Once again, dreams of gold spark a rush to the Yukon – by Paul Watson (Toronto Star – May 14, 2011)

Paul Watson is a columnist for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published May 14, 2011.

DAWSON CITY, YUKON—Not since the days when prospectors led pack trains upriver, hunting for the motherlode with picks and pans, has there been such a rush to stake claims in the Klondike.

In the new Gold Rush, stakers are more likely to leap into the bush from a hovering helicopter than ride the long, treacherous slog on horseback.

And most are working for a few large corporations racing to stake out vast tracts of the Yukon more than a century after armies of prospectors headed north in the late 19th century Klondike Gold Rush, along with prostitutes and other service providers.

In some provinces, you need a license to trudge around scouring for minerals. In a few, chasing your El Dorado is a simple as going online, clicking a mouse and putting down virtual stakes with some keystrokes.

But in the Yukon, they do it the old-fashioned, relaxed way with what they call “the free entry system.”

The rules haven’t changed much since Skookum Jim Mason, a member of the Tagish First Nation, pulled the first nugget from Rabbit Creek in the summer of 1896, setting off a stampede that would last three years.

Over a century later, anyone with the urge, who’s 18 years or older, can stake a claim and start mining for gold in the Yukon.

Most spots easy to reach were staked long ago. Without a chopper, reaching the thousands of square kilometers that are still available can be a long, sometimes perilous, trek.

Or, to the pleasure of some mining companies, you don’t have to go any farther than a city park or a neighbor’s property to pound some wooden stakes into the ground and, with some quick paperwork and a small fee, own the rights to any riches that may lay underground.

Stakers filed a record 83,863 mineral claims in the Yukon in 2010 and the territory is well on its way to setting a new gold standard this year.

In the first three months of this year, when heavy snows in Yukon’s backcountry usually slow staking to a near halt, helicopters were busy in all but the worst weather, moving crews that staked around 33,000 new claims.

Only 6 per cent of the Yukon, a territory roughly the size of Spain, has been staked, so the territory hopes this new, high-flying Gold Rush will run a lot longer than the last one.

Gold prices hovering at record levels are fueling the frenzy. But Yukon’s latest bonanza took former trapper Shawn Ryan, and his wife Cathy Wood, more than a decade to spark.

Ryan moved from Timmins, Ont. to Dawson to hunt wild morel mushrooms 20 years ago. He made a new home in a tin shack, taught himself how to read nature’s hints of hidden mineral treasures and refined his hunches by poring over government geophysical maps.Traveling by canoe, living off a $10,000 government exploration grant, and tirelessly sifting through soil samples from ground that other prospectors had given up on, Ryan worked the same land where 19th century prospectors once toiled.

He struck pay dirt in the White Gold Area, where the White and Yukon Rivers converge, around 100 kilometres southwest of Dawson. Ryan estimates there’s at least $2 billion in gold to be mined there.

He staked more than 10,000 claims, and as news of Ryans’ knack for sniffing out gold spread, he sold his finds to bigger mining companies.

Ryan and his wife cashed out their remaining properties in February, selling their company, Ryanwood Exploration, for $7.5 million, along with stock options and a cut of future production.

Now there’s talk of a book deal. Maybe even a movie. And he thinks the real mother lode is still out there, waiting to be discovered.

But all of the buzz generated by dozens of companies racing to stake claims doesn’t necessarily mean a mining boom will follow.

There are some 30 companies now exploring around the White Gold Area alone, basking in the reflected glow of Ryan’s gold, and “going to trade shows and hyping up things,” said Robert Holmes, director of the territory’s mineral resources branch.

“In the situation in the Yukon, where you have to go on the ground and stake, you end up with what’s called an area play,” said Holmes.

“A whole number of companies come in and jostle for ground, putting out press releases saying, ‘Our company has staked some claims and they’re only 50 kilometres away from this discovery.’ And that’s about all it’s got going for it.”

That may make some smart stock traders rich, but there’s no guarantee the companies will get anything valuable out of the ground — or even try. The Klondike has killed off a lot of big dreams.

Dawson, heart of the first Klondike Gold Rush, had some 40,000 residents at the end of the 19th century, making it the largest city west of Winnipeg. The number has dwindled to less than 2,000.

The population shrinks more in winter when many townsfolk, their wallets swollen with the proceeds of the new boom, fly to Thailand to escape minus 40 degree C cold snaps and heavy snow.

Things started to change in the spring of 2009, when word of Ryans’ White Gold find spread and Janet Bell-MacDonald, the local mining recorder who oversees staked claims, noticed the first rumblings of the charge to get in on the action.

The town now has a chronic shortage of housing, and in summer, the overflow crowd ends up living in barge shacks anchored on the Yukon River and other improvised lodging.

Even in the dead of winter, there’s a steady influx of young people looking for jobs with staking companies. One firm told Bell-MacDonald it’s getting six online applications a day. There are also lots of jobs for dirtbaggers, who collect soil samples for testing.

They’re mostly educated people looking for well-paid adventure in the bush, or who are getting degrees in natural resources, forestry or environmental fields and want some related work experience, Bell-MacDonald added.

“It seems to be the new tree planting,” she said.

Stakers may not be putting their own money on the line as often as the old-timers did, but they’re still facing the same risks of tramping for hours on end, often alone, in the wild.

Snowshoes aren’t much good in an avalanche. Without guns, they’re no match for an angry, determined bear.

Bear bangers, pen-sized devices designed to scare off bears with exploding flares, and canisters of mace-like bear spray have become standard issue for most stakers.

But training and equipment don’t always prepare workers for close encounters in the bush.

On April 28, 2006, hours after a helicopter dropped staker Jean-Francois Pagé into a remote area, he stumbled across a grizzly bear near its den, about 26 kilometres east of Ross River, between False Canyon and Weasel Lake.

Around 1 p.m., Pagé keyed his radio, said he had run into a bear, and then suddenly added, “He is charging,” Yukon’s chief coroner Sharon Hanley found.

Pagé was heard “saying ‘Alright’ three or four times as if he were trying to calm the bear,” Hanley wrote after her inquiry.

Then there was a scream. And the radio went silent.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/991429–once-again-dreams-of-gold-spark-a-rush-to-the-yukon