Travis Rusk admits to being intimidated when he was introduced to the enormous haul trucks at the Meadowbank gold mine several years ago.
Given the requisite training, it didn't take him long to gain confidence and become master of the huge vehicles. Over the past 18 months, he's been broadening his skills by learning to operate bulldozers and loaders as well.
Grader and excavator training may come his way next.
"I'm very (much) looking forward to anything they've got to show me or any opportunity to upgrade on their equipment," Rusk says. "They know that I'm ready."
Rusk started working at the mine during winter 2010 while he was with a contractor that laid cement foundations at the site. That work transitioned into temporary employment with Agnico Eagle in late 2011 and then in 2012 he moved into a permanent position.
Rusk was initially a grade control sampler for his first few years with the mining company. He would mark ore with coloured ribbons to indicate its gold potential and would assist resident geologists by sorting and shipping drill samples.
By 2013, he was given a nudge toward driving haul trucks.
"I found the huge machines very intimidating and I wouldn't even have considered moving into it until some of my co-workers and relatives – I have relatives that operate them – they were urging me on to give it a try," he recalls. "I gave it a shot and it turned out to be a greater experience than what I was doing, which was geology."
Rusk begins each shift by doing a safety-oriented walk-around of the vehicle: checking the tires, fluid levels, grease lines and other indicators of structural and mechanical soundness. He then climbs onto the ladder at the front of the haul truck to get to the cab, but not before cleaning the mirrors. He then gets inside and tests the brakes and ensures the hydraulics work.
"You sure do feel like you're up a couple of stories," Rusk says of the vantage point from within the massive truck. "There is a lot of blind spots... (so) we don't put the machine into reverse until we have someone spotting us and we establish on the radio that it's authorized to back up."
There are two variations of the haul trucks at Meadowbank, the 777 model that carries close to 100 tonnes of ore and the 785 model, which moves approximately 150 tonnes. The distances travelled with those loads ranges between 15 minutes and 40 minutes per trip, all above-ground in the open pits. Each load is ultimately dumped into the crusher or into stockpiles.
Rusk makes the 50-minute flight from Rankin Inlet into the mine every second week to begin his two-week shift, comprising 12-hours on the job each day.
Life at the mine's camp offers a private room with a shared washroom, a television and internet, access to phones, a gymnasium, a lounge with pool tables and foosball.
"It's nice to see that a lot of people do take advantage of the gym," Rusk says. "There's so much equipment to use and a few courts to have some group activities."
For those who work up a big appetite, there's "top of the line" food available at site, according to Rusk.
"We have an open salad bar, soups, sandwiches, pastries baked fresh. There's always a nice meal and they mix it up quite well," he says, adding with a chuckle: "But just to cover everybody who might read about it, there's no place like home."
His years of steady employment at Meadowbank have helped him become a homeowner in Rankin Inlet. With his daughter "grown up now," he says he spends much of his time away from work renovating his home.
As the Meadowbank mine's lifespan winds down, Rusk is seeing some of his co-workers being transferred to Agnico Eagle's future Kivalliq gold mine sites: Meliadine and Amaruq. No matter which project he's assigned to in the future, he doesn't see the end in sight for himself anytime soon.
"I'll keep coming back as long as they take me here," he says.