Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Having lived in the south for a good deal of time, where winter forecast temperatures never include a negative number, you forget just how cold, cold really is.

Winter in Northern Canada is harsh. It takes a tough and hardy type of person to live in a climate where the daily weather forecasts include words like "daytime highs of -38 with winds gusting to 90 kilometers per hour". It takes a mentally unstable and slightly deranged type of person to willingly relocate back, after having experienced a number of southern winters.

For those like me who are metrically challenged, 90 kilometers per hour is our legal posted highway driving speed. To fully experience the thrill of a Canadian winter, simply dump a bag of ice into your undergarments, get into your vehicle, and drive at full speed with your head sticking out of the window. For a more realistic experience, you could have a friend tow you on a trailer while you perform simple tasks such as chopping fire wood, changing a flat tire, or boosting a dead battery.

I remember as a child walking through huge mountains of snow on my way to school each morning. Drifts of snow blown up over the sidewalks would present formidable obstacles, one side we would climb, and the other we would slide down. I remember temperatures so cold your eyelashes would freeze and stick together when you blinked. I remember cars frozen into the street, who’s owners would be shoveling around spinning tires, or cursing non-starting stone dead batteries.

The kids from my neighborhood walked about a mile to school. There was no yellow bus that came by our houses and no parents ever drove their kids. We walked a mile each way, every day. A mile in the rain, a mile in the snow, a mile in temperatures so cold that loosing extremities was a real and serious possibility. Each and every kid in my school by the age of six, had experienced severe frostbite and had been stuck by their tongues to a pole or some other large immobile metal object. In fact, successfully daring a classmate to lick a frozen metal fence post is a coveted skill. You can reach local legend status if the classmate remains stuck to the post until a teacher or other responsible care giver is forced to search for the poor gullible victim. Canadian law dictates that you are immediately graduated from grade school with full honors if you can convince the same kid to lick a frozen pole twice, regardless of present marks or current grade.

I remember winter as being fun and exciting. I remember waiting with anticipation, surpassed only by Christmas Day itself, for the first wondrous snowfall to arrive. I remember rushing to the window every morning when winter drew near to see if the world had been blanketed by a beautiful layer of pristine white snow, and being thoroughly disappointed to discover it had not. While we had fun playing outside in the summer, snow added an entirely new dimension to fun, with a bonus of endless potential for torment to neighborhood children. There were face-washes, where a handful of snow would be rubbed vigorously into one's unprotected cheeks, and dunks, where one's entire head would be forced into a snowbank. Snowballs would be carefully constructed and then tossed full force at unsuspecting prey who's distance was carefully gauged to ensure an easy escape without the possibility of retaliation, and gloves or toques would be stolen and filled with cold frozen snow. We would spend a week building an ice fort which we would then vigorously defend against neighborhood marauders brandishing ice-balls and hockey sticks. I don't remember when I started to hate the cold, but it seems that my distaste for winter has increased in exact proportion to the increase in my age.

Winter, and more specifically cold and snow, now represent pain and suffering. There is work and toil in everything that involves leaving the warmth and comfort of my easy chair. Long hours of extended darkness, chapped and bleeding lips, crippled aching joints, and mountains and mountains of shoveling. Snow is removed from walkways and dog runs, roofs, driveways, and cars. Snow is now something to be dreaded, and long months of cold and darkness becomes depressing. Thankfully, just when the season seems the darkest, and all hope is near dashed, some poor kid comes along and licks our fence. 

That just never, ever, gets old..

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Thinker

In some weird intergalactic twist of fate, I find myself working in a gold mine. Although I have spent my entire life as a design engineer and production manager, fate has decided that I should enter into a working field as foreign and far removed from my career experience as possible. I have tried to do the math, but the odds of any human being in 32 generations going from production manager to miner are so infinitesimal, you would be more likely to get struck by lightning in January, while holding a winning lottery ticket, and standing on a four leaf clover.

I am a thinker by nature. When something requiring manual labor needs to be done, I usually have a comfortable sit-down and take a good long think on how to approach the task. Generally, right about the time I have thought it though and worked up the gumption to tackle the job, someone has come along and taken care of it. This method has served me well in both my working life and my home life. It has carried me far, with nary a broken nail or hammered thumb. No calloused hands, no missing digits, no sore and aching muscles. Actually, hardly any muscles at all..

When you work in a mine for a living, the first thing you discover is that even the most innocent looking objects want to do you great harm. On my very first day underground, I nearly lost my left eye on a paper coffee cup, and managed to break every nail on both hands and both feet. I accidentally pierced my own ear, and permanently stained my right thigh orange. By the second day, I had developed callouses so large that I could no longer close my hands, and I was so sore, even my eyelashes hurt when I blinked.

Like all gold mines, the one I work at is far past the end of habitable land, in the extreme northern wilderness. We are shipped in once a month and live in mining camp during our two week rotation. Our day begins in the wee early hours of the morning, when even the Canadian winter wind has not yet woken. We file into the kitchen for some Stephen King version of breakfast, while it looks and smells like bacon and eggs, the taste is slightly off in an eerily familiar yet just slightly unexplainable way. From breakfast we file into the "dry", (mining speak for change room), where we don every single piece of personal safety equipment ever invented, who's collective weight adds an additional 123 pounds to my already overburdened skeletal structure. From the dry, we get our shift line up from the "shifter", and enter into the head-frame to await our turn to take the trip in the "cage" to the bottom.

The cage is no end of excitement in itself. Picture a regular sized elevator, cut it in half both in width and in depth, and remove the front. Replace the front with a wire mesh door and stuff in 26 large burly miners, their tools, their lunch bags, mining equipment, and extra personal protective equipment. There is actually a guy who's only job is to squish the miners and extra equipment in, so the screen door can be closed. Once all the miners have been squeezed in, the cage departs the surface and begins a 15 minute free fall at terminal velocity. Attached to the surface by only a single wire cable the cage, miners, lunches, and equipment bounce and jostle down the main shaft at just slightly less than the speed of sound. Once at the very bottom, a mile and a half below the real world, the hoist operator throws the hoist brake which simultaneously causes the door to open from the shock force and we all tumble into the mine heading with a collective large gasp of relief.

I spend the rest of the 12 hour work day trying to avoid falling into open holes, dodging falling rock and equipment, jumping out of the way of fast moving heavy mining cars, and generally trying to survive the day. I lift heavy objects and pile them in one place, them pick them up and pile them in another. I break big rocks into smaller rocks, then break those into rocks smaller still, all the while in total absolute darkness save only the light from my helmet lamp. Once a day, the cry "Fire in the Hole!!" goes out and we all take cover while they blast more rocks from the walls for me to break into tiny pieces.

I have no time to think about the task at hand, and no one tackles it themselves. At the end of the day, well past sunset, I emerge from underground, shower, have a Stephen King dinner, phone home to check on the hounds, and drop wearily into bed in the camp. Sometimes, for a brief moment I get an opportunity to think before passing out from either excruciating pain or utter exhaustion. Mostly, between thoughts of the family and the greyhounds, I think about how much I love this job.