Down deep in the earth, alone and in the dark

Posted 11.16.10

A hard-rock miner. At last, status. Off-shift, a numbered lunch pail and several glasses of draught beer attested to the world, or, at least that part of the world that cared, that I was over 18 years of age -- and a miner -- in a mining community.

The on-shift costume was quite different but, in its own way, cool.

A tee-shirt under a wool or heavy cotton work shirt with the sleeve cuffs rolled up in two tight turns; a pair of jeans or heavy corduroy work pants; a pair of rib-toed Billy boots with steel shanks; an under-ground mine safety helmet of some material designed to protect one's head from falling rock. (The helmet didn't do much for my friend Walter when four tons of rock fell on him.) Last but not least, the portable battery that attaches to your belt with the companion miner's lamp that slid into a grooved slot in the front of the helmet.

A cool dude. A miner. And a driver…

Yes. A trolley driver. Several times a shift, after ferrying 'comers' and 'goers' between the shaft leading to the surface and the 16th level winze, I connected my trolley engine to a ten-car train of 5-tonne cars and hauled 50 tonnes of pre-processed muck to be further processed up at the surface of the mine.

It was unknown to me whether the muck contained any future wedding bands or specialized coatings that would help mankind penetrate and explore the inky blackness of space. I simply moved the muck from point A to point B.

During lunch break one night, as we discussed pit-falls and sites to be wary of around the mine property, a fellow miner, Sarge, by name, made a most interesting declaration.

"There's a worked out stope they finished last week on 23 level -- 2305, I think. It's so big they say you can't see the ceiling with a lamp."

That was quite a statement, considering that, in most areas of the mine where we worked the ceiling was barely seven feet, except for the raises and ore passes, of course. Sarge's story sounded like more mining mythology. However, it might be worth checking it out while I was on break later that night.

When my break-time arrived, I went to the shaft collar on level sixteen, rang for the cage (the underground elevator, so named because it has open mesh on the sides and the top) and then signaled, with the hand-pulley, that I wished to descend to twenty-three level, approximately 3000 feet below the surface of the Porcupine Camp.

The cage bounced to a halt on the end of the cable as it reached the 23rd level and I exited, crossed the white-washed area known as the collar, with its single 150 watt bulb ablaze, and opened the blast door that led to the interior of the mine. As the door whooshed shut behind me, I ploughed a furrow into the silent ebony mass beyond with the beam from the lamp on my miner's helmet.

Walking, more like slogging, unsteadily along between the rails of the underground track system was a bit of a chore, requiring focus and concentration. Did you ever try walking along on the crossties of a railway line? Now, imagine doing it in the dark. The feeble light from my helmet was only of occasional use to my feet as my head bobbed up and down like a drinking-glass-bird, searching for signs of the alleged stope 2305.

It was crucially important to stay between the rails because, on the outside of the rail beds, at random intervals, there were ore passes. These were roughly hewn more-or-less vertical, spiral tunnels down which ore, mined at higher levels, cascaded down for several hundreds of feet before being crushed mechanically as the first stage of gold extraction.

Suddenly, to my right, a white arrow pointing left ahead, indicating the legendary stope 2305. I slowed my pace at a point where the walls receded from the beam of my lamp. Slowly, following the beam from my lamp, I suddenly saw -- nothing. No light reflected back from anything. A quick sideways glance toward the wall to check my position and then another vertical look. Nothing.

Wow. That must really go up a ways. No reflection from anything. I must have stood gawking for several minutes moving my head from side to side in an attempt to get some reflected light back. I can't say for sure exactly how long it was because, when I looked at my watch to check the time, it wasn't there.

Not where I should be able to see it. On my wrist, at the end of my arm. Which I also could not see.

People often speak of the inky blackness of space. I say the sky looks like a Las Vegas Bar strip.

The loudest sound in that lightless, almost lifeless space was not the ticking of my watch. It was the pounding of my pulse. It was so loud I thought 'Surely they will hear it on the surface and send a rescue crew.'

Send it where? I didn't tell anyone where I was headed and, when I rang for twenty-three level on the cage, the cage-tender would have no idea who it was that rang. With all the cage calls he gets on a shift, he probably won't even remember it.

A flood of knowledge washed over me, unseen in the dark but illuminating my mind. Two basic rules of working underground: (1) Always avoid going anywhere alone in case your lamp fails; ('Yeah, right!' I remember thinking at that point in the familiarization talk when I was hired.) and, (2) always tell someone where you're going -- so we'll know where to look for the body.(The laughter at that point in the presentation bounced invisibly off of the invisible surroundings, almost deafening me.)

Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell helped me out of there. Where am I? What direction was I facing? Where was danger? In what direction lay safety? What else do I know that will help? There may have been other questions assaulting my brain but I don't recall them.

I do recall reaching down and grasping a rail of the track in each hand because I had walked into the stope and stopped. Then, releasing one hand, I double-gripped the other rail, released the other hand and turned carefully around between the rails. I then began a slow crawl, on my knees to the eventual sliver of light between the blast doors, my lighthouse that promised safety.

The inky blackness of outer space is related to the inky blackness of inner space, more closely than we know.

Bob Gervais now writes and make photographs in London, Ontario

Copyright © 2010 Bob Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/11.10