In search of gold, with Heather Campbell

In search of gold, with Heather Campbell

The N.L. Geological Survey collects and publishes baseline geological information the natural resources sector relies on. This is one of the people who make it happen

For most of the summer, Heather Campbell is completely obsessed with the weather. She spends hours monitoring sites like, thinking about cloud cover, checking the forecasts. On coastal Labrador conditions change quickly—and every change can alter her work day.

Campbell, a project geologist with the Newfoundland and Labrador Geological Survey, spends several weeks each summer doing field work in Labrador, most recently in the Hopedale area. She’s got to make the best use of her time, and that of the helicopter and pilot she relies on. “You’re dealing with expenses, with safety, with getting your work done,” she says.

The day starts early, and so does the decision making. Campbell, in consultation with the pilot and her colleagues, first finalizes and files the day’s flight plan. Then it’s time to pack the helicopter with sample bags, buckets, shovels and the rest of the gear.

Campbell will visit and take samples from up to eight sites a day. Each helicopter journey can take between 15 minutes and an hour, maybe more. En route, Campbell juggles between map navigation and snapping photos. “This type of work is so expensive that we gather as much information as we can at every stage,” she says. “Photographs are really important to me; I deal with surface stuff so I can tell a lot just by looking at patterns in the terrain.”

But as the helicopter draws closer to the target, all attention turns to evaluating the landscape. “We make more decisions: is there a place for the helicopter to land? Where? Does the material look right? You are constantly making decisions very quickly—that’s the essence of work in the field.”

The helicopter lands, gear is unpacked. Campbell and her assistant take turns digging and taking notes. “It’s like gardening in the Arctic,” she says. “You’re digging a large hole, trying to get to the till—the material that has been carried by glaciers—and then we bag and label our samples, and get them in the buckets.” Campbell and her assistant will take four samples, the heaviest weighing 15kg.

Samples and equipment are loaded back into the helicopter. They fly back to Hopedale, unload, refuel, reload and head off again.

The Geological Survey conducts geoscientific investigations across the island of Newfoundland and into Labrador, with the goal of interpreting and describing the province’s geological history—as well as its mineral resources.

“We’re tasked with providing fundamental baseline geological data for the public,” says Campbell. “And that includes landowners, stakeholders and mining companies.”

Campbell’s work focuses on surficial geology, which means she is interested in the shape and layout of terrain, as well as soil and other loose sediment—basically, everything on top of bedrock. Each field season is carefully planned using existing geophysical maps to pinpoint areas of interest.

“By the time we get to Labrador we’ve been planning for six months, looking at signatures, and deciding which locations would be the most beneficial,” she says. “We’re looking for top values of certain elements: gold, copper, cobalt, arsenic, cadmium,” she says, adding that arsenic is often a pathfinder for gold.

It’s not surprising, then, that Campbell cannot talk about what she sees or finds in the field. The data the Geological Survey collects is often used to inform industry and prospector decisions. “Data presentation is very strict,” she says. “You really want to make it fair for everyone.” When the year’s data has been compiled and checked, a timed release is announced.

After the day’s samples are organized, the next piece of work begins. “There’s a full office day waiting for us at the end of the field day,” Campbell says. “I download all of the data points, all of the observations, anything that I’ve seen that might be interesting.” Given that information, and the weather and wind forecasts, planning for the next day’s flights begins.

“It’s the most dynamic environment I’ve ever been in, in terms of decision making. There’s no set plan, ever, and with each change in plan you have to update safety reporting, flight plans. You’re always on when you’re in the field.”

In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Campbell says field season is the highlight of her professional year.

“Before we head out in the field, sure, I’m nervous—there’s so much planning and we never know exactly what we’re going to run into,” she says. “But you get out there, and it’s your world. You’re making it move, making the wheels turn.

“We work closely with the people in the communities we’re staying in… other than that, it’s you and your crew. There’s a very small group of people you lean on all summer and so you learn to get along. Usually you walk out with the field crew as friends for life.” •

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