Winter co-op in the Northwest Territories

Tuesday, November 23, 1999

By: Ryan R. Lyle

Winter in the sub-arctic region of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT) is not the average person's idea of a great time. One must really enjoy the cold and the snow in the vast north as the winter is relentless. However for me, a third year geological engineering student, it was a dream come true.

I spent January to April 1999 working with EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd.'s Yellowknife office. EBA is a multi-disciplinary engineering firm based in Edmonton. The NWT office is world-renowned for its cold weather engineering expertise. Projects include geotechnical and materials testing, geotechnical design (foundations, soil structures etc.), mining services such as permitting, closure plans, remediation etc., as well as environmental engineering services.

Rock crusher and quarry
Discovery Mine Reclamation: Rock crusher and quarry.

EBA was a perfect fit for a geological engineering student such as myself. Geological Engineering combines engineering design with a good understanding of the earth sciences. This enables the design of foundations built in such extreme conditions as the permanently frozen soils of the north. Geological engineers work in a wide variety of projects including: the search for oil, gas, gold and other earth materials, the planning and design of the extraction of these materials, dealing with environmental concerns pertaining to the earth and its systems, and also play a key role in the construction of dams, bridges, highways and other structures. My duties at EBA included working in the lab testing soils and concrete, drafting various site plans, helping prepare reports and proposals, aiding in the design of pile foundations, completing field work, and researching various topics pertaining to the environment of the north.

All my life I have been interested in the world of mining. Not the world of finance and speculation but the world of defying the odds. Finding and extracting precious ore in remote and incredibly harsh environments. The challenges that faced old time prospectors and miners must have seemed insurmountable. The city of Yellowknife grew because the local rocks are laden in gold. Its history is fascinating; but it is well known. Many other mining towns don't make it and few know their stories. Through minesite reclamation programs, I got to see first-hand two remote, abandoned mining camps.

Ryan underground in mine
Ryan underground at Yellowknife's GIANT Gold Mine.

One site was the Discovery Consoli-dated Gold Mines site north of Yellowknife. In the 1950s and 1960s, a total of a million ounces of gold were poured here. Today the townsite remains as it was left nearly thirty years ago. It is nothing but a forgotten piece of history. The reclamation project included a clay cap on top of environmentally damaging tailings with a layer of crushed rock on top. I performed the geotechnical lab work on the soil and provided quality assurance for the rock crushing operation.

However my best day at work was spent on the southeast shore of Great Bear Lake. There stands the former Terra Mines' Silver Bear Mine. We flew to site in a ski plane; for myself it was a happy first experience in such an aircraft. As part of the environmental decommissioning of the site, I helped take an inventory of the hazardous materials on-site. I also got a great first-hand look at the former operation. The nearest weather station showed it was -38 that day and that is fairly cold. However the excitement of being in such a fascinating place kept me warm. As well, cooking (thawing) lunch over a fire in an underground adit kept us warm. In the end, I also managed to complete some interesting research on the acid rock drainage potential at the site.

Yellowknife is located on magnificent Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America. The beautiful landscape belongs to the Slave geological province. It is not unlike that of other areas of the Canadian Shield. It is a land of water, rock, swamp and trees. However the trees are smaller and further apart and the rock outcrops everywhere. This backdrop was ideal for many outdoor winter adventures including snowshoeing, hiking, and my first attempt at winter camping. One day I even managed to watch a herd of caribou. As well the sights of Yellowknife challenged my developing photography skills. Especially challenging to photograph were the fabled northern lights (aurora borealis). I spent many hours enjoying the energy of the auroras.

I really enjoyed living in Yellowknife. The people are extremely friendly. Apparently, the darkness and cold does not hamper the spirits of Yellowknifers. It is a fun community with lots of activities in the winter. I met some of the greatest people in the world who will hopefully remain friends for a long time. In all, winter in the NWT was a great experience for me. The co-op experience was second to none, the workplace was very hospitable as was the town, and the outdoor activities were amazing in the winter landscape.

Northern lights over a truck

Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis over a company truck.