Every old mining hand has seen a dozen abandoned adits just like this one: portal 830, the overgrown head of a mine drift disappearing into the side of a mountain high in the Selkirk range just north of Revelstoke, B.C. Here, a hundred metres past the end of a bad road, the opening evokes a sense of adventure and promise. Even the rusty gate, which is probably there only because the lawyers want to avoid liability, suggests that someone is trying to protect something of value—that thar’s gold in that thar hill. As well there is. There’s gold all over these hills. The irritating, elusive and expensive question is: How much? And: Where, exactly? The difference between the whiff of something pretty and the proof of a lode worth chasing has ruined many an optimist. It’s busted more than a few on this very site.
This is the life of a mountain, of a junior mining company—of a large slice of Canada, in other words, complete with the very 21st-century twist of Canadian natural resources slipping away to China.
The mine is called J&L, and it’s been breaking hearts since 1896, when prospectors Jim Kelly and Lee George (hence the name J&L) first staked a claim at the confluence of the Carnes and McKinnon Creeks. In 1912, an E. McBean drove the first shafts into the mountainside. He flailed about for a dozen years or more before being stumped by the ore’s high arsenic content. In 1934, the property passed into the hands of a T.E. Arnold, a mining engineer, investor and promoter from Pennsylvania whose extended family would profit from the “mine” for more than 70 years without ever busting a knuckle. Between 1934 and 2007, they sold options to a parade of 10 companies, each of which tried to prove up the value of the deposit and each of which broke its own budget—or just lost interest—and then let the options lapse. These firms were not always triflers. Over the years, Noranda, Pan American and Equinox poured money into the ever-expanding series of exploratory tunnels. Of these, the 830 level adit was among the most promising, running horizontally along the “main zone,” the richest part of a deposit that many believed carried economic concentrations of gold, silver, lead and zinc.
The problem is that all these early excavations are, by modern standards, tiny. These eight-foot by eight-foot track adits are like the narrow train tunnels that you might expect to see on a Disney ride or in an Indiana Jones movie. Modern mine drifts are generally cut five metres by five metres, to accommodate the big, rubber-tired machines that now do the drilling and heavy lifting. If you’re driving one of those monsters, you can’t get there from here.
Of course, in the long term, the tight quarters are no big deal: Once someone decides to turn J&L into a working mine, they’ll just blow open the tunnels or drive new ones from different angles and gather up the goods. But no one wants to spend that kind of money before they’re sure of finding something worthwhile—and the only way to be sure is to look deeper and more closely into the bowels of the mountain. And the only way to get there is on the back of a senior citizen.
Seriously. If you want to extend an old-fashioned track tunnel, you need to recruit crew from among the generation of hard men who clambered at the rock face in the days before miners got used to pushing hydraulic levers on a drilling jumbo. You need people who are old enough to know what to do with a jackleg drill, and still fit enough to pick one up. You need people like Jack Retzlaff.
Retzlaff, 71, is a hard, wiry man with a surprisingly gentle handshake—and someone who everyone seems to agree is about the best track miner they ever met.
But can an old man really still be up to the task? Consider it: You trudge deep into a mountain and spend the first half of your shift drilling holes into the mine face with a restive, compressor-driven weapon—the jackleg. Then you pack the holes with ANFO powder (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil), wire up the caps and blast down a “round” of rock, eight feet by eight feet by six feet deep. You perhaps have a smoke or eat a little lunch while the fumes clear and then you muck it out, shovelling all that rock into 16 narrow-gauge train cars. Finally, you lay six more feet of 30-pound rail to set up for the next crew—the cross shift—and you call it a day.