COMMENTARY – That ugly thing on my desk…

Joe McWilliams

I’ve got a chunk of kimberlite sitting on my desk. It’s pretty useless, and not much to look at, but it stays. It reminds me of one of the things I like about this job, which is the chance to experience and learn things I didn’t know before.

Kimberlite, as I’m sure you know, is a type of volcanic rock that sometimes contains diamonds. Diamonds, at any rate, are usually associated with kimberlite, which got its name from Kimberly in South Africa, a noted centre of diamond mining.

Kimberlite occurs in ‘pipes,’ which are remnants of ancient upthrusts of molten rock. As it was explained to me on one sunny September day in 1997 (or thereabouts), they are generally hidden under the ground in this part of the world. However, geologists working for an oil company north of Red Earth Creek a few decades ago encountered a treeless mound of rock sticking about 10 feet out of the general elevation. This was way out in the bush in flat, forested country. The geologist got to thinking about it, took a sample and sure enough, it was the top of a kimberlite pipe.

The oil company didn’t care much about kimberlite, and that was that….for a while. A few years later, another company decided to find out if there were more kimberlite pipes in the area. It turned out there were, all of them underground. They found them by taking readings of magnetic impulses given off by these pipes. Test drilling was done, samples were taken and a few diamonds were found.

Unlike similar explorations in the Northwest Territories, however, not enough diamonds were discovered to make a commercially viable operation.

It was fun while it lasted, though. It sparked a stampede of speculation and exploration on the part of other companies. For a while, it seemed everybody and his dog was announcing kimberlite finds in north central Alberta, but as far as I know, nobody found any diamonds except in the one area owned by Ashton Mining.

The folks at the diamond camp were very accommodating when I paid a visit, one September day. They took me around in a helicopter and explaining how it all worked. They even showed me that original protruding kimberlite pipe and gave me a piece of it as a souvenir.

I don’t have a pelican egg on my desk, but if I did it would remind me of another highlight of my reporting career. That was in 2003, when wildlife biologist Mark Heckbert invited me along on a visit to a couple of pelican nesting colonies on islands in lakes southeast of Wabasca.

Wow. I had not the remotest notion such places existed. It was like being in a zoo, only inside the fence, instead of looking through it. All I got to show for it were some photographs, not that I’m complaining. Maybe I should have swiped an egg or two, but the biologist might have frowned on that.

As a rule, I’m for leaving wildlife alone, but I can’t say I’m sorry I got the chance to intrude into what I called at the time the ‘bizarre, smelly, noisy world’ of a pelican rookery. It was Heckbert who also had me out once helping him search the muskeg for a caribou radio collar. We found the collar, but no sign of the caribou.

Meanwhile, back at the old office, the kimberlite sits on my desk, reminding me that there may be a few surprises out there yet.

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