Proof of Life
January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment
“Wanna see something neat?”
A few minutes later, Allan Wilson’s leading the way through an opening in the ground, not much bigger than a rabbit hole, and only distinguishable by a piece of cement-stuck rebar sticking out of the parched soil.
We slide down an avalanche pile of sand, around the “L” of an air duct, and land upright in the accounting office in the basement of the old Pine Point Hotel, established 1977.
Aboveground, more than 200 Pine Point expats have travelled from Yellowknife, Alberta, B.C., Ontario—as far away as Argentina—bypassing world-class fishing, paddling and hiking spots, to camp out in an industrial desert on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. Allan’s sharing a camper van with his dad, Bert Wilson, ex-owner and manager of the hotel-slash-restaurant. They’re parked on an old foundation.
Pine Point’s a ghost town: though it’s still Google-able and the Weather Network still posts its daily temperatures, cloud cover and wind speed, the street signs and highway markers were taken down in 1989, when Cominco Mines demolished the townsite and auctioned the buildings off to the highest bidder who could transport them. The basement of the hotel was an accident—someone simply forgot to fill it in.
Flashlight in hand, Allan reconstructs the layout of a town that was only 0.64 square kilometres in size, but feels larger: “The hotel was here,” he says, pointing up, “then there was the IGA, the post office, the cop shop (chuckles). Then the town hall was here, and the QMart.” The QMart’s where his wife Eileen worked when they dated in high school. When Eileen moved to Fort Resolution, they broke up, but reunited years later, long after Pine Point was destroyed. “It’s actually not that rare,” says Allan. “There are a few people that met up afterwards, got married to other people, got divorced and married somebody else from here. Kinda weird.”
Moving towards the edge of town, Allan describes a road that led to the mill, workshops, crushers and administrative offices that reminded 1,200 residents or so why they were all there in the first place—to pull lead and zinc from the rocks for making batteries and skin lotion. “At one point, they started a mining pit right on the road,” says Allan. “There was a rumour going around that said one of the richest ore bodies was right underneath the town site.”
So while the experiment in town-building was intended to develop its own economy and outlast the mine, locals partied like a shutdown was imminent. Allan’s teenage memories run like a thousand scripts to the beginnings of slasher horror movies, mostly without the consequences. “Here I am hauling ass, 200 [km/h] in the middle of a rainstorm,” begins one. Another continues: “That’s where my goddamn Jeep caught on fire,” or “that time we blew up all the picture windows in the hotel.” At $100 a month rent, including utilities, a miner’s wage and practically no television, Pine Point was a breakneck getaway for a generation of families that were willing to leave their hometowns behind for a shot at work.
And then it ended. Cominco conducted surveys as production was ramping down, revealing that the beginning stages of shutdown were inducing symptoms of depression in the townspeople. A Cominco recruiter came into town to assign workers to newer mine sites in the Yukon, B.C. and Northern Ontario.
Twenty-six years later, the Pine Point Facebook page posts multiple updates per day. Pine Pointers meet almost annually to share scrapbooks and pass around a disproportionate amount of memorabilia—hats, sweaters, mugs, fridge magnets, patches and badges and tiny zinc tool kits—made at the time, like they were anticipating the nostalgia to come.
Only the real things collect dust. Rooting through the upturned boxes of paperwork, we find pay stubs as far back as 1977; receipts for hotel rooms at $18 a night, 8 a.m. poutine breakfasts paid by mine workers coming back from the overnight shift. “I spent a lot of hours down in this room,” says Allan. But that’s it for reflection. “Hey, you wanna sneak into one of the old pits?”
This story was originally published in the January/February issue of Up Heremagazine. Read that version here.