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Of Helicopters and Hammers


In the summer of 1969 the former Ontario Department of Mines had a helicopter supported recon field crew in the Fort Hope area of Northern Ontario . In June they required some additional help and asked if I, as the resident geologist for the area, might be able to lend a hand. It was a win-win situation and one morning a few days later found me boarding a float-equipped helicopter at the base camp at a former Hudson Bay post.


Our intent for the day was to ferry over to an old tote road leading to the “Fort Hope Gold Mine”, walk into the property, and spend the day examining outcrop and workings around the circa 1928 shaft. As yours truly was attempting to get from the float to the outcrop against which the pilot had nudged the still-running helicopter, he found he had too many things in his hands and was likely to fall in the drink. So he did what anyone would do in such a case, he threw his hammer (geologists always understand this bit, civilians always look at me with strange expressions) up on the outcrop without thinking about the fact that the rotor blades were doing what rotor blades were intended to do...rotoring! You guessed it...the next thing we heard was a loud (really loud!) bang! As I redirected my gaze forward I recall noting one highly agitated pilot with his head scrunched between his shoulder blades, hanging on to the controls for all he was worth, and trying to figure out what had happened. It was only when my gaze finally revolved to the outcrop and I noted a small shaving of hammer handle fluttering down to earth that I realized the enormity of what I had done...I had broken the flying machine’s wing!!


Feel stupid? Yes, considerably! After I took the well deserved wrath of the pilot and the party chief, we realized that things were not as bad as they seemed. No one was hurt, we only had about a 7 mile walk back to camp, and there were only three small, run-off swollen streams to cross. But my mind was already racing far ahead to what the government bureaucrats who would have to deal with the fallout of this situation in Toronto would do. I was already mentally preparing myself to start looking for a new job!!!


When I returned to Red Lake a couple days later I called my manager. He by this time had heard rumors of some calamity with the helicopter, and, to my surprise, treated the whole thing somewhat philosophically and said not to worry. Now it just happened that the Deputy Minister of the day was due in Red Lake that evening for the announcement that Selco had a winner in its near-by South Bay base metal deposit and intended to move it to production. It was with some trepidation (and a suggestion to my wife to start collecting packing boxes) that I left for the evening reception. The good Deputy, who was known to occasionally have a penchant for the essence of the barley, was the first person I saw across the room when I arrived. It appeared from his deportment that he had been sampling the heady potions of some of Red Lake ’s finest emporiums during the afternoon.


As soon as I walked into the room he spied me, called out my name, and headed over to intercept my futile attempt to fade into the wall. Being a big man he needed only about five strides to eliminate the distance between us. To me, those five strides appeared to be played out in slow motion and were taking forever. The first thing he did when we were within handshaking distance was to slap me on the back, put on this ear-to-ear grin, and shout out to all and sundry “I hear you had some difficulty with a helicopter!”


My silent reaction was “Wow! Nothing like firing me with the whole room watching, and he even appears to be enjoying it!”  So I steeled myself for the final thrust, picturing myself as the last poor Christian to be tossed before the powerful gladiator in the coliseum, and with no place to hide.


It took a few seconds for me to realize ( ‘As I regained consciousness.....’ almost fits here!) that the good Deputy was now laughing out loud and congratulating me!!! Although I was still having difficulty with the reality of the situation, I observed that at least I hadn’t been run through with a sword. As I gradually refocused I heard him mention something to the fact that anyone who can kill a helicopter had to be a good guy in his books. Apparently he had been a passenger on the first helicopter that the Ontario government had ever used, had gone down with it in a swamp north of Timmins, and he and the pilot had luckily escaped serious injury and managed to walk away from a machine that never flew again.


Lady luck had obviously been with him and, in her foresight thank goodness, with me!


As a post script to this event, I and a partner managed to secure title to the claims at the old mine site in 1995, and while we found some gold, there was nary enough and we, like our 1930 predecessors, walked away.