Business

GOLD DIGGERS OF 2002

Today's prospectors still live in hope of the big one

CHRIS WOOD August 26 2002
Business

GOLD DIGGERS OF 2002

Today's prospectors still live in hope of the big one

CHRIS WOOD August 26 2002

GOLD DIGGERS OF 2002

Business

CHRIS WOOD

Today's prospectors still live in hope of the big one

IT’S TAKEN half an hour by boat and a 45-minute vertical scramble through salal, hemlock and cedar to get here— nearly 300 metres up a mountain near Tofino, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island. After a week of rain, the sun is beating through clean-washed air on what we have come to see. It doesn’t look like much. Just a tilted knot of rusty brown and dark grey rock, scraped clear of dirt to expose an outcrop maybe 10 metres by 30 metres. Then Arne Birkeland picks up a hunk of undistinguished stone the size of a grapefruit and whacks it with a hammer. The blow exposes a fresh surface as wide as a man’s palm. It’s rough-hewn, yet it gleams in the sun the colour of freshly polished brass.

Birkeland, 57, is an understated sort of guy. But now he actually giggles. “This is great,” he says. “This is massive. And as you go down in this thing, it’s going to get richer and better.” By “thing” he means the patch of mineralization in this particular location. Assays of it have found copper, cobalt and nickel in these rocks, as well as silver, gold, palladium and platinum—the last one of the most valuable minerals on the planet, used in catalytic converters for auto exhausts and the highest of high-end jewellery. It’s the kind of rock Birkeland and those like him spend a lifetime looking for.

To many urbanites, the word “prospector” evokes the scruffy image of Humphrey Bogart in the classic 1948 movie, The

Treasure of the Sierra Madre, all the tools of his trade weighing down the burro he’s dragging into the mountains. But the profession lives on. Each summer across Canada, hundreds of modern-day Bogies pack their tools into four-by-fours and work-boats to scour the land. Some are trained geologists, others part-timers with a pickup knowledge of minerals. What unites them is a belief—some might call it obsession—that the motherlode beckons just over the next hill. When Lome Warren was 7, he emptied his clothes drawers to stow rock samples out of sight of his mother. Now 56 and named Prospector of the Year by the B.C. & Yukon Chamber of Mines in January, he scours the valleys north and east of his home in Smithers, in the B.C. Interior. “It’s like looking for buried treasure,” he says. “I keep thinking I have a couple of big ones I just have to

get people to recognize.”

The provinces with the most active prospectors are the biggest and rockiest ones: Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. But only in B.C. does the pursuit of paydirt represent a vein of passion and endeavour running deep into the bedrock of settled history. Fur, then farmland, drew pioneers to those eastern places. In the West, it was gold, then more gold. Just as the great California gold rush of 1849 petered out, word spread of strikes farther north. American, then European and Chinese gold seekers flooded up the Fraser River and Interior valleys. Railways pushed through the passes to carry equipment to the workings. British Columbia was born, almost literally, with a golden spoon in its mouth.

Today’s treasure seekers start by mining the records of those who preceded them. Ralph Keefe’s grandfather came to François Lake in central British Columbia in 1905 by way of the Klondike. A retired provincial forestry employee, Keefe and his wife winter in Victoria, staying with family while Ralph digs through a public archive that includes the assay results of every claim staked in the province since his grandfather’s day. The record is augmented by detailed maps of provincial geology. “I go through all the assessment reports,” he says, “all the regional geochemical surveys and I pick out my projects for the following year.”

Birkeland surfs an Internet version of those and other archives—ported to the Web by another quirk of B.C. history. Those early prospectors were in such a rush to reach the gold that settlers never did get around to signing treaties with the resident natives. Efforts in the last decade to remedy the oversight have made B.C. one of the most-mapped places in Canada, as Aboriginals and governments seek to agree at least on the resources being contested. The collective record exists as a multi-layered virtual map on a computer database the province maintains. One layer shows every logging road in B.C. Another, surface geology. Yet another marks every mineral discovery in the province with a neat pair of pickaxes. Click on those to find out what was found, when and by whom.

It’s an unmatched set of clues to the invisible tendons and flanks of the earth’s

The hunt for buried treasure demands a taste for risk: ‘The odds of a prospect becoming a mine are one in a thousand.’

crust—and the whole thing is available online to the public. Before his visit to Tofino, Birkeland sat in his home office in North Vancouver and typed “gold” into his computer. Seconds later, the database spat out a list of every strike on record in the province. “The modern prospector still has to go out in the field and get a little dirty,” he said. “But you have the best chance if you use the technology to zero in on your target without having to spend years on the ground.”

Theories formed in front of flickering Web pages and over musty files are tested in summer, when prospectors head for the bush. There, the strategy is pretty much what it was for Keefe’s granddad. Essentially, it is the theory that everything comes out in the wash. Sooner or later, any mineral near the surface will get washed into a creek somewhere nearby. Find the creek, follow it uphill, and you find the treasure.

Birkeland returns to sea level from his mountainside claim staggering under a pack full of rock samples. Before pointing his aluminum boat down Tofino Inlet toward the campground where he’s staying with his wife and daughter, he idles along the shore a bit. Where a trickle reveals water running into the sea, he noses in. Getting to the creek on foot is an all-fours struggle through thickets of salai and juniper. Finally reaching it, he pulls a fistful of moss from a rock in midstream and puts it in a plastic bag. Early prospec-

tors panned stream gravel for grains of gold or silver. Birkeland lets nature do the job. Moss acts as a strainer, collecting debris in its roots. He will analyze it later for evidence of upstream ore.

The hunt for buried treasure demands a taste for risk. After all the research, hiking and sampling, the trail seldom ends at a mine gate. “The odds of a prospect becoming a mine are one in a thousand,” says Ross Beaty, a former exploration geologist who is now the chairman and CEO of Pan American Silver Corp., a Vancouver-based public company that dug $57 million worth of silver out of Mexico and Peru last year. And the odds against success are getting steeper. “Over the last 50 years, the discovery rate is going down globally,” Beaty says. “Mineral deposits are getting scarcer and the cost of exploration is going up.”

Prospectors in British Columbia have had additional complaints. The once-redhot dot-com rush siphoned off many of the high-stakes punters who used to get their charge of adrenaline grubstaking thousands on junior mining companies on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. By 1999, the VSE closed its doors. The amount spent on mineral exploration in the province melted away to $25 million from $250 million at the outset of the 1990s. Equally problematic for prospectors was the environmental opposition to mining that dominated the thinking of the New Democrats who ruled the province for most of the last decade. But since the Liberals swept into Victoria last year, there has been a dramatic shift in government friendliness toward exploration, with hefty new tax credits for investors and reduced red tape to speed processing of exploration permits. In the meantime, gold prices have been on the move, and there is optimism the bear market in commodities may be turning around.

In a dozen years prospecting for buried treasure, Ralph Keefe has optioned 14 individual discoveries—and not seen one develop into a mine. But there are several new showings of volcanic massive sulphides, the kind that give up copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold, just offshore from Kitimat. “You’ll be hearing more of those,” he insists. Few prospectors end up rich—and few ever give up hope.