Working in a Canadian Mine
On New Years day, 1980, I hitchhiked north from my brothers home in British Columbia, Canada, to a town called Fraser Lake, which was the dormitory for a large Molybdenum mine and a sawmill. The next day I caught the workers bus to the mine and asked for a job.
I landed a one-week trial, and steeled myself for the challenge. During that week, myself and another new employee worked like demons. Our job was transferring drums of clinker (big bits roasted rock) for reprocessing. Part way through that week, one of the old hands told us off for working so hard. He said we were working like women, and would make the others look bad.
Having passed the trial, I was assigned to the canning department. That’s where you drink coffee, chat, sweep the floor, and occasionally ‘can’ Molybdenum Trioxide, a yellow granular material that was worth a fortune.
The open pit mine was vast, with a fleet of dump trucks on the move 24 hours a day, and each hauling 70 tonnes per load. But after daily processing thousands of tonnes of rock the output of canned Molybdenum Trioxide could be loaded onto one truck and trailer.
Most would say I was lucky to be assigned to the clean, laid-back canning department, but I was a troubled soul. At 24 years old, I was looking for manly endeavour. In the canning department, I felt as though I had taken early retirement.
I asked to be transferred to ‘the roaster’. That was a filthy department servicing a multi-story cylindrical furnace with hearths at about 1.8 meters spacings. Each hearth had a drop hole to the next hearth. The roaster had a central rotating axle which drove sweeping arms. Molybdenum disulphide was fed into the top of the roaster, and the sweeping arms slowly moved the material across each hearth until it fell into the hearth below. The material received at the top was thereby converted it to molybdenum trioxide. My main job was to periodically open a hatch and poke a rotating arm to chip off any material that may have accumulated.
There was, however, so many staff, that no one’s job was full time. Although I was now in a department where it was dirty, it was every bit as slack as the pristine canning department. The only requirement was that you turned up for coffee breaks. Between coffee breaks, foremen preferred for you to be scarce. It seemed that it was in their interest to have as many staff as possible.
One of my workmates, a devote church goer, said with disarming sincerity that it was fine to steal from the company because they were so big. I was to learn that this was a common view.
One day a new employee turned up. I heard that he had just spent time in Mexico. He looked like one of the clean-cut youths I had encountered at university and I imagined that he must have been doing missionary work. I finally got the chance to ask him, and he said that he had been living with a prostitute and doing drugs. His name was Renee Lemaire, and I credit him with enabling me to temporarily put aside my inappropriate work ethic.
I told him that I felt like the mine was rotting my soul, and if I stayed there too long, I mightn’t be able to return to doing a proper work. Renee said that if he thought that he was staying at the mine, he would take a pill, and it would come out of a forty-five calibre pistol. He said that the mine was a fantasy land, and that I needed to just play the game. I totally bought his advice and my angst was cured.
Renee was a local, and had worked at the mine before. He knew the layout, and would roam far and wide. There was a room stacked with used barrels. Renee found a piece of plywood, and used it to create a ceiling for a room he created within the stacked barrels. He stocked his room with Playboy magazines which he read by the light of a candle and would have naps.
Criminality was part of Renee’s upbringing. Fraser lake was a railway station on the line which transported grain from the prairie provinces to ships on the west coast. As a young tyke, Renee’s father would boost him up onto freight cars to load up, and pass down sacks of wheat.
Between coffee breaks Renee took me on adventures. A particularly memorable one was when we climbed to the top the top of a conveyor that moved waste rock to a huge tailings pile.
Here’s a photo of a similar one, although the one we climbed was closed in:
In pioneer towns such as Fraser Lake there seems to be an underpopulated gulf between the pious and deadbeats. There were those for whom their church provided a guiding light, and there were those whose relied on another type of spirit, as well marijuana, and other mind-altering substances.
Whether Renee genuinely needed ear plugs or it had just been a while since he’d had the pleasure of stealing something from the company, I’m not sure, but one day he asked me to carry out a bag of earplugs in my lunch box. Harmless adventuring during work time was one thing. Stealing was something quite different. I said no.
Often during the latter part of the afternoon, I would be offered overtime. I always took it. The company had to offer a minimum of four hours, provide dinner, and pay time and a half.
The invitation to do overtime always came at the end of the day when the foreman discovered that there was one more task. You ended up doing a lot less than four hours work. This is what would happen:
* Complete task (One and a half hours, maximimum).
* Collect two TV dinners (roast beef or chicken, mashed potato, gravy, soft veggies and a dessert warmed up and served in a compartmentalised tin foil tray).
* Eat two TV dinners.
* Waste time.
* Shower and change.
* Catch the company bus home.
Once Renee and I were offered Saturday work. The job was to climb into the roaster (It had been allowed to cool down) with jack- hammers and chip off built-up material from the walls and ceilings of each hearth.
Renee turned up, stoned, and I said I wasn’t getting in there with him like that. He said there’s no way he would go in there unless he was stoned. He won.
Living and working in remote pioneering settlements suited new arrivals. The money was good, and new immigrants often didn’t have family reasons for remaining in one of the established cities. Most of my colleagues at the roaster were from one village in Portugal. Another was from Guatemala. He lived with his brother, and I got to visit his home. Their house was equipped with a gymnasium, which both he and his brother used to good effect. I asked him about his life back in Guatemala, and why he was here in Fraser Lake. He said he was saving money to buy weapons to overthrow the Guatemalan government.
Poking the arms in the roaster was not taxing. Every few minutes, you’d swing open a hatch (which was like a large version of the door on a pot belly stove), poke a glowing, rotating arm; and shut the hatch.
In the minutes between poking, I could walk to a window and survey the wintery scene below.
In early spring I saw men arrive and start constructing form work for a second roaster. Concrete was poured, and then soon afterwards heavy machinery arrived to break it all up. When the debris was cleared men arrived again and started constructing form work for a roaster, in a slightly different position.
My home circumstance while at the mine was extraordinarily fortunate. Itinerate workers, such as me, would generally end up in a two-story apartment block in Fraser Lake. I moved from the motel to a large, not quite finished, log house owned by a fifty something year old Lynne McCready. Her first question was “Do you smoke Pot?”. I thought “Oh no, she’s not going to have me because I don’t”. I had to be truthful however, and admitted that I didn’t. My honesty paid off, because that was the answer she wanted to hear.
Lynne had been on her own for at least ten years. Her alcoholic husband left one autumn when the log house was just one semi complete room. With winter impending, she organised a fire place, put up a temporary roof, and hunkered down. During the decade that followed she slowly added to the log house. When I arrived it was two stories, and although still not finished, was warm and comfortable. Her place was half way between Fraser Lake and the mine. The company bus picked me up at the gate.
My plan was to return to Europe after the winter, so I went to the very small Fraser Lake library to do some research and build up some enthusiasm. Alas I was bored ridged by what I found. It wasn’t the fault of the book I got out. It was simply that I wasn’t excited at the prospect of wandering aimlessly in Europe. I decided to can Europe and reset my sights on furthering my horticultural experience in British Columbia’s equivalent of Nelson or Hawkes Bay, the Okanagan Valley.
The Endako River flowed along our boundary, and one day I set off hiking up- stream. The river was frozen solid and topped with crisp pristine snow creating a dazzling road that meandered through the forest. A month later I was swimming in that same river.
The headlong rush from winter to spring was dramatic. One morning I awoke to the sound of water dripping outside. Three days later there would be patches of snow free ground, another three days and mud became an issue. In another three days most of the snow was gone.
I bought myself a bicycle and started riding up the hill to the mine. One evening, after overtime, I was whizzing down the hill and heard a clop-clop- clop beside me. I couldn’t see what it was because my light only shone forward, but the clopping drew abreast before crashing off into the forest. I caught a glimpse of a large moose.
Lynne was very excited about having a vegetable garden, and I would have liked to be a part of that. In the days leading up to my departure, I planted tomatoes, but alas on the night before May 1st, the day of my departure, there was a frost. By lunch time the dead plants would have been laying on the ground losing the last of their moisture. There was nothing I could do. The final page of my northern Canadian chapter was turning. Lynne and I bid each other farewell, and except in fond recollection I never saw her again.
I pedaled down the same road that I had travelled on New Years day, visited my brother, and then continued to the Okanagan Valley, and the start of a new chapter.