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Looking For Stars

I had been a little vague on my job application.

In response to the question about level of experience, I said I had less than a year. Well. I had seen a diamond drilling rig and perhaps may have even picked up a pipe wrench. I had read the Diamond Drilling Handbook. Some of my friends described the job.

I was hired as a helper in 1981 with a company that many of my friends from High School ended up working for. There was a posse that moved through industries like the oil patch, to logging, and later to construction. For a few years, there was a lot of money in the mineral exploration business as mineral prices were high.

“A fully-paid wilderness adventure”, a friend called it.

Diamond Drilling involves taking core samples using drill bits with diamonds embedded in a soft metal matrix. The company I worked for specialized in small rigs that could be broken down to components that could be flown by helicopter into the most outrageous and beautiful places in Western Canada.

My first job was in the Yukon, North of Dawson City. The camp was at 4,200 feet on the edge of a cold alpine lake, the rig was usually around 6,000 feet elevation. We had a helicopter in camp to take us up and down the mountain.

Someone said, “If the sheep do not shit there, you probably shouldn’t be there.”

We did not see a lot of sheep droppings.

I did not see a lot of drilling either, as weather prevented getting up the mountain most days and drilling was extremely slow.

The mountains and the endless summer light were amazing. The sun dipped just below the horizon after midnight, then came back up. Fortunately, my friend Steve was there to teach me the ropes of drilling.

So a few months later, I am sitting next to Daryl, the President and founder of the company, on a flight from Vancouver to Watson Lake, Yukon. Daryl was an enormous man with some industry legends attached to him. He started the company with just him and a machine working alone in the Yukon. Then the company grew, adding custom made drilling rigs and hiring crews. Daryl led by patience and a perception that no one could possibly work harder than he did. Few had seen him get mad, and no one ever wanted to.

“So you think you can run the rig?” he asked me on the flight.

I gave him a very tentative, “I think so.”

He probably had a good idea of my level of inexperience, but that summer having a pulse and being willing to try was the main requirement. As long as nobody got hurt and there was minimal destruction to equipment, it was worth a try. A few years later when the industry was slow, many drillers with many years of experience had trouble getting work as helpers: ‘Can you skin a cat? Do you have your Level 3 First Aid ticket? Can you fly the helicopter in a pinch?’

But 1981 was different. So after maybe 20 shifts as a helper, I ended up being the driller on a two man crew on a drill site near Watson Lake, Yukon. Bill, the experienced foreman, was teamed up with man with twenty years underground drilling experience, while I had the owner’s teenaged son as a helper. The son had grown up in the business and knew much more than I did. I amazed him with how little I knew.

I had worked lots on a family farm during summer breaks and learned some mechanics trying to keep a rusty 1961 MGB convertible on the road, so mostly I did okay. The drilling was relatively easy with a few challenges, like an artesian water flow that pushed sand up the drill stand for one hole. The inner tube got jammed into a rod around fifteen feet from the bottom and we needed to pull out the whole string and it took some ingenuity to get it down again without sticking.

I often came up with creative solutions. The guys on the cross-shift were supportive and gave suggestions if I asked for help. We worked twelve hour shifts, seven to seven, and wrote details in a log book at the end of each shift.

I was engaged to be married in September. One day we pulled the rods and put on a brand new drill bit. One of the challenges is to try to match the type of rock with a bit with the right hardness characteristics to be efficient. I put on a black bit, one of the more expensive models.

My mind drifted to thoughts about the impending wedding. We lowered the drill string down the hole with the new bit. I started the drill spinning and pulled the lever to use the hydraulic piston to apply downward pressure. The diesel engine with the straight pipe was doing its usual scream beside me.

The drill went around two inches, then locked up. I had forgotten to turn on the water in my wedding distractions and the drill bit tried to fuse into the rock at the bottom of the hole.

So we needed to pull up the drill string and replace the bit.

That night in the materials used section of the log book I wrote, “1 black bit. Drilling distance 2”. Explanation: Had my head up my asshole looking for stars.”

It turns out that everyone had been reading my log entries on a regular basis to see what I would come up with next.

When I returned to the cook shack after the next shift, Archie had drawn a large cartoon of me on the wall illustrating this in a way that is much easier for cartoon characters than for humans, complete with little stars. The cartoon captured the moment very well!

Greg Dixon

February 4, 2013, revised February 5, 2013


I worked part time in the mineral exploration business for five years while studying Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology at the University of British Columbia. I made up to $6,000 a month when there was work - enough to pay my way through school.

The people in the camp described above and in many other camps were characters worthy of many stories. We sometimes worked in areas where National Geographic sent photographers. Despite the hazards of bears, porcupines, the rare wolverine, cliffs, dangerous roads, helicopters, and rough weather, there were no serious injuries on the jobs I was on. There were lots of near misses, though, and vehicles were lucky to survive a year. We took one helicopter out of service and damaged a few diesel water pumps and other assorted gear.

It was a fun adventure; though I am pretty sure it set my appreciation of Jane Austin back many many years. The characters in Dostoyevsky novels seemed more natural to me then.

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