Twin turboprops roaring, our 40-seat plane begins its descent to Dawson City Airport. The clouds give way to reveal a pockmarked heritage landscape: the Klondike gold fields.
This is where, a hundred-odd years ago, a stampede of desperate men moiled—and sometimes died—for gold. Today the soaring price of gold has made Dawson a boom town again, a place that attracts, as in 1897, all sorts of slightly at-loose-ends types. Like me. I’m out of shape and out of dough—my paltry small-town newspaper salary having failed in a Sisyphean struggle to erase $10,000 of debt—and a season of mining sounds like the perfect corrective, or at least the most perfect corrective I’ll find in the Yukon.
For the next four months, Schmidt Mining Corp.’s Quartz Creek camp, tucked in the Indian River valley about 50 kilometres southeast of Dawson City, is where I’ll live and work.
Thankfully, I only have to fly in from Whitehorse. My antecedents risked it all, traversing mountain passes on foot and sailing down the Yukon River in makeshift boats to reach the Klondike. Most failed to find their fortune and returned home penniless, and those who made it helped build Dawson, which today is still the epicentre for about 150 placer outfits that comb the territory each summer for what gold remains.
The technology of sluicing has changed, but both the original Klondikers and the 21st-century types practise placer mining, “placer” from the Spanish for alluvial deposit. The gold here started out in hard rock that was eroded over the eons. If there’s gold in sediment from a stream or a glacier, it will be found underneath a layer of vegetation and earth (called “overburden” when miners remove it), within a layer of gravel and other finer material. This is the pay dirt.
Where the Klondikers famously sorted gold flecks and nuggets from sand in pans, modern operations employ giant bulldozers to strip the overburden and expose the pay dirt. Periodically, they uncover a less-known method from the old days: century-old log-lined shafts reaching depths of up to 100 feet.
It’s May 25, 2011, as I fly in. Gold is now trading at $1,523 an ounce and exploration in the Yukon has exploded. As the placer miners plug away, the real buzz is for hard-rock claims. In 2008, 13,834 hard-rock claims were staked. Exploration soared to 83,261 hard-rock claims in 2010, covering some 17,000 square kilometres, about 3.6% of the territory. On top of that there were 602 placer claims. But 2011 was even hotter: 114,587 hard-rock claims and 841 placer claims. More than 100 exploration companies are searching for the motherlode, be it silver, zinc or copper—but the ultimate prize is gold.
In sussing out my own prospects for participating in some of this wealth generation, I naturally turned to someone I knew. I called my friend Stuart Schmidt, one of the Yukon’s largest placer gold operators, whom I’d met as a reporter, to offer the services of a perfectly useless greenhorn. To my surprise, he agreed to take me on.
“Have you ever worked heavy equipment?” he asked.
“One summer I drove the lawn tractor at a provincial park,” I offered.
“Right. Uh, don’t tell the guys that.”
A week into my new career, I collapse on the mattress in my trailer, mosquito-ravaged and exhausted. An instant later, it seems, the buzz from my alarm clock jolts me awake. I’m still in my filthy overalls. The grit of dried sweat and bug dope permeates my T-shirt, and my hands are sore and swollen. Another 12-hour shift beckons. I’ll work 37 of these in a row before my first day off.
I stumble out and head for the cook shack. Inside, my fellow crew members are putting lunches together; I join the sandwich-making fray. Then there’s breakfast to contend with. In my former life as a reporter for the Whitehorse Star (slogan: Illegitimus Non Carborundum), I preferred cigarettes and French press coffee for breakfast, so I’m still struggling to stomach bacon, eggs and Nabob at 6 a.m.
And I’m not even mining yet. For this first week, I’ve been on a three-man crew felling trees large enough to provide 10-foot-plus poles for a pen that Stuart wants constructed for his four horses. I signed up to go gold mining, not log the backcountry, but I’m at Stuart’s disposal and, with no mechanical skills to offer, it’s fence-building or nothing. In our marathon shifts, there are no coffee breaks and only a 30-minute lunch break. Once mining starts, I’m told, there will be no lunch breaks.