Monday, June 28, 2010

Thoughts on Thompson

I'm in the Winnipeg airport, having left myself lots of time between flights in case of delays or whatnot. (No delays, no whatnot) I spent a night here once, many years ago, and things are still a bit on the small side, but a new terminal is being completed as I type. The flight here on a small SAAB passenger aircraft was smooth and pleasant and it actually felt like flying - unlike the bigger jets.
Thoughts on Thompson: Thompson is changing from when I was first there. The roads and foundations of buildings have improved. Discontinuous permafrost used to lie in patches here and there and when buildings or roads were put there, they would heave or drop noticeably as the ground beneath melted. Sunlight beaming down on the exposed boreal forest soil, which is very thin, melted the ground beneath, causing many of the problems. Gradually over time the soil has become stable. In other areas of town exposed bedrock of Canadian Shield is a great place to build on and the three tall apartment buildings are put there. As I mentioned, artwork now graces what used to be painfully bare walls of siding on most of the buildings. Schools almost entirely without windows are still a common sight. Their resemblence to jails is easy to see, for me. I am sure the teachers do much work outside the building when the weather permits. But that north wind is awful cold in winter! Government, both Provincial and Federal, is putting a lot of $ into the town with infrastructure projects such as buildings and head-offices located all over. Thompson's multicultural flavour is as evident as before. Sikhs, Muslims with women wearing the hijab, and Indians (from India) are very common here and are taking good advantage of the opportunity for jobs and good pay. VALE/INCO needs workers badly and is hiring. Everywhere in restaurants and stores the tunrover is very high and help wanted signs flourish. A twelve-year-old boy who recognized me from a school visit (You're that author, right?) served me my Bagel BELT in Tim Hortons. He's been working there 3 weeks already.

This photo, taken from the headframe at T-1, shows the open pit excavation beside the mine. When I worked here that was a lake; it has since been diverted and drained and the top layer mined out. From the aircraft this morning it is certainly noticeable, but then, seeing the million of acres of vacant and unused land, I must disagree with my brothers & sisters in the extreme end of the environmental movement. Development helps people most of all, and when done sensibly, should be a net benefit. Now having said that, there is still a lot of abuse. Why anyone would drive a Hummer is beyond me. To my mind, unless a person needs to travel constantly over rough terrain, driving a Hummer is like flipping the bird at everybody.
More later.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Touring Underground at T-1 Mine

Today I got underground again, and because of the novel I'm working on, it was important to see if the memories I had were accurate. Stu Cunningham met me in the security office and soon I was in the 'Dry' getting changed into mining clothes and hauling my backpack and street shoes up into the warm breezes which dry mining clothes all day long.

The Dry - many fewer buckets than in the 70's

The cage was smaller than I remembered and travelled more slowly. In my memories it almost did a free-fall downward and slammed around a lot more. That probably was the case, as so much about safety and the permanence of the place has been improved.
Stu Cunningham on the Mine Cat - a noisy diesel monster which travels maybe 3 KPH

The cage & in the cage.

Stu Cunningham brought me to 4000 level and together with another shift-boss, Mike Vallance, we rode a Mine Cat down declines to 4550 level. Mike showed how they are using newer methods of mining to extract the ore. Down here the cut and fill methods are not used. I spent a couple of hours there, and then returned to the levels the way I remembered them. An excellent day for good information. Many thanks to Stu & Mike, and also Don and Joyce Belson, (Keith's parents) who have been very helpful. Don worked his way from being an ordinary miner to being in top management and he knows the mine very well. He answered a lot of my technical questions and is good at explaining things to amateurs.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Looking Around Town

The statue of the "King Miner" greets you as you drive into Thompson. A lot about this town is a celebration of nickel mining, the main source of community income and a huge revenue source for the Province of Manitoba. A big event every year in Thompson is the "Nickel Days" festivities - and I missed them by a week. Apart from a lot of other events, the King Miner Contest is quite popular. Miners from all over Western Canada and the north come to compete in traditional mine jobs such as jack-leg drilling (you can see the block at left which they drilled into) stoper drilling (drilling upward - see next photo) crib building, ladder climbing, hand mucking (shovelling sand into a small mine car) power mucking (using a mucking machine to drag ore toward a chute) and similar events. I'd like to see wiring and blasting a big boulder in there, but I don't think the idea would pass. The bits and pieces from the contest are left in the field next to the arena, and boulders full of drill holes (they used to use real boulders instead of concrete) are to be found all over. As I mentioned before, there are murals painted on many buildings which celebrate the aboriginal past, the wildlife to be found here, and the history of mining in the area.
Mining as a profession is a lot more respectful than it used to be; I can remember our parents threatening us - "If you don't work hard at school you will end up working in the mines!" The irony is that two of the Schmidt boys did actually work in the mines...

These days you need Grade 12 education to get even a beginner's job underground. Times sure have changed, but the job has changed too. Miners now use a lot of sophisticated equipment. After tomorrow's underground visit I can tell you more.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Visiting Wabowden

Finally there were cars for rent in Thompson for those, like me, who didn't pre-reserve. I got a Cobalt and promptly took it south to Wabowden where, through a friendly contact from here, I was allowed to come for a tour of their small nickel mine. (Small compared to Vale INCO mines around here) It has recently been 'de-watered' - IOW it had been abandoned by the previous owner and water had done its thing and entered the mine and filled most areas. The contractor, Dumas, had drained it and was busy mining new levels. Here are some pictures.
The mine site has a shaft to enter by and also a ramp
entry. The cage was getting new 'ropes' - which are 1 inch thick braided steel cable - so we entered by the ramps, which was cool because I'd never done that before.

Here I am with "Peanut" (mine captain Noel Morin) who spoke English like Jean Chretien. They even let me keep the brand-new coveralls I was given. The coveralls are great, fit well, and have DUMAS written in reflective lettering on the back, along with lots of stripes. Anyone who has seen the Shawshank Redemption will rememeber the scene when the guy picks up a book by Dumas and reads; "The Three Musketeers by Alexandree dumb-ass."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bicycling around Thompson

Today, Thursday June 23, was a great day for exploring. I woke at about 5:30 - it was quite light out - and went for a ride on the 'Yellow Peril'. Except for ravens and crows and two young teenage boys who told me, "We've been up all night", there was no life on the streets. Time for a few photographs of the sleeping town. There are lots of churches in town, and an equal number of bars. Buildings are made with smaller windows than we are used to in Southern Ontario, attesting to the extreme cold and also the fact that many buildings are broken into by the homeless. As far as cold is concerned, I can remember when I was here thirty years ago that -50 degree days were not unknown in winter months. The teachers at Westwood Elementary told that this year, unusually, had only a few -40 degree days which would be celebrated with indoor recess.

Always remember to watch where your shadow is when you take photos...

I rode to the one end of town where an excellent painting , a copy of an original by Robert Bateman, graces an apartment building. The side of the building, uncluttered by windows or anyhting else to spoil the canvas, is a natural place for a large painting. Thompson is full of new artwork like this mural. There are numerous wolf sculptures here too.

There are some new houses going up made with ICF block, the same type of house Shirley & I would like to build some day...

Visits in Thompson, Manitoba

On Wednesday I visited Westwood Elementary School in Thompson as a guest author. When I arrived, a little after 8:00 AM the parking lot had only one car in it. I knew I was supposed to do my first presentation at 9:10, so school must start at about 9:00, at the latest, so I wondered if maybe I had the wrong day...
(teachers are notoriously early & well prepared, even at the end of the year. Typically, teachers will be at school 90 minutes before the kids arrive, photocopying, planning, getting stuff ready, marking or just enjoying those early-morning peaceful moments before the students come. So where were they?)
Only the principal, Bryan Wagner, was there, answering the phones. He welcomed me and offered me a coffee and we had a great chat, being of similar age and years in the teaching business. It turns out Bryan is retiring this week. From what I could tell, he is the kind of principal I would have appreciated very much. He was very relaxed and looking forward to the change.
When the school entry bell sounded the staff suddenly appeared: it had been a joke on he principal - the teachers were pulling pranks all week and this was the one for the day. He took it all in stride.
The Grade 6 students were attentive and asked much about the disaster stories, of which we read two. The Grade 7 and 8 students were equally good listeners and were, predictably, more interested in the novel. I was surprised at their excellent behavior, particulary since it is the last week of the school year.

I am really pleased with the Northern Lights B&B. Rick, the host, is a former miner and had lots of answers for my questions and some interesting stories to tell. I also visited Don Belton, who lives just behind the B&B and has done pretty much every job related to the mine.
My stay is becoming very worthwhile.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What A Nice Town

I was looking for a car to rent for some of the time I am staying here. No cars. National said 'Nada'. Enterprise (We pick you up!) had nothing to pick me up in. Call back Friday, I was told.
None of the other rental places had anything for me.
I was doing a lot of walking. Walking is okay for a while, but I have a lot to see & do.
(When I first came to Thompson as a teenager, I was coming from Toronto and I found Thompson small. I could walk around it in an afternoon. Now I am coming from a very small town. I find Thompson to be pretty large - it takes a whole afternoon to walk around it! - Is this relativity?)
How about if I take a taxi for the long trips? The short ride from the train station cost $12. No thanks, Mr. cab driver.
How about a bicycle? It would be just the right vehicle; I could go slow, see stuff, and still get around. I could get a bicycle at Canadian Tire for a good deal less than the week's rent of a car... but then I have to sell it when I leave, or ask someone else to sell it... a hassle

Maybe I could buy a used one...

I am told about a few used-goods places. No used bicycles. I looked at the posted ads in stores; Lots of snow mobiles and ATV's. No bikes.
Kirstie my hostess tells me about the swap & shop time at the CHTM radio station which is right next door to my B&B. (see the picture)
Maybe somebody had a bicycle for sale. Lydia at the CHTM reception took the information and I also met A.J., the new disk jockey from Winnipeg.
They post the ad and also are willing to do a plug for my book-signing tomorrow and Saturday.
Went for a swim at the excellent Norplex Pool. I took another walking tour around the west and north end of town but didn't get to the millenium trail yet (too far).

When I got back Keith Belton was unloading a bright yellow 21 speed bicycle. "I heard the ad on the radio," he said, "and I know what it's like to be stuck in a town for a week with no way of getting around, he said. It's free. Just leave it at the B&B when you are done."

Thank you Keith! What a helpful town this is!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Long Ride

I'm on my way to northern Manitoba. I am working on three different stories and two of them involve mining or train travel. The third story is one I can write just about anywhere.

The day started at 3:30 AM when I woke and got Dan and Shirley up to drive me to the airport. The drive to Toronto went smoothly, and the flight left at 8:00 as they promised, and landed in Winnipeg on time at 9:30 (Central Time). I saw 'Invictus' on the tiny screen in front of me and although I didn't finish watching it I was so moved by what I saw I had tears in my eyes. Likewise I noticed the lady sitting beside me, constantly wiping tears away, watching a different movie, so I wasn't embarrassed by my streaming eyes. 'Moving movies' I thought to myself. Later I noticed her using eye-drops because her contacts were giving her trouble. She said her movie was pretty stupid. so much for moving movies! The bus ride was also easy and timely, getting me to Union Station Winnipeg with plenty of time for lunch before the train ride.
Here is a shot of me near Portage & Main waiting to transfer to another bus.

Right near the train station was a place called The Market, which was also a neat little market Shirley & I ate at several years ago while at the Winnipeg Heritage Festival. The Forks of Winnipeg are right behind the tyrain station as it turns out. Anyway the train was late leaving Winnipeg, arrived in Portage la Prarie late, was also slow coming into Canora, behind schedule coming into The Pas and pulled in en retard in Wabowden. Travelling at a snail's pace for some miles didn't hurry things along so we arrived in Thompson late too. Still, I got some great ideas for the stories I'm working on and I'm getting more comfortable with the laptop. More about writing later. I've taken a lot of shots from the train window. There has been lots of flooding in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the evidence was very clear. This photo is basically a lake which last year was green fields beside a small river.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Just Call it Research

I'm going on a trip.
You can call it research.
I've just finished a novel based on 30 year-old memories, and I'm beginning to wonder if those memories are accurate or not. It's not too late to make some adjustments...

When I was nineteen I took the train to the cold blue of northern Manitoba and worked underground for INCO Ltd. The money was excellent for a single guy in the early 70's - over $5.00 an hour! A few years later I returned and worked underground again (now for $7.00 an hour). Great wages for a university student. The biggest bonus for me was the chance to absorb all the sights, sounds, and smells of the mine. Since I worked 'graveyard shift' there was opportunity to explore the mine during 4:00 AM lunch breaks. I climbed manways, entered stopes and stations and explored old drifts. In the lowest levels the rock was warm with geothermal heat. In the upper levels the cool damp of permafrost inched its way through the rock and cooled everything... some of the older men told excellent stories of mysterious accidents, gruesome deaths and disappearances.
Ah! the perfect literary setting!
Recently a friend invited me to join him and some friends on a motorcycle trip through the Smoky Mountains in Northeastern USA in mid-June. Ken and I rode our ten-speeds through Holland, Belgium, and France when I was in my teens and nowadays we both ride more powerful two-wheeled vehicles. I had never been able to join them before, but I realized that the same unexpected events which left Shirley and me with some extra money and some time on my hands would allow me perhaps one bike trip or one nostalgic research trip, but alas, not both.

So with Shirley's blessing, I am flying and taking the train back north. A contact there promised to get me back underground. While I am there I will do an author visit in one of the schools. With my laptop I hope to write much and revise some of my novel. Even better would be a chance to connect with miners whose fathers worked the older mines in our east and west coasts; those unheralded mine historians who can recall and correctly describe the old collected folk tales about mining. I think Canada needs a book on mining folklore, don't you?
The Via Rail tickets are bought and Calm Air has been booked.
Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Letters from Students

One of the biggest thrills I get is reading letters from students. Even better is when a student who normally doesn't like reading gets interested in my book. That is the best praise of all. Here are some excerpts from the letters I got this spring. Replying to them was one of the most pleasant writing tasks I've ever done.

Clarissa from St. Theresa school writes;
It's funny because the last time I really loved a book was in Grade two. What's even funnier is when my teacher made me choose a book to read for red maple leaving fletchville and war brothers were the only books left and I didn't want to read either book.I ended up choosing leaving fletchville and I learnt a lesson; don't judge a book but its cover. This is exactly what I did, I didn't want to read it because I wasn't attracted to the cover.

Wazir at McCrimmon Middle School wrote; "In leaving fletchville I thought it was funny and sad. I thought it was sad when i figured out that Leon had no parents and only lived with his brother and sister. ...I thought it was funny when brandon pretended he was a plane and crashed into Ricky and his friends to make the little kids laugh... what got me so into the book and wanted me to actually finish it is that i thought Brandon had ADHD, which made it even more interesting. I personally never liked reading books until I read "leaving fletchville"

Joyosi, MacCrimmon Middle School My name is Joyosi and I am in the 7th grade. I love your book. At first I was a little resistant but when I started it I just could not put it down. This is a first for me.

Some students could quit school and become book-reviewers tomorrow. Emma at St. Theresa school had better insight into the book than most adults I have spoken with. She got everything I put in there; here is just part of her three page letter:
...the real reason I loved your book was because how you emphasized change. The change of person,, change of heart, and change of life. Even at the beginning of thebook you made it clear that Brandon was the kid that always got cent to the principals office because he felt the need to distrub the class or get into a fight. But it didn't bother him being known for the bad boy. When Leon step in and starts slowly changing his life one step at a time. helping Brandon with his homework and sometimes just keeping him company. As their friendship grew stronger I noticed Brandon had a change of heart. He cared for his friend so Brandon got a job to help give Leon money. Most importantly at the end of the book Brandon was a changed person. He didn't want to disturb his classes anymore because he rather sat with leon. Brandon was enjoying having a friend...

And Emily writes; ...It was the best book I ever read and I have read a lot of books. Me and six of my friends in my class , all voted for your book for the best fiction award. The reasons I love your book is because it has lots of secrets, trust, action, mystery, a problem and a solution, also the one thing I really love in a book and that is a happy ending.

Ups and Downs, Highs and Lows

Coming in the 'top three' for Canadian authors at Harbourfront a couple of weeks ago was a definite high point in my writing career. It was a fantastic moment! What a high! ...and then I went home and cut the lawn.
All that week I felt really good about writing and pumped to carry on with my current project; "Dan, Time Boy". I got another chapter or two written and actually bought myself a laptop so I could write in places other than my office on my big desktop computer. Great!

Then I started doubting...

Maybe the story is too boring...

Maybe I need an extra character in there to balance things off between Dan and his family...

Maybe he should be fatherless and someone else should play a surrogate father role (I'm big on fatherhood)...

Maybe my son, the real Dan, won't like the character I created with his name on it...

So I start sorting out the things on my desk... (it always needs a clean-up).

Then I start thinking about the lawn. I think it needs another cut...

Maybe the story should be in first might relate better to a first person narrative.

I'd better check my emails to see if a publisher wants to publish "Escape the Mine"... Nothing. Maybe I'll check again in another half hour to see if there is a response then. I'll check also to see if the publisher looking at "Top Ten" wants to publish it... Nothing.

I cut the lawn. Vigorous exercise helps my brain to work better.

I finally put the new rear tire on the BMW. It takes a couple of hours because I don't have special machines to break the bead and separate the tire from the rim properly. (I do it with the help of two 2X4's and a parked car). The tire is on and it looks good.

I check the email for responses from publishers.

I notice the little arrow on the tire shows I've put the rear tire on backwards.

I remove the tire and put it on correctly. I do it at night so none of my neighbours will know I was so stupid as to put it on backwards the first time. (don't tell anybody) I check the email. Nothing.

The tire looks good and still holds 60 psi of air - no pressure drop.

I think the lawn needs cutting.

I check the emails. Nothing.

Maybe I should write some more of the Dan Time Boy story, except that my desk is messy. I'd better clean it up... maybe the grass needs cutting.

I get a letter from a publisher who is very interested in "Escape the Mine" - they say "if nobody has snapped it up" please send it along... Great! I send it.

Suddenly I get some new ideas about the Dan story and I begin writing...

Maybe the lawn will wait... my fingers are flying on the keyboard...