Dale loves his job, particularly working outside, and wouldn’t have it any other way, save for the scant time he spends with his children during the season. “I always feel like I’m getting out of bed and putting on my socks,” he says of the gruelling hours on the cut.
Servicing the excavator is another immense challenge. Everything about it is huge and cumbersome, including the heavy five-gallon pails of hydraulic fluid and motor oil.
Dale is charged with showing me the ropes and thinks that I move too slowly, so I try to pick up the pace. “You’d better learn how to eat on the machine,” he warns on my first day operating the Hitachi. As for my performance at the controls, “I thought I’d seen it all” and “What the fuck are you doing?” are among his assessments. After nearly 20 years at the mine, it must be frustrating to work with a greenhorn.
It turns out hauling logs was good preparation for the most physically challenging part of my job: packing pipe. As with the land, we push around water—of which we need a lot—to suit our purposes. Sources can be rivers or creeks or the man-made settling ponds created by the mining process.
Each minute, the plant washes down about 100 cubic feet of pay dirt with 3,500 gallons of water, requiring massive diesel pumps and 20-foot sections of 10-inch diameter aluminum pipe. Each section of pipe weighs more than 100 pounds; crew members are expected to march with them solo. On the first day of mining, I’m nearly wiped out by helping to assemble 300 feet of it to link the plant with a sufficient water source.
Despite his 59 years, Stuart, a lifelong miner, is one of the fittest and most agile guys at camp. “Not quite like working at the paper,” he muses to me one day while helping, effortlessly, pack pipe.
“I’m building character,” I reply, struggling to carry another 20-footer on my aching shoulder.
Schmidt Mining works 24-7. Mid-July, I’m moved to nightshift, where I will spend the remainder of the season. Cleanings aside, only breakdowns and rock jams can bring work to a halt. But a couple of the guys are granted special dispensation during moose season. When Dale bags a bull during a shift, Stuart takes over on the bulldozer while Dale hauls out 1,000 pounds of meat from the bush.
On the first cut at Ruby Creek, about a 20-minute drive from camp, we recover $800,000 in gold. The first few sections bring in less than $1.85 a square foot in gold, but the last section gives us $5.50 a square foot. The value on any given day can fluctuate thanks to events far away. On Aug. 4, British police shoot and kill 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham. Protests soon turn into riots. Over a six-day period, Schmidt’s take increases 50 cents per foot.
When we’re finished with Ruby Creek, it takes three days to relocate 15 kilometres to the south. In the meantime, I’m assigned monitor duty at a location up the valley called Little Blanche Creek, so named for a dance-hall girl who, in fulfilment of a marriage proposal, received her weight in gold mined by her suitor on this very spot. (Little Blanche, Stuart says, weighed 140 pounds.)
The monitor is a water cannon that propels more than 3,500 gallons a minute, something akin to hitting fast-forward on the erosion process. The device is used when terrain is unsuitable for bulldozers.
Stuart’s hunch proves wrong, but Little Blanche does give up a significant cache of 30,000-year-old mammoth ivory. Petrified steppe bison skulls from the late-Pleistocene era can also reveal themselves as the hillside melts away, but it’s mammoth ivory that’s worth something—$60 a pound to local shops and artisans. An intact tusk can go for $20,000.
There are a few lacklustre cuts as the season proceeds, but there’s enough trapped in the miner’s moss to keep things profitable. What peeves Stuart is not the rate of return but some amateur interlopers who moved into the valley at the beginning of the season. When another miner north of our camp says the arrivistes down the road are considering buying his claims, Stuart snaps them up to prevent the newcomers from moving in on his turf.