Travel

The spell of the Yukon 

An insider’s account of the modern-day gold rush
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The expansion of mining claims in the Yukon until 2012 (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

The faint hum of helicopter blades pierces broken fog and falling snow. I’m 1,330 metres up a mountainside in the central Yukon’s Wilson Range, pacing back and forth to mark a landing site as I wait for my ride, which is hovering somewhere in the valley below. Visibility is dropping fast. The pilot’s voice crackles from my handheld radio as he hunts for my location.

“I’m in an avalanche chute,” I reply, sheltering my radio from a burst of wind, “west of zulu … golf … oh … one.” It’s not a great place to be, but the autumn snows aren’t too thick yet and our rendezvous options are extremely limited.

It’s September 2010, and my father and I are 120 kilometres from the nearest dirt road, staking claims in a modern-day gold rush. I’ve spent the past eight hours marking a straight line across rugged topography, blazing axe marks in fir and spruce where my route dips below the treeline, digging through fresh snow to stack rocks and mark shrubs with orange flagging tape in alpine areas above. Every 457 metres, or 1,500 feet, as per regulations, I stop at a GPS waypoint to erect a set of four wooden claim posts, etching my name and the date into metal tags affixed to each. The four posts mark corners of four adjacent 20.9-hectare claims, which give the owners licence to explore the ground for minerals for a full year, free from competition. And this year, there is certainly competition.

My father is an independent prospector who lives in Whitehorse, and we’re revisiting an obscure gold discovery that he made in the early 1990s. His find sat open and unclaimed for the past decade, but a recent inspection of the territorial government’s mineral claim maps revealed fresh claims staked by a competitor over part of the area. Today, while staking what’s left, we see a third company’s helicopter dropping posts near our claims, prepping the ground for its own crews. Just barely, we’ve beat them to it.

The hum of the AStar helicopter gets louder now, growing slowly and then quickly to a roar. But in the fog, there’s no other sign of the machine.

“At treeline …” comes the pilot’s voice again, “… can’t go any higher.”

Above the trees, unbroken snow cover and the enshrouding storm create a dangerous whiteout. But I’m at treeline too, where the last clusters of fir lend some definition to the hillside. I listen, tuning my ears to the chopper. After a pause, I yell into the radio — he’s too far to the west.

The roar drops back down the mountainside, adjusts, then rises again, this time accompanied by the helicopter’s bright landing lights cutting through the blowing snow. I wave, then crouch to brace against the impact of the rotor’s downwash.

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The expansion of mining claims in the Yukon until 2012 (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

For many Canadians, the Yukon still conjures images of stampeding prospectors, pans full of gold, poems by Robert Service and other trappings of its first major gold rush. Following the arrival of over two short tons of Yukon placer gold in Seattle in July 1897, tens of thousands of fortune seekers made the journey north to the remote Klondike Valley, and Dawson City became the quintessential boom town: a sprawling mass of false fronts, one-room cabins and wall tents nestled among the hills and permafrost-stunted spruce of the Yukon wilderness. Suddenly, and briefly, it was one of western Canada’s largest cities.

Gone, however, are the days when news of a gold strike elicits this kind of a response from the general public. Following a series of recent gold discoveries in the Yukon, the soft yellow metal is again at the heart of intense international interest in the territory, but today’s rush is a different scene. Most modern stampeders participate from the comfort of their offices and homes by simply buying stock in public companies that are exploring the North. On the front lines, geoscientists and crews of summer fieldworkers, and a few dozen independent prospectors like my father, explore the Yukon bush with both low- and high-tech tools. Behind the scenes, CEOs and financiers navigate tumultuous junior mining markets, attempting to promote their projects and secure funding for further exploration.

“It was a bit of a perfect storm,” says Mike Burke of the modern rush. Recently head of mineral services for the Yukon Geological Survey, Burke is now chief geologist for Golden Predator Corp., a prominent mineral exploration company in the territory. A major hardrock gold discovery south of Dawson — promoted by some as a possible source of the Klondike goldfields — and a rare but potentially rich style of gold mineralization found across the territory underscored the Yukon’s mineral potential just as international gold prices soared to an all-time high. But other factors have channelled interest in this direction, says Burke. The Yukon’s clear land-use policies, its mostly settled First Nations land claims and its stable politics (compared with, say, the Congo) have convinced both local and international investors that it’s a relatively safe place to speculate.

A typical year in the past decade would see fewer than 10,000 claims staked in the Yukon, whereas more than 190,000 claims were registered in 2010 and 2011, peaking at 10.8 percent of the territory’s total surface area under mineral claim — roughly the same percentage as its national and territorial parks. In 2011, more than 100 junior mining companies collectively spent over $300 million exploring the territory for gold and other minerals.

“The discoveries really kicked it off,” says Burke. “Elsewhere, people are looking under cover. Here, we proved there’s still low-hanging fruit.”

If this avalanche of excitement in the Yukon can be traced back to a single person, it would likely be Shawn Ryan. At first glance, Ryan is what you might expect in a modern prospector: a little unkempt and very optimistic. But his enthusiasm is contagious.

For years a mushroom picker based out of a tin shack in the Klondike Valley, Ryan was intrigued by the region’s rich placer gold, pulled as nuggets and dust from alluvial gravels over the past century. Buried somewhere in the surrounding hills, he reasoned, must lay the hardrock source of the Klondike goldfields. So in 1997, with a family on the way, he took to prospecting.

Ryan is now president of Ryan Gold, a publicly traded junior mining company that explores his prospects across the territory, while his wife and business partner, Cathy Wood, tends to their various mineral service companies, their helicopter and, soon, their drill. “He has great ideas,” she says. “Guess who gets to run them.”

Borrowing strategies from junior mining companies, Ryan began soil sampling, a low-impact exploration technique that requires only a few grams of soil, extracted with a soil auger, for geochemical analysis. While many smalltime prospectors might have coasted on moderate, early successes, Ryan reinvested his profits into hiring crews and expanding his operations, finding innovative ways to explore.

“There was no real eureka moment,” says Ryan, who likens each soil sample his crews take to a brush stroke on a painting. A single sample might show a high concentration of gold, or a lack thereof, but only at a single site. With large grids, however, pictures and patterns start to appear, in gold and in other elements, clues to the nature of the underlying bedrock. Using GIS mapping software to process the results, Ryan paints colourful maps to portray his data.

On one property in particular — “White Gold,” near the confluence of the White and Yukon rivers — the soil results were impressive. With each additional survey, Ryan’s picture grew, until brightly coloured zones of anomalous gold in soils spanned an eight-by-four-kilometre area. Through Wood’s promotional efforts, Ryan’s data found their way to geologist Adrian Fleming.

Although he had been in the exploration business for 35 years, in places such as New Guinea, South America, Africa and the Arctic, Fleming had never seen a geochemical dataset as promising as Ryan’s White Gold project — anywhere. “This is just incredible,” he told a colleague. “We’ve got to have this thing!” Fleming had recently started a company, Underworld Resources, in hopes of exploring Australia and New Zealand for minerals, but seeing Ryan’s data, he jumped on the opportunity to come north.

“Underworld Resources was a dream run,” says Fleming when we meet at his office in downtown Vancouver. Just three summer exploration seasons after signing a deal with Ryan and Wood, through sampling, trenching and drilling of the anomaly, the company outlined a resource of over 1.5 million ounces of gold, two dozen times more than the first payload of Klondike gold carried to Seattle in 1897. Again, news of the Klondike spread, this time as speculation that its hardrock source had been found. The discovery caught the attention of the Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corporation, which bought Underworld Resources, and the new deposit, for a cool $137 million.

“It all happened very quickly,” says Fleming. “I doubt I’ll have the good fortune to duplicate that again in my career.”

He’s almost certainly right. The junior mining market is a rarity among industries, in that most of its companies have no product. Like Underworld, a junior company identifies a promising prospect, often buying discoveries directly from independent prospectors like my father or Ryan, then goes to the stock market to raise money. It spends that money exploring the prospect. Nothing comes out the other end, save for a bit of new data on a small patch of the Earth’s crust. As might be expected from the business model, a huge majority of these companies fail.

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Jerome de Pasquale prepares a soil sample. Soil samples are collected at intervals and provide a subsurface look at elements present in the ground. (Photo: Marlin Olynyk)

It’s the promise of reward that keeps the industry going. Speculators buy in to junior companies hoping for a quick bump in volatile markets, while longer-term investors hold on for a buyout. The world’s major mining corporations have annual revenues in the billions of dollars and can afford to purchase promising exploration projects once a definite mineral resource has been established. Many of these larger players deem exploration too risky to maintain anything more than a modest exploration branch, so they leave the finding and development of new prospects — essentially their R & D work — to the chaotic junior markets.

With its abundance of land and a long mining history, Canada has grown to be a powerhouse in both sides of the industry. Fifty-eight percent of the world’s public mining and exploration companies, some 1,646 in total, are listed on Toronto stock and venture exchanges. These Canadian companies have a global reach, with nearly half their 9,300 exploration projects and mines situated outside of the country.

In Fleming’s office, our discussion centres around a claim map of the White Gold district. After the discovery and subsequent buyout, dozens of junior companies rushed into the area, hoping to claim ground near the White Gold property; the closer, the better. The map is now packed, with claim blocks interlocking and overlapping for an abstract expressionist effect. “There’s nothing unusual about that,” says Fleming, “White Gold was another staking rush, just like the Klondike in the 1890s.”

Descending at a crawl into the steep, open pit, the occupants of our van fall silent. A monolith rumbles toward us, a yellow Komatsu 930E dump truck lugging nearly 300 tonnes of rock debris up the unpaved haul road. I lean against the van window to see the tops of its tires as it passes.

The scale of the chasm is no less mesmerizing. We’re in northern Nevada, on a tour of Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold Corporation’s Goldstrike Mine, one of the largest and richest gold mines on the planet. The open pit stretches three kilometres east to west and two kilometres north to south. Truckload by truckload, from an initial elevation of 1,700 metres, the company has dug a hole more than a quarter of the way to sea level.

The Goldstrike Mine lies roughly 2,000 kilometres southeast of the Yukon, but the rocks here are a key factor in the territory’s new gold rush. Like any rocks, they tell a story. They’re mainly sedimentary: limestones and shales laid down across inconceivable stretches of time on quiet ocean bottoms. Fossils in the rocks hint at explosions of biodiversity and devastating worldwide extinctions. Later faults, fractures and magmatic intrusions exposed in the walls of the Goldstrike pit speak to immense tectonic forces acting on the Earth’s crust, morphing sea floor into high mountain belts of the continental interior.

But if sheer volume of human-moved rock is any metric, it was about 40 million years ago that something truly interesting happened. A pulse of gold-rich groundwater (or pulses — geologists still debate the specifics) percolated through the local geology. Iron atoms housed in the rocks altered the chemistry of the passing groundwater, causing it to drop the gold it carried in solution. And it was carrying a lot of gold. Striking northwest through the interstate town of Carlin, Nevada, an 80-kilometre stretch of giant gold deposits known as the Carlin trend has made America’s “Silver State” the fifth most prolific gold-mining jurisdiction on the planet, lagging behind only China, Australia, Russia and South Africa in total production.

Despite this significance, the Carlin trend is a relatively new find. Covered-wagon trains of early American settlers cut an unknowing path across its buried riches, as did scores of 1849 stampeders, racing down the Humboldt River en route to the California goldfields. The Union Pacific Railroad and U.S. Interstate 80 both cut through a hill just 17 kilometres from Newmont Mining Corporation’s present- day, 20-million-ounce Gold Quarry Mine. Nobody clued in to the area’s potential.

In a practical sense, Carlin-style gold is invisible. It forms as microscopic rims on pyrite crystals and doesn’t readily sink to the bottom of a prospector’s pan. Adding to the trouble, the highest concentrations occur in limestones, which are not great places to look by conventional wisdom. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1961, following the development of sophisticated geochemical analysis techniques, that a team of Newmont geologists stumbled across the mineralization, and Nevada’s gold boom began.

Several major gold trends similar to Carlin’s have since been discovered in Nevada. Outside of the state, however, decades of intense searching by mining and exploration companies across six continents have yielded no real analogues. Carlin-style gold, it seemed, was Nevada’s thing.

Enter ATAC Resources Ltd., an exploration company with close ties to a Vancouver-based geological consulting firm that has worked almost exclusively in the Yukon since the mid-1960s. ATAC announced that it had discovered a limestone-hosted gold deposit in the central Yukon in 2008, but mirroring results of explorers around the world, what it found wasn’t quite Carlin.

Thanks to the hype surrounding Underworld Resources and the new White Gold district, ATAC geologists were left alone to explore a pair of faults extending east from their find, stretching away toward the Northwest Territories’ border. Over 100 kilometres distant, near the Rackla Gold district, they noticed a subtle anomaly in stream sediment geochemistry: high arsenic values trickling from sedimentary rocks.

Bill Wengzynowski was ATAC’s lead consulting geologist in the area at the time. Although his lean build and dark, cropped hair fit the archetype of a mid-career exploration geologist, chronic cervical-spine and shoulder issues have since forced his early retirement from fieldwork. “They don’t teach you pace in school,” he says.

Wengzynowski took a day to follow up on the anomaly. Starting low in an alpine valley, he examined rocks exposed in a creek bed as he picked his way upstream, looking for anything that might explain the arsenic. Clouds hung low on the mountains as he worked. A steady drizzle of rain drenched willow and dwarf birch lining the stream, gradually soaking Wengzynowski as he pushed through them. The rocks he saw did little to ignite enthusiasm. “A lot of dull, boring limestone,” he says.

By the end of the day, he was cold and wet and had found nothing of interest. Above a small waterfall, the stream he’d been following disappeared into a blanket of late-spring snow. It was time to call in the helicopter and get out of there — but then something caught his eye.

“I ended up seeing a bright orange spot in the creek,” he says. Reaching into the cool meltwater, he grabbed for the object. It didn’t budge. He pulled away overlying stones and dug, clouding the stream’s water. With one numb hand searching the murk, the other swung the sharp back end of his rock hammer into the creek, trying to get a wedge so that he could pry the object loose. But he missed his mark. The stream turned blood-red. “I thought, ‘Holy Christ! I’ve put my rock hammer through my hand!’”

The hammer dripped red as Wengzynowski pulled it from the water, but to his surprise, his hand was simply wet. He had hit the object. More digging brought it to the surface. It was a rock, orange and red, about the size of a football.

Describing his find, Wengzynowski’s eyes brighten and his voice picks up. “Right there,” he recounts, “all the pieces floating around in my head, like some great big fractured puzzle … everything came together. It was absolute euphoria.” The rock was a massive piece of realgar, an arsenic-rich mineral with a known link to gold mineralization along the Carlin trend. With this discovery, the sixth-generation Yukoner fulfilled the dream that led him into a life of exploration, something that very few in the industry actually get to do.

In an impromptu strategy shift, ATAC drilled Wengzynowski’s find and three gold and arsenic soil anomalies encountered nearby. The results were spectacular. More important, they were Carlin.

The discovery kicked the Yukon’s gold rush into overdrive. Huge banners emblazoned in gold lettering with the word “Yukon” welcomed 27,000 delegates and investors from Canada and beyond to the 2011 Prospectors and Developers Association Convention in Toronto. A single rock — a grapefruit-sized piece of vein quartz riddled with raw gold, discovered in the southwestern Yukon by Liard First Nation prospector Alex McMillan — added to the buzz, proving that anything was possible, anywhere in the territory. For exploration companies and investors alike, the Yukon was the place to be.

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Robert Service’s poem “The Spell of The Yukon” adorns the wall of a building in Dawson City, Yukon. Dawson City was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1896. (Photo: Marlin Olynyk)

An animated map on the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) website highlights the proliferation of mineral claims across the territory from March 2009 to November 2011. The claims, plotted in black, resemble a cancer overtaking southern and central parts of the territory. The YCS isn’t outright opposed to mining — its vision is that mining “occurs only in places where such activities are ecologically and culturally acceptable … based on need for the metal [and] on sound economics” — but this growth of exploration activity raised concern.

“What about all the infrastructure that’s required?” asks Lewis Rifkind, mining coordinator with the YCS. “You’re going to need roads. You’re going to need power.” Bringing in the people needed to operate new mines, he says, would require the construction of entirely new communities.

Beyond the challenges of working in remote areas, Rifkind hints at a paradox faced by mineral explorers since at least the Klondike Gold Rush. “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting,” reads Robert Service’s 1907 poem “The Spell of the Yukon,” “so much as just finding the gold.” Many are drawn to the industry by the lure of uncharted places — people like me, who like wilderness too much to settle in to an office job. But in exploring these remote areas, we extend tendrils of development. I’ll step onto a ridge, admire the unbroken boreal panorama surrounding me, then start thinking how a road might cross the closest river to access the site.

Granted, mining and exploration have undergone a shift in recent years. Many in the industry are doing what they can to clean up their acts. “There’s no reason to push roads all over the countryside in the early stages of exploration,” says geologist Adrian Fleming, who used helicopter-portable drills to explore the White Gold prospect, reducing his environmental footprint at an increased cost to his company. In the past, the territory has seen environmental problems linger after mines have closed, but today’s developers are required, prior to the start of operations, to deposit large bonds for eventual road and mine-site reclamation, such as the work Barrick is doing at Goldstrike in Nevada.

Despite the massive scale of some mines, there’s no money to be made by digging metals from the ground. Profits in mining come not from extraction but from the sale of resources for human consumption. Our demand — for materials to build bridges and houses; for components for computers, bicycles and indoor plumbing; for luxuries such as gold jewellery — keeps the industry alive. And to me, this is what makes exploration and mining conscionable. Social and environmental checks are important, but excessive restrictions address only a symptom of a larger global issue: our burgeoning demand for resources as the planet’s population continues its explosive growth.

“It’s a fragile industry,” says my dad as we sit at his kitchen table, each of us toying with a pen, “and it’s got to be nurtured. People don’t realize that.” He should know. After moving to the Yukon from Wyoming, he took up prospecting on his own in the late 1980s. This meant raising my brother and me on a small and sporadic income in an off-the-grid, single-room cabin, at times relying on family and friends to make ends meet.

Each of his discoveries brought hope and a bit of money, but never security. One day, he moved our cabin to build the frame of a larger house on site. Later came its walls. After making Canada’s first emerald find in 1997 and helping to spark a small exploration rush, he installed power and running water. And though my brother and I have long since moved out, this latest gold boom has put siding on the house, and its plywood floors look dangerously close to being tiled.

But now, in the spring of 2012, we’re brainstorming, piecing together a Plan B. Almost overnight, the modern Yukon gold rush has stalled. It could well be over.

While the 2011 exploration season saw hundreds of thousands of soil, stream and rock samples taken, hundreds of kilometres of drill holes sunk into Yukon bedrock and countless more kilometres trekked on its surface by geologists, there were no slam-dunk discoveries. In an industry where investor enthusiasm is as essential a commodity as fuel or labour, this is proving disastrous.

Yukon junior mining stocks have tumbled to fractions of their recent highs. Two of our properties have recently been returned. One company, strapped for working capital, has asked to defer its payments. Another has yet to send an overdue cheque. Across the territory, mineral claims are expiring by the thousands.

To veterans of the cyclic exploration industry, the end of the current boom comes as no surprise. “On any level, it’s all about persistence,” says Rob Carne, president of ATAC Resources Ltd. “There are very few exploration plays in the world that haven’t been known to somebody for at least 20 years.” Of the Yukon’s three operating hardrock mines, he notes, only one was discovered after the 1960s. None are gold mines.

Carne rattles off a list of Yukon mineral deposits, including a platinum project near the Alaskan border, discovered in the 1950s, and a gold- and copper-bearing property southeast of the White Gold district, explored since the 1960s. These are major resources that have endured decades of boom and bust, but they’ve yet to be developed. “Generally,” says Carne, “it doesn’t happen in the first cycle.”

For the moment, this new Yukon gold rush appears to have been a flash in the pan, albeit a bright one. While the discoveries are significant, stepping back offers some perspective: 2011’s record exploration spending in the Yukon accounted for only eight percent of the Canadian total, with companies across the country putting an estimated $3.9 billion toward locating and expanding mineral deposits. Predictions for 2012 put the Yukon’s share even lower.

Yet as an explorer with an eye for untapped mineral potential and as an aficionado of raw wilderness, I take some encouragement from these figures. Despite the latest boom, my home territory remains a frontier. After more than a century, for miners and naturalists alike, it seems that the spell of the Yukon is alive and well.

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