CKC Ultralight: Beating extreme weather conditions with fabric drill shacks

March 2, 2021

by Cody Campbell, Founder & President at CKC Ultralight

The Ultralight Fabric Drill Shacks being developed by CKC Ultralight were first conceptualized in 2012 by the team at Ridgeline Diamond Drilling. Ridgeline was a small, family-owned and operated contractor that focused on completing remote, heli-portable diamond drill projects that required crews to be comfortable working in weather conditions ranging from extreme sun and heat to low temperatures and blowing snow at high altitudes. They were heading into a couple of early season projects in Northwest British Columbia (BC), Canada, followed by a late-season drilling program in the Yukon mountains, planned to take place at an altitude of 8000 ft (2438 m).

From their experience in the preceding seasons, management knew that the Yukon project posed a number of challenges for their existing setup of equipment and support gear. First, the mobilization involved the use of a Twin Otter airplane in combination with a Hughes 500 helicopter. This required everything to be both compact and lightweight, in order to fit in the plane but also to minimize the cost to the client by reducing the number of trips from the staging area into the project airstrip.

The second challenge was the timing of the program and the expectation that it would run late into the fall when the days were getting shorter and the weather was turning colder. The longer night shifts combined with mist, wind and fog at the drill’s elevation meant that the probability of the crew having to spend time at the drill beyond the 7 a.m. crew-change was very high. These reasons led the team at Ridgeline to come up with a shack solution that would allow the crew to conduct their work warm and dry but also protect them from the elements and provide a safe shelter in the event the helicopter was unable to conduct crew change at the allotted time.

Traditionally, if drill crews had fly shacks as part of their equipment repertoire, they were made of plywood walls formed around a steel tubing frame. These walls were pinned together by the crew and braced and bolted. Most contractors will agree that while these shacks do shelter the crew from the weather, they can be time-consuming to assemble, and almost impossible for a crew of two to put together in a strong wind or inclement weather. In the case of the Yukon project for Ridgeline, they were not an option due to their weight. It was at this point that the team began seeking an alternative solution.

In the search for alternatives to the plywood shack, the president of the company, Doug Campbell leaned on his 38 years of experience and designed an aluminum frame measuring 16 ft by 16 ft (4.88 m by 4.88 m) (in order to fit on lumber pads) and weighed very little in comparison to the alternatives. From there, the team sourced a PVC fabric that was both waterproof, windproof, and flame resistant while also being lightweight. Once the type of fabric was settled upon, design began so that it could be sewn to fit over and around the frame. After some stitching and design tweaks, the shack was completed and ready for its first season of mineral exploration.

The entire shack weighed 420 lb (190.5 kg) and could be mobilized in the Twin Otter in one single trip. The simple, straightforward design meant that it could be broken down for moves in 10-15 minutes and re-assembled in that same amount of time. This design is flown from site to site the same way one moves a lift of drill rods with chokers and endless straps. Pilots have commented that it is the easiest shack they’ve ever had to move. There is no requirement for the pilot to weave the drill mast or engine in and around a shack already assembled on the pad, nor is there any reason for them to strain the helicopter to move a plywood walled unit weighing near the lifting capability of the machine. That fabric shack began to show its advantages right away in that first season of its use.

When fully assembled, with two roof panels enclosing the drill, the CKC Ultralight Fly shack provides the crew with a dry place to work. Anybody who has worked outdoors can attest that many tasks are less frustrating if you are able to remain dry. Once the drill engine begins to run and the temperature rises, crews find that in addition to being dry, the shacks are also very warm places to work in, as the windproof walls cause the warm air to circulate within them. For the crew at Ridgeline, working at 8000 ft (2438 m) above sea level in the Yukon in late September, being warm and dry was not only a luxury to appreciate but it contributed to safer operations.

There were multiple days when the helicopter was unable to conduct crew change due to fog and rain and without the drill shack, the crew would have battled with fatigue along with the elements, risking hypothermia, frostbite or exposure concerns. For this project, the client was limited in the amount of lumber they were able to mobilize to the project; therefore, they were unable to provide a ‘safety shack’ at or near the drill. This problem was solved when the Ridgeline drill crew was equipped with an emergency kit at the drill containing sleeping bags, cots, non-perishable foods and a small cookstove. Thus the fabric shack was utilized as a perfectly acceptable survival shack as it provided a warm, dry, windproof shelter for the men on the mountain.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Ridgeline Drilling crew decided to move on from the drill contracting space and sold their drill and support equipment. After multiple inquiries as to where the fly shack went, and whether it was available for sale, Cody Campbell, a member of Ridgeline Drilling’s management team, decided to branch out and fill that demand for Ultralight Fly Shacks and CKC Ultralight was formed to do just that.

The first customer of CKC Ultralight was Driftwood Diamond Drilling, a very successful contractor in Canada with operations across the country and in Peru. Their first fly shack was dispatched to a project in Golden Triangle, BC, for Scottie Resources. Most people in the industry have heard of the Golden Triangle and for those who don’t have first-hand experience, know that weather there can change in an instant. Most of the drilling is conducted high in the mountains on steep slopes. Coupled with strong winds, rain and snow, operations can get complicated by extreme weather conditions at any time throughout the year.

Driftwood Drilling drill shack
Driftwood Drilling set up in the Golden Triangle in NW, BC for Scottie Resources

At first, the Driftwood crew had doubts about the durability of the fabric shack – after all, this is an industry where most things are built from heavy-duty steel and bolted together. The utility of the CKC shack was soon realized shortly after a drill move early in the program. The weather had been inclement for a couple of days and both fly drills were ready to move to their new pads as soon as there was a break in the weather. When that break came in the afternoon, the crews scrambled ‘all hands on deck’ and along with the Yellowhead Helicopters pilot Jeff Patmore, both drills were moved to their new pads just before crew change and nightfall. It should be mentioned that throughout the move and over the course of the following night shift the weather was not friendly to the crews with strong wind, freezing temperatures and rain.

One of the drills was outfitted with the traditional plywood walled shack while the other was traveling with the CKC Ultralight Fabric Shack. At crew change the following morning, the night shift teams reported to the foreman. One crew said that they were unable to set up the plywood shack in the wind and this severely hampered their production through the night, being wet and cold. The other drill crew came into the crew room and stated: ‘I love that shack, not only were we dry, but setting up in the dark wasn’t a problem since it was so bright in there with the white walls’. That same crew, after setting up their drill following the move, had installed their anchor, run their casing and cored to 60 m (197 ft) depth. This kind of production may not have been possible without a shelter that allowed them to work unimpeded by the weather and the elements.

From that first shack sold to Driftwood Drilling, CKC Ultralight has now sold multiple units to contractors operating in the Golden Triangle and Yukon. Most of the shacks are intended to be utilized in the summer drilling season; however, recently there has been a push by multiple provincial permitting agencies to reduce and minimize disturbance levels of drilling programs. This shift in government paradigm has led to a number of drill programs that would typically take place as road access skid jobs, to be designed as heli-supported fly jobs. This has seen CKC Ultralight deliver shacks into Northern Saskatchewan, Canada for work in February, where temperatures are expected to average around -30°C (-22°F). Modifications to the shacks for this winter work include a fully enclosed roof, along with passthrough flaps in the walls to allow for frost fighter hoses to provide auxiliary heat to the drill crew.

One of these shacks has been delivered for Bryson Drilling, an extremely experienced and well-known contractor, for a winter fly job on a Gold exploration program in Northern Saskatchewan. After the first few holes, all reports from the project are good. Not only is the drilling going really well but Derek Sunderland, a partner and field supervisor for Bryson says ‘according to the boys [the shack] is absolutely wonderful. Using one frost fighter at -40°C (-40°F) and they are all warm inside it’.

With the CKC Ultralight Shacks being utilized all across Western Canada and in all seasons and types of weather, there really are no limitations as to where these fabric units can be utilized. If there is a program that would benefit from providing a roof over the heads of the crew, or a wall providing shelter from the elements, these CKC Ultralight Shacks can be customized to suit each contractor’s needs. The lightweight nature and minimal setup and takedown would work well in international programs where man-portable drills are being utilized; just as they would prove particularly useful in places like Mexico, or Nevada, where crews need a roof over their head to provide shade and minimize the risk of exposure to the sun. A drill program in the jungle where there are periods of rain each day could benefit from having a roof and shelter around the rig.

CKC Ultralight Drill Shacks start as a basic design and feature construction elements such as double-stitched seams utilizing UV and chemical resistant thread, extremely strong industrial hook and loop (Velcro) and 12 oz (407 g/m2) PVC fabric. Each unit can be modified and customized according to the specifications of the drill it is surrounding, along with how the contractor lays out and sets up their equipment on the fly pad during heli-portable projects. There is truly little that can’t be customized on the CKC Ultralight Shacks. Doors and openings can be moved and placed according to the desires of the drill crew, wall heights and the overall size of the shack can be modified for drills that require a larger shelter, or perhaps a smaller, more compact unit.

The advantages of having a complete shack surrounding on fly projects are numerous. The simplicity and ease of set up allow for crews to assemble them safely and efficiently. In turn, they spend more time setting an anchor, running casing and collaring the drill hole. While working, the crew remains warm and dry and after all, a happy crew is a more productive crew, typically spending more time at the controls drilling rather than taking breaks to warm up and get comfortable. The shacks also serve as safe, warm shelters in the event the crew needs to take a break and rest, an essential part of a fatigue management plan. Additionally, the white walls provide a bright reflective surface for the night shift crews.

Moving a CKC Ultralight Drill Shack
Moving a CKC Ultralight Drill Shack

In between holes, during teardown of the drill, if left up until the move, the shack provides shelter from the elements. It also prevents water and other environmental contaminants from getting into the hydraulic lines of the drill. The lightweight nature means that helicopter pilots never have to struggle to get it moved to the next pad. Also, when servicing the drill with a helicopter, the shack makes for a cleaner, tidier drill site as the little things that inevitably blow around under the rotor-wash (i.e.: loose burlap, gloves, core box lids, empty buckets, etc.) remain contained within the walls of the drill shack rather than blowing down the mountain slope or across the drill site.

CKC Ultralight has provided fabric fly shacks to contractors in BC, Yukon and Saskatchewan. The best testament to the quality and durability of the CKC Ultralight Shacks is having experienced, reputable contractors, such as Driftwood Drilling and Bryson Drilling, acquire multiple units to surround their equipment and protect their crews for the upcoming 2021 summer drilling season.

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