Prince George is in some rolling hill-type mountains, spread flat and shapeless to my eye in the airplane above and approaching from south / southwest. I arrived there at 10am on the seventh of August. I was instructed to be at the Rhino HQ at around 11, and was the last to arrive, in a large 15-passenger airport van driven by an obese and friendly native of the city. He was halfway through a somber discussion of the downtown drug problem when I saw my colleagues waiting in a parking lot.
Cam was glad to see me, as I had not been in touch over the four days off, which I had spent in Vancouver. He asked me if I had done my WHMIS test, and I said yes, I was all ready. He told me we would be flying out at 5 p.m., so we had a lot of time to kill.
There was Cam and his pretty, blue-eyed girlfriend Colleen, Jen, Simon (a 32-year-old tall Quebecois with red hair and a raspy voice, Benoit aka Benny (another Frenchman in his 30s with a thick scar across his eyebrow and forehead, funny and talkative), and Nick Verberne aka Bernie (a stout, happy go-lucky Ontarian with a booming voice). They were all, or had all been foremen, at some point.
They were all heavy, heavy smokers. I went from being the oldest person on my crew to the youngest by far.
We were almost late for our flight. A sign near the door to the hanger said that baggage could be subjected to search - we had been told that Kemmess was a ‘dry camp,’ that as soon as you were caught with drink or drugs was as soon as you were on your way home. I looked at Benny and Simon as they handed over their bags with a little bit of anxiety and a measured politeness. We walked out and felt a bit like Indiana Jones.
We took off and were in the air for about an hour, flying north / northwest. After a while we saw mountains. The trees were smaller. We landed on a gravel runway and there were a bunch of other planes lined up. There was no bathroom on the plane, and a few people went straight to a nearby trailer to find one. Outside the trailer three school buses, orange and black, opened their doors and people with bags came spilling out onto the gravel. Working people in denim and such, having finished their shift at the mine, on their way back into the town to see their families, one could presume.
We got into a bus with all our things and drove down a very, very wide clay road, on the left hand side, which was awkward, but, it turns out, purposeful (at mines they drive on the left side so when big vehicles collide head on, the drivers sitting on the left are clear of impact).
It was much colder here in the Northern Rockies than it had been at Prince George. We moved our things toward a gazebo bordering six or seven rows of ATCO trailers, each around 300 feet long, each holding about 50 small dormitory-style rooms. We checked in and went for dinner.
The eating area recalled the cafeteria at my high school - bubbly frying sounds, linoleum, aluminum - only this one had great food and no cashier. We sat down, all of us planters at a round table, and ate gigantic meals. There was tons to choose from. Three or four main courses, juices, a refrigerator full of different cakes, and pre-made sandwiches all promised to make our stay comfortable. We were excited to eat so well, but couldn’t quite shake the feeling that we were different and didn’t belong in the camp.
We conversed about what the miners might have thought about us. Our occupations are not unlike, it was said: we are both primary resource laborers, both stationed at remote worksites.
Though we had beards and were far skinnier. We had two Frenchmen, and two young women.
After dinner we explored a little, found a game room where we played pool and ping pong.
Miners and contractors, who must have been culled from the surrounding towns, sat in the lounge room chewing tobacco and watching a fight on television. I sat with them while they talked to each other, never saying much.
The next day, they had us wake at 5 am After rising, we walked to the health and safety wing.
We walked past all the things at the mine: the pile of rocks, continually growing under a large conveyor-belt, crane mechanism, the gigantic trucks, the smaller trucks, the contorted looking backhoes and rippers and other yellow steel structures that looked like giant tropical insects, the piles of 10-foot-tall tires. Past the insignias and logos in the hallways, the logo of a gold river running through the mountains, the motto: ‘Safe Production.’
Our orientation lasted three hours. We watched videos about industrial accidents, with graphic reenactments of the injuries and swearing. We watched the Bear Aware video - everyone had seen it before - and it was great, as usual, watching the big brown and black bears flop around.
We were told there were a couple grizzly bears that liked to visit camp, that we should watch out. One in particular had been seen by many, and the miners had named him Rufus.
We drank coffee.
The videos were well-produced, but their message redundant. They went on and on, and we lay our heads on the table.
At 9 a.m. we drove. On the way to our trees we saw Rufus grazing in some grass near a set of pipes, facing toward us, his head bordered by his large round shoulders, brown all over, face down looking for something, and swaying to and fro as he moved about. He looked soft and cumbersome, like a Newfoundland dog.
Our reefer was on a high road, and overlooked the dam, or rather, the backside of the dam, that we were to plant for the next 10 days.
It looked really good, but turned out to be so-so in places and good in other places.