Student Xavier Wallace observes mineral deposits in an underground heading at Greens Creek mine. Wallace said he is interested in studying to be a diesel mechanic.
Students examine material going through the flotation process in the mill at Greens Creek mine.
From front, Matt Vandor, Hunter Kirkpatrick and Warren Eckland don personal protective equipment prior to their mine tour.
Above, Brooks Young and other students cover their already-plugged ears and watch as a driller prepares to operate an underground drill rig. Below, Destry Lietz, Zach Clark and Dalton Kolvig observe a filter press at Greens Creek's water treatment facility.
Story last updated at 4/18/2012 - 11:10 am
JUNEAU - Most high-schoolers don't start class at 5 a.m. - on a Saturday, at that. But on March 17, 18 students embarked on a field trip with life-changing potential.
Their day began as they climbed aboard a large boat, which would transport them from Auke Bay to their destination: Hecla Mining Company's Greens Creek mine. After a smooth 35-minute sail to Admiralty Island, students and chaperones walked along a long pier, passing mine workers who were anxious to board the boat and return to town after a long night shift.
Day shift workers walked along with the students toward a pod of buses that would transport them the few miles to the mine's main camp. There, breakfast would be served and students would migrate to the safety building to watch a number of safety orientation videos before officially beginning their tour.
As students who had enrolled in an Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations class, this field trip was something they had been looking forward to for some time.
"They're the most educated tourists the mine has ever had," said Mike Bell, director of the University of Alaska Southeast Center for Mine Training.
Bell has worked with the students throughout the course as they have been oriented to all aspects of mining, from underground drilling to cooking - good food being the lifeblood of any work site.
The students represented Juneau-Douglas, Thunder Mountain and Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative high schools. The class consisted of mostly males, although two females were in attendance - a ratio similar to that of the mining industry in general.
Before students could begin their exploration, they suited up in personal protective equipment (PPE), including hard hats, lights, safety glasses, ear protection, gloves, protective suits and metatarsal boots. Properly dressed, they headed for the mill.
Greens Creek employee John Ackerman explained the milling process from start to finish, punctuating facts with personal industry reviews.
"The mining industry isn't for everybody, but there are a lot of us who think it's pretty cool to go down into the dirt to make our daily wage," Ackerman said, adding that only about one-third of Greens Creek workers actually do their jobs underground.
Students also met the mill operators and millwrights who keep the mill running 24 hours a day, as well as the diesel mechanics who oversee maintenance of the mine's power generation facilities. (Although Greens Creek receives hydroelectric power as its main energy source, it must maintain its backup generators to power the mine in the event of the loss of that hydroelectric power.)
Next, the group loaded up into tractors for the underground portion of their tour. They drove and drove through what seemed like miles of tunnels, stopping along the way at various points of interest.
At one such stop, students came upon a driller who was drilling holes known as a "round", which would later be loaded with explosives and blasted. They observed the drill rig in action from a distance, watching in awe as machine manipulated rock. At that moment, many students mentioned that drilling might be their calling.
Other interests were expressed throughout the site tour. Back on the surface, interests were piqued during a tour of the core logging facility. Others were more fascinated at the sight of a large clarifier at the mine's tailings water treatment facility.
These students may have been "tourists" for the day, but for some, the field trip may have served as their first real orientation to a career that could envelop the rest of their lives. After their nearly 12-hour tour, some students were quiet on their boat ride back to Juneau, but others were alert and excited, eagerly debriefing their experiences with classmates and chaperones.
According to Elaine Price, a workforce development coordinator with Southeast Conference who also attended the mine tour, the mine "rolled out the red carpet" for the students during the first-of-its-kind tour.
"The kids were really appreciative," Price said. "They enjoyed the day and got a lot out of it. They were amazed at the depth of the tour."
The Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations class has been the first of its kind to be offered in Juneau, and Price and Bell would like to see the course expanded to be offered to students all over the Southeast region as early as next school year. Not everyone is college bound, Price said, and the class offers students the ability to obtain gainful employment and increases the amount of local workers at area mines.
"I think the kids in Juneau are really interested in finding jobs and having a good future, and I think that probably bodes well for the whole region," Price said.