Times when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

Iswore I’d never enter an abandoned coal mine. Socalled "hard-rock" mines gouged from solid stone, maybe, but coal mines with their legendary terrors of cavein, flood and gas – never! But, well, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and, for me, that sometime came 10 years ago when I heard that loggers working southwest

of Nanaimo had exposed a fan-shaft for one of the area’s leading coal mines.

My bushwhacking companions and I already knew of, and had visited, the ruins of another fan-house in the same general area, but this one sounded more intriguing as our informants mentioned concrete cribbing and a steel ladder descending into the shaft. They said a timber cruiser had successfully descended and, without a light, could see that the shaft ran for some distance.

Well, carrots don’t come much bigger than this for history sleuths. Based upon accurate directions, we quickly found our quarry, a large, ungainly and rusting mass of metal which, on inspection, was indeed a fan, originally assembled on-site like a giant erect-o kit. Immediately alongside, flush with the ground, was the concrete shaft itself, about eight feet square. As reported, a steel ladder was attached to one wall and, in the dim light at the bottom, there appeared to be the bones of a deer. A fire had consumed the building and toppled the fan onto its side.

Vowing to return with lights and lifeline, we carried on a mile or so to another mine reported by the same informants. This one entered the cliff-side almost horizontally. Dynamited shut, erosion had since re-opened it and, once inside, you could stand up. A sizable coal dump indicated that its operators worked here for some time and the skeletal frame and wooden-spoked wheel rims of a 1920s vehicle suggested that this was a gyppo operation during the dirty ’30s.

Interestingly, the coal, rather than being the usual matte black we’re used to with Wellington Seam bituminous, glistens like nature’s glass, obsidian, although much softer, of course.

Two weeks later, armed with ropes and fresh batteries for flashlight and camera, we returned to the fan-house. Having explored many Island caves in my spelunking days, underground doesn’t hold many terrors for me. With a lifeline, four able-bodied companions to haul me up, should – heaven forbid – that become necessary, and heartened by the fact that the anonymous timber cruiser had already successfully descended the ladder, I gingerly lowered myself.

By carefully testing every rung, I made it halfway down, where the ladder was joined at a ledge and was tight against the wall, leaving little room for footholds. This proved to be the result of the ladder no longer being secured at the bottom, which caused it to begin to sway with every step and I began to feel as though I were descending the side of a ship while it was underway.

There were 42 rungs in all, each about 14 inches apart, then a four-foot drop to the floor, for a total descent of about 50 feet. Happily, the "bones" proved to be twigs. Unhappily, the mine didn’t go more than 35 feet because of a massive rock-fall. The only signs of previous humanoid activity, besides some rotting timbers, were several Styrofoam coffee cups.

Just as well or I might have been tempted to push my luck.

After researching and exploring the Island’s abandoned coal fields since I was a teen, the opportunity to enter a Dunsmuir shaft before it could be bulldozed or dynamited shut as a safety measure, was more than I could resist.

I now know better.

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