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

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.”

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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.

Stuart has placed 21-year-old Nigel Herfst in charge of Stuart’s 15-year-old nephew and me on the fence-building team. Both kids are in incredible shape and wield the chainsaw as easily as if it were a toy. At 38, I feel like a feeble old dog. I’m terrified of the chainsaw to boot.

It takes nearly eight days to amass the necessary logs, four more to put up the fence. But when we’re done, I feel like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. What was the point of it all?

The following day, I’m sorting hydraulic hose and storing motor oil when Stuart takes me out to the back forty, where spare machines, parts, trailers and junk vehicles are stored.

“This is like what you’ll be operating,” Stuart says, gesturing at a Hitachi EX700H.

I gawk at the huge machine. It is 150,000 pounds of earth-eating muscle, an excavator used to dump pay dirt into “the plant.” In a sluicing operation, the plant performs the same task as a dredge. Stuart’s blue beast was built to float and once did, but has since been outfitted with bulldozer tracks and is pulled from job to job, where it remains until all the pay dirt is gobbled up. The excavator keeps the plant fed while a bulldozer razes the landscape to replenish the feedstock.

Feeding the hopper—a large metal mouth at the front of the plant—with a steady supply of pay dirt is paramount. Water pumped into the plant washes the material through a trommel, a giant rotating cylinder where larger rocks are separated and ferried off the back of the plant on a large conveyor. Those rocks—tailings—continually stack up and must be periodically levelled by the dozer.

Gold is washed from the finer dirt and collected in mats called miner’s moss. More than 300 square feet of this rubber carpet is laid out in chutes flanking the plant. Because gold is 19 times heavier than water, flecks of the yellow prize are trapped in the moss while the lighter material is washed away.

Preparing for my part in this process, I take the controls of a smaller model of excavator for about 20 minutes, then survey the mess I’ve made. I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead. But if I can’t manage this, there’s not much else I can do at the mine. The pressure’s on.



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JUNE 13, 2011
I miscalculate and ram the excavator’s bucket, loaded with dirt, into the big blue wash plant while Stuart and some guests stand on a large gangplank next to the conveyor. The plant shakes violently. Stuart admonishes me with a finger wag. His guests frantically reach for the railing. After they depart, a perturbed Stuart climbs aboard the Hitachi and takes over. At age 9, Stuart learned to run heavy equipment at his father’s gold mine. “Part of your job is to keep the plant filled with dirt, and not to hit the plant,” he says while offering pointers. “We used to tell operators that if they hit the plant, they’re fired. So don’t hit the plant.



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Every 18 hours, we shut down for a cleanup, and gold is rinsed from the mats. One day in July, after several decent cleans, I drive a truck back to camp loaded with four 45-gallon drums containing approximately $300,000 in gold. This stuff is the “fines”; the gold finally emerges when the fines are processed back at the camp in a scaled-down, finer version of the plant.

The cut—the portion of the claim we’re working—is tens of thousands of square feet in size, sometimes hundreds of thousands, cleared in sections. Every 45 seconds I must dump a bucket, the equivalent of three yards or slightly more than 80 cubic feet of dirt, into the hopper. Dale Bulmer, operating the dozer, maintains a constant pile of pay dirt in front of me and radios me when I’m falling behind.

Dale is from Choiceland, Saskatchewan; he came to work for Stuart in 1993 at the age of 18. He’s tough as nails. When I brag to friends about my longest stretch of workdays in a row (37), I contextualize with Dale’s camp record of 102 days as proof that I work shoulder-to-shoulder with the hardest of the hard-core.

Dale loves his job, particularly working outside, and wouldn’t have it any other way, save for the scant time he spends with his children during the season. “I always feel like I’m getting out of bed and putting on my socks,” he says of the gruelling hours on the cut.

Servicing the excavator is another immense challenge. Everything about it is huge and cumbersome, including the heavy five-gallon pails of hydraulic fluid and motor oil.

Dale is charged with showing me the ropes and thinks that I move too slowly, so I try to pick up the pace. “You’d better learn how to eat on the machine,” he warns on my first day operating the Hitachi. As for my performance at the controls, “I thought I’d seen it all” and “What the fuck are you doing?” are among his assessments. After nearly 20 years at the mine, it must be frustrating to work with a greenhorn.

It turns out hauling logs was good preparation for the most physically challenging part of my job: packing pipe. As with the land, we push around water—of which we need a lot—to suit our purposes. Sources can be rivers or creeks or the man-made settling ponds created by the mining process.

Each minute, the plant washes down about 100 cubic feet of pay dirt with 3,500 gallons of water, requiring massive diesel pumps and 20-foot sections of 10-inch diameter aluminum pipe. Each section of pipe weighs more than 100 pounds; crew members are expected to march with them solo. On the first day of mining, I’m nearly wiped out by helping to assemble 300 feet of it to link the plant with a sufficient water source.

Despite his 59 years, Stuart, a lifelong miner, is one of the fittest and most agile guys at camp. “Not quite like working at the paper,” he muses to me one day while helping, effortlessly, pack pipe.

“I’m building character,” I reply, struggling to carry another 20-footer on my aching shoulder.

Schmidt Mining works 24-7. Mid-July, I’m moved to nightshift, where I will spend the remainder of the season. Cleanings aside, only breakdowns and rock jams can bring work to a halt. But a couple of the guys are granted special dispensation during moose season. When Dale bags a bull during a shift, Stuart takes over on the bulldozer while Dale hauls out 1,000 pounds of meat from the bush.

On the first cut at Ruby Creek, about a 20-minute drive from camp, we recover $800,000 in gold. The first few sections bring in less than $1.85 a square foot in gold, but the last section gives us $5.50 a square foot. The value on any given day can fluctuate thanks to events far away. On Aug. 4, British police shoot and kill 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham. Protests soon turn into riots. Over a six-day period, Schmidt’s take increases 50 cents per foot.

When we’re finished with Ruby Creek, it takes three days to relocate 15 kilometres to the south. In the meantime, I’m assigned monitor duty at a location up the valley called Little Blanche Creek, so named for a dance-hall girl who, in fulfilment of a marriage proposal, received her weight in gold mined by her suitor on this very spot. (Little Blanche, Stuart says, weighed 140 pounds.)

The monitor is a water cannon that propels more than 3,500 gallons a minute, something akin to hitting fast-forward on the erosion process. The device is used when terrain is unsuitable for bulldozers.

Stuart’s hunch proves wrong, but Little Blanche does give up a significant cache of 30,000-year-old mammoth ivory. Petrified steppe bison skulls from the late-Pleistocene era can also reveal themselves as the hillside melts away, but it’s mammoth ivory that’s worth something—$60 a pound to local shops and artisans. An intact tusk can go for $20,000.

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There are a few lacklustre cuts as the season proceeds, but there’s enough trapped in the miner’s moss to keep things profitable. What peeves Stuart is not the rate of return but some amateur interlopers who moved into the valley at the beginning of the season. When another miner north of our camp says the arrivistes down the road are considering buying his claims, Stuart snaps them up to prevent the newcomers from moving in on his turf.

They’re the stars of Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush, now filming its second season. During season one, shot at a claim outside Haines, Alaska, the Oregonian cast recover just $20,000 worth of gold, about enough to keep Stuart in business for 48 hours. Having been elbowed out of Alaska, the show films in the Indian River valley under a shroud of secrecy; security guards are hired to keep people off their claim. The miners are led by Todd Hoffman, who believes the Lord intended his crew to strike it rich.

Their faith makes it possible to meet some of the miners, because Marlin McNeil, an aging prospector and miner from Oklahoma with claims scattered around Quartz Creek, moonlights as a preacher, holding Sunday services in an old two-room shack located on one of his claims. On the Sunday after Labour Day, I show up at McNeil’s last service for the season and find several of the Gold Rush crew, including Todd, in attendance.

His congregation packed into the shack, McNeil delivers a sermon drawn from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’s miraculous healing powers. The congregation plods through a few hymns before McNeil asks those in attendance what they’d like him to pray for. Todd asks for 20 more days of favourable weather for sluicing—more gold, in other words.

For the Gold Rush guys, McNeil is more than mere spiritual adviser. He provided, for the standard rate of 10% of any proceeds, the claim the Oregonians are working. The wily preacher attempts at the tail end of his service to lease them settling-pond privileges on another claim, but Todd doesn’t take him up on the offer. Outside, Gold Rush’s safety officer Jim Thurber confides they’ve found just 40 ounces of gold to date—slightly more than twice season one’s take. It’s an idiosyncratic approach to placer mining they’re pursuing; it helps that the Discovery Channel is covering their fuel bill. “If we can just get a third season, then we can start making money,” adds Jim. True, perhaps. But not from the gold mining.

Sunday service is a rare recreation. The few days we’re granted off from the mine, we pile into someone’s truck and blast into Dawson City, looking to blow off steam. We drop our money at the card tables of Diamond Tooth Gerties, the oldest gambling hall in Canada, where the thrice-nightly vaudeville show gets more ribald as the evening wears on.

For the younger guys on the crew, gambling gives way to copious drinking and late-night hot-tub parties at the Downtown Hotel. After a few weekends of watery mayhem, management wises up to our shenanigans and the tub is drained before 10 p.m. If there’s one constant through gold mining’s history in Dawson City, it’s that miners work hard and play even harder.



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SEPT. 10, 2011 The weather is turning and the leaves have gone from bright yellow to a dark golden, and now we need only a windstorm to leave the effect of a landscape waiting for snow. This mining adventure is drawing to a close, and the final push for gold is on. With most of the cuts underperforming, the plan is to drag the plant back to Ruby Creek, where the gold has been the most plentiful. By the end of September, there’s a territorial election in full swing, and the New Democrats propose ramping up the royalty tax on placer gold. Currently, and since 1906, it’s 37.5 cents per each troy ounce mined—a rate based on a $15 ounce of gold.

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On Sept. 26, Stuart hits back on local CBC Radio. He says that the government should drop the placer tax altogether, because its revenue-generating purpose was taken over long ago by the advent of progressive personal income tax.

Even with $1,600-an-ounce gold, Stuart notes, there are very few new placer miners. The rush that has so excited the territory is all about staking hard-rock claims, not placer. Sure, operators like Stuart reap millions of dollars worth of gold from scratching the hills, but the big money being generated in the Yukon is in exploration. Last year, exploration companies spent just over $300 million in the territory on goods and services, while the value of all the placer gold mined at $1,600 an ounce was worth less than $75 million.

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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