Don McKinnon: quintessential prospector – Norm Tollinsky (September/2006)

Norm Tollinsky is editor of Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury. This article is from the September, 2006 issue.

For a guy who was supposed to end up in a ditch, Don McKinnon has done OK for himself. Northern Ontario’s most successful prospector, McKinnon began taking an interest in rocks while working in the bush as a woods superintendent for paper maker Kimberly-Clark.

He had an early taste of success in 1964, making more than $900,000 in a staking rush sparked by the discovery of the Kidd Creek copper-zinc deposit just east of Timmins. His real claim to fame, though, was his and partner John Larche’s key role in the discovery of gold at Hemlo on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Born in Cochrane in 1929, McKinnon remembers having a talent for art and acting, but had no patience for sitting still. He and good friend Tim Horton co-starred in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but both were, first and foremost, rink rats who played hockey every chance they had.

Tim ended up as an all-star defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the founder of the quintessentially Canadian coffee and donut chain.

McKinnon took a more circuitous route to fame and fortune, tramping through thousands of miles of Northern Ontario’s wilderness before hitting paydirt.

“I dropped out of school,” said McKinnon. “I played hooky for two months and nobody missed me, so I thought I’d better get a job. The principal warned me that I’d end up in a ditch and that’s where I ended up.

“My brother and I and four friends went to Iroquois Falls and found work with a construction company that was building an addition to the paper mill. The first day on the job, I was in a ditch with a shovel.”

When a supervisor found fault with his work, the cocky McKinnon said, “You seem to know so much about it, you do it yourself.” Fired on the spot, McKinnon left his shovel in the ditch and was walking toward the gate when the “big boss” happened by and offered him a ride. Apprised of the circumstances and in need of men whose talents went beyond shoveling, the “big boss” took McKinnon under his wing.

Before he knew it, he was dining at the staff table and had his own private room in the bunkhouse.

“I became one of the top guys there,” he said.

Pot of gold

Cocky, self-confident and determined to disprove his principal’s dire prediction, McKinnon soldiered on in search of the proverbial pot of gold.

“I always told myself I’d be a millionaire by the time I was 40,” he said. In fact, he was only 35 when he made $900,000 in the Kidd Creek staking rush.

He went through that pretty quickly and had to wait another 15 years for fortune to smile on him again.

Good prospectors can make a decent living staking and optioning claims to mining and exploration companies, but you can’t just rely on luck.

“You could spend a whole summer in the bush and make no money,” said McKinnon. “I decided to approach it differently. I did research. I’m known for having a big library.”

McKinnon, who never had the patience to sit still in school, would spend hours and hours poring over geological studies and reports and visiting geological survey libraries to identify promising ground before heading out to the bush.

It was his skill as a researcher that attracted him to Hemlo, where reports of gold mineralization dated back to the 1940s. When a dozen claims lapsed in December 1979, McKinnon hastened to stake them, and bumped into Larche, who was also staking claims in the area. They agreed to a partnership and both became millionaires when the motherlode was finally discovered in 1981.

Billions of dollars were spent developing the Williams, Golden Giant and David Bell mines, which, together, account for just less than one-third of Ontario’s gold production of 2.5 million ounces per year.

McKinnon, now 77, is still at it, promoting properties, poring over geological reports and dreaming of the next big discovery. He has no interest in retiring and doesn’t appear to have even slowed down.

Far from ending up in a ditch, McKinnon wants for nothing. He owns his own nine-passenger turboprop Caravan, has a beautiful summer home in Florida, and “camps out” in an executive suite with a panoramic view of Toronto during the annual Prospectors and Developers conference.

Toronto is a nice place to visit and catch up with old friends, but Timmins is very much the centre of his universe.

Separate province

Still as cocky and outspoken as ever, McKinnon rails against government policies restricting access to the North’s wealth and even spent $30,000 of his own money on a study assessing Northern Ontario’s potential as a separate province.

He served a term on Timmins city council, ran unsuccessfully for the provincial legislature and is now lobbying to win support for his current pet project, a seaport on James Bay, which would shorten the distance between China and Northern Ontario by 4,000 kilometres.

A seaport on James Bay would be the culmination of a century-old Ontario vision for a transportation corridor that would open up the North’s vast wealth, with a railroad from North Bay to New Liskeard, on to Cochrane, McKinnon’s hometown, and terminating in Moosonee.

Cochrane came into being in 1908 as a rail town and division point at the junction of the Canadian National and the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railways. McKinnon’s dad was “a call boy” – responsible for waking up the engineers and train crew before there were telephones.

Trains came and went, the frontier to the north was being opened up, and over at the town rink McKinnon and friend Tim Horton passed the puck around, dreaming of the future.

McKinnon has traveled all over the world as a result of his good fortune, but in his 77th year, there’s still a lot of Cochrane in him. He can’t contain his excitement over a promising Kimberlite at Coral Rapids on the rail line north of Cochrane, and he’ll talk your ear off about loading limestone onto gondola cars and barging it from Moosonee to Northern Quebec to make cement for planned hydroelectric dams.

“It’s a 3,000 kilometre round trip to bring cement up from Montreal,” he said.

McKinnon has been lucky in more ways than one. He made millions on Hemlo, but more important, he loves what he does.

“The guys I went to school with in Cochrane worked all their lives on the railroad, and they couldn’t wait to retire. I never did a job I hated more than one day.”

Mining solutions journal