A commenter on this blog once asked: “What is it like to live in a fly-in, fly-out mining camp?” Here is my answer; it is based on a recent trip and three-day stay in a northern Canadian fly-in, fly-out mining camp.
You get up early on Monday morning to be at the side-airport by six o’clock. The sun is already high and bright. Not so fellow travellers who are glum and cynical about yet another trip north. Book-in is easy: say your name to a friendly guy who scratches your name on a list and tells you to put you bag (no heavier than forty pounds) in the right bin.
That done, you wonder into a bright lounge replete with plastic chairs, plop down, greet a few friends, and pull out book. Around you are others reading perfunctorily, a few desultory conversations about recent mine gossip, and some catching a few winks of sleep. They got in from far places at midnight last and had but five hours sleep in a sleazy hotel costing $160 a night, regardless of sleep duration.
The plane arrives. No further ado, except another name slashed off a list and you are on the plane north. Everybody closes their eyes and falls asleep for the ninety-minute flight. Nobody listens to the attendant’s lecture on how to click the seat-belt clip—neither the English nor the French version—although the French is good and of perfect accent in spite of the rough look of the fat guy making the announcement.
We are wakened, arrive, board a dusty bus, clamber out and are herded into the reception area. Sunny smiles as you greet your contact, as you brush past friends on their way out, send you luggage through the scanner that looks for bottles of booze, and get a card to your alloted room.
Drop your bags in your alloted room: a featureless cubical with a bed, a couch, somebody-elses TV and boots, and too many pieces of paper exhorting you to be safe, be quiet, take your card with you, and turn off your alarm when you leave the room. The bed is wider than you need; the sheets thin; the pillows hard; and the floor of cheap lino. You have brought your own towel—for it is considered unhygienic to use communal towels. You unwrap a thin piece of soap that will not lather in the hard water of a hot shower. And you remind yourself not to drop the toilet lid lest you wake the guy in the room below.
Hence to the cafeteria for breakfast. This is a cornucopia of food worthy of a contestant in the hunger games. Three eggs, scrambled; five rashers of bacon; two sausages; two glasses of orange juice; and three cups of strong coffee. And this is just the first of many meals of glorious proportions.
Thus satiated, you walk the long corridor to the process plant. Pass through double security doors, put in ear-plugs, and walk long spaces past thickeners, conveyor belts, crushers, magnets, piles of salt, and noise. Thus to the offices of the metallurgists, reliability engineers, and managers. Grab a last cup of coffee while glancing furtively at the screens of the plant controllers who see all that is happening.
Except that night at supper, another copious meal of steak and salad, you talk to the forty-year old lady who is in the plant and who tells you: “They cannot see what is really going on. That is why I am there: to see what is actually happening on the floor and make sure they fix it.”
She is slim, of native origin, and intriguing. You spend the whole meal chatting to her. You hear her life story: kids at a young age, single mother, a stint as a cleaner, volunteer for plant work, learn the ropes, advance to the floor, ten years now, a good salary, pride of achievement, and now a new apartment in a fast city, leaving the grown kids to fend for themselves. You fall in love and take the dirty tray to the rack and go back to your featureless room.
Next day, another full breakfast, a passage through the security systems, and more meetings. You have been in the sun to the outside mining facilities. You have seen what is right and what is wrong. Now you have to opine, persuade, cajole, bully, and set things moving in the right direction. Then to lunch and another big meal replete with remanent of last night’s supper. In this case a chicken Kiev that squirts butter as you cut into it. But it tastes good!
Another meal-conversation. The talk is all of when you are scheduled to leave site. This is an obsession: how many days left before you leave site. Some are on the four-on, three-off schedule. Some are on the fifteen-on, thirteen-off schedule. There is interminable argument over which is best. The folk with two-week off say this is best. “I have a place on Vancouver Island, a boat, and me and the the wife go fishing for nearly two weeks when I am off.”
“In my two weeks off, I am taking the kid and the wife and we are going north into Quebec with the skiff and we are camping in the summer landscape.”
“I am going to Las Vegas for two weeks to drink, whore, and swim.”
“Maybe when I get to my apartment in the town, I will do an EduMine course or an on-line MBA. What do you think?”
The talk is all of the time off and away from site. Yet we spend hours at the supper table talking of the issues of the mine: how best to clean the water; how to meet regulations; is it really the fault of global warming; is there enough rock to construct that embankment; which computer code really replicates reality?
Engineering work is done in between these dreams and desires. We meet in dull conference rooms, make and deliberate on PowerPoint presentations, hone MicroSoft schedules, and argue the finer points of interacting with regulators.
Then the time comes to leave site. You line up with others who are gleeful at leaving site, They are full of excitement to see family and lovers again; to go fishing; to camp; to Las Vegas or deep studies.
It is easy to board the return-to-civilization flight: no names, no security, no bother. Just swipe the card, smile, and grab an aisle seat, and the plane lumbers down the gravel run-way as the propellers rotate, the plane takes off, and you are on your way to civilization and away from the camp.
Yet there is a still pride and sense of satisfaction & accomplishment on the plane. We have all done something great. We have kept the mine running & producing. We have solved problems, built things, spent money wisely, and been professional. This is why we came to site; this is what we set out to do & we have done it; we can now leave and know we have earned a big wage; and we will be back in a few days to do it again. It is fun, satisfying, rewarding. I will do it again and again until the end of the mine.
This life is better than the city. There is no traffic commute—I walk to work. There is no liquor–I am sober all and every day. I am with friends and folk of common objective all day and at every meal–no competition—we know our place and roll—and we do it well. I am proud & and satisfied. I am happy here and in the places I will be when this flight gets done. I love my home three thousand miles away. I love the farm, the boat, the large back-yard in a distant suburb where the kids run free while I am there and away at this fly-in, fly-out mining camp.