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Sean Ryan and Cathy Wood at their home in Dawson City. (Michael Edwards)
Sean Ryan and Cathy Wood at their home in Dawson City. (Michael Edwards)

Eureka moment for stubborn prospector Add to ...

Gold fever is gripping Yukon for the first time in more than a century following a discovery by a penniless and persistent prospector that was determined to find the source of the original Klondike deposits.

Shawn Ryan lived in a tin shack for years before uncovering the so-called White Gold district, not far from the fabled Klondike zones. While his work has yet to result in an operating mine, it has already sparked a record-setting staking rush and led to the multimillion-dollar takeover of a junior gold explorer by a senior producer.

More deals are expected as junior mining companies flock to the area around Mr. Ryan's findings and raise millions to finance further exploration, making big bets on what they hope will be the next motherlode of gold.

Michael Wark, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, said Mr. Ryan may in fact have discovered a source of the Klondike gold from the late 1800s, but "regardless, they have a significant gold discovery there."

For Mr. Ryan, the discovery in the area south of Dawson City, near where the White and Yukon rivers meet, is the reward for the years spent hunting for gold in the heart of one of the world's most storied mining districts.

The area was made famous by the Klondike gold rush of 1896, but has received only sporadic attention since. In recent years, other companies came close to making the same discovery as Mr. Ryan, but walked away after running out of money or deciding other opportunities looked better.

Mr. Ryan hung in. He and his wife, Cathy Wood, and eventually two children, pinched pennies for years, surviving mostly on an annual $10,000 exploration grant from the Yukon government. Living on the outskirts of Dawson City, they paid $250 a month to rent a 365-square-foot tin shack that had served as the local barbershop at the turn of the previous century.

In 2004, after about eight years of hunching over maps and sampling soil, Mr. Ryan finally found the first signs of what he had been digging for so deeply, when assay results indicated geochemical markers associated with gold.

It took a few years for others to take notice, but now that they have, other exploration firms are flooding into the area, bringing with them a much-needed boost for local businesses ranging from hotels to helicopter companies.

The number of mining claims in Yukon surged to just under 110,000 in the first seven months of this year, about 38 per cent more than all of 2009, which itself was a record year with just under 80,000 claims.

Prospectors obtain claim tags from the mining recorder, a unit of the territorial government, then stake their claims on Crown land, in the traditional manner by using posts to mark out a rectangle no bigger than 1,500 feet on each side. Each claim costs $10 and prospectors have to do at least $100 of work a year on each claim (or pay $100) to maintain their rights to the land.

The staking rush has turned Mr. Ryan into a hometown hero. "He's a gem for Dawson," said Josée Savard, who has been operating Klondike Kate's Restaurant & Cabins with her husband in the town for the past two decades.

Mr. Ryan's story is a rags-to-riches tale of a miner's son from Timmins, Ont., who moved west as a young man for a job in the bush picking morel mushrooms. He met his future wife at work. It was when she was seven months pregnant that the two decided they needed to find a new way to make a living. Mr. Ryan, who had done some geological work for his dad's company when he was younger and wanted to go on working outdoors, decided to become a prospector.

Today, the self-taught geologist has become one of the rare prospectors to hit the jackpot. He has made millions through the share options and cash that he has received, and will become even richer if one of the properties he has uncovered turns into an operating gold mine and he begins collecting royalties on the output. Mr. Ryan and his wife now run Ryanwood Exploration Inc., a geology consultant that has expanded to more than 50 employees.

"There haven't been too many prospectors that found a discovery that opened up a mine. That will be neat if that happens," Mr. Ryan, 47, said in a recent interview from his home in Dawson City, which he describes as an upgraded 900-square-foot shack.

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