BAGGS, Wyo. — Scott Karduck and Brad Hubbard are the first to rise, waking every morning around 5.
Max Mandl wakes and joins them at 5:15. Ben Spencer sleeps the latest, getting up at 5:30.
The four eat a quick breakfast and load into two trucks for a 40-minute drive from Craig, Colo., to the Juniper Ridge uranium field west of Baggs, a dusty town of 438 near the Wyoming-Colorado border. On site, they log data for Crosshair Energy, a Colorado company planning to mine uranium there soon.
The group splits into two-man crews every day, one going with each drilling rig to log data. They drill six or seven holes on a good day, each reaching 175 feet into the earth.
The cuttings are chunks of drilling mud containing minerals that may indicate the presence of uranium. They lay out the tan and gray bits of earth on a long piece of plywood, forming an image of what the ground beneath looks like.
Readings taken from a spectrometer and observations are logged into a calculator-sized field computer to be analyzed later. Those and other features are logged in an effort to find the most uranium-rich parts of the field.
There are no lunch breaks — only work.
Each day is the same — wake up, drill, log. By 9 p.m., they're in bed. The next morning, they do the same.
This is their summer vacation.
Karduck, Hubbard, Spencer and Mandl reached Baggs on June 6. Hubbard and Mandl, both University of Wyoming students, were offered jobs after Tom Bell, Crosshair Energy vice president and chief geologist, contacted the UW geology department this year looking for help.
Spencer and Karduck have more experience with Crosshair.
Spencer, 23, graduated from Hobart College in upstate New York in May 2011. He began looking for work, but found nothing until a family friend spread word to Bell. Soon after, Bell sent Spencer an email with a job offer. Spencer accepted and spent three months last fall in Juniper Ridge before accepting an offer to return this year.
"I love it out here," Spencer said.
Karduck, 26, is a junior geology student at Penn State University. He's been working for the company for five years, following Bell across the United States and once to Africa.
Bell split the four into teams based on experience — Karduck with Mandl, 24, Spencer with Hubbard, who is 23. Each day, they're together for 17 hours, but nights offer a bit of privacy, in the form of a hotel room in Craig.
"If I don't want to see them I can just go in my room," Spencer said, smiling.
They've spent every day together, commuting to and from the site, working alongside each other and joking at each other's expense.
"You get to know a guy," Hubbard said. "You know his personality and how to push his buttons."
There is little contact with the outside world. Karduck has yet to turn on the TV in his room. His only news comes from National Public Radio, which he and Mandl listen to on the way to Baggs — until the signal cuts out.
"There's no one else you can talk to," Mandl said. "You really bond."
Days off have also been few. None of the four has had more than a week off since the project began.
Some use their days off to rest. Hubbard — a Gillette resident — took his lone week off to visit family. Others use the time to travel the area. Karduck — who's had one day off in two months — drove to the Dinosaur National Monument. Spencer visited friends in Denver.
The rare breaks are welcome.
"Working every day for a month straight wears you down," Hubbard said.
But they won't remember their summer for the days off. It's about time in the field, surrounded on all sides by sage brush and the occasional wandering antelope or rattlesnake. The four analyze the color, mineral content and radiation levels in cutting samples — all while sidestepping inches-high cacti known to leave spines inches deep in a man's boot — or foot.
The experience will pay direct dividends to some of the four. Hubbard hopes to work in mineral exploration after his graduation from UW this fall.
"I've learned more here than sitting in a classroom," he said. "I'm glad there's opportunities like this in Wyoming."
Spencer and Karduck are both unsure of what the future holds. Spencer will attempt to complete his master's degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst beginning this fall. Karduck has two more years at Penn State.
Mandl hopes to complete a master's degree in geochemistry soon. He isn't sure of his long-term plans, but said no matter what, he will value his summer in Juniper Ridge.
"It's the hardest I've ever worked, but I love it," he said. "I feel really free here."
Crosshair hopes to begin mining the site — which previously sat untouched since 1985 because of low uranium prices — within four or five years, assuming drilling results are favorable.
Bell said the company expects to mine at least 5 million pounds of the mineral, none of which would be possible without the work of his interns.
Each of the four interns earns a wage from Crosshair, but each said working on a real project and earning hard-to-find field experience is the ultimate payoff.
"It feels like I'm actually accomplishing something worthwhile," Spencer said. "We're basically seeing something from start to finish."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com