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56 night shifts, zero cell service, and a burned-down shack

Notes from a geological engineer’s field book

working on a snowy night
Image Credit: Matt Huynh

This is the first story in our Night Shift series about working in a different rhythm.

 

After his 28th consecutive night shift outside the tiny town of Aniak, Alaska, all geological engineer Mat Fournier could do was start counting down the days until he got to go home.

“27, 26, 25…”

With a population of 501 people, Aniak is just over 300 miles from Anchorage. The only way to get there is by boat or plane, then the journey out to the mining exploration site requires another 60 to 90-minute flight. “All of a sudden, I’m in a cramped 4-seater Cessna headed to the middle of nowhere,” Fournier says of his first trip out.

Every shift began the same way: He’d wake up at 5:30pm (hard to do when you’ve hardly slept) to the sounds of excavators digging, helicopters whirring overhead, and scores of drillers and miners roving the campsite. In the small cafeteria, he’d prepare himself for yet another bowl of bland stew.

 

“I was young, saddled with student debt,” Fournier continues, “It seemed like a great idea.”

 

Resources at the camp were tight, which for Fournier meant 56 days of dinner for breakfast, forgoing showers, and swapping out beds (or “hot bedding”) with daytime workers.

That was in the early 2000s, when a resource boom spelled good news for the metals market in British Columbia, Canada. “They couldn’t hire people fast enough,” he said, recalling his start in the industry as a sprightly 22-year-old fresh out of university, “We were just getting money thrown at us. It was like, ‘Oh, you know about rocks? Here’s an extra 15K on your signing bonus’.”

“I was young, saddled with student debt,” Fournier continues, “It seemed like a great idea.”

 

 

Occupational hazards

Fournier is your classic “rock guy”. (There’s at least one on every building or drilling site.) “I’m the person who knows how to make tunnels. Dealing with deep foundations, landslides, earthquakes, that’s the kind of stuff in my domain.”

 

“There are a lot of construction workers, a lot of tough guys with 15, 20 years experience. And here I am, this skinny white collar kid straight out of school.”

 

While the other workers slept, he’d slip on his steel-toed rubber boots and trample over muskeg (a type of bogland commonly found in Arctic and boreal areas) to reach the drilling rig where his only teammates — a pair of drill rig operators — waited to start their shift.

“You get all sorts of personalities,” he says of their encounter.

“There are a lot of construction workers, a lot of tough guys with 15, 20 years experience. And here I am, this skinny white collar kid straight out of school.”

 

worker sitting in the cold

 

“The first guy, the drill operator, had this stack of porn — all kinds, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s — that was a meter-and-a-half high. He’d sit on his chair working his way through the pile while he was toggling the controls. At this point, we would only drill into the ground maybe 5 feet at a time. So I’m sitting there, watching my life go by in 5-foot intervals. Time didn’t exist.”

Apart from the discomfort generated by his present company, Fournier had to contend with some real hazards. Back then they used a piece of drilling machinery called an E-Z Mark, a foot-long, multi-pronged device generally covered in a thick, frothy coating that makes it impossible to grip, especially with hands gone numb from the sub-zero temperature.

“Everyone had a huge scar between their thumb and their index finger from where your hand would slip off and jam this thing into your other hand,” says Fournier.

 

The shack

Ten feet from the rig stood a meagerly constructed shanty built to protect engineers from the elements while they analyzed samples and entered data. Inside, the walls were graffitied with the scribblings of all the other engineers and geologists who endured the same long-haul nights Fournier faced—a small comfort, given the only means of communication were an unreliable satellite internet connection and a few minutes a week on the emergency satellite phone.

 

“The drillers wanted to keep going that day, but I was like ‘Nope!’, I’m done. I’m tapping out.’ By that time I was a shell of a human being.”

 

“I can’t count how many birthdays I missed. The joke used to be that if you didn’t have a girlfriend by May, don’t even bother trying to get one until Christmas time, because in the summer you’re only in town for a week and then you’re back out. You’re living out of your suitcase the whole time.”

With one week left on the job, the ramshackle shanty spontaneously burned down. Maybe it was Fournier’s sheer force of will that caused it or, more likely, an electrical fire.

“The drillers wanted to keep going that day, but I was like ‘Nope!’, I’m done. I’m tapping out.’ By that time I was a shell of a human being.”

 

Life after camp

Over the span of his thirteen-year career, Fournier found himself taking on less field work as he rose through the ranks.

Though that meant more time for things like birthdays (and girlfriends), it ultimately wasn’t enough to convince him to continue: “Sure, we got paid well, but it’s not like we were making doctor money. There’s the stress of moving up the chain, the responsibility versus pay, and looking upwards just looks miserable. It’s all the downsides of the billable hour. You can work yourself to death and no one cares what you did yesterday. They only care what’s coming down the pipe tomorrow.”

And yet over a decade of lonely summers and rigorous field work proved to have its upsides, too: “There are definitely things I’ll always treasure,” he says, “The days where you’re somewhere so far off the beaten path that the cost of traveling there would be impossible.”

“I’ve seen the Northern Lights too many times to count,” Fournier says proudly, “a fact I needle my fiancée about constantly.”

 

Lima Al-Azzeh prefers glamping.

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