Out Stranded in the Field, With Fielding

In late 1970 I joined a European mining company prospecting in northern Ontario, leading a ground geophysical exploration crew of Quebecois men. These men rarely spoke English so I had to get by on schoolboy French. There were four or five us us: myself and an assistant geophysical operator, and two or three men who would cut lines through the bush with axes and machetes. We lived in a comfortable camp near a village on a lake and worked projects located generally no more than a couple of hours of flying time from the camp. The fixed wing float aircraft, usually twin Beeches, picked us up at the lakeside in the morning, flew us to the general areas of our survey and dropped us off for the day. The planes returned in late afternoon to pick us up.

On a glorious fall morning, crisply cold with blue skies, my crew and I were getting ready to head down to the landing dock. But a radio call came in from the bush plane charter company to tell my boss, a young Mining Engineer, that bad weather was coming in. It would be fine to fly us to site but there was a chance that float plane would not be able to pick us up that afternoon. “No problem” – said my young Mining Engineer boss – “Fly them out”. This man had spent a few years in Africa and as an colonial ex-pat had the habit of making firm decisions on behalf of his National native workers. I, with my poor French, and my rough Quebecois crew, with their rough French, must have seemed Canadian equivalents to the native Africans he had bossed so decisively.

So off we went to a small lake nearby to perform our day’s work. A short while after the float plane had taken off, we had started our survey and the clouds started rolling in. Soon the sleet and freezing rain started. Clearly we were going to be stuck for a while, so we made ourselves a bivouac from trees and started a fire. I nestled into a soft bed of pine needles and started reading. I always carried a paperback with me to the field, and had just started reading the bulky Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. I was content to languish by the fire since I was enjoying the book very much. The rest of the crew chattered in French, blasphemously cursing now and again.

We were stranded, at least until the weather cleared sufficiently for a plane to come and pick us up. That could be in hours or maybe the next day. We had no food other than our lunches; we had no radio. (No: there was no such thing as Health and Safety Plans and the like in those days.)

We spent two nights at that small camp. I finished Tom Jones. Hungry, cold and wet, we decided to leave the now-miserable bivouac and walk about 10 to 15 miles toward a power line and its access road. I do not recall if we left the heavy equipment or not – we probably took the expensive instruments with us.

We had sloshed a couple of miles through the soggy muskeg swamp when we heard a plane flying very low nearby, circling the lake that we had left. Every now and again we caught a glimpse of it. Lighting a smoky fire, we managed to catch the pilot’s attention and he landed on the lake. We scrambled to the beached plane. The short flight back to camp was quite joyful; as was the breakfast, warm stoves and cozy bunk beds when we got there. My boss was very apologetic to the crew and myself for deciding send us out in the first place. Said we: “No problem, no harm done, we all make mistakes”.

Freeze-up had started, and winter was coming. So there were no more day flights from camp. Instead, we drove many miles up dirt roads to perform our surveys at other prospects. Much of our work was in old cut forest, where trees had been felled willy-nilly and the ground ripped up. It was tough terrain to work in; falls were common when we slipped on rotten bark, or stumbled into root ball pits.

About two weeks after being stranded, another storm started, with freezing rain and sleet. My boss asked us to continue our surveying and I told him that working in the poor weather was dangerous for the crew and harmful to our delicate instruments. Anyway: I had a lot of data reduction to perform and the crew had maintenance to perform on the equipment, truck and axes. He demanded that I take the crew.

I refused.

He fired me.

I was stunned.

A colleague took me on long truck journey to the nearest railway station. I spent the next two days on the train journey back to Toronto mulling sourly over being fired; but comforted somewhat by an intense, too-brief romance with a lovely lady in the next carriage.

A few days after arriving home, the President of the mining company called me. He apologized for the abrupt and unjust termination. But he could not re-hire me because to do so would mean that the Mining Engineer who had fired me “would lose face”. Clearly, the president had also had been a colonial ex-pat in Africa.

But Le President had secured for me an immediate position with one of Toronto’s finest geophysical exploration consultants. So, I spent the rest of that winter working in northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan with Geosearch Consultants. But that is another story…

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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