Up in northern British Columbia’s Cariboo country there is a shrine and a town named after Billy Barker, a British prospector who, back in 1862, struck gold to the tune of $600,000. Unfortunately, Billy had a penchant for liquor and loose women and died broke. His obituary notice was short and sweet: poor Billy had forgotten to save anything for his declining years. Now, a little over 100 years later, another lucky prospector, Terry Toop, is sitting on what could be a one-million-dollar bonanza, the greatest placer gold (loose gold) discovery of this century in BC. Toop, 58, is already adding another page to the legend of die-hard gold seekers, but he plans to avoid the tragic fate of Billy Barker.
“No way I’m gonna end up like him. I don’t booze it up enough,” says Toop, a rough-hewn friendly soul who admits, however, that if he had made his big find when he was still a young man “I’d a tore up Las Vegas.” Instead, Toop left his Chilliwack farm home back in 1934 at the age of 17 and roamed northern BC and the Yukon for the next 40 years, convinced there had to be gold somewhere. Finally, three years ago, he and his son, Gary, found what they were looking for.
For some time, Toop had had a hunch— he calls it a “premoninition”—about an ancient channel of gold cutting across the junction of two small creeks, Mary Creek and Norton Creek, in the Cariboo Cottonwood country about 30 miles east of Quesnel. He and Gary, a shy 31-year-old, shoveled, picked and panned until, one cold October day, they hit blue-grey clay, the substance in which gold is often found. Soon, they were pulling out what Toop had dreamed of: $20 nuggets, falling loose from the gravel around them. When the two men raced home that night, Terry’s wife, Marge, had trouble understanding them “they were talking so fast.” But when
Terry yelled at his wife, “We’ve struck it, kid,” she finally understood and the two of them “did a quick jig around the kitchen together.” That little two-step was the only celebration the Toops allowed themselves, so busy have they been mining their bonanza. So far, says Toop, they have uncovered “about $100,000” worth of nuggets.
Apart from buying a new car, the Toops, who used to support themselves by winter fur-trapping, have poured all of their money into heavy machinery—“about $150,000 worth, between me and the finance company,” says Toop—which they need to get the gold out of the earth. The family used to live in tents, but now the site they call Toopville features three rustic cabins and a petunia patch. There is also a rather macabre mock cemetery with a boot hanging from a noose—son Gary’s idea of warning off strangers—and a sign informing trespassers that “exploritation” is in process. Since news of their find got out, says Toop, the place has been packed with weekenders, day trippers and dreamers who “think they kin pay off their mortgage or their second car by doin’ a little staking.” The Toops, however, have the area locked up, with 11 leases covering about 2,000 acres.
Watchful of their find, the Toops never leave the site unguarded and Toop sleeps with a .44 magnum pistol under his pillow. “You never know,” he observes, “what crazy nut is gonna read about this and come on up. I don’t mind sayin’ I’m not afraid to shoot.” Every day, the Toops are out at the site, Terry at the wheel of a 20ton chrome yellow excavator pouring gravel and stones—and, they hope, gold— into the mouth of a sluice box that flushes the gravel down, while two other generations of Toop—son Gary and grandson Birkley Young, 14—feverishly work with shovels and picks and wait for
the whole mess to settle down—so that they can see the gold, and often garnets and black diamonds, glinting in the box. Then, they gingerly lift out the gold with a simple stainless steel kitchen spoon.
It is bruisingly hard work. “Whatever the family gets out of there, they deserve it,” says a Department of Mines spokesman in Quesnel. “This man has worked for many years and he has discovered a dream—the only vein of gold like this in a long, long time.”
Still, with the prospect of years of backbreaking work ahead for the small family, j the actual thrill of discovery long gone, and no sure way to tell how much gold there really is in there, the Toops may be having a different kind of dream: that of an offer they can’t refuse. Says Terry; Toop: “If j someone offered me a million bucks, I’d j sell it tomorrow.”
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