Monday, February 09, 2015

Life at the Mine (Pic Heavy!)

Well guys, I've been putting off tackling this post, partially because it's a bit of a slog trying to wittle down my photos to a reasonably sized post (and also try to track down photos from underground - I wasn't really successful at either), and partially because it's bittersweet.  I'll get to that latter part later.  I'm going to explain how my job works, but I'll also be sprinkling in a bunch of photos from around the mine site, because I have a lot of them!

In front of the mine portal
Here I am, in front of the portal leading underground.  This is, honestly, the only picture I have of myself in my gear and anywhere near underground.
So you've been asking for details about life at an operating mine, and here it is.

I'm a production geologist at an underground mine in the Yukon.  Basically what that boils down to is that I go underground, get in everyones way, look for shiny rocks, draw pictures, and tell everyone where to go. 

Well okay, there's a bit more to it.

The Mill - where the ore we haul up from underground is processed and our economical metals are extracted (copper, zinc, lead, silver, and a bit of gold).  Awesome storm over the lake in the background.
We use a cut-and-fill mining method, where we excavate long tunnels or 'drifts' following the ore (the rock that contains the economical metal-bearing minerals) by blasting out the rock in 3.5 m long rounds, then fill it back up once the drift is done with a combination of waste material (non-economical rock) and paste (a goo made from cement and tailings [the left-over material after we mill the ore]).  Because the ore body is tilted at about a 40 degree angle, we will then mine another level (aka 'lift') above and to the side of the previous, like a series of steps.

Are you still with me?

Here's a jumbo, drilling off a round at our mine.  If you look closely, you can see the ore (lighter brown) dipping from upper left to lower right across the 'face' (the leading edge of the drift). 
We drill off these 3.5 m rounds using a Jumbo Drill.  The geologist job is to go in to see every single round that was blasted, map the ore in the whole round, especially the face and back (face = leading edge of the drift, back = the ceiling of the round, and walls or ribs = the walls on either side of the tunnel).  Once it's mapped and I've sampled the ore, we tell the jumbo operators what direction to turn.  The ore isn't perfect - it pinches and swells, meanders about, and sometimes a fault will cut it off or send it off in another direction.  It's our job to 'read' the rock and anticipate any upcoming turns in the ore, then tell the drillers how to follow it.

Our drillers are fantastic guys who have more experience underground than I have out of diapers, so one learns to tell them where to go very respectfully!  And honestly, I've learned more from those guys than I ever did out of a textbook.

The view as you exist the portal.  This is a wonderful site after walking up the I-don't-even-want-to-know-how-many kilometre hike up from the bottom of the mine.
Once I'd been around to all of the blasted rounds that day, me and the Geotech Engineer (the guy in charge of ground support - I'll explain that more soon) will go to surface, talk to the miners shift supervisor, drop off samples at the lab, and clean up.  Because I'm a geologist, so of course I've got to play with the rock and climb equipment and get sprayed by water and generally find any way possible to get filthy, a shower is definitely called for - yes, even at 10 in the morning when we get back up.

This is a clean day - you can see the pasty skin on my hands and my face is practically spotless!
Did I mention that our day starts at about 5:30?  Yeah, it sucks as badly as you think it does, especially for this night-owl.

We can get a lot of snow...
Anyways, once up in the office, I make up good copies of all of my maps, update all of our digital maps and input data into various programs, and assist with mine planning.  I also plan for the following day, trying to anticipate any surprises or upcoming turns in the ore.  And then go bug anyone available - my favourites is our Environmental Coordinator (who is awesome and hilarious and gets so exasperated by all my geeky enviro-geochem questions) and our Geotech Engineer, because I live to sass that guy.

My days are very predictable and unchanging, but the details are interesting.

Underground though, our miners are as busy as ants.  We usually blast all of the rounds drilled off and loaded with explosives at the end of day shift.  Every round that gets blasted, needs to be first mucked out with a scoop.  That means that the equipment shown above goes in and 'scoops' out the blasted rock and takes it to a big underground haul truck, which generally hauls the rock to surface (unless it's being stored underground somewhere).

Bolter in an active drift. You can see bolt heads and screen up on the walls and back.  Also our Geotech Engineer on the right.  Shiny doofus.
Once all of the rock has been hauled away, the round needs to be supported.  The ground (the surrounding rock) at our mine is bad - like, really bad.  It crumbles away like nothing, and if we don't keep drift sizes as small as possible, or if we go too far into the soft rock above the ore, or if we don't support the round properly, we could wind up with a rockfall, and someone could get hurt, or worse.  So this is a hugely important job and the reason why our Geotech Engineer goes around to all of the active drifts with me - he makes the call about what ground support is needed, and keeps an eye on other areas of the drift in case things are deteriorating.  Then he tells the bolter (the miner who installs bolts and screen on our bolter equipment) what will be needed.

These guys are also fantastic.  They really know their stuff.  And since they're drilling into the rock all around the drift, they usually have a good feel for what types of rock is around us and are immensely helpful by passing on that information to me, which in turns helps me make more informed decisions. 

Once a round is supported, the next round can be drilled off, and thus we complete our little mining cycle!

Sunrise in the winter...after 10 am.
Seriously, we have the best guys at our site - all of them are just fantastic and one big well oiled machine.  They work in a mine with one of the worst ground conditions in Canada (and possibly North America) with minimal staff and some real tempermental equipment.  And they do it with a (generally) possitive attitude and the knowledge and drive to get it done properly and safely.  I've learned so much from them and admire them immensely.

One of the planes that take us back and forth from Whitehorse.
Life at the mine itself is interesting.  I do a two and two rotation, where I work two weeks straight at the mine doing 12 hour days, and then back home for two weeks out.  My Mom always comments about how I only work half of the year, but to be fair, we work 168 hours in that two weeks, the equivalent of full time hours PLUS eight hours overtime a month.

View of the sun rising over the mountain range as we fly out of camp.
Since I live in Whitehorse, my commute back and forth to the mine is easy - just a 45 to 90 minute flight (depending on the plane) to the mine - people coming from Vancouver or Toronto or worse - the Maritimes - have a much further trip and lose some of their time out to travelling.  The flights are lovely though - we usually fly low enough to get a good view of the mountains and early enough that we get to watch the sun rising over them (if it's not summer and the suns already been up for hours by then).

3 of the 6 dorms on the right, the two men's dry and the one tiny women's dry (place to change and shower and 'dry' your gear after being underground) at the top, and offices on the left.  And low cloud layer above - we're usually socked in like this on Thursdays - because of course Thursdays are Flydays.
We live in Atco trailer dorms, eat in a kitchen constructed out of a bunch of Atco trailers attached together, and work in offices made the same way.  I don't seem to have interior shots of any of them - weird.  We all have our own individual rooms with shared bathroom facilities - and yes, there's dedicated women's washrooms.  Our rooms consist of a tiny bed, a desk and chair (which, in my case, are both generally covered in yarn), a shelf with a TV on it, and two closets.  I share my room with my cross-shift - the women who I share my job with and who comes in when I go out for my two weeks.

Sundogs on the airstrip.

Having a good relationship with your cross-shift is key, in my books.  Makes your job so much easier when there's no conflict there.  We're lucky because me and my cross-shift think and do our job very similarly, so things are really consistant between us.  Plus we're friends, so we try to make eachothers rotation as easy as possible.  The only down-side is that despite living and working in the same place, we only ever meet up for a few minutes on the airstrip on Flyday.  :(

View from my office window.

What else.  Well, as I mentioned before, our day starts anywhere between 5:30 and 6:00 am (we get in earlier than normal so we can make the miner's morning meetings), and I'm usually underground by 6:15, and up anywhere between 8:30 and 10:30, depending on the day.  The rest of the day is spent in the office.  Meals are provided for us by good cooks - too good sometimes, and we usually have a nice selection of food.  And there's always too many damn desserts available.

You can't see me!
We have gym facilities, as well as a big TV room and phone booths for calling home.  There's also a few trails we're allowed to hike/snowshoe, although those can be closed the moment a bear is seen.  Yes, we see lots of bears up there, and porcupines and moose and caribou and ptarmigans and so much more!

I climbed up to the peak seen above three times.  And half-way up a few more.  It's a haul alright, especially after a 12 hour shift, but it's worth it for the views:

Looking down the valley to the south.  Camp facilities, including all 6 dorms with the kitch in the middle at the middle-right, and tailings pond and airstrip to the left.
Looking up the valley to the north.  Part of the mill facilities on the lower-left with the mine portal and associated supply area in the middle-left, and Wolverine Lake to the upper right.
Why yes, I did haul my knitting up there once!
Snowshoein' up the mountain one fine winter day.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I really love this job - not only because it's an awesome job, but also because of the people I work with.  We've been through so many ups and downs, that the bs has mostly been cut through and we all - everyone on site - works hard together to pull it off.

I should say, worked hard.  Because unfortunately, the mine has been shut down again, and I'm pretty sure it won't start up once more.  Long-time readers of my blog(s) may remember that I've been laid off from this place twice before?  Well, I have a feeling that third-times the charm.  I'm hopeful that things will come back together and the mine will open again, but I need to be realistic too.  It's sad, but this is the mining industry, and we're in another slump.  You can't get into this industry thinking that you'll be at the same place for decades at a time.  I'm happy and thankful that I got two years working with such a great crew, but I'm sad that it's ended.

Hense the bittersweet comment at the start of all this.

On the airstrip, leaving camp after my very first rotation.  Didn't get a pic of me leaving camp on my very last.  This will have to do.

What am I going to do now?  I don't know, really.  I'm giving myself some time off - unless a good geo job comes up, I'm cutting myself slack in job hunting.  I'm knitting up a storm, thinking of more sewing projects, re-studying geology (watch for posts on the cool stuff), and wanting to spend more time on my skis (both cross-country and downhill) - if this weather ever warms up.  Oh, and hanging out with my cross-shift.  Beyond that?  I don't know - we'll see what comes my way!

The Canadian Flag flying on the ridge above camp.
Do you have any questions about the mine operations?  I know I've thrown a lot at you here in an unending babble, but there's even more I've skipped over.  I'm happy to answer any question I can about the mining process and life at the mine.


  1. That is so cool. Thank you.
    I used to live in Flin Flon and while my uncle worked at the mine, it didn't occur to me to ask for a tour. I'm rather surprised at myself b/c I am usually quite inquisitive (pronounced snoopy).

    1. I've always wanted to go to Flin Flon! Although that might've been because of Josiah Flintabbaty Flonatin. ;)

      Woo hoo Manitoba? Did you know I'm from there? Lac du Bonnet/Grand Beach region - northeast of Winnipeg close to the Ontario border.

  2. First, I'm so sorry to hear about the mine closing! Joblessness is no fun, and I can only imagine how much more frustrating it must be in a more specialized industry--there's not exactly a mine on every corner looking to hire, right? (Right?) I have so many questions, actually, because there's so much I don't know. Have you worked at any other mines, and if so, were they in the same region or far away from where you are now? Is it common in your industry to change companies or locations frequently? If the mine doesn't reopen, are you likely to stay near where you are, or move to another province, or even another country? Are two-and-two rotations common, or are there other shift patterns? Do you always work with the same crew of miners because of the rotations? How do you handle sick time and vacation? What kind of pay structure does your line of work have--salary, hourly, commission, other?

    Whew. That's just the first whack of questions I could come up with. Maybe not the most interesting, but I've never met anyone with a job remotely like yours, so I find it all really fascinating. (Have you considered doing an Ask Me Anything on Reddit? I bet it would be great.) I also look forward to hearing about the cool geology re-studying you're working on. :-)

    1. Eh, I've been laid off twice from here already - I'm actually the go-to person for questions at the mine right now! lol Honestly, the last time I got rehired there, last January, I didn't expect the job to last beyond March, so I've been prepared for this for a while now. Don't you worry about me. But thank you for your concern. :) It's easier when it's expected.

      Haha okay, lets see if I can get through these:

      No, there's not a lot of mines around for me to apply with. There's a pretty high unemployment rate for geos, but at least I'm a northerner, which puts me ahead of some - at least in the northern mines.

      I've worked at one other operating mine - a low-grade gold mine in northern Saskatchewan. I was living in Winnipeg at the time, so travelled back and forth. Which sucked because I was working 3 and 1, 3 weeks in, 1 week out. That was when I was a student though - this is my first mine outside of university - which is why I'm so glad I got two years out of it. Will help for job hunting in the future.

      It is pretty common to change jobs relatively often, mostly because the majority of mines out there don't last that long - sometimes mine life is only a few years. There's also the impact of rotational work - not everyone is willing or able to keep with it. I know of several people who quit this type of work when they started families so they could be home more often. It can also be hard on relationships - one of the guys who was at our mine when I started, went back to school to learn a different career because it had such a hard impact on his dating life.

      I'm pretty committed to staying in Whitehorse, mostly because my boyfriend is settled here, but also because I love it here. I'm willing to travel for work, and if I need to do some sort of 'live partially in one city' thing, I might consider it. So I'll either hold out for a Yukon mine position, a fly-in fly-out somewhere else (I'd love to work above the arctic circle somewhere!), or find something else locally. I'm even considering going back to school if need-be, to find a decent career for when the industry tanks.

      Two-and-two is ideal, seriously. I'm looking into a few exploration projects (basically field positions where you're exploring a potential future mine - drill programs and modelling and all that), and almost all of them are 4 and 2 - 4 weeks in, 2 weeks out. I'm open to them, because they usually just run from spring to late fall/early winter, and then you get the winter off, but that means basically losing your summers. And I've already discussed this with the Boyfriend and he's not keen on them...neither am I. We'd both rather equal time in/out. There's another mine in the Territory that runs 3 and 3 though. I got spoiled at this last place - I'm not joking when I say 2 and 2 is least for me.

    2. PART 2, because won't you stop talking already Heather, jeez.

      I worked with the same crew with the main company that owned the mine - so the other guys in my department, the same mill people, surface ops, etc. The miners were from a sub-contractor, and they worked a 3 and 3 rotation, so I cycled through everyone eventually. Which, let me tell you, is not good for remembering everyone's names!

      I can't tell you the number of times I've caught the camp plague and tried to power through at camp while deathly ill. You try to suck it up, but then there's the possibility of spreading whatever plague you've caught to everyone else. A few months back, I got badly ill in camp, and I spent a lot of days sleeping in my room. The Geotech Engineer knows enough of my position that he could cover the underground portion for me (with lots of prep notes ahead of time), and I'd stumble in sometime in the afternoon to cover the office portion and try to at least keep up with my duties. Then I played catch up when I was feeling better. For planned vacations and all that, my cross-shift and I would usually make arrangements - I cover this week if you'll cover that week. So we'd basically be working a 3 week rotation with 1 week out. It sucks, but it's a good option to have. Last summer, my cousin was getting married, and not only did it land in the second week of my shift, but my cross-shift was going to be out of town and unable to cover for me. Luckily I have an awesome Senior Geologist, and he covered for me that week. We make things work - it's the advantage of a close-knit, small team.

      I was on a salary, although extra overtime above and beyond the regular work schedule was hourly, I believe. We also have an awesome benefits package, which I'm trying to use up right now, since the advantage of the temp layoff I'm on is still having benefits! HELLO MASSEUSE!

      I don't think I'd do anything on Reddit, because Social Media scares the pants off me. I don't even use Twitter anymore, and facebook is for keeping in touch with family. :P

      Anymore questions? BRING 'EM ON! :D

    3. More questions? You betcha! What's the most interesting thing you've found in a mine, geology-wise? What's the most interesting non-geologic thing you've found? What's the biggest misconception people have about your job? Do you face any criticism about the relationship of mining to the environment, and if so, how do you respond?

    4. One of my favourite things I found underground was an unknown extention of the ore zone - a copper-rich zone at that. I came into camp and heard that this one level appeared to be done - the ore had faulted off and we'd reached about the same length as previous levels above. But when I went underground to map the "last" round and call a stop, I wasn't convinced. It looked like something we'd seen previously in this same drift, where the ore had faulted off to the right and a good hard turn got us back into it.

      I talked my supervisor into letting me push it a few more rounds - I knew the next round would be waste, but there should be ore in the following round after that. And wouldn't you know it, I was right. We pushed that heading another 50 m or so, and I take full credit for it! That was pretty cool.

      Non-geologic? Uh..I found a remote control in a muck pile (muck = blasted our rock in a round). Not sure...where it came from, but it was certainly weird!

      I'm actually an environmental geochemist, so I'm pretty good at talking both sides. I haven't actually had to face any except by a young cousin, and we just had a good conversation about need-based demand and responsible mining practices. As the saying goes, 'if it can't be grown, it has to be mined' (or recycled - but that only goes so far and with select things). Our mine was actually doing a good job at keeping environmental issues at the forefront, and it was often used as an example by environmental inspection agencies for other mines. We have our share of issues, but we were handling them. Although now I hear that the mine fell behind on the money it's supposed to be paying the local government to cover environmental clean-up, so we'll see how this goes.

      Any more? I'm really enjoying your questions!

    5. Awesome story about the ore vein. Kudos! Any tine you want to write about this stuff, you have a readership!

  3. Love this post but sad to hear you have been laid off. That's happening with mines all over the world. I'm very familiar with the work you do, as my ex was a Geo-tech guy, who was also a Geologist. Doesn't look like Canadian mines are much different from Australian ones, except I think that with fly-in fly out, the rooms are just locked, not shared with another person. And climate is quite different of course - heat not snow. I guess you have learnt to sit out mining downturns, but I hope something turns up for you.

    1. Aha so how many rocks did he bring home to you? :D

      I have some friends that work as geos in Australia! I nearly went over myself, but I'd rather -35C to +35C, so I figured north was a better option for me.

      I hope things turn up again too! I don't think I could handle a desk job right now - not for too long anyways. But we'll see what happens! Thanks so much for the kind words. :)

    2. Rocks were bought home :). I did geology at high school so I kind of liked the rocks anyway. I agree, the Oz weather is not for everyone.

  4. Wow! I'm in the states and grew up in the suburbs and currently live in the suburbs in the States. Thank you for sharing your photos and experiences of what it's like to work in a mine. Modern technology is phenomenal and I work mostly with databases and it's great and fascinating to see other types of technology. The landscape is gorgeous.

    I'll keep you in my thoughts regarding employment.

    1. Aw, you're very sweet, thanks! :) I fell in love with the area, and every morning (seriously, every single morning) I felt so lucky to have the chance to work in such a beautiful area. The pictures above and those still on my computer don't do the region justice, especially when the sun rises and certain mountains in the area are just aglow in pinks and oranges. Stunning!

      I'm really glad that people are enjoying the post and the pictures. :)

  5. Great post! I have seen one or two of your photos inside the building, but I think they were in your room. This is really interesting to me. I didn't realise the part where you tell the driller where to go would be a daily thing, i'd pictured a slower pace of extraction I guess. But then I know nothing about mining, apart from meeting a few mining engineers when I was at university. And my aunt has been cooking at a camp in Australia where it got to 45 degrees for weeks. Hideous.
    Hope you find another cool job. It sounds like hard work, you must have to be fit. Enjoy the break!

    1. Ahhh maybe some of my project photos. I had a few from a hat I knit a year or so ago, taken in my room - but the room is so small you can't really see much of anything. Oh, I've taken some in my office, but same sort of thing - can't really see the rooms much.

      Nah, to run efficiently and profitably, you need to use your equipment and manpower at max efficiency - so we're usually running 5-8 rounds a day, and sometimes more.

      UGH OMG 45C?! That is horrendious and definitely prooves I made the right choice moving north! lol I'd rather -45C (and I get it, sometimes).

      Eh, fit enough. :) Thanks for the well wishes!

    2. Yes, they were project photos. I think one was in the story about dashing to the loo without a bra and meeting an engineer or someone. Anyway I'm terminally nosy so I studied what was visible about the background of your pics. :-)

    3. Both plus and minus 45 sound horrendous to me. That is not a land made for people. But then i live in a temperate maritime climate where a cold winter day is 5 degrees C and a hit summer one is 25. (A fresh breeze is 40 km/h and a rather frequent rough day, comprising a large part of September, is 100 km/h. Our houses are poorly insulated but our roofs are securely fastened). I would have no idea how to live or dress for that kind of cold. Something tells me a singlet isn't going to cut the mustard.

  6. I'm sorry this worksite seems to have ended for you, Heather, but I'm sure there's a whole new adventure ahead. I'm surprised by the amount of (under)ground you seem to cover daily too. How much total area would you say is excavated daily?

    The photos of your camp and talk of slow, methodical drilling makes me think of Red Mars. Silly, I know, but their very isolated existence and slow excavation/ building projects with Someone guiding the large machinery sounds like your camp. I'm a nerd.
    Anyway, did you hope to work this kind of job when you decided to study geology or did you just want to learn about the Earth and fell into this type of career? Nothing could sound more different than how I spend my days. It makes me smile to think that as I sit with my grandparents or drop my son off at school, my knitting friend is so far away walking deep into the Earth. I love the internet.

    1. I've never read that book, but it (and the rest of the series) looks right up my alley. I'll see if I can track it down - thanks for the rec!

      Our drift dimensions are generally about 4.5 m wide by about 4.5 m high (give or take half metre), and we usually take anywhere from 5-8 rounds - and sometimes up to 11 - a day. It equates to about 1000-2000 tonnes of ore a day, plus whatever waste development rounds are needed to access ore or for other purposes.

      I kind of fell into geology. I was actually going to study astronomy (I have no idea what I would've done with that - I started university with no clue), but then realized that my highly-praised math skills from high school had gone to crap in the 3 years between high school and university, and that Calculus was the Science of Hell. So I spent some time in the career resource centre and learned about planetary science - which appealed to my SPACE interest but involved studying the planetary bodies - which required a degree in geology. And far less math. So I took a geology course and just...fell in love with it HARD.

      It's such a multi-disciplined topic that you can take in almost any direction. Like biology or botany? Study Paleontology (and no, that doesn't just mean dinosaurs). Like physics and math? Study geophysics and seismology. Interested in space? Study astrophysics and planetary science. Grow up smashing rocks and selling the shiny ones door to door (and succeeding in making money - although that might've been the adorable gap-tooth smile), constantly crawling into small dark spaces, and playing in the mud? Hard rock mining and economical geology might just be the ticket!

      I did have a rough last couple years of my degree though - my Dad passed away while I was in 3rd year and I struggled with it for a few years. Combined with a rough summer position in exploration geology turned me off it for a while, and I went off to do a master's degree in environmental geochemistry - with the intention of working in environmental consulting. But...that industry was rough and difficult to get into by the time I graduated, and I managed to land this job after moving to the Yukon, and I fell back in love with it. Hence me trying to relearn hard-rock geology and ore deposits, because I've lost a lot of that knowledge that I only shakily learned those last two years.

      Sorry for the long babble. :) I'm really glad people are interested in my work experience - I didn't know anything about this type of job before starting university, and I'm always keen to promote the profession, especially to other women!

  7. Still enjoying this thread! I went to engineering school for a while and had classes with the six mining engineers. One was a woman. At that stage (not sure if it is still true, this was 1989) NZ law prevented women from working underground except if they were doing an above ground job (eg nurses or doctors on emergency calls). Legislation from the 1880s designed to prevent women and children being used as pit ponies. Anyway that meant to get her mine managers cert she had to spend a summer in mt isa, queensland. Apart from being hot and a long way from nowhere, there were the challenges associated with being a young single woman in a one-industry town. There were other women but they were mostly mine wives or 'in business'. She's a pretty robust character and is still in the industry. Things have probably moved on in the last 25 years (I hope) but I do understand how you could have a rough summer. I don't know a thing about exploration geology except what I read in a fiction book set in a camp in the yukon... about a woman who went as a cook.. Probably no relation to reality at all. What does your partner do in Whitehorse?

  8. Thank you for sharing this with us. I really enjoyed reading it. My life is so boring.