Journey to the Center of the Earth (Almost)

SALT.

When you hear that word I bet you picture your favorite potato chips. Or better yet, that disgusting concoction your mother made you gargle when you had a sore throat as a youngster...

Why salt? Recently I was given the opportunity to go underground in one of Canada’s rock salt mines, located in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, which happens to be where I am from (and Allen seems to find this incredibly amusing). Pugwash is a small fishing village located on the Northumberland Straight, about 2 hours from Halifax heading towards New Brunswick.

If you're lucky enough to drive into the Village at the right time, typically within those magical early morning/late evening sunshine hours, you will see the Salt Mine drenched in a gorgeous orange glow. Being a photographer, that kind of light makes my insides want to do the Gangam Style dance (..sorry, I couldn't resist).

The Canadian Salt Company Limited employs an average of 150 workers, which is a fairly large percentage of the 800 people who live in the area. It has been an essential part of the Pugwash economy for the past 50 years and they hope to be able to mine there for at least another half-century.

The Pugwash mine produces an average of 700,000 tonnes of de-icing salt for the roads per year; a total of 4.5 million tonnes of salt are used annually on roads across the country. The main salt that is used across Canada for de-icing is rock salt which, unlike table salt for example, requires no extra processing and is mined straight from the earth.

This mine is currently exploiting at 1150 feet below sea level. It’s true – my ears popped on the way down. I am very claustrophobic, and was worried I might panic when I got to the bottom.

This tower gathers and transports the salt on a conveyor. The caverns are blown out with dynamite.

I wish you could have seen me. But since I "forgot" to ask the miners to snap a quick photo of me, I will try to describe it to you...

Picture this: I was decked-out in a heavy oversized orange zip-up onesie, with steel toed boots on my feet that were 2 sizes too big. I had to carry a wide belt around my waist with a flashlight and 5lb breathing apparatus attached. The ensemble was complete with safety goggles, work gloves and a long rubbery cord that had to go around my neck. I forget its purpose now - I was too annoyed by the fact that it kept getting stuck in my hair. Camera on my back and tripod in hand, I stepped into the room where the miners were waiting to descend for their shifts.

These machines are 1150 ft below the surface of the earth.

Thanks to being from such a small town, I was still recognizable even under my bright orange miner disguise. Everyone knows everyone, even in the saltiest of places. After a few good laughs and teasing jokes, we gathered in the elevator shaft that would take us underground. I was already covered in salt and I hadn't even left the surface. 

This is a salt cutter.

I expected plenty of salt and plenty of darkness. What I didn’t expect was 60+ foot ceilings and winding roads that at some points were wide enough to allow two dump-trucks to pass each other! It was like another world down there. And I didn’t get claustrophobic until my guide told me I was currently under the Pugwash River –reason to panic #1. And the salt – OH the salt. It was in the air, it was on my clothes, it was on my skin and, reason to panic #2.. it was on my camera bag. I greatly underestimated the amount of salt that I would encounter, and at one point I was laying in it.

The things we do as photographers to get the shot.

Luckily, my camera and I survived to tell this salty tale (as if there was any doubt).