Halifax, Nova Scotia was enveloped in a blizzard when I disembarked from the M/S Lundefjell in February 1969. I had rarely seen, felt, played in or hated snow until I emigrated to Canada. They do good snow in Canada – the miserable weather topic in the UK is rain. But by the time I left Canada for Hawaii in 1979, snow was pretty miserable too.
Many Canadians seem to like snow, especially those who don’t have to work in it. I had more than a few jobs in which I had to work in snow. Snow would not have been so bad if it didn’t also go along with cold. For several winters (and parts of a few summers, too) snow, ice, slush and cold were part of my life. When I was prospecting, the only way to get around was to travel on snow. In fact, a lot of geophysical surveying and exploration drilling was performed in the winter because it was then possible to traverse frozen muskeg swamps and lakes.
We lived in camps in the snow. Our tents were floored with the fluffiest tips of tamarack and balsam pines, and I slept in a Woods 5 Star sleeping bag, guaranteed to keep my alive at -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Actually: at temperatures as low as -40, I was guaranteed to not want to leave my bag. Heating was provided by a wood stove which, if stoked with tamarack, would burn so hot the metal would turn dull red. The heat from a wood stove collected at the roof providing a tropical mugginess in our low tents. But at ground level, it could well be freezing- so thank goodness for good old Woods 5 Star bags… The major problem with the cold was the occasional need to go for a pee: it could be a very painful process to leave the warmth of the sleeping bag and struggle outside for the briefest possible time. After a few nights, the entrances to our tents would be surrounded by vertical yellow tubes in the snow, to be covered by the next snow storm.
I became quite adept at snow shoeing. These were the days of big wooden snow shoes with babiche rawhide or gut webbing. The snow shoes were attached lamp wick cord and leather harnesses: a real pain to put on and take off when frozen. In warmer weather, or if left too close to a fire, the babiche became soggy, and the shoes would twist off my feet. It was essential to snow show with a wide-apart stance which meant it took a while to develop some rarely used muscles in the butt and thighs. I became so practiced with out of control snow shoeing down steep lakeside slopes, that I later in my life knew enough about downhill skiing to never much want desire to actually ski downhill. I took to cross-county skiing very quickly, though.
I often snow shoed ten to fifteen miles a day on frozen lake surfaces, traversing geophysics survey grids marked by lines of wooden laths 50 to 100 feet apart, the lines being separated by 400 feet or so. If I was using a magnetometer or EM-16 VLF receiver, I had to take off my gloves to write down the readings. But where the readings did not vary very much, I would speedily snowshoe between stations, taking five or so consecutive readings, memorize the last few digits, and then write the numbers down at the fifth station. I would work up a sweat fast working so quickly.
Lunches were solitary and cold. It was urgent to build a fire; not only for warmth but also to toast the ham and cheese sandwiches I had made earlier after breakfast. I have fond memories of those lunch breaks – but it was too easy to fall asleep beside the fire and wake up cold.
Long distances were traversed using skidoo snow machines. When they worked they were a joy. When they did not work they were a major pain since they often did not work at the end of the day when it was time to return to camp and darkness was setting in. As I was always in a hurry and not a born snow savant, I too often raced across a lake straight into snow covered slush. Being stuck in slush was frightening. Below the bottom of the slush could be cold deep water, ready to accept a heavy skidoo and a solitary geophysical operator. At such times I would be grateful for my snow shoes and shuffle fast back to camp. The next morning I would have to return with colleague and chop the skidoo out of the frozen slush.
Snow was a part of my summers too. I enjoyed my 26th birthday (July 24th) on a day when it snowed. That was a day off. So-snow could also be good – they were like rain days since no work could be performed (Although on one occasion I was fired for refusing to work in sleet/freezing rain.)
While prospecting in British Columbia, I worked on several jobs in the Iskut river region in the Stikine range. I spent two seasons at the INEL prospect at Upper Bronsen Creek, a site surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Every day required us to traverse across snow drifts, ice packs and glaciers. The camp itself was located on a nunatak, a knob of rock sticking up through a glacier.
It snowed every few days, which would ground us if we needed to go anywhere by helicopter. But the climate was such that an almost permanent snow drift near our tents allowed us to dig a walk-in refrigerator that we could secure against grizzly bear curiosities.
Walking and working on glaciers and steep snow drifts was not always safe., We carried ice axes with us but they were such a pain to carry with our rock hammers and rucksack, it was tempting to leave them behind in camp. But I once zoomed a scary distance down a steep icy slope, a glissade that I finally halted by anchoring my ice axe. I rarely went without teh axe after that lesson. As summer advanced and snow melted it was sobering to see crevasses open up in the path of earlier traverses; fissures that had been barely covered with snow just a few days previously.
One of the reasons that I decided to go to school in my mid-20’s and learn geology was to lurch my career from the dangers of prospecting (like those of falling into unexpected crevasses). So it was galling indeed, that when I graduated in 1978 with my degree in Geological Engineering, I had to spend a lot of time back in the snow and ice. I spent far too much time on frozen mine tailings ponds, or at solitary snow-bound locations in the company of cranky drillers. Bit it was in the company of one of those cranky, but wise and patient drillers, that I was able to vicariously enjoy his passion for ice fishing- he set up a fishing hole at a lake near his drill rig.
Eventually, a too-long winter at the Syncrude tar sands mine in Fort McMurray, Alberta persuaded me that there had to be better places to practice geotechnical engineering. There is nothing like having to walk to work in -40 degrees Fahrenheit (with a 10 mph wind blowing) – because my truck was too cold to turn over- to tempt one to mutiny. Work itself was wandering up and down frozen ditches in the muskeg, mapping exposed Quaternary glacial deposits to characterize the engineering properties of the “overburden” .
So, in 1979, mid-way through the tar sands project, I had the chance to work in Hawaii for a short job. I jumped at it. But that Aloha story is more fit for one with the title “beach jobs”…