Along the Blacktop of Riches: The Abitibi-Greenstone Belt – by Charlie Angus (1999)

Excerpt from Industrial Cathedrals of the North written by Charlie Angus and photographed by Louie Palu (1999)

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Take a drive along the blacktop as Highway 66 turns into 117 and you’ll be taking a drive over one of the richest geological treasures in the world. The highway forms the lower part of a belt of riches known as the Abitibi-Greenstone belt. Over 140 million ounces of gold have been mined from the belt, a feat unparalleled anywhere except in the gold fields of South Africa. The belt is made up of two parallel fault lines running east-west from Ontario into Quebec. The northern edge of the belt – the Porcupine-Destor Fault – runs from the Porcupine along Highway 101 to Destor, Quebec, while the lower fault – the Larder-Cadillac Break – runs from Matachewan, Ontario along 66 towards Val d’Or, Quebec. The fault lines have been the source of some of Canada’s biggest gold mines. The ground between the faults is host to numerous base metal deposits.

The Larder-Cadillac Break is as much a social line as it is a geological formation. The fault runs straight through the heart of many historic gold camps: Matachewan, Kirkland Lake, Larder Lake, V-Town, Rouyn-Noranda, McWatters, Cadillac, Malarctic and Val d’Or. The Abitibi-Greenstone belt has created a natural east-west link across the two provinces. Communities along the fault lines share common links of history, work and identity. Indeed the whole opening up of Northwestern Quebec to mining is a direct result of the movement of prospectors and miners along the lines of the Abitibi-Greenstone belt.

Prospector Ed Horne played a pivotal role in this early development. Before the first World War he was prospecting in Gowganda, Kirkland Lake and the Porcupine. He then moved along the westerly axis from the Kirkland-Larder camps into the Lake Osisko region of Rouyn Township, Quebec.

At the time, investors considered Horne’s forays too far afield into unproven and isolated ground. In 1920, he managed to pull together a grubstake from investors in the Cobalt camp and returned to Lake Osisko. By 1923 he had outlined a massive deposit of copper that would give birth to the multinational mining giant Noranda and the city of Rouyn-Noranda.

In the wake of this discovery, development many from the established camps pushed exploration westward creating new towns like Cadillac, Malarctic and Val d’Or. Many of the first settlers in these camps were families from the more established mining camps on the Ontario side. Even today, it is quite common to find miners in the various camps of the Abitibi-Greenstone belt who have experience in other camps and provinces. This continual movement of mining families across the various camps is one of the reasons mining has always had a sense of fraternity that transcends the limitations of workplace, region and even language.

Go into a beer parlour in a mining camp in Ontario, Quebec, or the rest of Canada and it won’t be long before you’ve made new friends from old friends: “Well if you’re from Cobalt, you must know so-and-so,” or “If your Uncle worked at Sigma he’d be sure to know my brother who’s been a shift boss there for years,” etc. etc.

The continual cross-pollination between mining camps has its historical antecedent in the pack sack miner, restless loners searching for the next frontier. Certainly workers in the industry are accustomed to loading up the u-haul, like the earlier generation packed up their kit bags. But the packsack miner has a modern equivalent in the contract miner – skilled workers who take short term contacts doing difficult development mining in mines all over the world.

If hockey is Canada’s international sport, mining is Canada’s international industry. Canadian miners and companies are active players in the development of mineral resources all over the globe. Canadian miners travel the world with highly paid development and shaft sinking crews. Canadian geologists, mine managers and engineers are in demand everywhere. Much of this experience was derived from the school of hard knocks in mines along the Larder-Cadillac Break. An expertise that is second to none.

Prospectors will tell you that if you want to hunt elephants you go to elephant country. If you want to find mines you go to where rich mines have been found before, whichis why, in the parlance of the prospectors, the Rouyn-Noranda/Val d’Or area of Quebec is big elephant country. Over 45 producing gold mines have been developed along the hundred kilometer stretch of road between Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or. In terms of historical production, Val d’Or with its 12.8 million ounces of gold (1999) is but a poor cousin to the gold giants of Timmins (60 million ounces of gold production-1999) or Kirkland Lake (39 million ounces of gold-1999).

But over the last decade a number of new mines have come on stream – LaRonde, Doyon, Bousquet and Louvicourt. With the success of these operations, the Valley of Gold has become one of the premiere mining regions in Canada.

Val d’Or is a happening place. This is a town where people get dressed up to go downtown, where there is still a thrill in going out to be seen and to see. Unlike the downtowns of many communities in Northern Ontario that have begun to deteriorate under strip mall development, absentee owners, or the transference of shopping allegiance to bigger centres, the downtown of Val d’Or remains busy and vital. Maybe a good mining economy adds to the confidence. But economics aside, there is still the unmistakable feeling that life is just a little brassier, a little wilder, than on the neighbouring Ontario side.

With its recent successes in mining, Val d”Or is a natural choice for exploration companies. But even with a proliferation of mining companies, prospectors and geologists, the odds against bagging a new elephant remains high. After 70 years of intense exploration, the surface deposits, which yielded most of the early big finds, have all been picked over. This has pushed exploration companies to the more difficult task of identifying potential deposits at depth. Diamond drilling, geophysical surveys and exploration work all require deep pockets. Who has the money to stay in the exploration game other than the big mining players? But any prospector will tell you that the big players have a pretty poor track record of finding mine. Mines have always been found by those hungry or crazy enough to believe.

The prospector comes to us in lore as the arch typical outsider decked out crumpled hat, large moustache and suspenders who stumbles over a single nugget or vein and immediately realizes that a mine has been found. Anyone who works in the field will tell you that mines aren’t found, they are made. It is like a great detective puzzle, piecing together fragments of information from the hidden ground. Even though this game has become increasingly scientific with satellite tracking and geophysical surveys run by helicopters and computers, the attitude of the prospector hasn’t changed much since the early day. Those who are willing to take the risks do so because they believe that the treasure which has alluded everyone else will somehow reveal itself to them.

Finding a mine is not like finding a needle in a haystack. To make a viable ore body, you need a whole series of needles that fall in close proximity to each other. It isn’t unknown for a company to be excited by the geology of a property and then invest $20 million sinking a shaft and building underground tunnels only to realize the ore is simply too erratic to warrant mining.

International investment dollars always favour new and untested regions, whether Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories or Busang in Indonesia. And yet, mines continue to come onstream in the Abitibi-Greenstone belt primarily form properties which have been previously explored or even mined. You want proof? Go to Louvicourt. This rich copper-zinc-gold-silver deposit has became a major copper producer in the Val d’Or region.

The mine wasn’t discovered in some isolated, virgin terrain, it was found right along the main highway on a property that had been drilled and explored before. A small company, looking for gold, played a hunch on the potential of an old property paying off at depth. The hunch paid off. They got more than they bargained for. At a depth of over 1200 feet, the drills hit high-grade copper/zinc. The Louvicourt Mine is now producing 120 million pounds of copper a year.

The erecting of the Louvicourt headframe is like a trophy, not just for the company involved, but for all the small firms and prospectors who remain convinced that this region can still hold its own.

Ninety years after the first discoveries along the line of riches, exploration dollars continue to pour into all sectors of the Abitibi-Greenstone belt. In bars and coffee shops along the break there are believers, hucksters and the gullible betting on the odds that one more giant is waitng to be found. They list the name of new mines like a litany of promise – Doyon, LaRonde, and Hoyle Pond. That’s the way its always been in gold country. That’s perhaps the way it will always be. After all, the band of riches is still there. It tantalizes, confounds and occasionally rewards those who are willing to believe.
Some days it feels like being at the front. The highways rumble with large flat-beds hauling massive pieces of iron machinery. The information age? You gotta be kidding. The metals used in computer circuit boards aren’t conjured up by geeks in the Silicon Valley. As the bumper sticker on some Northern pick-up trucks proclaims: “If it can’t be grown it has to be mined.” The minerals that make the information age possible have to hauled from the depths and refined in the smelters – booty form the great struggle underground. Here the battle is still decided by the power of the foundry. Big machines. Big men.

From the depths a rusted cage hurtles towards surface at the speed of 1600 feet a minute. Inside the cage a group of fifteen or so miners stand in shadows, their faces lit by hardhat lamps hanging from their shoulders. A few jokes are passed, a couple of nudges, pokes and boyish grins remind these miners that even here in the shadow world of a mile-deep shaft there is community.

At its most basic, the headframe is life-line, throwing a rope to those who are awaiting in the depths. At the end of a shift, the cage ride is the ride back to life. It gives a feeling similar to the physical rush of a swimmer making long strides towards the surface. Yet, miners standing in the cage show an almost casual indifference to the prospect of being released from the belly of the earth. Perhaps its bad luck to ponder out loud the relative wisdom of trusting your fate to a metal cage, cable and a sheave wheel.

But no matter how many years a miners has worked underground, a miner is never indifferent to what it means to step outside the headframe at the end of a shift. The greatest treasure of all is the simple act of stepping out into a world of clean air and bright sunshine.