A visual journal of life in the Bakken
Chris Rusanowsky is a photojournalist based in Los Angeles, but lived and worked in North Dakota at a frac-sand facility in the Bakken oil fields for approximately one-year beginning in 2013. The days were long, the conditions were rough, but the one thing that propelled him and his comrades forward was the tight friendship that emerged through the harsh conditions. They arrived young individuals but left as a brotherhood of men.
Being a photographer, Chris took every opportunity to document his surroundings and experiences with his camera, whether it be his professional DSLR or his iPhone.
The below retrospective is a very raw, exclusive glimpse of life in the Bakken near the end of the boom, photographed by someone who lived the roughneck life and experienced all that went with it.
Words and photos by Chris Rusanowsky.
I worked as floating supervisor at a company that specialized in distributing frac sand to the Bakken oil fields. Many of my shifts were at night, and many of my work locations looked like this Wolf Point, Mont., location where I spent the bulk of my time.
Our shifts lasted twelve-hours and it was our job to load in-bound trucks with sand from the rail cars, like my friend, Adam Braun is doing in the above picture). Each truck can carry 30 tons of frac sand and takes about fifteen minutes to load. On a good night, trucks will get loaded and leave to their destination in a hurry. On a bad night, equipment can fail and leave us with a traffic jam of semis waiting to get their load.
At the height of the oil boom, we would load 60-90 trucks per day. The job itself was easy. The tough part was battling the equipment that would constantly fail due to its age and weather conditions.
It was tough enough to work in the dark (with only two lights to illuminate the site), but adding equipment failure into the mix made things near impossible. If a hatch would freeze, we would use a weed burner to thaw the hatch as fast as possible and get back to loading the ever-growing line of trucks.
I took this image to show the first-person view of operating our front-loader through its shattered windshield to show what it was like to operate heavy machinery that had endured many years of use in The Bakken. It cracked after a co-worker stepped on the breaks too hard while driving the loader and hit the windshield head-first (while wearing his hard hat).
A cleanup crew vacuums contaminated frac sand from a railroad track in New Town, ND in 2013.
Terry from Oklahoma spent most of his time driving to different facilities to clean railroad tracks. Here, he stopped for a portrait after a grueling week of driving. Terry would rotate facilities for a series of weeks before hitting the road again to work in a new part of the country.
Jeff Johnson had a knack for making a frustrating situation at work more enjoyable. Here, he called a company mechanic while wearing his old lumber suspenders in addition to his normal PPE (personal protection equipment) to inform him a piece of equipment stopped working.
Left, clouds of dust and sand filled the air while we vacuumed out a truck that got overfilled. Right, I hold a handful of manufactured ceramic frac sand used for specific applications due to its size and weight.
One of my coworkers and I went to the top of a silo to perform maintenance for the company that leased us the yard and train tracks that we used for our operation. Because each company worked in such close proximity we looked out for each other and helped with various tasks. Adding the extra work on top of our already long hours was grueling at times, but it was essential to maintain a great relationship with our neighbors.
The early morning fog would create moody scenes every once and a while. Here, it rests near a line of crude oil rail cars waiting to be moved out from a loading bay facility.
Down time and relationships
Left, I took this picture to show my mom what my clothes looked like after my first day on the job. Right, one of my favorite things to do on my off days was explore the back roads of North Dakota.
Left: We would go shooting on our off days and had a lot of guns. This one was being stored on the stove for some reason. Yes, it was loaded. And yes, we moved it. Right: Matt Miller, a inventory supervisor for a oil company, mixes e-cigarette juice for his side company, “The Vapist.” Matt saw an opportunity to sell his juice to truck drivers and fellow employees in and around his work site. Because many vape stores were too far away for most people in the oil field, Miller became the go-to guy for different flavored juice.
Diet and health were a challenge living in the oil fields. Most of us survived on gas station food because our apartments or man-camps were too small to have a stove or fridge.
At one point our housing situation got an upgrade and we had a deck, which gave us the perfect place to grill. Here, Adam Braun cooks chicken on a small bbq on our hotel patio. We were thrilled that the bigger place gave us the opportunity to buy meat and cook our own meals.
Another reality of living in the oil fields in the winter was that our pipes would freeze, keeping us from taking a shower. We never really knew from one day to the next if we’d be able to take a shower after a day of work in the winter.
I owned two vehicles in the Bakken. Road conditions are terrible and passing semi-trucks would shoot rocks at everyone’s windshield. Within thirty minutes of driving my new (used) car back home, a huge rock hit my window and sprayed glass on the dash.
Holidays became less important to us in The Bakken because we were usually working or only had time to hang out in a bar (instead of flying home to be with family). But on this particular Fourth of July, we were invited to join a local family (The Hurleys) to celebrate Independence Day with their friends and extended family. Together we released Kongming lanterns out into the sky and lit fire works (above). It was a treat to experience normal life again, if only for one night.
Jeff (the guy in the suspenders above) and Sadira met in North Dakota. Sadira was working in a bar and Jeff stopped in and started a conversation. It turned out they both were from the same small town of Enumclaw, Wash., had many of the same friends but never knew each other back home. The Bakken brought these two Washingtonians together, and this picture was from their first date in 2013.
Jeff and Sadira’s story was a rare one, definitely not a typical situation to find love in the Bakken. They were married on March 21, 2016, and I got to photograph their wedding day.
After work we were confined to a hotel room with little to no interactions with people. My friend, Adam Braun took in a stray cat to keep him company in his hotel room.
One of my coworkers got a new tattoo, another one of our friends took the plastic off to see how it was setting in.
Left: A friend of mine plays a game of pool at a local bar called The Watering Hole after a long day of looking for work (because he was laid off). Right. In a local bar in Fairview, N.D., two young men measure each other’s strength by wrestling and fighting. It was mostly fun and games and ended with both guys having a beer together later that night.
Left: A friend of mine got his paycheck and cashed it the same day because he was going to buy something, I can’t remember what, but it made a fun picture. Right. A portrait of Grant Brungus wearing the watch that his best friend gave him after leaving the Bakken for good. This parting gift cost approximately $1,500.
Spending a day off in Fort Peck, Mont. John Emily casted his first line of the summer.
Man it’s cold
Top left,: This picture was taken during a snow storm with a temperature of -30 degrees. It was the first time we were told we could not legally work because it was too cold. I remembering asking myself “what on earth am I doing here.” We spent most of that winter in our trucks. Top right: Jeff Johnson does pull-up on a transloader (used for loading frac sand into the trucks) to stay warm after being outside for hours.
Bottom left: Time to thaw my fingers on my truck’s heater vents, something anyone who’s lived in North Dakota or Montana can relate to. Bottom right: A snowy winter scene on an oil location in N.D.
Dylan Villenurve rests for a moment on a front-end loader after a long twelve-hour night shift. The sun started to rise behind him and a beam of light shone down from Dylan’s headlamp. This was my favorite picture of life in the Bakken.
Adam Braun started working in The Bakken in 2013 and began each day by smoking a cigarette in front of his hotel room. I knew Adam in California. When I was considering going into the military, he told me about the Bakken and talked me into making the trip to North Dakota.
Fatigue was a constant battle in The Bakken. Here, after working through the night, Adam Braun had just fallen sleep. After thirty minutes, his phone rang and he was back on the job because another line of empty trucks was heading his way to be loaded. Braun put on his layers of clothing to go work out in the freezing morning weather.
Top left: Drugs (legal or otherwise) could make one feel awake and perform strenuous duties in spite of fatigue. Here, a man that showed signs of using a substance crashes on top of a cardboard box. Top right: Kyle (not using any substances) was about to head home after a day shift in the scale house but didn’t make it past the nearest chair before falling asleep due to complete exhaustion.
Bottom left: I took this picture during a stressful day in New Town, N.D. A new worker sat against a loading bin with frac sand at his feet. He shared his story about life before working in the oil fields and how he hopes he can make a better life for his daughter. Bottom right: while many days were non-stop work, there were slow times which gave us time to relax (or be bored, in some cases). Robert, who worked at the a frac sand facility for four years waited for instruction from superiors in a wheelbarrow in the shade.
At the beginning of the night shift in Fairview, Mont., a young worker sat on the trailer of a semi-truck as it got loaded with thousands of pounds of frac sand. Already feeling the long night ahead he lit a cigarette and watched the last moments of sundown.
After the drop of oil production in 2015, we would see scenes like this: large quantities of drilling rig derricks waiting for their next assignment. Seemingly overnight oil field workers started losing their jobs, long built friendships would end, and our job security became our number one concern.
The oil boom brought people together from many backgrounds and cultures. We learned the value of friendship and how to work as a team. I’m convinced that the oilfields produced millions of barrels of oil not because of hydraulic fracking and directional drilling, but because of the fathers, sons, brothers, men and women that worked together to accomplish a goal. We gained more than a paycheck; we gained experiences, lifetime friends and built resilience. The Bakken experience was over, and it was time to take what we learned and move to the next chapter.
Did you work in the Bakken? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below, we want to hear your stories.