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Unique Wyoming man camp becomes home to uranium explorers

'Something cool about being out here'

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SHIRLEY BASIN — Tom Bell needs a cook for his camp, and soon.

Berdena Ragsdale, the current cook at the camp of uranium geologists and drillers, is due to leave soon. The previous cook left after a disagreement about sandwiches.

“So we’re looking for a cook,” he says Wednesday night. “It could be a crisis.”

He’s not joking. The camp is home to more than a dozen hungry workers exploring a small portion Shirley Basin for uranium hidden deep under the gentle but barren rise and fall of the basin surface, at a site known as Bootheel.

Bell is the project manager for Crosshair Exploration and Mining Corp., a Canadian company. He oversees the cluster of seven camping trailers and a large canvas mess tent. The lodging facilities’ whiteness stands out amid the sagebrush and dust like bleached bones.

Such camps, often called man camps because of their all-male occupancy, aren’t rare in the oil and gas fields. But the camp is unusual in the state’s resurgent uranium industry, in which drilling crews and geologists usually travel from nearby towns to exploration sites.

And unlike the oil and gas man camps, which often feature modular housing, nice couches and laundry rooms, the Bootheel camp is sparse in terms of comforts.

Bell and the others are due to strike camp in the next few weeks to escape the winter chill, wind and snow drifts sometimes dozens of feet deep.

But first, there’s work to be done.

‘Off to the races’

Three rig crews are drilling the last 20 of 75 exploration holes marked on a map on Bell’s trailer wall, small circles stitched across two crescent-shaped patterns west and south of the site.

Bell looks at an aerial map of the drilling plan and points out the ghostly white marks of drill holes from decades past. Others have explored for uranium, but Crosshair is giving it another look.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel, just filling in the spokes,” Bell says.

Across the road and over a rise, three drillers and a geologist are hard at work on one of the remaining 20 holes.

Glen Webb, who leads the Douglas-based Douglas Exploration LLC crew, is running the rig, smoothly driving length after length of pipe into the ground. Another member of his crew collects samples of what’s underground for analysis by geologist Paul Stubbe at a nearby table.

“We’re off to the races, Glen,” Stubbe proudly says from under a broad-brimmed hat.

“Yeah,” Webb agrees, and nods as he runs the rig’s controls.

“It’s happening,” Stubbe says, almost to himself as he logs data from multihued test samples lined like crops on a plywood board.

At another nearby drilling site, geologist Chip Wallace looks up from his work to greet an approaching Bell with a wisecrack.

“Do you see what I deal with?” Bell says to two visiting journalists.

But he handpicked these men, and he doesn’t seem to mind the attitude, which is matched by the area’s geology.

Hunt’s ‘enigmatic’ geology

The formations underlying this part of the Shirley Basin are a challenge to understand: “enigmatic,” Bell calls it.

The drill crews punch 400 to 600 feet down, through a relatively young top layer — the Wind River Formation — to get to older formations that are angled like a tilted row of books.

One of the older formations contains the uranium — in a stretch so narrow and a band so thin, Bell compares it to spearing spaghetti with a toothpick.

Over the evening meal in the tent, Bell says exploration geologists are a different breed — the type of person ready to gamble, lose and gamble again.

He ticks off similar chases: gambling in Las Vegas, women, fishing.

“To be a good exploration geologist, you have to have an irrational feeling you’re going to get something for nothing,” he said.

Camp ‘makes more sense’

The Bootheel camp isn’t a common sight in the state’s uranium industry. All other exploration in the state is conducted by workers who drive in from towns nearby, says Bruce Larson, exploration manager with Uranerz Energy Corp. of Casper.

But he says he could understand why it might be worthwhile to stay near a site.

“I’ve been out there in the boonies, and it’s better to stay where you can,” he says. “If you’ve got 20 miles of two-track and another hour to get home, that’s quite a ride.”

Before setting up camp, Bell looked at the distance to the closest town with motels — Laramie, a 90-minute drive — and decided it would be best to set up camp at the site, which is located on Fetterman Road, about 30 miles northeast of Medicine Bow.

“So you’re burning fuel, wearing people out,” he says of the option of commuting. “It just makes more sense to be on the work site.”

Once a has-been industry in Wyoming, uranium is back in a big way. Driven by resurgent prices and the state’s rich uranium supply, numerous companies are pursuing projects across the state.

The Bootheel camp, which has water from a well across the dirt road, hasn’t been home to uranium explorers since the late 1970s, before the last boom slammed to a halt. Since then, it’s usually home to hunters.

Beer, mail and a washing machine

While the Bootheel camp is unusual for today’s uranium explorers, that doesn’t mean camp life is rough living.

The trailers, from Sonny’s RVs in Evansville, have running water and power, although the interiors and showers can get cramped.

The camp has a street address for postal service. A UPS truck driver even makes deliveries.

There’s beer in the coolers, hot sauce on the tables in the mess tent, and a washing machine next to a clothes line strung between two trailers.

John Robitaille, a vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, says he’s not sure how many energy industry camps there are in the state, but they’re not uncommon in oil and gas fields, and they’re “fairly comfortable.”

Modern camps are certainly a step up from the Bootheel site. Companies catering to the energy industry offer modular housing that connect together and can include portable buildings for exercise rooms, living rooms with couches and televisions, and laundry facilities.

Jim Goolsby, a Casper-based geologist, recalls his time at a camp set up by a Texas company for their crews working at a well site near Gillette.

“They didn’t need to go to town. They didn’t normally go to town at all,” he said. “They had a cook, had a place to play pool, things like that.”

Meat, tales and jokes

Late Wednesday night, several of the men gather around sizzling meat on a charcoal grill, below a night sky of whispy clouds, stars and a peekaboo moon.

The work-day is over and the cool night breeze carries the laughs from jokes, stories and good-natured ribbing as employees wait for their evening meal.

Stubbe, the geologist, tells of his times at camps from Antarctica to Central Asia. Oh, those camps in Kazakhstan, he says.

“It might be like this, or not as nice,” he says, looking around the darkened camp. “But they’d have saunas.”

Wallace, the geologist, tends to the meat while young geologist Ben Spencer stands nearby.

Both graduated from the same small college in upstate New York, but Wallace graduated decades ago and Spencer graduated earlier this year.

Wallace’s first job was in Wyoming, and now Spencer is starting his career the same way. Wallace tells of his time in Wyoming, and it’s clear it was the type of experience that toughened and matured him.

Wallace hits Spencer on the right arm — not a blow, but a brotherly tap.

“You’ve got to admit, there’s something cool about being out here,” he says to the younger man.

For both men, on opposite ends of their careers, the hunt goes on.

Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or jeremy.fugleberg@trib.com. Read his blog at http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom/ and follow him on Twitter: @jerenegy.

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