Gold runs in their veins – by Joe O’Connor (National Post – August 13, 2011)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

“By 1930, Canada became the world’s second-largest producer of gold, with
 Ontario responsible for most of that output,” Stan Sudol writes in a recent
Canadian Mining Journal article.

It is an awkward moment, and it happens all the time. Jessica Bjorkman will meet a stranger, a new face in town, and if they start talking, and if the conversation winds around to the inevitable career question – ”So, what do you do for a living?” – she will sigh, just a little. See, it is complicated.

Ms. Bjorkman is not a wildeyed old man with a grizzled beard yodelling around the great north woods on the back of a donkey. And she does not live in the Yukon. And she has not memorized all the words to Robert Service’s poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee. So when she tells someone, “I am a prospector,” that someone will invariably shoot her a curious look.

“Most everybody is surprised,” Ms. Bjorkman says. “I say we go out looking for rocks that have potential. We are the step before a mine. Basically, we are the ones out there, on the ground, looking for something promising.”

She is looking for the same thing that the old guy on the donkey was looking for in the Klondike, circa 1898: gold.

The 31-year-old is not alone in her passion for pursuing a lucky strike. She inherited the gold bug from her father, Karl, as did her five younger siblings, all of whom, save for the baby, Karla, who is still in high school, are prospectors and employees of Bjorkman Prospecting, an all-in-thefamily northwestern Ontario enterprise that is as rare as the precious metal they seek. Jessica’s mother, Nikki, keeps the books.

They are a family that moils for gold.

What keeps them all going, in part, is an elusive, glittering dream that their fortune could be just up ahead, around the next corner or through the next thicket of trees, waiting to be discovered.

“You always have that chance,” says Jessica Bjorkman, the de-facto family spokeswoman for this story. “Most people who prospect for their career have the gold fever.

“Having curiosity is very important to finding good rock and definitely the lure of that rare chance of finding beautiful visible gold keeps you checking every outcrop.”

There have been dreamers for a long time in these parts. The province’s gold mining history predates the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the first significant strike was only about a two-hour drive from Canada’s largest city.

John Richardson was an Irishman, a dirt farmer with a rocky, miserable tract of land near Madoc, Ont. In 1866, in an act of desperation, he hired a part-time prospector, Marcus Powell, to poke around.

Mr. Powell, or so the legend goes, fell into a cavern. The walls were covered with a shiny metal. They were covered in gold.

Word got out. Fortune hunters of every stripe poured into the area from as far away as Europe. Eldorado City sprang up from nothing. Hotels, bars and a post office bloomed. The population swelled to 3,000 and a police force ballooned to 25, to keep the peace.

Alas, the would-be boom was a bust. The so-called Richardson Mine, with its golden walls and untold riches, proved too difficult to mine profitably and closed in 1869.

Eldorado City is now a ghost town.

“John Richardson died a pauper,” says Isabella Shaw, a local historian. “But the story is that each of his four sons inherited $1,000 and a team of four horses, which was a lot of loot back then.”

There were other dreamers.

A prospector named Harry Preston slipped on a mosscovered rock near Porcupine Lake, a few kilometres east of modern-day Timmins. Beneath the moss was a quartz ledge, covered in gold.

Porcupine Lake’s Hollinger mine opened in 1910 and yielded 19.3 million ounces of gold over the next 60 years. Major finds followed in Kirkland Lake and Red Lake.

“By 1930, Canada became the world’s second-largest producer of gold, with Ontario responsible for most of that output,” Stan Sudol writes in a recent Canadian Mining Journal article. Today, the province has 13 gold mines, and ranks 14th in the world in terms of gold production.

And it all starts with the humble prospector, as it did for the Bjorkmans.

Karl, the family patriarch, is a former Ontario Hydro worker. In 1984, he moved the clan from Windsor to Whiskyjack Lake, a pictur-esque slice of water near Atikokan, Ont.

He cleared the land, built a cabin and supported his growing brood by working construction jobs. But rocks, more than mortar and concrete, were his true fascination, a gnawing itch that saw him bury his head in geology textbooks and, eventually, after about a decade, emerge to try his luck at prospecting.

As each of his children finished high school, they joined what became an expanding family franchise: first Jessica, then Katarina, then Bjorn, Ruth and Veronique. Karla, the baby, is last in line.

Katarina now has a geology degree. Ruth is working toward one.

“My dad let each of us decide what we wanted to do,” Ms. Bjorkman says. “He didn’t force us to choose prospecting.”

Getting started is the easy part. All you need is a prospecting licence and $25 to pay for it.

Finding a mine is the hard part. Prospecting is a lottery and winning tickets are rare.

(According to the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, the odds of a mining claim becoming a productive mine are 1 in 10,000, and the odds of that mine actually being a gold mine are, well…)

The Bjorkmans’ livelihood depends on staking claims. A “claim” can range in size from 16 to 256 hectares. If the rock samples taken from the claim show promise, the next step is to option the land to a mining company.

The company can then develop it or, more likely, take a closer look and decide to abandon it after a year, or maybe two.

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