Meet the master blaster

Ken House's infatuation with explosives started with a bang. The spark was innocuous enough: one summer day while growing up in Penticton, BC, his father asked him to dig the family's garden.

Ken House’s infatuation with explosives started with a bang.

The spark was innocuous enough: one summer day while growing up in Penticton, BC, his father asked him to dig the family’s garden.

House, then 12, decided to do it with black powder.

Making the stuff was easy enough. House already had his head deep in the Blasters’ Handbook, and he knew he only needed sulphur, saltpeter and a little charcoal.

Making a fuse was no problem, either. He just needed more saltpeter, some sugar and butchers’ cord.

He mixed the batch, poured it in holes he’d dug, and lit the fuse.

The resulting explosion was big enough to blow out neighbourhood windows within a two-block radius.

Afterwards, House became handy at glazing windows. He also acquired a knack for picking fruit – a job he needed to pay for the replacement glass, putty and stops.

Today, House is 65 and still preoccupied with blowing stuff up. He’s the president of Canadian Explosives Technology Incorporation, a Whitehorse-based company that began offering blasting courses this summer.

The impetus for his company’s creation was the botched blast that sent rocks raining down on Lobird Trailer Park on May 6, 2008.

Sidhu Trucking and its blast supervisor were later both fined more than $50,000 for endangering workers and residents.

The accident would have been entirely preventable, said House, had the workers used blasting mats, which are used to weigh down loose rocks.

“It can comprise of anything from tires chained together to heavy coconut fibre matting,” said House.

“They were available. They were there. If they’d been used, there would of been no fly rock into Lobird Trailer Park.”

House has, quite literally, written the book on handling explosives: The Blasters’ Training Manual for Farmers, Ranchers, Prospectors, Engineers and Small Construction Workers. The book forms the basis of his course curriculum.

He also wrote the Canadian military’s explosives training manual. And, when the FLQ began sending bombs in parcels through the mail in 1970, House helped thwart them, as a contract member of the RCMP’s counterterrorism bomb squad.

“I dislike mailboxes immensely,” he said. “I won’t go near them.”

Later, when a Soviet, nuclear-powered spy satellite fell to earth and broke apart above Great Slave Lake in January of 1978, the RCMP called on House to help guard the radioactive wreckage.

He hasn’t been harmed by an accidently detonated charge throughout his career. “I still have all 10 fingers,” said House.

But he’s missing an eye. He didn’t lose it on the job. Instead, it was during a hunting trip in pursuit of a full-curl ram near Annie Lake Road in 1977.

“It’s the Good Lord’s way of saying, ‘Thou shalt not hunt my sheep,’” said House.

House moved to Whitehorse in the late 1960s. He left in 1979 to work at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where he designed and taught the commercial explosives course.

Then, one day in 1982, he suffered a massive brain aneurysm in class.

He wasn’t expected to live. He did, but he spent the next three and a half years in hospital.

Then he wasn’t expected to walk. It took House another three and a half years to prove the doctors wrong once again, and get back to blasting.

House has spent more than a decade working with mining companies in the territory. Most recently, in 2008, he helped set off charges at the Ketza Mine site near Ross River.

But these days he’s focused on ensuring that the Yukon’s next generation is able to set off explosives safely.

House is heartened that two of the four people who graduated from his course this summer are First Nations women. He worked with female blasters at a coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, BC, in 2005, and reckons they had more sense than many of their male counterparts.

“As far as I’m concerned, they were the safest blasters I’ve ever run into,” he said.

“I’m trying to kick the door wide open in a male-dominated profession and get women involved.”

The course spans 80 hours and costs $6,000. Luckily, for the Yukon’s First Nation residents, funding is available through the Yukon Mine Training Association.

Graduates must still work under a competent blaster for a length of time – between three months to one year – before they’re able to write an exam for a certificate to “fly solo.”

House doesn’t teach his company’s courses. But he checks in regularly.

Lately he’s had a few health scares. Doctors have found blood clots in his lungs.

That, combined with bronchial pneumonia, means he needs to avoid laughing while telling the more humorous parts of his own story, lest he trigger a nasty coughing fit.

House trained under the federal government’s chief mines inspector for several years. Today, many blasting apprentices aren’t so lucky, as aging pros disappear.

“They’re retiring,” said House. “And a lot of them don’t want to go underground anymore.”

His course is meant to fill that gap. “We’re the only company west of Fleming, Ontario, teaching a course of this nature,” said House.

As it stands, he’s concerned many young people aren’t aware of the power of explosives.

“Are you aware that every litre of gasoline you pump into your gas tank is equal to 28 sticks of dynamite?” he asked.

“That’s why you’re warned to never go back in your vehicle, once you start pumping. You can create enough static electricity right there that, the minute you touch the pump, the spark arcs from you to the gas tank, and it just goes whoosh.”

That’s more or less how a microwave tower was set ablaze at Stewart Crossing in 1978, said House.

“The young fellow filling the generator storage tanks hadn’t clipped the ground wire to the tank before he started pumping. He lost 50,000 gallons of fuel oil. Plus he lost his rig and burned down the microwave tower. I think we bombed the Stewart Crossing tower with retardant three times.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read