If there is anywhere in western Canada outside of the oilpatch where a quick primer on environmental reclamation and restoration is timely, it is the neglected goldfields of the Yukon generally and the Klondike specifically.
Although environmental stewardship has improved markedly in Yukon placer fields in recent years including the presentation of Klondike Placer Miners’ Association awards to members who do the best jobs of restoration, it is a little-known art form in the oilfields which can serve as a role model for the future of Yukon placer mining.
I had the great good fortune on my journey back here to stop off in Tumbler Ridge, B.C. for a decade during which I became a certified “Eco-Geezer” while being exposed to the magical wizardry of the mysterious “Environettes,” Mother Nature’s best friends and the ecological answer to female warriors of the Amazon.
Perhaps, an explanation is necessary.
The official name of the Geezers was the “R&R” crew, Reclamation and Restoration, but the environmental consultants we worked for, almost entirely young women with post-graduate degrees in environmental sciences, began calling us Geezers when we began calling them “Environettes.”
There were five of us operating two D-8 dozers, a large hoe and a small finish dozer. The fifth was the foreman who was 76 years old, our senior citizen and team leader named Larry Hommy from Hythe, Alberta, roughly halfway between Grande Prairie and Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, B.C. The youngest was yours truly, who was 62 at the time and called “Kid” even though I had over 40 years of experience running bulldozers.
The leader of the Environettes was a PhD with a name none of us could remember, so Larry called her Stella, which she thought was hilarious because he thought she looked like Marlon Brando’s girlfriend in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront or maybe Streetcar Named Desire. She was the most kick-ass environmentalist I ever met and a woman even oilpatch meatheads didn’t mess with because she answered to the province’s oil-and-gas branch which supervised and signed off on all restoration jobs.
The oil companies paid for all the work we did but they issued no directives or orders. That was all up to Stella and her crew, and she had carte blanche to order whatever she needed to clean up the mess and make the leases pristine.
She was no hypothetical weekend environmentalist waving placards and writing letters about her grievances. She was a highly paid professional scientist who worked long, hard hours to make a positive contribution to the oilfield environment and it was her idea for our company to assign the oldest operators and, therefore, the most experienced, to make certain the jobs were done right.
This unique “marriage” of old dirt movers and young “Eco-Gals” worked with serendipitous harmony, because we knew things about moving the earth that they didn’t, and they knew things about restoring the environment we had never thought about. It’s safe to say we all became great friends and always looked forward to the next restoration challenge working together with enthusiasm and good cheer.
Larry and Stella especially got along well, and one noontime during a tailgate lunch he surprised me by getting nosey and asking her how she was getting along with her new boyfriend. She replied nonchalantly, like she was discussing her personal life with her grandfather, saying, “So far, so good. He gets along fine with the kids, but hasn’t passed the 180-day test yet so time will tell.”
The next day Larry told her at lunch that his wife of 60 years was getting close to his 25,000-day test but time had spoken.
Every job started with Stella and Larry unfolding blow-up satellite photos of what the lease looked like before the oil companies ever touched it and the goal was always the same: Put it back exactly the way it was originally. Stella was big on pre-job preparation and many soil samples had been taken to determine if there was any contamination from spills or other foreign matter. If so, the first job was hauling it away.
Then the D-8s went to work for a couple weeks putting the sub-grade, usually clay or shale on the east side of the Rockies, back where it started. This was Larry’s area of expertise, and Stella was often gone to another job, staying in touch by cell phone at the end of each day.
When the sub was bulked out and smoothed by the finish dozer, the D-8s and hoe began laying the subsoil over it, usually easy to discern because it was yellow in colour and kind of a loam. When Stella was satisfied that the subsoil was evenly spread with the right depth, she gave us the green light to cover the whole thing with the original topsoil and strippings, including wood, bushes, hay and anything else that might have been growing there originally except the trees.
In the last couple years, Stella ordered a new wrinkle to the process which made a lot of sense but caused the finish catskinner, Johnny Bravery, to scratch his diminishing grey hair. He was called “Bravery” because he had been awarded an Order of Canada courage medal as a young man for saving a co-worker’s life on the job.
When all the dirt was moved and the job looked finished, Stella instructed us to shallow rip the whole thing with the D-8s to a depth of six to eight inches, to make the topsoil more receptive to the numerous seedlings so the wind wouldn’t blow them away before they germinated. The best time to seed the leases was in late fall after the first frost but before the first snowfall, and it was common for the new organics to begin growing under the melting snow in the spring. Any trees were added later in the spring or summer, by which time the Geezers were far away working on a new lease.
If any Yukon miners are interested in contacting Stella and her magnificent “Queens of the Environment,” get in touch as I have her numbers. They say it’s impossible to reconstruct permafrost, and maybe it is, but I know some talented ladies who would like to try and can guarantee their plan would make sense.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.