September 2006, Adirondack Mountains
The truck, a drilling rig on wheels, creaks slowly down the narrow driveway, de-branching a few maple trees. Daniel Barton, the driver, maneuvers to the chosen spot 20 feet uphill from the old house.
I greet Daniel. We shake hands and, with the quick glances of construction people, we size each other up. In Daniel I see a proud man with a firm handshake and not a flicker of self-doubt. Just backing that truck down the overgrown dirt trail of a driveway took plenty of skill.
What Daniel sees — or what I'm sure he has prepared to see — is the hippie surfer insufferable contractor from California, here to look over his shoulder and protect the owner's interests. It takes him about two seconds, the duration of a handshake, to get over that.
"Nice rig," I say.
"Yeah," he says.
We'll be fine.
For a New Englander Daniel Barton is, in fact, a chatty man. Over the next two days I receive a gruff seminar on drilling in the Adirondacks.
Daniel gives me a tour of the machinery and shows me the drill bit, which looks like something you wouldn't want to drop on your body. Then with his assistant Bob, he starts drilling. It makes a racket. A river of sandy foam starts spewing from the hole, spilling over the lawn like glacial debris.
The drill quickly drops through sandy soil and then stops, chattering and grinding.
"Boulder," Daniel says. "Boulders are a driller's worst nightmare." He concentrates on the drilling, fingertips on the controls, watching and listening to subtle changes in the progress of the drilling rod.
Suddenly he's through it. The drill plunges quickly and then stops again. Daniel frowns. Another boulder. More fingertip control. Then he's through it — another plunge — and then a slow, steady grinding.
Daniel drills only 35 feet. He and assistant Bob set the casing and call it a day. "I just wanted to be sure I was in bedrock," Daniel says. They only need casing until bedrock. From here on, he can penetrate bedrock at a rate of one foot every minute or minute and a half. He might have to go 200 feet or 600 feet. In any case, he wants to finish tomorrow.
"I hope it's not six hundred feet," I say.
"Yeah," Daniel says.
The next day Daniel drills steadily. Every 25 feet he has to stop so that Bob can add another drilling rod, like a link in a chain.
Between 180 and 200 feet the drill hits 2 fractures and gets a flow of 7 gallons a minute. Pretty decent.
Daniel thinks he should go deeper. He thinks he could do better.
Is it a hunch? A distillation of years of experience? This is where you have to trust your professional. I trust Daniel.
There's sizable money involved. Drilling is billed at $15 per foot. Daniel could drill another 200 feet at a cost of $3000 and find no more water. They've already got a workable flow.
I call the owners of the Blue Heron (which is the name of this house). After consultation, they say, "Go for it."
Daniel goes another two rods, 50 feet. He hits another fracture and gets 12 gallons a minute. It's a gusher.
An inch of sticky gray sludge covers the front yard. Amazing. All that slime used to be solid bedrock.
The economics of drilling are not rational. The extra 50 feet of drilling took 45 minutes and earned Daniel another $750. If beyond the 50 feet he'd had to drill another 150 feet, he would have earned another $2250 for another two and a half hours of work. That's $15 a minute.
Daniel has fixed costs with each job. First, he has $900,000 in capital equipment sitting here to do the job, and it's a day's work to set it up and tear it down. He has to pay his one assistant, Bob. And yet he doesn't charge a setup fee. For the same
amount of transportation and setup, he might drill 100 feet or 1000
feet. For two or three days of work he might earn $1,500 or $15,000.
"Charging by the foot is asinine," I say upon learning all this.
"Yeah," Daniel says. He shrugs. "But that's how it's done."
Daniel shows me rock chips among the sludge on the lawn, a guided tour of the geology beneath our feet. First he penetrated 35 feet of soil and 2 boulders. Then he went through 150 feet of granitic gneiss, which is a metamorphic rock — that is, it contains crystals formed under high pressure. I love this stuff — I was a rock collector as a kid, and then I took some geology classes in college not out of any career plans but just for the fun of it. Granitic gneiss, by the way, is the correct name for what we commonly call granite. True granite is something else.
Daniel shows me a black, coarsely grained rock. He says that below the 150 feet of granitic gneiss, he hit 10 feet of gabbro, which is an igneous intrusion. The gabbro entered the granitic gneiss as molten rock and then cooled, shrinking as it cooled, forming fractures where water gathers.
Awesome! Mysteries below us, revealed. Molten lava, twisted and frozen. Rainwater from years, perhaps decades ago, coursing beneath immense dark masses of rock. I feel I've taken a submarine voyage, shining light into oceanic depths. The Adirondacks are an ancient seething mass of volcanoes, earthquakes, seabeds and ash, now solid stone.
Daniel crossed the first 2 fractures between 180 and 200 feet. The extra drilling crossed the third fracture which brought the flow to 12 gallons a minute. Daniel says you could go 400 feet around here and get only a half gallon a minute. Just a quarter mile from here he drilled a well to 600 feet and got only one gallon a minute. What a crap shoot.
The top layer of gabbro is horizontal. There's a fracture at the top of the gabbro and another at the bottom, both yielding water. The second layer of gabbro, Daniel says, seems to be vertical. He can tell by how the drill bit behaves as it's striking the fracture. With a horizontal fracture the drill bit suddenly drops an inch or so as it crosses the water layer. With a vertical fracture the drill bit stutters as it tries to bite into an angular surface. Since it was a vertical layer of gabbro, there was no telling how far he would have had to go to punch through it, and we are getting plenty of water, so it was prudent to stop.
Daniel shows me some whitish chips. Calcite. There was also a layer of calcite in the water layer, which is simply mineral deposits from the water. Which I suppose means it's hard water.
On the Northway near Keeseville, according to Daniel Barton, there's a roadcut that exposes rock similar to what he drilled through here - dark bands of gabbro in granitic gneiss. I tell him I'll check it out.
The conversation wanders. We talk about fishing. I tell Daniel that last week a nine-year-old boy was fishing from the dock here. He caught a perch. As he watched, a bass swam along and swallowed the perch. The boy jerked the line to set the hook, as he'd been taught. The perch popped out of the mouth of the bass. The bass went swimming away, probably somewhat puzzled by the whole incident. The boy reeled in the perch. He's only nine, and already he's got a great fish story.
We talk about our kids. Daniel is opposed to liberal arts college education. His daughter went to Middlebury, tried English, switched around for a while and ended up with a major in math. Daniel says the most common phrase spoken by English majors is “You want fries with that?” He says he took his daughter to lunch, and the waitress said exactly that: "You want fries with that?" They both broke out laughing. The waitress was a third year English major.
I tell Daniel I served fries when I was in college, and I was an English major. It's just a college job, just as it was for that waitress he was laughing at. I tell him all three of my kids majored in liberal arts, and then two of them went on to professional schools — medicine, engineering — and that liberal arts will make them a better doctor and engineer.
Once again Daniel and I are taking each other's measure. Respectfully.
Daniel worked in Hong Kong for a while. I'm thinking, but don't say, There's your liberal arts education.
Daniel says he has a house in Vermont built so tight, “You can heat it with a candle.” He's an environmentalist who would never use that word.
Then he's gone. A hush returns to the north woods. On the lake, a loon is warbling. A house built shortly after the Civil War finally has a water well. I have a few rock chips to add to my childhood collection.
Two minds have met, and sparred a bit, and we each have learned something from the other. A good two days of work.