By Jack Caldwell - Mining Engineer - Robertson GeoConsultants

In the past, we have all done silly things at mines that constitute safety violations. Here I record a drilling program I worked on in 1981 and 1982 at the then-proposed Greens Creek mine in Alaska. Ipost with only minor edits what I found last weekend amongst some old papers in the attic.

I post this old incident here inthe hope that others (over 65) will similarly write of their past mine safety blunders. Maybe these stories will help the young to avoid repeats and make mining life safer and safer. Here is the story.

Noranda are now exploring a rich new gold and silver deposit on Admiralty Island, ten minutes by seaplane from Juneau across Douglas Island and Gastineau Channel. We proposed a conceptual design for the tailings impoundment and are now in our second summer of drilling and soils testing.

For the last two weeks I have been on the Island organizing drilling, logging core, and supervising a geophysical exploration program. I have a good bedrock contour map, a chosen dam axis which limits the depth of excavation to 20 m, soil samples are being tested in Boston for response to electro-osmosis and dynamic disturbance, our drilling rig is broken and I have time to write. Most of what I set down is extracted and rearranged from notes I made during idle hours on the drill site.

We are drilling again. The frustrations of completing a hole, moving the rig by helicopter, and starting a new hole are over. The helicopter was late, the drillers were forced to stand around doing nothing for hours, the gas drums leaked, the Allen key for the Shelby tubes was lost, the rig rope broke, water pipes leaked, the wrong hooks were put on, oil was needed in the machine, and the whole affair seemed chaos and disorder. I do not think though that the move was better or worse than others I have seen.

The rig is roaring contentedly, churning through a firm, very plastic gray clay. The sun is warm on my greasy khaki sweater (made in Poland.) The morning chill is gone, today is the solstice and we will have light well onto midnight, and I feel pleasantly sleepy. Pity I cannot lay down and snooze. But soon the STP hammer will fall and expectantly we will watch and count its every blow. I take the split spoon, break it open, and reveal the cool, gray earth—clay and silt from some distant glacial lake.

Jack Watkins is the driller. He is fifty and onwards with a hoary beard and deep sonorous voice, a slow pace and a cigarette at every break in the drilling. He wears yellow plastic pants, a wet cream cotton shirt, and a black baseball hat embossed with the red letters R&M.

His helper is Larry, his stepson and half Indian. Larry is nut brown with a round open face, cheeky and smiling. His dark black air falls profusely in a wave to his shoulders.

Larry works hard; yet he lacks a flair for imitative. He is quiet. He seldom says anything and when he does he remarks only of food or the drill rig. He is nineteen and tells me that he has a girl that he will marry in three months. His younger brother has been in jail five of the last six months. Jack says that at first when told by the police of his arrest he worried. Now whenever the younger brother is arrested, he says: “You took him; you keep him. At least I know where he is.”

Normally the helicopter collects us at six o’clock. But that night it had not arrived by seven. With a forty-five minute walk back to camp, we decided to brave the bush and the bears. None of us had brought a gun. Larry seemed to recall the general direction to the beach, and he took the lead. We came on large, fresh bear prints just as we were about to enter the woods and leave the clear area of the muskeg. Recall that Admiralty Island has the greatest concentration of bears in all Alaska. We milled around rather stupidly, muttered a few trite words, and in a collective act of courage, walked into the woods.

Except for the usual luxurious green forest, we saw nothing until we reached the beach and the long vista down Hawk Inlet to the Cannery where we camp.

Now two guns lie side by side next to our lunch packs, jackets, and the logs on which I profile the soil samples. The first evening target practice was a disaster. I hit nothing. Then we noticed that the gun sights had been adjusted by someone with left-dominated vision. This corrected, the next evening I came within two inches of bulls-eye. That is good enough to get a bear, I reckon.

I carried the gun with me when Syd Hillis, the SRK review consultant, and I wondered around site. However, I neglected to take a compass. We got lost; a strange and frightening experience. Oh, we had just moved south about 200 m from an old drill hole, sat and looked at a particular geomorphic feature, turned around and started back along the path through the trees. Syd took the lead but veered too far to the left. Confidently I took over and guided us to the right and the path through the dense growth and the drill pad. The rig was humming in the distance to my front-right and I knew my general direction was correct.

Then we stopped to look, for nothing was familiar, and all was quiet. We noticed the rig had stopped and somehow things looked different.

“Do you know where you are?” Syd asked. I did not.

Carefully assessing things we noted the rise of the right abutment to our left—the east and the sun in the north. The only problems were that I was not sure if it were indeed the left or right abutment and whether the sun should be south, north, or somewhere else in the land where summer sun goes from three in the morning until midnight.

A sort of quiet panic sets in. Complete indecision reigns. Alternatives are not viewed clearly and one feels like a gambler: whatever you do is as likely to be right as wrong, right or left.

We stood on the tree stumps and looked, discussed possibilities, blundered a bit, and finally I lead us down slope. The creek was running in the wrong direction, at least it was opposite to what I expected. Outwardly confident, inwardly shaken, I went upstream. At last I espied the flags of seismic lines and then I knew where I was. Syd did not believe me, and I don’t blame him. Even now I am not sure where and how we did stray.

It was good to get back to the Cannery. Since 1974 when the main factory burnt, the bunkhouses on piles out onto the beach have stood, barely used. Now I sit in my room with its gray-painted wooden floor, thin board walls and look down the inlet. The boat houses, the dock, and a fishing barge lend interest to the foreground. In the far distance are the snow-covered peaks of the hills on adjacent islands, andVancouveris three hours flying time south. Perhaps next time I will write of those views.

More written in 2012, thirty years later.

That drill rig kept breaking down. The drillers, Jack & Larry, grew more impatient and frustrated. Their final revenge was when time came to remove the rig from site, for the drilling program was ended. We all stood around watching as the helicopter lifted the rig for the last time to fly it back to Juneau. Then, of a sudden, the cable snapped, the chains came loose, and the rig plunged from a dizzy height into the muskeg and sank below the surface. We never recovered it. So today there is an old drill rig below the Greens Creek tailings facility.