In the Rocky Mountains of the western USA, a long stretch of highway leads to Swan Valley, Idaho, population 206. A turnoff not far from the town leads visitors through a towering log and steel entry monument. The shapes of two cutthroat trout flank the sign emblazoned with the words “Fleming Ranch.”
For 83-year-old Larry Fleming, the pillars stand as a symbol of the nearly 70 years a member of his family has actively drilled. The work has taken the Flemings to projects in Swan Valley and as far away as China, Africa and South America. Larry and his wife, Trillis, live in a small home on the ranch, which is owned by their son, Shane, a retired businessman who also once worked in drilling.
Larry’s four other sons, Scott, Sonne, Stace (1961 – 2010), and Shaun also had turns in the drilling business. Scott once owned PC Exploration, a California-based exploration drilling company purchased by Major Drilling and then sold back to Scott. Sonne works for Epiroc (formerly Atlas Copco) with experience as a PC Exploration and Major Drilling employee. Stace also had drilling experience in his younger years.
It’s Shaun, who joined Major Drilling through the PC Exploration purchase, and has stayed on with the company. “I worked for Major before I worked for Major,” Shaun laughed. He’s now in his 25th year with Major Drilling.
The next generation is keeping up the Major connection as well. While Shaun’s son, Cameron, works for another exploration drilling contractor on projects in Nevada, his other son, Eric, is working full time for Major Drilling also mainly in Nevada. Eric’s nearly two decades in the industry, when combined with Larry’s and Shaun’s experience, adds up to more than 100 years of drilling among them.
“The Flemings have an impressive collection of drilling expertise,” Nguyen Do, General Manager US Operations for Major Drilling America, said. Do first met the Flemings during his tenure as core division manager for Dynatec, which was purchased by Major Drilling in 2005. He has worked with both Shaun and Eric.
“One of Shaun’s strong points as an operations manager is how he knows his people’s strengths and weaknesses. Among the expert drillers out there, the Flemings are some of the very best in the field today,” he said.
Shaun Fleming is the glue between generations. As a busy Surface Operations Manager at Major Drilling projects across the USA, he is equipped with experience that comes from years of being in the field. While safety regulations would prohibit it today, beginning at age 12, he often shadowed his dad, Larry, at drilling sites.
“I felt drilling was my destiny from a young age,” Shaun said.
He officially started his drilling career with Boyles Bros. Drilling in 1982, on a proposed ski resort in Provo, Utah. He says the project had the credence of being backed by retired American National Football League quarterback, Steve Young, of the San Francisco 49ers. Like a rookie footballer, Shaun became conditioned and strengthened through new tools and terrain. It’s where he fell in love with specialized drilling equipment including truck-mounted and heli-portable drills.
With his developing skills, he found more work in several western states and West Virginia. He moved from job to job while doing construction drilling and grouting primarily at dam sites for Boyles Bros. Drilling. By 1988, he was a field supervisor running 12 rigs out of Centerville, Utah, for PC Exploration (later acquired by Major Drilling). He made the move to Tonto/Dynatec in 1995, until Major purchased Dynatec in 2005. Then he became field superintendent for Major Drilling in 2007, and U.S. Operations Manager in 2010.
Like many drillers, Shaun is drawn to the tranquility and wonder of working outdoors. Along with the work being different each day, the scenery is his favorite part.
“I like finding a little beauty where people think there’s not any, like the sagebrush and the fresh air in Nevada or the mountains of Colorado,” he said. Those locations now bring back good memories.
“When I used to travel up there to Colorado with my dad in my teen years, I could visit the projects,” Shaun said. “I did the same with my sons Cameron and Eric. When we all could get up there, I could show them the way.”
He enjoys recalling the many rigs he’s worked over the years including “old-school” diamond fly rigs, a Longyear 38, LF-70s and heli-portable rigs. He spent almost a year underground with Major/Dynatec drills at Midas Gold and Hecla projects.
Big projects for large mining companies took him to sites including Sibanye-Stillwater (East Boulder), Rio Tinto (Kennecott Mine) and Barrick Gold Corporation (Meikle Mine).
In 2002, at the Rio Tinto-owned Borax Mine in Bornite, California, Shaun drilled horizontal drains achieving a record 365-meter (1,200-foot) rotary shift. Underground, he also made an impressive achievement drilling a 125-meter (410-foot) core shift at the Midas-Ken Snyder Mine in Nevada.
“I was pretty proud of that one,” Shaun said. With amusement, he notes the coincidence that today the Major Drilling Underground General Manager, Rocky McLellan, is drilling back at the same property as Shaun was when it was owned by Dynatec.
Before long, Shaun’s family connections propelled his career even further.
His uncle, grandfather and dad all worked for PC Exploration when it was acquired by Major Drilling in 1984.
Larry and Shaun have the distinction of working for companies that were acquired by Major Drilling before joining the team. For them, it’s a point of pride.
“When I tell people in the industry that I work for Major Drilling, they respect that because Major Drilling is known all over the world for being the leader in specialized drilling,” Shaun said.
Major Drilling has a history of building company strength through purchases of equipment and gains in employee expertise. From 1986 to 1995, the Fleming family worked at PC Exploration, Tonto, then Dynatec. In 2005, Major Drilling acquired Dynatec Corporation’s Western USA Drilling Division including drill rigs, related equipment, inventory and drilling contracts. The purchase was a critical move to establish a presence in the large and important North American mining region of the western USA. When Major Drilling bought Dynatec, Shaun moved over to Major Drilling for good.
Even with those high points, frequent moves and being away from home two-thirds of the year brought challenges. For several years, Shaun lived in a travel trailer chasing projects with his young family in tow. In a five-year period, they lived in 5 different states.
“It was exciting, but there were a lot of sacrifices along the way,” he said. Today, Shaun is the proud grandfather of five. “My kids and my grandkids are a large part of my life.”
He’s proud that his sons have followed in his and their grandfather’s footsteps and chose drilling as their lifetime careers. “When drilling is in your blood, it feeds the drive to succeed,” he said.
Drilling in His Blood
Larry Fleming started drilling in 1955, not far from Swan Valley in the oilfields Pinedale and Big Piney, Wyoming. After Larry and Trillis married in 1956, they tried farming, but it was hard to make ends meet.
During that time, Trillis’ father, Chet Baker, found work in construction drilling at the massive Palisades Dam construction drilling project near Swan Valley and other exploration drilling in the region. It was Chet who first introduced Larry to the world of drilling.
He drilled alongside his father-in-law at the Palisades Dam until it was completed in 1957. It was a record-volume project containing more material than any other dam built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was also the kind of drilling that increased Larry’s experience and whet his appetite for more.
Subsequent drilling contracts took him to USA sites in the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah and California. Additional Swan Valley dam site investigation through core drilling and grouting went on from the mid-to-late 1970s when he became VP of Operations for Boyles Bros. Drilling Co. in 1979. He said holding that position was his proudest career achievement.
Larry worked for Boyles Bros. Drilling Co. until 1986 overseeing domestic and foreign projects in China, Africa, Central America, Canada, Mexico and South America. By this time, son, Shaun, was drilling full time at locations around the western USA while Larry settled into a management position with PC Exploration. That company was acquired by Major Drilling in 1994. Larry finished his career as Major Drilling’s USA Area Manager/Consultant in Roseville, California, in 1999.
He said what he loved best was the opportunity drilling provided for his children and grandchildren. Now, with a son and a grandson in management and supervisory roles with Major Drilling, he’s happy his drilling legacy will continue.
“Shaun’s right that drilling gets in your blood,” he said. “I wanted to see my family succeed in this business.”
Following Big Footsteps
Catching up with Eric Fleming is no small feat. At the time of this writing, he was working night shifts, 20 days on and 10 days off, at a project near Elko, Nevada. Eric had no mobile phone service, typical for a remote driller always on the move.
If it appears a credential to be part of the Fleming family of drillers is to grow an impressive assortment of facial hair, that’s only part of the story. With a stroke of his goatee, Eric said, “Support of the people who love you is a huge part of being successful in drilling.”
On his days off, Eric lives not far from his father in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area, and often connects with his extended family. “Drilling comes with a lot of sacrifices, which are worth it when we can be together.”
In Eric’s early adult years, he was Shaun’s drill assistant. Fresh out of high school at just 18-20 years old, he helped at Barrick Gold Corporation properties north of Carlin, Nevada, working an LF-230.
“Eric probably didn’t like me that much then,” Shaun chuckles. “It was brutal drilling deep holes, but he gained a lot of experience.”
Eric has drilled all over the western USA, both surface and underground. He is proud of the work he and his team completed at the Wanapum Dam in Washington state, where they grouted and reinforced supports. “That project was a huge one,” Eric said. “We saved the dam from washing down the Colombia River, pretty much.”
The Flemings believe the best type of togetherness is the “work hard, play hard” kind. That’s how Eric learned to appreciate the lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and other adventures often in the orbit of the Fleming Ranch and sometimes in more far-off locations made possible by the hard work and good pay from drilling.
“To be able to carry on a legacy of great drillers before me is very exciting and an honor,” he said.
Safety and the Future of Drilling
Shaun feels the future of drilling depends on three drivers: employee retention, finding a successor, and continued fleet innovation.
When it comes to employee retention, he says everyone deserves a chance. Drilling is physical, hard work, and Shaun recognizes opportunities for more women to enter the field, especially as innovations in drilling safety and automation like hands-free rod handling removes some barriers. He’s been working to mentor the person who will be ready to step up to the challenge of becoming his successor.
Shaun Fleming is an ambassador for Major Drilling safety initiatives including the TAKE 5 risk assessment which he says is, “The best tool in your safety toolbox.”
With safety top of mind and a good work ethic, Shaun believes anyone can have the opportunity to succeed in drilling.
Above all, Shaun values the strides in safety over his decades in drilling. “It’s absolutely changed the way drilling is done,” he said. “I’ve had my bosses tell me that my focus on safety has brought positive changes to our division. Over the years we have reduced risks in this occupation that today is full of safety protocols.”
That transformation over the decades comes with great responsibility to continually ensure training and resources are available to new and experienced crews. At a job site, he often gives words of encouragement but always leaves with a word of safety.
“I’ve taught all the less experienced guys, whenever you have a safety message, small or large, it turns a light bulb on,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to send guys back to families safe every day.”
At this point in his career, Shaun says his largest goal is to mentor someone into his position. With every site visit, he’s always looking for someone who can also “turn a lightbulb on” for safety and leadership.
A Swan Valley Sunset
Back at the Fleming Family Ranch, just a few miles from the Palisades Reservoir where he began drilling in 1955, Larry reflects on the interesting people, beautiful scenery and good living achieved from a career in drilling.
All three Flemings—Shaun, Larry and Eric—agree that while drilling is a tough industry, with hard work and initiative, the rewards are worth it.
“I’m proud of the hard work we do in drilling,” Larry said. “Exploration accesses minerals and other materials that make all our lives better,” he said.
With this tightly knit bunch, knowing they’ll always have a fishing buddy at the Fleming Ranch might be the best reward of all. The Flemings enjoy the trophy-quality trout fishing along Palisades Creek on the south fork of the Snake River. It’s a hidden gem often accessed by elite and well-heeled sport fishers.
That’s full circle for Larry who still feels a drive to succeed. Nowadays, however, the drive might mean heading to town to get feed for the trout pond. He’s a caretaker at the ranch, feeds the fish, does landscaping, gets on the tractor, cuts grass and moves snow with resident canine, “Bessie.” Photographs of generations from before and visits from grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep him rooted deeper than the pylons of the entry monument.
For Major Drilling, having the connection of the Fleming family in its ranks really shows how drilling can feel like family.
“We’re proud of the Flemings’ legacy with Major Drilling and the industry,” USA General Manager Nguyen Do, said. “They’re a great example for young drillers to see how drilling can advance you to career-long success.”