Robert Macfarlane

Tower Crane Operator

Buildings in downtown Niagara Falls, ships crossing Lake Ontario, spectacular sunrises — even duelling cranes. Local 793 tower crane operator Robert MacFarlane has seen all these and more from his lofty perch overlooking downtown Toronto.

When Crane & Hoist Canada caught up with MacFarlane recently, he’d spent several months tweeting his sights to the world while working on the 57-storey L-Tower at 22 The Esplanade.

He says his privileged height — 710 feet above ground level, near the waterfront — has inspired him to share his images.

Newspapers have called his Comedil CTL250 Canada’s tallest freestanding crane, but there’s gentle disagreement about that among the more than 4,000 people following his tweets.

“I’m not in a position to argue one way or another,” says MacFarlane, who has operated for 20 years. He says his rig has six tie-ins to the L-Tower and should at least stand as the country’s current tallest top climber.

Technicalities aside, there’s no disagreement MacFarlane can see a long way.

On a clear day, he can photograph the City of Niagara Falls and western New York State.

MacFarlane has shot the Skylon Tower, which overlooks the honeymoon capital, though he can’t see The Falls, themselves.

“There’s land in the way,” he explains. “I can see the taller buildings, and I have pictures with mist in them. That’s pretty neat because it tracks the light differently than the clouds. The clouds will usually be grey, and the mist white.”

Towards New York State, he can often see Kintigh Generating Station in the town of Somerset, and cliffs along the water’s edge.

Not all buildings have a name. “I can’t always identify what I’m looking at,” concedes MacFarlane, who has picked out factories in Hamilton to the west, Canada’s Wonderland amusement park to the north, and Darlington Nuclear Generating Station to the east.

Height has its limits. When we spoke, MacFarlane hadn’t yet spotted the Burlington Skyway, an iconic bridge on the Queen Elizabeth Expressway carrying traffic across the western tip of Lake Ontario. “I keep looking for it when the light is right,” he says.

Even when he sees structures, a good shot isn’t guaranteed. The sun shines on many buildings but they can be too far away for a good focus. Wonderland, which is half-way to Barrie, has proven particularly difficult, blending into the background.

The horizon blocks MacFarlane’s view, as do Toronto’s numerous bank towers and condos. “I once saw wisps of smoke on Weston Road (in Toronto’s northwest quadrant) but couldn’t see the actual fire,” he says.

Angles can also be quirky. When the Toronto Blue Jays play afternoon baseball, MacFarlane can peer through the open SkyDome roof but can’t see the field, which is obscured by the Dome’s walls.

Sometimes, MacFarlane sees more than he wants. He didn’t tweet the aftermath of a car rollover on the Gardiner Expressway and another mishap involving a cyclist.

He’d rather share spectacular sunrises and unusual effects caused by weather.

Depending on the position of the sun, clouds over Niagara Falls will have a red or yellow hue. Rays often peek through the clouds, dispatching dark streaks towards the lake.

Sunshine reflecting off boats and the choppy surface of the water on a windy day can be picturesque. Once, a mirage over Niagara Falls made its buildings seem ridiculously tall.

Lake scenes, iconic buildings and the CN Tower are all eye candy.

But MacFarlane can only snap away when he’s on break or his crane is otherwise still.

And even when there’s time to shoot, the Canon SX50 and zoom magnifier take time to set up. Often, when the moment strikes, his cellphone is all he can work with.

“It will do in a pinch,” he says, describing a grainy shot of a sugar-bearing ship cruising towards Toronto’s Redpath plant.

Regardless, MacFarlane feels compelled to post. He doesn’t want to let his audience down.

He feels especially dedicated to those who work with cranes, so there are plenty of industry shots.

Sometimes he can make out a signaller’s face.

And he’s spotted some pretty cool machines. An older Pecco tower crane a few miles away looks like it’s next door, thanks to the zoom.

He’s taken numerous photos of mobile cranes erecting steel at the Pier 27, to his south. One shot shows two cranes, one in front of the other and their booms extending to form a cross. This earned the caption, “Early-morning crane duel.”

Some images are decidedly close to home. The wire running through the middle of one is MacFarlane’s own hook block. A SkyDome shot has a load of lumber being lifted. “It was up near my cab. We turned the crane off for a moment to prepare for a manoeuvre, so I was able to take a picture.

Often, there are multiple cranes in a single view. “If I were to take a 360-degree panoramic picture it would be easy to spot 80 tower cranes.”

MacFarlane, whose @SkyJacked793 identity is a combination of his International Union of Operating Engineers local and the vernacular for climbing or raising a crane, knows the L-Tower will soon be completed and he’ll be onto another assignment.

“It’s entirely possible I could end up high up again, but I could also end up doing a 10-storey building. I’m only going to be working on this tower once, so when the crane comes down it could be over.”