Working in the Arctic cold weather: Winter wonderland or frigid drudgery

March 1, 2021

by Wren Bruce, Senior Project Geologist at Mercator Geological Services

The sound of a trilling mobile phone interrupted my sleep and I scrambled for it, reaching out of my warm covers. I answered it with eyes squinted trying to read the time displayed against a brightly lit backdrop: 2 a.m. Outside was pitch black and I could hear the wind brushing snow against the window. On the other end of the line, I heard the drone of an idling diamond drill rig and a voice shouting over it, ‘We’re done!’ The night shift driller was a man of few words, but I knew he meant I needed to be onsite to officially shut down the current drill hole so the drillers can begin preparing for their drill move to another site, a process done countless times before. Welcome to 24-hour project geologist duties.

Do you know how much preparation is involved in changing out of pajamas into winter gear to go shut down a drill rig? Start with the base layer: thermal top, thermal bottom, and wool socks. Add a neck gaiter, a long-sleeved shirt, cozy sweater and wool vest. Top everything with ski pants and parka, don’t forget a hat and of course, stop by the kitchen for pocket snacks. Stuff your headlamp and extra batteries into your pack where the emergency winter kit lives permanently, consisting of assorted possible life-saving goodies like extra socks and clothes, dry food and a small first aid kit. Since driving in safety toes can be obnoxiously unwieldy, the snow boots worn to leave camp accommodations are only used to drive the truck to the driller laydown area located a kilometer or two from the actual drill site. Once inside the toasty driller dry shack, switch footwear and lace up winter safety toe boots as the snowmobile warms up outside. There are lights on the shack, but outside of their cast the moon is shining brightly. Finally, pull on a balaclava, slip on a winter helmet before brushing off the snow from the snowmobile seat and begin motoring along the beaten path towards the drill site perched atop a ridge.

Working as a field geologist has allowed me to participate in winter drill programs all over Canada, exploring for uranium in Saskatchewan; in Quebec, and the Northwest Territories, for diamonds; and even to Finland for gold. Obviously, winter is usually associated with being cold and dark, but the three most common words used to describe winter drill program life amongst my colleagues are challenging, unique and surreal. To my delight, a close friend used the phrase ‘working in a gigantic freezer’ to characterize their take and it’s hard to argue with something so entertainingly accurate. Winter conditions are a whole different ball of wax compared to summer ones logistically speaking. Not to mention Arctic conditions – with average temperatures of -20°C (-4°F) and below – are a special subcategory within the aforementioned wax ball. Either way, you’re battling against daylight hours for flying, temperature constraints and safety precautions constantly throughout the day. For me, I feel the further north one travels, the more layers of complexity are added to the lifestyle of working a job in what can be one of the harshest areas of the planet, especially during the winter field season.

The silhouette of two geologists and their helicopter pilot are visible at the shores of a frozen lake in northern Quebec, Canada

There are a few memories that stick out when I reflect over the last 10 years and the spectrum ranges from events that seem like exercises in finding out just how many expletives I could shout out loud in aggravation at an unobliging inanimate object to placid days where everything proceeds swimmingly accompanied by the rewarding feeling of productivity and conclusion at the end of my shift.

As with anything, winter drilling programs have their highs and lows. Lows include one maddening night when I assisted a drill helper encircle ropes around his body into a makeshift harness to attach half the downhole survey equipment to his back in preparation to trudge up a steep incline that was not suited for driving a snowmobile. He trotted behind me as I dragged up the other half of the equipment. When we finally reached the top, panting with exertion, where I spent the next two hours fighting with frozen o-rings and syncing issues between the uncooperative downhole tool and a field laptop. Or when my snowmobile headlight had gone out, likely due to the fact the prime of the snow machine’s life was probably the same year Macintosh computers were developed, and I resorted to using my feeble mobile phone flashlight app to light the way. The result was traveling at a snail’s pace, awkwardly holding the phone aloft in one hand while holding down the throttle in the other, finally arriving in camp with cramped icy fingers malformed into mishappen claws.

A diamond rig drill shack glows amongst a snowy landscape at night in Lapland, Finland

But for every situation that I’ll refer to as a character-building experience, there is an equal number of astonishing and indelible moments. Yes, it can be cold and dark most of the time, but watching the sun rise at 11 a.m. in the Lapland Arctic can be heavenly, looking at a sky swathed in pinks and gold behind a shimmering landscape of snow laden trees. It can be so very silent, a shocking juxtaposition against the familiar yet constant hum of a drill rig that is just over the last peak. I’ve remembered fondly when it was 3 a.m. in the Northwest Territories and the night sky was lit up in splashes of greens, purples and whites as the aurora borealis danced overhead, truly the breathtaking experience people describe in poetry, songs and stories. It is in those occasions of serenity and untroubled repose that I fully appreciate my fortuity to experience working in a snowy remote corner of the world.

Sometimes there are battles against planning helicopter flying hours that are so finite that drill moves become logistically unforgiving if the timing isn’t perfect or bad weather that will delay the next shift change resulting in grumpy overworked coworkers. Not all days are figuratively (and literally) sunny, but I’ve learned that there is strength in being adaptive and resilient while working in wintry conditions. If you are offered the opportunity to work in a snowy remote place, take it. Bottom line, while working in the winter can result in unpredictable series of events and a lot of energy spent preparing against frostbite, the memories and work experience are going to be unforgettable.

About the author

Wren Bruce is a MSc graduate of University of British Columbia and is currently a Senior Project Geologist with Mercator Geological Services, Ltd based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia that provides services globally. Her ten years of experience in the exploration field has brought valuable expertise to the consulting team that comprises multi-disciplinary backgrounds in mineral exploration management, regulatory compliance and mineral resource services. Her experience ranges from field mapping/ sampling to core logging and drill management, to data compilation and 3D modeling. She hopes to continue working as a field operative. Wren is dedicated to being a mentor for the next generation of field geologists as well as a support for women in the sciences.

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