Mining was in the news over the last few weeks, and I had to think about it, as a one-time miner. I worked two summers underground up north, ultimately as a blasting specialist, and I loved it so much that I got close to kicking over the whole education thing and giving it all up for a life underground.
It was that good.
First of all, hell, the scenery in Northern Manitoba is simply fab, the rough edge of the Shield, little winding lakes and deep mysterious forests. That, and there was a ton of money, I mean I could go up and make enough cash in four months to pay for 8 months of uni, living expenses included. And mind you as a temp, I was kinda at the bottom of the financial food chain.
That, and getting paid all day to play with very large and powerful pieces of industrial machinery. Yes, it is every bit as much fun as it looks. Although I got to be a pretty damn good tram driver, and liked it, using the ho-ram was about the best, I just loved that thing, it was like a dinosaur tail with a gigantic sting (jackhammer actually) on the end. I never got to use the Crusher, and I always wanted to, it was a truly amazing piece of machinery, breaking up huge volumes of rocks all day long.
But best of all was the blasting. I just love explosives, and I got to be pretty damn good at using them. I was using startling amounts too, the Mine Captains regularly got on my ass about it, but the results I was getting, well, they always backed down. For instance, I never once mis-set a cap, so that rather than setting off the charge it sprayed it over the scram/stope/drift (which is a Very Bad Thing). (I did manage to blow up a chute once though, which got me a week of ditch digging duty until the Captain found that there was no-one else on the crew he could trust with the big bangy stuff.)
I kid you not, I was burning through over 100 kg of high explosives per shift on a good day (on a really good day I could get three or even four, not just two Big shots off). On my biggest day ever, I think I went through almost 400 kg of pillow-pack (plastique) and big stick (known as “horse cock” to the guys) dynamite. Gosh it was fun, being paid to blow things up.
Basically what I was doing was breaking up oversize and clearing the hard rock version of log-jams.
Never got much of a chance to play with Amex though, the industrial version of the terrorists’ favourite mix of diesel fuel and nitrates. Was background to a few big shots with that stuff though, and my, amazing. Simply amazing.
They were paying me great money to live in wonderful surroundings and play with plastique all day. What on earth is not to love about that?
Well, the company you keep, and the lack thereof of the female kind. (Though I’ll have you know, at odds of over 40:1, I did in fact score my own less than gorgeous chick for a couple of weeks there.)
It was a pretty brutal and lonely life in some ways, a lot of bachelors with too much cash on their hands, well, it isn’t good. I saw insane gambling and drug and alcohol use, and more violence than I care to think of. I even managed to get my sorry ass in a drunk tank one night, and damn grateful I was for it too, given the circumstances.
It actually was interesting work, with its own whole vocabulary: stope, scram, raise, shaft, grizzly, drift, and so on. And a good deal of art and science going into it. I was a mucker, you see, one of the guys moving the ore, not actually a technically speaking miner, though I did a few shifts as a sort of miner’s helper, working with this gigantic native guy humping around and using a long-holer. An amazing piece of machinery, that. And an amazing guy, missing three of his fingers in some long ago industrial accident, still getting a comp cheque every month, but mining away. It gets in your blood they say.
Ho ho ho he would say, packing another miner’s grease gun with shit (literally) and winking at me, once I watched him sweat some dynamite in a hot tin shed for two weeks to get some nitro to put in the helmet headband and shoe soles of a shifter he hated (massive headaches). But he could pick the goddamn drill up on his shoulder and hump down the drift and raise to the tram, 400 feet if it was an inch. Ho ho ho he said, Rob, you carry it this time. Fuck it weighed 300 lb if it was an ounce. Or sit there for 7 hours straight in the steam and roar of the drill, adding rods, never once giving a second for hunger or bodily functions. And it is a wet nasty noisy business, drilling.
But me, well, I was all for blasting. For surface shots, you go some distance to be safe. Underground, you just go around a couple of corners. Hold your helmet down and plug your ears with your thumbs, hit the lever with your elbow, and then it punches you in the stomach, hell in the whole body, you can see the low frequency of the shockwaves in the cigarette smoke as it shifts a foot or more side to side and you begin to understand what visceral means. Setting off roughly 100 kg of high explosive about 200 feet from you in a confined space, well, it has to be experienced to be believed.
But all the dangers, and there are a ton, well, cave ins and being trapped never really figured. I almost took off a leg once, freeing a de-railed ore-car, and almost killed a co-worker because I mistook the brake for the gas on a tram, and I understood that most injuries, maiming and death had to do with using large powerful machinery in tight spaces. But hard rock mining, cave-ins are very very rare, to say the least.
At the time, miner lore had it that oxygen deprivation was the scariest thing, could kill you really quickly with little warning in the oddest of circumstances. And it seemed to be true, I did get in trouble that way a couple of times, and yes, it was subtle.
But all in all, I loved it, honestly, and came very close to making it my life.