Monday, January 9, 2012

Camp life, an excert


The comedy of camp life directly reflects the intimacy and isolation of the situation. The survival and sanity of the members of camp is at stake and is often perilous when access to outside communication, nutrition and pleasurable activities run dry. Life on top of the plateau, where supplies and personnel arrive by weather-dependant helicopter runs, can range from hysterically comical, when the sun is shining and the beer and cigarettes are plentiful and the drill is running correctly, to dismally depressing, when there is nothing to smoke and the drill helpers have mistakenly drained the hydraulic fluid out of the machine. The setting for this tale is 7000 feet above sea level, on an alpine plateau, deep in the Coast Mountains. When all is well, the drill is turning 24 hours a day and the rumbling and creaking of the drill accurately reflects the mood of camp. A silent drill equates to grumpy drillers and grumpy drillers equate to a somber camp. The drill is extracting core, up to 900 feet down, and within the core samples, the geologist hopes to see signs of copper, molybdenum and gold. Presumably, the search is on with the ultimate intention of mining these minerals, but the vast and pristine alpine environment seems incongruent with a mine and the disgusting tailings ponds that go along with such an environmental disgrace. To the North, East and West, camp is flanked by glaciers and on the south side of camp, cliffs drop hundreds of feet to the valley below. Standing on the side of the cliffs, even without getting close enough to see over the edge, one can feel the enormity of the precipice and sometimes can hear the cries of the hawks echoing against the sheer cliff walls.
One quiet afternoon in camp, with the humming of the drill audible over the ridge and everyone in camp content in their respective afternoon tasks, the phone rang, and the driller’s wife was on the other end, urgently wanting to speak to her husband. “Pete” we called on the radio several times, repeatedly asking if he had his ears on. Obviously his radio was on, but due to the ferocious volume of the drill, the drillers frequently missed their calls on the radio. “Pete. Pete. PEEEETTTE” we called, again and again. “Your wife is on the phone and needs to speak to you urgently.” He replied that we should patch it through the radio, jokingly, but being the literal bunch that we were, we commenced an exercise in holding the satellite phone up to the radio, with the intention of eavesdropping on their conversation. After several discussions and failed attempts, we finally deduced that the only way for them to effectively communicate in this matter was to hold the receiver end of the sat phone up to the microphone on the radio and have both parties say over at the end of each. In retrospect, it was this phone call that represented the demise of the finances of our employer, and the comedy of the way in which this information was transmitted to us reflects the generally lighthearted nature of the members of our camp. “Pete, I called to let you know that there is still no money in the business account. You haven’t been paid in nearly six weeks. None of the contractual obligations have been fulfilled yet. Over” Pete’s reply was barely audible to his wife, and considering the din of the drill, and the method in which she was communicating from her home office to her husband, who was perched at the controls of the drill, it’s a wonder that communication was possible at all. “I copied that, hon,” came Pete’s scratchy reply. “I’ll be home tomorrow afternoon and will get hold of our lawyer. Over.”
The next day, as the chop-chop of the helicopter blades faded into the distance, those of us left behind stood there with our hands in our pockets, perplexed by the departure of the two camp bosses. Both the geologist and the owner of the drill had boarded that chopper, leaving us, an assorted bunch of greenhorns, to oversee the camp move from the plateau to the lower camp, 2000’ down the valley. Surveying the camp: the five tents, the drill, the piles of food and the assorted flotsam and jetsam that supported our existence on this alpine plateau, we truly had no idea how to go about the enormous task of packing up this camp, organizing it into sling loads for the helicopter, and then reassembling the whole circus into a liveable camp down in the valley. Without the leadership of the two boss-men, anarchy was likely to prevail. The following day, the morning dawned overcast and dark, but clear skies to the southwest indicated that sunshine was possible for later in the day. The high winds that had been plaguing the plateau for days had dissipated, which was good news for the dozens of trips that the helicopter was likely to have to make. As the chopper landed, however, the weather socked in completely and within a few minutes, we couldn’t even see the chopper from the cook tent, let alone expect the pilot to be able to see the end of his 50’ long line where all of our gear was to be attached. We suggested that he sit down in camp for a spell and we would all hope together that the weather would clear up. In a vain attempt to make his stay more comfortable, we offered Rob some cashews and a granola bar. Ordinarily, we might have hot coffee or even a meal available to unexpected visitors, but due to our complete lack of planning, experience and utter inability to foresee the logistics of a camp move, we had foolishly packed up the food first. To our credit, the food was now neatly bundled up in a sling, in well-labelled totes, ready to be flown down to the valley in anticipation of the nutritious and exciting meals that the cook would prepare there. Rob politely accepted the nuts and stale granola bars but I noticed that he ate very little of both and both were so stale that few crumbs tumbled to the floor. The conversation with Rob was lively and nothing at all like most of the conversations that happened around here. It’s not that the occupants of camp were stupid or even uneducated. It seems, however, that it is difficult to be a hardy working man who can fix any problem and also be a bright intellectual with original opinions and thought-provoking ideas. In any event, Rob’s explanations of anarchy and contribution to a discussion on women’s rights in the Muslim world proved a welcome relief to the inarticulate swearing and discussions of female anatomy that plagued the dinner table in this drill camp.

As the day wore on, Rob kept a keen eye on the fast moving clouds, and the instant that he could see all the way down the valley, he hightailed it out of the tent, calling over his shoulder that he would be back “soon.” And just as soon as we realized we were about to be abandoned on the plateau again, he had fired up his helicopter and was on his way, the clouds closing behind him and leaving us alone on the plateau, shrouded in clouds and blowing snow. With the conversation between Pete and his wife still a recent memory, we couldn’t help but wonder if there was money to send the helicopter back up to us, good weather or not.

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