Remote Mineral Exploration
Extracting natural resources and what we don't think about. British Columbia's diamond drillers.
Mineral exploration is the process of determining the size and richness of a mineral deposit. Typically, it takes decades and costs millions of dollars. Many projects have been in exploration since at least the 1960s and of those, most will never come to fruition. But it’s not for a lack of trying.
The mining business is complex. Maybe that is because of its likeness to alchemy - two parts knowledge, one part spellcasting.
On site, the workforce is a combination of prospectors, geologists, diamond drillers, pad builders, helicopter pilots and technicians. People whose backgrounds range from university educated to bush smart, skater kids to tradespeople and wheeler dealers rumming up investors. Not everyone becomes a believer. But the dynamic environment gets under a person’s skin.
Remote and challenging, these temporary places are wild frontiers. They unite unlike people. They test our mettle. Tense, hilarious, happy or humdrum, the camp comes to feel like home.
Diamond drillers are the first to test theory against reality. Pulling sections of drilled rock to the surface, they know enough to spot mineral-rich ores and report the main zone strike as soon as it surfaces. At that moment, the geologists' predictions are revealed to be accurate or not. In happy circumstances, the intersections are larger, sooner and richer than expected.
Drillers work in teams of two. They spend twelve-hour shifts inside a tent shelter. The driller runs the machine and his helper feeds rods into the hole. Perched on the side of a mountain, they work in rain, sleet, scorching temperatures, wind storms and are subject to wildlife encounters. They solve mechanical problems and water supply issues. Support comes in the form of a radio if it's a fly drill program, or a foreman who arrives by helicopter, with parts and tools. It's a dirty, messy, loud environment from which there are few ways to take a break.
Paid by the hour, with bonuses for footage drilled per shift, drillers focus on making as much progress as possible. Riding the line between production and setbacks from pushing the equipment too hard, a kilometre-long hole can be a good thing or a hassle. What goes in must come out. 1000 metres of heavy gauge steel in ten-foot pieces, filled with rock. That's heavy lifting.
At the conceptual level, science and art sit back-to-back. Equally esoteric, the study of either discpline is more like philosophy. Infinite space is an abstract concept. Cubism is an interpretation of reality. Both require us to bend our perception.
Geology is based on extrapolation. Hard rock findings on the surface of the earth are combined with drill results to create trippy 3-D models of ore bodies. Pinpointing where the minerals are located, how far they extend and in what orientation, hundreds of metres underground.
The aim of exploration drill programs is to support theoretical knowledge. And to entice investors.
High-quality findings attract interest and can generate a buzz. Our country is mineral-rich. Yet in the current BC mining industry climate, the means to convert exploration into an operational mine is almost as rare as finding a giant gold nugget. Obstacles are more prevalent than permits.
First on site, this bunch works from a set of GPS coordinates to establish a drilling platform and sometimes, a heli pad per drill site location. Depending on the program's depth, this could mean dozens of builds in a season.
Diverse and able to think on their feet, creative pad builders take into account the safety of the drill crew and the helicopter pilot. They fall enough trees to create clear flight paths, often making use of the stumps to compensate for steep slopes and save on timbers.
They work on raw, uneven ground, guiding in fifteen hundred-pound loads of timbers swinging beneath the helicopter, tethered to a long line. They walk out on joists thirty feet over open air. Part carpenters, problem solvers and innovators, these teams thrive on daily adventures and their cat-like reflexes.
Prospectors have been out poking around since white settlers arrived on Turtle Island. Drawn to the promise of riches, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to explore the furthest reaches of wilderness on the premise that something shiny awaits.
It is the premise that counts. The fluttering filament that reels us in. Most people who end up in exploration are drawn to the freedom of isolation, working outside the norm, experiencing extraordinary things in the vast nothingness of wilderness. They see things that no one in cities ever witnesses. Night skies, glacial runoff, owls, wild strawberries and forest mushrooms. Kokanee fish returning to spawn in impossible creeks. The peeling back of the earth to reveal essential metals and minerals.
Conversations in camps range from the latest Wes Anderson film to how to build a deer stand. Generations-old butter tart recipes circulate. The common denominators are more important than the differences. That is the secret of alchemy.