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How a novice miner survived a summer in the Klondike Add to ...

At the beginning of 2011, an aptly named junior venture, Golden Predator, scooped the Yukon government’s chief geologist, Mike Burke, and the complete stock of 70,000 claim tags, sending the exploration industry and government officials into a tizzy. The move kept claim stakers like 34-year-old Billy Bromell in $500-a-day work.

“If we [Golden Predator] didn’t do it, maybe somebody else would’ve and then we would’ve gotten snookered,” Mike says of the brash move, adding that it showed how local authorities were unprepared for what’s been a two-year staking bonanza.

“There’s no [placer] gold rush here and the reason is simply all about reserves,” or rather lack thereof, Stuart tells the CBC host, adding that only now, thanks to the price of gold, are people in the placer business doing the necessary exploration to keep the industry viable for the next 20 years. “In fact, many people now are mining such low-grade reserves that they need at least $1,000-an-ounce gold [to be profitable], and I’d include myself,” he contends. “Looking at it from the outside, all you see is a much, much higher price of gold. There’s an assumption that placer miners are making out like bandits here. I just don’t think that’s really true.”

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I’ve been working nights since the middle of July, and tonight, Oct. 4, is the penultimate shift for sluicing. In a few short hours, my work at Schmidt Mining will be finished—133 days all in. When we’re done, we’ll have sluiced 1.4 million square feet of land and washed 362,880 yards of dirt through the plant.

From chewing through all this landscape, we have derived about 3,000 ounces of gold. The season produces about the same amount at Schmidt Mining’s other camp, farther south. Here, Stuart must pay the 10% royalty to all claim holders where he mined, as he did not scratch a single one of his own claims this season. Over the course of the season, the price of an ounce of gold has continued its zigzag progress upward: from $1,523 on the day I started, May 25, to $1,622.30 on Oct. 1.

With my bags packed into the bed of one of Stuart’s industrial-strength pickup trucks, the veteran miner slowly weaves up the valley to deposit me at Dawson City Airport. We pass a row of giant conveyor belts that have been ferrying overburden to the top of huge dirt pyramids. “It’s a thing of beauty, don’t you think?” he asks.

I ask him if he believes there’s at least 50 years’ worth of mining left in the valley, as one of the crew members boasted.

“Well, to say something like that, that there’s 50 more years of mining in this valley, would be arrogant. It depends on a whole collection of factors,” he says.

Say all the current costs remained as they are today, I offer.

“What, and we don’t have inflation?” he says incredulously. “Where is this mine, fantasyland?”

We drive in silence for a little while before I ask him if he ever imagines himself retiring.

“Yeah, I’ll probably retire, but I’ll never stop mining.”

Me, I’m done with mining. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had, and though I’m glad I had the opportunity, it’s not the career for me. Conditioning myself to work such long and hard hours has taken a bit of a mental toll, not to mention the loss of a summer. The physical result and the payoff, however, are amazing. I’ve got back the body I had when I was in my late 20s, a renewed confidence in my ability to do things that before I would’ve never thought possible and, financially, I’m back in the black and feeling like I can take on the world.

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KLONDIKE DAYS: A LOT LESS GEAR, A LOT MORE GOLD During the Klondike gold rush, the lone miner had just a pan to find gold—although even today a pan is often found hanging on the side of a bulldozer. The other Klondike method was to dig shafts. Because the ground was frozen solid, support beams were not required, and fires were set to melt the permafrost so pay dirt could be removed.

GOLD PRODUCED IN YUKON PLACER MINING 1900 1.07 million ounces

2011 46,485 ounces

AMOUNT SLUICED BY ONE PERSON IN A 10-HOUR DAY 1900 6 yards of dirt

2011 1,800 yards of dirt

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