Fire into Ice: The insanely adventurous life of Chuck Fipke, diamond hunter

Early on in Chuck Fipke’s career as a geologist, he lived and worked in West Papua, the barely-governed Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea. While he was busy studying aerial photos and mapping out a field program, a colleague went ahead to build the camp and test whether ground sampling would be possible in the deep jungle. He hired a group of Papua New Guineans for his first expedition and was pleasantly surprised to see nearly the whole village join the trek. 

The line of bare-footed warriors snaked its way around the edge of the mountain. Sleek and well-muscled, many of the men wore nose pieces of bone and pig tusk. Pleased with their unflagging enthusiasm, Warner led them into the next valley, now confident that with their help, the local exploration work could proceed evenly — and without a helicopter.

They were following a narrow trail and settling into the rhythm of the march when the line began moving more quietly. Warner thought nothing of it until they came within sight of a strange village and, without further warning, the men attacked.

The death toll goes unreported, though we learn that Warner “saw people go down. Women and children were the preferred targets.” 

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Though Warner sternly lectured the warriors afterwards, the  lesson learned was that “the Natives’ war culture could not be trusted.” When Fipke arrived, they did their sampling by helicopter. Fipke slept with a double-barrelled shotgun beside his bed. 

Though Fipke himself missed this inadvertent assault, this was the kind of adventure he lived for. While in PNG (this was the early 1970s), he used his vacation time to take his wife and toddler into remote villages where he would hunt with the men while his wife, Marlene, and their son soaked up village life. He did the same later in Botswana, tracking the San people and inserting himself as a guest in their rustic but refined life; and again in the Congo, where he stalked bush meat and elephants with the Forest Pygmies. “Without the pygmies, Chuck would have quickly perished.”

Asked one night in Idi Amin’s Uganda what he would do if he could do anything at all he wanted, Fipke, “somewhat puzzled by the question, answered honestly, ‘I’m doing it.’”

Though it was probably less clear at the time, there was a purpose to all of this voyaging. Fipke’s first stop in Africa was the diamond mine in Johannesburg, where he managed to squeeze a tour out of the notoriously suspicious De Beers company, and even walk away with some kimberlite samples. He ended up working for a South African gold company, which sent him prospecting for copper in Namibia and Zambia. 

He was in Uganda to visit a geologist friend who worked at the Falconbridge copper mine at Kilembe (now owned by Idi Amin rather than Falconbridge) where he collected more rocks. His next prospecting adventure took him into the Amazon basin, where he tried, but decided it was impossible, to reach real, untouched Amazon Indians. 

When Fipke returned to Canada, he was as close to being a diamond expert as it got at a time when no one else really bothered, it being widely believed diamonds were just too rare to actively seek out. By the time he begins his obsessive (and secretive) search for diamond indicators in the N.W.T., the reader is well versed in his tenacity. Still, the odds are so stacked against him there’s a nice level of suspense. 

This unusually single-minded focus makes for a striking lead character, all the more striking for his own personal courage and drive.  

In the course of this book’s 350 pages Fipke faces down a pride of lions while stubbornly setting up a tent, gamely exchanges all of his clothes with a group of warriors he believes are about to kill him, survives six days on the side of a northern mountain after a helicopter crash, and jumps into crocodile-infested swamps to get copper samples. 

We also learned that he did 250 push-ups a day for 30 years. 

There’s more than a little hagiography here. A full chapter is dedicated to Fipke’s Prussian ancestry. The grandiosity peaks in the epilogue, where we leave Fipke hot on the trail of the source of King Solomon’s mines in the Saudi Arabian desert. (“The reign of Solomon … marked the apogee of the kingdom of Israel.”)

Did I mention the resources at Ekati were estimated to be worth about $23 billion? Probably should.

A book like this published today would include some information on the author/subject relationship: how did this book come about? What kind of access did the author have? What were the ground rules? 

The author, Vernon Frolick, is a Crown prosecutor, recently retired, in B.C. His modus operandi seems to be taking Chuck’s anecdotes and turning them into short chapters, amply fleshed out with local history, colour and grand pronouncements (“Previously, Kampala had had an international flavour”). There are several scenes, especially in the PNG sections, which fills the first 80 pages, where it feels as though Frolick must have been there. (I’m still trying to reach this author; hold for an update if I do.)

Throughout, we learn little about Fipke’s interior life, and nearly nothing about his wife Marlene (“attractive, loyal, sexy and capable”). We don’t even get the bare bones of Fipke’s biography until more than eighty pages in.

It’s unfair to judge a book by current standards but be forewarned of sentences like these: “Even by day, white women were targets. There was status to be gained by raping one.” 

It’s also notable that Fipke — who adores “primitive cultures” and, in a bizarre prologue, regales guests at his Kelowna home with a homespun dance while they play drums he’s collected from around the world — takes zero interest in any of the First Nations in all his travels in northern Canada. This may have something to do with just how remote Ekati is; Fipke’s prospecting group essentially saw no one else for months at a time. It may also reflect Canadian culture at large at the time. 

But all of these complaints add up to little. This is a thrilling, dense read, and a superb glimpse into how a major part of our economy today came to be. 

Fire Into Ice: Charles Fipke & the Great Diamond Hunt; The true-life story of the man behind the great Canadian diamond discovery
By Vernon Frolick
Raincoast Books, 1999
354 pages

Update: I got Frolick on the phone! Turns out he got the idea for writing this book shortly after meeting Fipke, and realizing how adventurous his life was. They both shared an obsession with PNG, which Frolick had also been planning to study. He built the book out of conversations with Fipke and did travel with him a bit in South America (but never PNG). He also told me he started writing this book BEFORE Fipke found any diamonds in the NWT. He simply thought he had a great character. He was right.

Side note: Frolick himself would make a great character. He wrote another odd book about a mad trapper-style situation near the BC/Yukon border, which was one of the ways he first connected with Fipke, who had known the victim. He also has a hugely wide-ranging mind and a fascination with nearly everything. He mentioned surprise that his Fipke book never won any awards or even got a lot of attention. I’m going to concur with him there. This really is a great read, especially for anyone considering a career in geology. 

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