Some of the abandoned mines in California are just deep holes straight down into the ground. Others offer easy access to horizontal passages. But any mine can harbor rattlesnakes, loose hanging rocks, hidden holes and even poisonous gases.
For Jon Mistchenko, it's all a nice chance to get out of the office.
As an engineering geologist with the state Department of Conservation, Mistchenko inspects mines that have sat empty for dozens or hundreds of years. If it's not dangerous or it's really hard to get to, he might recommend leaving it open.
If he finds obvious safety hazards and the mine is accessible to the public, he usually recommends covering the entrance with a gate. In that case, me might also recommend putting an animal-shaped hole in it, depending on what he finds living inside.
Chuckwallas, the big lizards that live in the Southwest, often sit atop massive logs used to frame the old mines' entrances. Birds nest up to about 10 feet in. The first 30 feet or so could hold rattlesnakes trying to cool off. Desert tortoises travel up to a few hundred feet in. In two decades on the job, Mistchenko has seen one rare ringtailed cat, also known as a "miner's cat," which looks a little like a housecat with a raccoon tale.
With at least one partner and equipped with gear including lights, snake gaiters, a gas sensor and a hard hat, Mistchenko takes notes for reports he writes up with his recommendations for the state or whatever local or federal public agency owns the mine.
"It is going into the unknown and we've had a lot of training and a lot of experience going into new mines," said Mistchenko, 40, of Sacramento.
He still has to spend some time in an office. He scouts mines on Google Earth, reads any records available for the mines and works on bid documents, planning and mapping.
Mistchenko said he got a temporary version of the job as an undergraduate student at California State University, Sacramento, and soon decided to forgo his graduate school plans to see if he could keep doing what he was doing. He said he secured a permanent job and plans to keep it as long as he can.
Mistchenko's salary was about $110,000 last year.