Teck Cominco’s Polaris base metal mine closed in August 2002. It was the most northerly base metal mine in the world, which meant dealing with permafrost and the Arctic. Life on site was unique. Here are the recollections of Donna Cragg, paymaster accounting assistant. More tributes to Polaris can be found at www.teckcominco.com and in the latest Orbit magazine.
When the Polaris lead/zinc mine on Little Cornwallis Island in Canada’s high arctic was being planned, commissioned and started up in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I had no idea how important a role the mine would play for me. Now, as operations wind down, I can’t imagine what life would have been like without the opportunity to work and live here in the north.
I often imagine back three decades, when Bechtel was working with Cominco on the design and conceptualization of Polaris. A barge topped with a building the size of a football field was outfitted with a complete processing plant in Trois-Rivires, Que., towed to the mine site north of 76 latitude and anchored to the arctic island shore. Landfilling, an adjacent deep-sea dock and construction of an accommodation complex were completed in the winter of 1980-81, despite demanding deadlines and even harsher elements. This was an astonishing engineering feat for its day, made possible only by human co-operation and resourcefulness.
This adaptability was epitomized by the first mine manager, the late Sam Luciani, who had an indelible effect on all who knew him and many who didn’t. One story that illustrates his influence has to do with personnel turnover, initially expected to pass 60% in the first year of operation. Sam is credited with preventing this costly manpower drain, for he engendered a powerful level of loyalty and dedication well beyond expectation.
People at Polaris were willing to put so much into their work that often the lines between work time and personal time blurred. When the mine winds to a close, many individuals will be leaving after 15 to 20 years of service. Their loyalty and wealth of experience have been fundamental to the operation’s success.
My family’s introduction to Polaris came by way of a phone call in early 1987 from Cominco’s human resources department to my husband, Tom: Would he be interested in a position at the mine? Within two weeks, we were at my in-laws’ northern Ontario home watching the first Polaris video. The description of polar bears, icy winds, snow and frozen moustaches made it sound like an ominous yet exciting place, and Tom left for Polaris in June.
There was no phone in his shared accommodations, and his calls home became the highlight of my week. I spent endless hours trying to visualize his new environment. Finally, that Christmas, I made my first visit to Polaris.
Mine visitors who lived in eastern Canada were routed first to Montreal for a charter flight north. We made a stop in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), where I was introduced to the bitter arctic wind. After continuing to Resolute, we transferred to a Twin Otter for a 25-minute flight farther north to the mine site on Little Cornwallis Island. This was my introduction to the Bradley Twin Otter pilots of the far north, an amazing crew of skilled, tenacious and interesting individuals who were integral to the history of Polaris.
Flying into darkness isn’t the same as having night close in with the passing of time. Physiologically, I responded by feeling totally lethargic. Once we reached the mine site I faced quite a different challenge: finding my way around the accommodations building. The repeated modules, distinguished by colour, with distinct third floors unconnected to any other module, added to the fun and sense of discovery, and my explorations revealed a pool room, a gym and a library.
As Polaris is a 24/7 operation, only Christmas itself was a day off during that first holiday. But the company, recognizing the value of family, ensured that employees with visitors were scheduled for day shifts so they could spend quality time together. Organized events included a wine and cheese welcome party, ski-dozer rides, a mine tour, gift exchange and more. A Catholic priest was flown in to offer a mass and a non-denominational service. We toasted Santa’s arrival on Christmas morning with champagne and orange juice (still one of my most enjoyed traditions). The buffet extravaganza provided by the catering staff, complete with ice sculptures, rivalled the best cruise ship offerings.
I fondly recall the long, leisurely days of my first visit swimming, reading, relaxing in the sauna and hot tub. We took a bus tour to search for polar bears (in total darkness!) and went outside to watch an igloo being built but had to retreat inside within minutes because, even though we were bundled up, any exposed skin started to "burn" from the severe cold. I’ve often repeated something I was told back then: that an unprotected person would die of exposure in seven minutes an impressive testament to the land and weather that I am thankful has never been put to the test.
On that holiday we were also treated to a visit by children from the isolated community of Resolute. It was fascinating to watch children brought together from coast to coast to coast relating to each other in the universal language of play. The kids from Resolute had earned their much-coveted seats on the Twin Otter through year-long performance in and attendance at school. The bottomless ice cream pail and the swimming pool at Polaris were two of the main attractions!
That first trip gave me a glimpse of Tom’s surroundings and his life at Polaris, but I later discovered that the jovial spirits of high times and holidays are a far cry from the more monotonous everyday routine on Little Cornwallis and the tiring workloads.
Over the next nine years, we adjusted to the Polaris schedule, with Tom working eight weeks on site and spending four weeks at our home north of Toronto. Then in 1996, just when we were planning to relocate our home base to Fort Lauderdale, Polaris called once again. This time the inquiry was whether I would be available to cover a short-term staff shortage in the finance department. I accepted, with excitement and a little trepidation.
After the requisite medical and x-ray and a trip to buy footwear that would withstand minus 45C, I travelled north on Feb. 14, 1996, originally for a three-week stint. When a full-time position in finance became available, I took it. Nearly seven years of incredibly diverse life experiences later, I am still here.
My early Polaris life wasn’t all roses. Indeed, after several years of a long-distance relationship, Tom and I wondered if we could still live together full time. Would we adapt or drive each other crazy? When I first joined Tom in his single room, he felt like he needed to go out into the hall to change his mind! Eventually we moved to a double room and then a suite, and I’m thrilled to report that we did adapt. I also mastered a few novel requirements such as remembering to turn the knob before shutting a door in order to achieve the quietest possible closing and not disturb our neighbours.
At Polaris, work schedules are based on 12 blocks of eight weeks on and four weeks off. I entered this strange and wonderful world as a Block One, which is where I remain. But we had to do a little shuffling, through a series of shorter contracts, to match Tom’s schedule and mine without overly disrupting work flow. One result was that in my first year I was on site for almost all of the wonderful annual events that helped define my life at Polaris: the ball and golf tournaments, the winter carnival, the corn roast and lobsterfest, Halloween festivities and a long list of others.
The first baseball tournament that year drove home the effect of 24 hours of light. The final game, played at 4:30 a.m., could have been at a ball field in the south at noon on any summer day, so bright and sunny was the setting. While scorekeeping at another baseball game, I witnessed the
resilience of the native people. Despite freezing cold and whipping rain, the Resolute team played intently, oblivious to the elements, and I realized that such weather is part of their reality.
The success of most of the social activities on Little Cornwallis was due primarily to the efforts of the Polaris High Arctic Club, a charitable social organization founded by insightful employees in 1983 for the benefit of fellow employees and the local community. Vice-president Dave Swain reports that PHAC has donated more than $100,000 to local area charities quite an accomplishment and one that has contributed greatly to the quality of life for individuals here.
Volunteering for PHAC became a big part of my life at Polaris: helping with decorating parties, tending bar, doing cleanup detail. The guiding principle for PHAC members is the unwavering focus on morale. To judge by the high spirits and upbeat feeling at the final golf tournament and pub night held July 20, 2002, they were very successful indeed.
Many individuals contributed greatly by organizing other social outlets. Movie Night originated in Marc Richea’s effort to share a pastime he enjoyed with a few friends and Tim Sewell’s recognition that it held value for all of Polaris. The Coffee Club (originally the Book Club) sprang from my desire to recapture the enjoyment of a casual conversation with friends that had been a part of my southern life. Aerobics grew out of someone’s interest in fitness; the opportunity to learn karate stemmed from Brian Powers’s passion for the discipline. My list could go on and on, with so many more individuals deserving of mention than can be listed here.
For me, Polaris has offered incredible experiences and opportunities that otherwise would not likely have come my way: listening to classical violin music over cappuccinos while overlooking the Arctic Ocean on a Sunday afternoon; attending an impromptu presentation by a NASA scientist who just happened to drop by; watching a ship dock in the bright midnight sun while enjoying "auction quality" port courtesy of a travel writer from Portugal; thrilling to the combination of Mozart and fireworks on New Year’s Eve; sharing stories and photos with visiting contractors and geologists.
For each great experience, it seems there has also been an equal challenge, starting with the effects on southern family and friends of my decision to work at Polaris like missing my sister’s wedding shower. Sometimes I chafed at the lack of control over my own existence due to elemental forces, some natural and some manmade. I remember the dinners we ate by candlelight after power outages shut the place down, listening to the silence and trying to remain calm as someone calculated how few hours we had to get the power back before the intense cold would force evacuation. There was also the bone-weary tiredness at the end of an eight-week rotation, the difficulty sleeping through extremes of darkness and light and the effect that isolation and lack of privacy had on everyone.
But these things pale against the natural beauty of the North. One of the most wondrous aspects of life here is the vibrant and vivid sunsets. I’ve driven to the very tip of Florida to view the renowned sunset in Key West, and I can tell you it doesn’t hold a candle to what I see out my window on the barge when the sun is setting. I still marvel at the first glimpse of the sun peeking over the horizon in the spring. The subtle tones and pastel hues of the Arctic on a bright summer day the soft blues and pinks of sky and water, the blend of purple saxifrage and yellow cinquefoil blanketing the tundra are unlike any other natural palette I’ve had the fortune to view.
We’ll be leaving Polaris with a polar bear rug*, a Narwhal tusk and soapstone carvings by Hannah and George Akikuluk, plus a traditional parka now being custom-made for my mother-in-law. Unlike a garment ordered in the south, this one will be about this colour, about this size, with about this type of decorative elements, yet despite all the "abouts" I know with unerring certainty that the outcome will be gorgeous. As with so much of northern life, one has to take a chance, jump in, act now for, like the weather, things here change quickly and irrevocably.
As I reflect back on the past seven years and look toward the future, I realize that the Polaris experience has become a part of who I am, and I go forward as a very different person. And, just as it was people that made Polaris, it is the people who have now been woven into the fabric of my life that will make up the real treasure that I carry away with me.
*Point of interest: the polar bear rug originated from a skin purchased
from Simon Idlout, an Inuit hunter from Resolute Bay. Simon has been a part-time Polaris employee since 1996 involved in surface and exploration work. The flexible nature of his work schedule enabled him to continue his family’s hunting tradition.