a.m. safety toolbox meeting, after which the remaining time is spent getting ready for the morning’s breakfast rush from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Given the volume of food served, Chris and the team do prep work as much in advance as possible for meals. Roughly two days out from a meal, they begin any tasks they can, so their attention in the hours leading up to breakfast or dinner is focused on preparation of high-quality, fresh food.
“Where people new to a camp kitchen can get overwhelmed,” Chris cautions, “is not understanding just how much food and how much work goes into a meal for 900 people. That initial shock can be a difficult adjustment, but we have built a great core group of people that have all gone through that learning curve successfully and know what it takes. Now, it’s just part of the job.”

Chris acknowledges the toughest part of being away for two weeks is not being with his family. He looks on the bright side, though, recognizing that tools like FaceTime that weren’t available in the past make it easier to cope because he can still see his family.

Asked about the best parts of camp life, Chris lists the fact there is a gym on site that requires no membership and is accessible at all hours of the day, the ability to listen to music while he works, and perhaps most importantly, the new people he meets every day. “I like hearing people’s stories,” he says, “and we’re so diverse within our own staff and among our clients that if you take the time to talk to people, you learn so many interesting things.”
Like Sara and Shaylee, Chris says the safety culture at Horizon North is like nothing he’s ever seen, from the color-coded cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination, to the speed at which hazards are fixed. “If we do a Hazard ID for something, it gets fixed or corrected right away. The work that is done coaching us on safety really sets us up for success. It might seem like a lot, but I always remember that it’s done for our own benefit.”

Don – Lodge Manager

Don – Lodge Manager

Don is the Lodge Manager at the camp and describes his role like this: “I’m not the person playing the music. I’m just the maestro at the front ensuring everyone stays together.”

After making clients feel at home in his work as a general manager for a hotel in Fort McMurray, and then overseeing the operations of 23 hotels in the Arctic, our philosophy of providing a home away from home for our many clients was a perfect fit for Don. He also had the benefit of one previous taste of camp life, managing a facility near Fort Hills before joining Horizon North in July 2017.

In that previous two-year camp stint, Don made a truly unique choice that would be impossible in most regular circumstances. He would travel on his weeks off – an all-inclusive resort here, a few days in Vegas there – rather than calling a specific place ‘home’. Now, though, Don lives in Brandon, Manitoba, commuting to Calgary and then Edmonton on the Sundays prior to the start of his rotation. On Monday morning, he takes the client-owned charter plane to camp to begin his two weeks of work.

The similarities of this role with Don’s previous hotel work are easy to see: managing budgets, overseeing client relations, and leading the housekeeping, guest services, food services and recreation teams.

The differences between a hotel and a camp start with the sheer size of the facility. “Where a typical hotel I managed would have anywhere between 150-300 rooms, this camp gets up to 900 active guests right now, and has capacity for about 1,500 people,” Don says. “We do as many check-ins and check-outs some days as I had people in an entire hotel.”

Another key difference is the unique life of rotational staff who find themselves a long way from home. “Compared to my hotel days, the staff here are more like family, and they have to be,” Don observes. “Unlike most people, they don’t go home to their families every night, so for two weeks at a time, this is their family. There are so many different backgrounds, even just in terms of life experience, it’s exciting for me to watch them all work.”
“There is so much to like about his job now,” Don says. “I get to do what I love – provide exceptional customer service and lead a team of great individuals. There is nothing more rewarding than watching the people that report to me succeed and move forward.”

Like Chris, another benefit to camp life that Don lists is the ability to turn his ‘work mode’ off when he is not in camp. Another lodge manager comes on site when Don is away for his week off, and being three flights away, nobody is going to call him into work.

However, that same remote lifestyle can be a double-edged sword with Don’s responsibilities. “If something happens to one of our team members, if they get sick for example, I can’t just call someone in to help out. We all have to pitch in and make do until the next rotation comes in.”

The Right Attitude

Sara, Shaylee, Chris and Don have all seen team members come and go from their camp. After nine months of overseeing operations at the camp, though, a core team has emerged that sees little to no change as employees grow accustomed to the more unusual aspects of camp life and start to excel.

For those who might be thinking of a camp job, Don captures the group’s advice best: “You need to want to be there, and you need to come with an open mind. Even if you have worked in a camp before, you need to recognize that no two camps are exactly alike, and you need to find a way to settle into the team and the life. Thinking of a camp job as the golden goose will get you nowhere.”

“It’s unique, it’s hard work, but with the right frame of mind, it can be great work.”

Learn more about our workforce accommodations services and explore open camp positions among all of our Dexterra Group job postings.