Digging open the mouth of an abandoned Nova Scotia iron mine and squeezing into a jagged rocky hole to explore a labyrinth of potentially unstable tunnels that have remained undisturbed for over a century is undeniably risky — naturally, someone thought to film it and upload the footage to YouTube.
That’s the basic premise behind the Nova Scotia Minehunters; a group of anonymous explorers that have parlayed their passion for unearthing the province’s hidden trove of mining history into a popular online series with a formidable following.
The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 8,000 abandoned mines in the province. Many are relatively easy to access, if you know where to look.
“It’s just this untouched place that has been left, and abandoned way back in the forest that no one really knows about. We just get to discover them one by one,” said an anonymous spokesperson for the mine hunters who spoke to CTV Atlantic by phone. “For the most part, I think we are the first ones in them for a very long time.”
The men in the videos wear protective gear, including hard hats, and use ropes and head lamps.
The cast of the show keeps their identities secret by altering their voices and blacking out their faces. According to their Facebook page, the team includes “expert and advanced cavers/outdoors-men, a historian, a photographer, and a visual media producer.”
The comment sections accompanying the videos are full of rave reviews, but the Nova Scotia government and a mining union want the group to stop before someone gets killed.
“Their next mine, they may not come out of it,” said Bob Burchell of the United Mine Workers of America.
Poisonous gasses, insufficient oxygen, abandoned explosives, unsafe ladders, and hidden vertical shafts are among the perils awaiting the group around every bend.
A strongly worded disclaimer suggesting viewers “stay out, stay alive” is pasted at the bottom of each episode to underscore the danger of the group’s underground exploits.
“There are actually limits and parameters we have in place as a group, believe it or not,” the spokesperson said.
The mine hunters compare their adventures to caving or spelunking, but the risks are far higher inside a mine versus a natural rock formation.
The aging support structures inside turn-of-the-century mines were only built to last for the lifecycle of the site. But the mine hunters do not seem alarmed by the countless snapped wooden supports and passages blocked by walls of earth.
Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources mine planning technician Ernie Hennick warns the group is risking their lives to cultivate their online following. He worries a collapse could leave the crew trapped below ground.
“Who knows what is going to happen as far as stability around the hole. The hole could collapse. These guys are going into tunnels. We are unsure about roof conditions,” he said. “The other big thing is gasses.”
Poisonous gasses can accumulate in low lying areas. A person entering an undisturbed mine shaft can cause the so-called “bad air” to mix with oxygen, resulting in a potentially lethal situation.
The entry points to most of the mines featured of the show are wide open. A warning sign is usually the only deterrent to going inside.
Hennick said the province is hoping to make accessing the sites more difficult by installing concrete caps and metal grates, but he admits the sheer number of sites means the mine hunters will have ample time to continue shooting.
“We do have a priority list. There are about 100 places on the list. We’re probably about half way through the list now,” he said. “It’s taken us 15 years to get halfway through.”
With a report from CTV Atlantic’s Kyle Moore