David spotting drill collar locations in the field
In January of this year, I packed my rucksack and boarded a Dash 8 airplane headed towards the James Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario. We were heading to a mine site that will be the first of its kind in the province of Ontario. Located approximately 90 kilometres west of the coastal First Nation community of Attawapiskat, the De Beers Canada Victor Project will be Ontario’s first diamond mine.
At this time, the Victor Project was in its construction phase and unlike most of the passengers on the plane, a small group of us would not be staying directly on site. We were part of De Beers Canada’s Exploration Division, working on a project known as the Victor Resource Extension Program, or VicREP for short. Victor is one of 16 diamondiferous kimberlite pipes discovered on the property and we would be evaluating the resources of several of these other pipes. Our goal: the possibility of extending the life of the mine beyond the 12 years Victor is expected to produce.
As a student studying to become a mining engineer, I knew that a good first step would be to work for a mining company in their engineering department on projects such as mine design, planning, dewatering, and ventilation. But the logical step for me in understanding the stages in the life of a mine included those before a reserve had been defined. And thus, I spent the next several months with a small exploration team, who I soon knew better than most of my closest friends. We lived and worked out of an exploration camp set up for core and bulk sampling programs conducted on the Victor kimberlite pipe. The camp had all of the necessities one would need: a kitchen, sleeping quarters (where we slept four to a cabin), office space, a core shed, and even a small workshop. In fact, the site was large enough to house more than just our exploration crew, so when the seasonal winter road opened up, we shared the location with workers involved in the transportation of supplies to site. These flat- bed trucks ran 24 hours a day and delivered a year’s worth of construction materials needed to build the Victor Project in just a matter of weeks. I, for one, marvelled over the logistics involved in such an operation and watched the supply staging areas grow on a daily basis, to a total of 2,209 loads by the end of the campaign.
During the winter months, our team endured temperatures as cold as -35ºC and some that exceeded -60ºC with the windchill. Venturing out in these temperatures to spot drill collar locations, we became very good at dressing appropriately for these weather conditions. When spring set in, I quickly understood the importance of a winter drilling program, as the once frozen muskeg thawed into land almost completely impassable, and solid ground turned into small ponds and areas where the water table was very near to the surface. This happened to provide ample breeding ground for the area’s most common predatory bird: the mosquito. Camp rotations consisted of three weeks on site and one week off. With such a rotation, arriving back at the Victor Project clearly highlighted the on-going changes happening around the site. In one week’s time, areas such as the processing plant and mine living quarters could change completely and become hardly recognizable. It was like the construction of a small city in a rural area of Ontario. In fact, the exploration camp was driving distance from this housing and construction infrastructure of the Victor Mine, and trips to the site became cleverly known as “going to town.”
In addition to the analysis of drill core samples and gathering of geotechnical data at the exploration camp, I found myself in the field on a weekly basis. Determining and marking the locations of drillholes using flagged pickets was important for drill setups, especially when the snow-covered landscapes changed as frequently as the construction occurring at Victor.
Throughout my time in the James Bay Lowlands, I began to understand the importance and implications that exploration techniques can have on the development of a mine. Starting early on with detailed airborne geophysical surveys, geotechnical analysis of core samples, and the initial workings of a geological model, I found out firsthand the relationship between information generated in the exploration stage and a mine’s design. I would therefore encourage any mining engineering student with an interest in geology to experience life at an exploration camp. After all, the stages in the life of a mine start with the discovery.
David Milstead is a third-year mineral engineering student at the University of Toronto.