Rumors of Riches Under the Arctic Permafrost : Canada’s Lupin Mine: Remote Work, Great Pay
Boom! A rumble from deep beneath the Arctic permafrost shook the hanging plants in the cafeteria of Canada’s northernmost gold mine.
“Rub your hands together,” advised Gary Garner, who has just finished his 12-hour shift in the mine. “That’s money. Underground blasts, I like that sound.”
Garner and his friends went back to watching a hockey game on television, one of an assortment of offerings available by satellite in the comfortable recreation center at the Lupin mine, named for a flower that blooms nearby in the brief arctic summer.
In the tunnels below, the scene is grittier--dirty, cold, wet and noisy.
Twenty to 25 miners work on each shift, drilling holes, setting off explosives, carrying the broken rock in giant scoops to a crusher and hoisting it to the surface for processing in the mill and refinery.
“There goes another $500,” said John West, the mine captain, as a load of crushed ore crashes down a chute after its 1,000-foot ride to the surface.
Rumors of Wealth
The whisper of riches is everywhere at Lupin, a collection of connected buildings painted bright orange against the blinding white of the snow and ice outdoors, 1,500 miles due north of Great Falls, Mont., and more than 100 miles from the nearest community, an Eskimo village.
“The money’s good,” said miner Ray Lavoie. “It’s dirty work, wet, but you get paid for it.”
Lavoie worked 11 years in mines in his native Sudbury, Ontario, where he returns for his two-week vacation every month. Most of Lupin’s employees work in rotation, 12-hour shifts for 14 straight days, followed by two weeks off.
Last year, counting hourly wage, steady overtime and production bonuses, miners could count on an annual wage of as much $65,000, mine officials said.
But because of stricter enforcement of government standards on work time underground, the miners said they expected to earn less this year, but still considerably more than they could make back home.
Ore Rich in Gold
The ore at Lupin is richer than average--slightly more than a third of an ounce of gold per ton of rock. On international markets, gold sells for around $350 an ounce.
“You won’t see any gold here,” joked geologist Ted Goettel, sitting in the lunchroom where hot meals are lowered 550 feet below the surface for each shift of miners. “Except in the bullion room. It’s a nice sight, that 70-pound brick.”
But still, the miners find a certain romance in the line of work.
“When I tell people what I do, they think of panning for gold,” said Bob Gilroy, the mine manager.
Goettel did pan for gold in the Yukon Territories in his student days, once collecting nearly a quarter of an ounce for a single day’s effort.
No Permanent Residents
None of the more than 400 Lupin employees is a permanent resident. The owner, Echo Bay Mines Ltd., flies a Boeing 727 jet painted in company colors up to the mine from Edmonton, Alberta, three times a week to shuttle workers in and out.
Most of Lupin’s workers have homes in Alberta, which borders on Montana and Washington, but others commute from all over Canada.
“I’d go nuts if I had to go back to a five-day week,” said Stan Miller, an accountant, who just returned from a vacation in Hong Kong. “You get used to a two-week vacation every month.”
Food also comes in on the company jet, but most of the mine’s supplies--fuel, chemicals, explosives and the like--are trucked in each winter over a 340-mile route laid out in January over a chain of frozen lakes.
‘Alcohol is Banned’
“We run a small town,” said Gilroy. “Everything a small town has, we have to have.” No liquor store, though. Alcohol is banned, and all luggage is searched before entering or leaving Lupin.
Employees have single rooms in a residential wing, next to the recreation center with its racquetball court, sauna, weight room and library. A commissary sells such essentials as toothpaste, laundry soap, candy and sunglasses.
“Summer is beautiful here. You get up in the morning, the sun’s up, it’s like the sky’s on fire,” said Lavoie, who reports catching a 32-pound fish last summer in nearby Lake Contoyto.
“Some of these people don’t see daylight for two weeks,” said Chuck Stephenson, a security official. A tunnel connects the living quarters with most working areas.
“I find great difficulty in unwinding once you get back to civilization,” said Tony Howard, the mine’s maintenance superintendent.
“People say, You must be crazy, working up there.”