FAIRBANKS — Entering an underground mine means leaving behind the topside world, its trees and natural light, and going into a dark, dirty environment with the potential for danger. Going ever farther into the earth, the entrance portal shrinks to a sunlit postage stamp, and, turning a corner, there is no evidence of the outside.
Inside, all light is artificial, and the ventilation is closely monitored.
It can be a jarring experience for the uninitiated, as it often is for aspiring miners starting the underground mining program at the University of Alaska’s 100-acre Mine Training Facility, a collection of modular building units comprising a mine camp near about a mile of subterranean tunnels near Delta Junction.
But for all the noise and cramped spaces students have to deal with — not to mention the several pieces of heavy equipment they learn to operate inside the unforgiving granite-walled corridors — some of the toughest lessons are personal rather than physical.
The four-week course, with a two-week break in the middle, is taught by instructors from the university’s Mining and Petroleum Training Service, each of them with decades of mining experience, in partnership with Canada’s Yukon College Center for Northern Innovation in Mining. The Yukon college refers students to the training center and, among other contributions, donated two heavy equipment simulators that give the would-be miners realistic practice driving inside a virtual mine.
Several operating mines in Alaska and Canada are also partners. They pre-screen the students, many from rural communities, as potential employees with entry-level jobs waiting for them upon completing the coursework.
A crop of eight miners graduated on a Monday in November, joining more than 100 others that have gone through either the underground or surface mining programs in the nearly two years the facility has operated.
Whether the lessons are on interpersonal skills and cultural differences, or how to operate a 130-pound jackleg drill on their own, the students have two options: They either pass or fail, MAPTS director Bill Bieber said.
There is no way to earn their certificate with any grade in between, Bieber said.
“This is a mining boot camp, in every aspect,” Bieber said. “We’re trying to set the student up for long-term employment success.”
“These are careers, and they’re high-dollar careers,” he said.
First, the students arrive by bus at the camp, about 22 road miles east of Delta. Their coursework is tailored to what each mine will require of them, but it always involves teaching what the instructors call “soft skills.”
Every student is different, but with many of them being young and coming from rural areas, teaching good communication skills and instilling confidence can be paramount, Bieber said. The instructors might notice right away that a student keeps to him or herself or feels more comfortable sitting near a particular student during the orientation, so the instructors will team them up with others, sometimes even students with whom, at first, they might not get along, Bieber said.
Some of the students have never been away from their hometown or village, Bieber said. When the students first arrive, they might not talk much or have a lack of confidence, he said. One past student was so scared on the first day, he was near tears, Bieber said.
Two of the instructors, Peter “Boise” Alexie and Mike Azzara, are the more personable, “I’ll hold your hand through this process” instructors, Bieber said. Instructor Daren Case has a professional flair to teach students how to interact with mine managers.
Then there is Jim “Smitty” Smith, a longtime underground miner whose legend Bieber had heard of years before he ever met the guy.
“When all else fails, then we have Smitty, who’ll knock off whatever rough edges happen to remain by the time they get to him,” Bieber said, chuckling.
Along the way, all the instructors look for weaknesses in the students, Bieber said. But for many students, the biggest fear is the fear of failing, he said.
The soft skills learning also involves teaching students how to deal with a two-week break, intended to simulate the downtime a working miner gets as time off from their job.
Instructors stress the importance of students using that time to take care of their families, maybe changing the family car over to winter tires or doing chores to fix up their homes, Bieber said. That’s because they will be away at remote mining camps for work and unavailable, unless they quit the job, to help with family issues, he said.
When they return to the training center, the classes talk about how they spent the time, Bieber said. A student is free to spend the time off as they wish, but a couple have been cut from the program because “they didn’t study hard enough on staying sober,” he said.
The overall idea is to increase the students’ employability, so everything the instructors can do to build a curriculum toward that goal helps them get and keep jobs, Bieber said.
“They’re going to know how to mine, but really, it’s the journey from when they step off the bus to when they stand up there for graduation, it’s that journey where all the learning takes place,” he said.
The journey into the mine itself first requires learning a few basics.
The reflective coveralls miners wear are called “diggers” and are not allowed in the clean chow hall, one of the modular units complete with an iron triangle dinner bell outside. All hardhats need to have a charged headlamp on them. Underground miners carry a self-rescuer attached to a belt on their hip that, when opened, reveals a mouthpiece and canister that allows him or her to breathe if the mine fills with smoke from a fire.
Anyone entering the mine must “brass in” by putting one of two brass tokens assigned to them on a board at the mine entrance, with the other token kept on their person. The board lets others know who is inside and how many people are inside, especially important in an emergency.
Headlamps are used, obviously, for seeing in the dark underground caverns. But if shined in a miner’s eyes, they can temporarily blind the person. So miners learn to keep the light out of each other’s eyes while talking face to face, and even when a miner is above ground, they tend to look down out of habit, instructor Mike Azzara said.
“You’ll know an underground miner when you see them in public,” Azzara said, head down slightly while maintaining eye contact.
The headlamps also offer a simple way to communicate when miners are too far apart to talk or they are operating noisy equipment.
On a winter day less than a week before graduation, student Chelsea Charbonneau, an Air Force veteran from the Kenai Peninsula, filled the role of “shifter,” or crew boss, for the day by supervising the other students’ work.
Charbonneau had a chance to chat before eating a hearty lunch in the chow hall. As supervisor for the day, she was allowed to sit at a table with the instructors, while the other students ate sack lunches inside the mine.
Making a circle with your headlamp means “come here,” and nodding means “back up,” Charbonneau explained. Shaking your head and headlamp side to side means, “stop, whatever you’re doing,” she said, laughing.
Along those lines, there had only been a couple minor communication issues for Charbonneau on her day of supervising.
“Our number one way to talk down there is with our headlamps, your hands, horns, all those signals,” Charbonneau said. “There was a little bit of missed communication today, so what I’ll do is go back down and address it with the crew, and hopefully we won’t have that problem anymore.”
As Azzara fired up the computer running a heavy equipment simulator, one of his teaching specialties, screens surrounding the driver’s seat and its realistic controls flickered to life. Virtual mine walls, ventilation pipes and other haul trucks appeared. The seat rumbled as Azzara put a virtual load of rocks and mud on the imaginary dump truck, and he directed the driver to start moving forward.
Everything about driving the simulator feels real, except maybe the lack of wind in your face. Images of sparks even fly off the side of the truck if it strikes the virtual mine walls.
Practicing on controls identical to the real vehicle and dealing with whatever variable the instructor running the simulation chooses, like a blown tire or dropping oil pressure, allows students to learn how to deal with real-world problems, Azzara said.
They can also make mistakes without hurting themselves or the expensive equipment, he said.
“Part of the training here is muscle memory,” Azzara said.
Hitting the walls with the real equipment is bound to happen, though hopefully not more than a few times, and the simulators help minimize actual damage later on the real job, Azzara said. “It’s not like this stuff is bulletproof.”
Entry-level training at a working mine does not always allow for such mistakes, Azzara said.
For one thing, the equipment is usually designed to carry only the operator, so it can be difficult to give advice during actual operation, Azzara said. And the confined space of an underground mine makes supervising a new hire even more difficult, he said.
Throughout the program, the instructors follow a pattern with the equipment training, Bieber said: They tell students how to do something, show them how to do it, have them practice in the simulators, then practice on the real thing above ground before taking the skills underground.
For some, getting on the simulator is like playing a video game, Azzara said.
“It’s fun for about two hours, then it’s just work,” he said.
Passing the drill
Inside the mine recently, in a dark tunnel off to the side of the main passageway, student Wesley Washpan-Tulk was taking his final test on the jackleg drill, so-called because the heavy tool is supported by a hydraulic leg. Wearing a thick set of neon green coveralls, Washpan-Tulk held the drill up and pointed its business end at the rock wall.
A deafening roar echoed through the tunnel as Washpan-Tulk pushed the long, narrow steel tube with the drill bit on the end into and through the granite. Water flowing through the hollow steel forced bits of rock out, and the finished hole had a metal tube forced into it to help reinforce the mine walls.
Eventually, Smith, the instructor watching Washpan-Tulk work, told the student the drilling test was complete.
“So I passed?” Washpan-Tulk asked.
“You passed,” Smith said.
“Woooo!” Washpan-Tulk shouted, pumping his fist.
Then another student stepped up, took the drill and started his test.
Farther into the mine, Tiffany Blackjack was driving a haul truck that Charbonneau, in a front-end loader, was dumping rock and mud into while Case, the instructor, watched. Before Charbonneau dropped one of the loads, Case told Charbonneau her bucket, which was lifted above the truck, was too far to one side, which could overload one side of the haul truck and cause a tire blowout.
Case stood a few feet from both pieces of equipment.
“By the time we get in here, I need to know they can run this equipment well enough that they aren’t going to smash me, because I need to be right here,” Case said.
Blackjack, from Carmacks in the Yukon, said she was enjoying the course and looking forward to graduation.
“I’ve always been into mining, and I wanted to do more,” Blackjack said while sitting in the haul truck driver’s seat. “So far I’m loving it, learning a lot. It’ll definitely bring you out of your comfort zone. It’s fun though.”
Off Momma's couch
According to Bieber, all of the students who have gone through the underground mining program in the past two years are still employed at various mines in Alaska and the Yukon. The instructors often stay friends with them through Facebook or, in one case, when a former student returned to teach a class, he said.
Bieber and Azzara said graduations are bittersweet: It’s great to see the positive change in the students, but it also means saying goodbye.
On the other end, though, the mines are happy to see trained, entry-level employees ready to work, said Lorna Shaw, external affairs manager for Pogo Mine, one of the mining program’s partners.
“It’s been a great partnership, because a lot of what they do is figure out if a person is the right fit for mining and for camp life. So it’s been a great source of employees for us,” Shaw said.
“There are a lot of really talented people who are interested in our jobs and might be a great fit for the job, but not maybe necessarily for the lifestyle. So this really helps us to get employees who fit in at Pogo.”
Taking a student who has never mined before and watching them continue to develop after graduation is a rewarding experience, Azzara said. The ones that have succeeded are busy working, of course, but the instructors also see photos on social media of the former students’ families growing or that they bought a new home, he said.
Some came to the training program as kids “right off of mama’s couch,” Bieber said.
“It’s been pretty neat to watch these individuals,” Azzara said. “You hate to see ‘em go.”