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In Pictures: The last of the old-timer miners

There's gold all over the hills of B.C. Problem is, it can require old-time know-how to find it

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The mine is called J&L and it's been breaking hearts since 1896, when prospectors named Jim Kelly and Lee George first staked a claim at the confluence of the Carnes and McKinnon Creeks in British Columbia.

Andrew Querner

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In 1934, the property passed into the hands of a T.E. Arnold, a mining engineer, investor and promoter from Pennsylvania whose extended family 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.

Andrew Querner

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Modern mine drifts are generally cut 5 metres by 5 metres, to accommodate the big, rubber-tired machines that now do the drilling and heavy lifting. 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.

Andrew Querner

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Paul Cowley is the vice-president of exploration for the site's current owner, Huakan International Mining. He says the purpose of the drilling program for which he hired retired miner Jack Retzlaff and other seniors was the long-standing mission to "grow the deposit."

Andrew Querner

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Jack Retzlaff, 71, is a hard, wiry man who everyone seems to agree is about the best track miner they ever met. He worked in the industry for 52 years without a single day lost to injury but, he says, he's also helped carry dead men from mines seven times. When J&L first came calling, Retzlaff didn't answer but finally agreed to a sweetened offer of $1,100 a day.

Andrew Querner

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At 65, John Nesbitt is another senior who thought he was retired before being coaxed back to work by J&L mine manager Lee Heichert. He had spent seven years in high-scaling: bringing rock down from the cliffs overhanging B.C. Highways before moving underground. He says he found underground mining to be "not dangerous." In the mines, he says, "you control your own destiny. You make it safe."

Andrew Querner

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The miners have to trudge deep into the mountain and spend the first half-hour drilling holes into the mine face with a jackleg. Then they pack holes with ANFO powder and blast the rock. Finally they lay six more feet of 30-pound rail to set up for the next crew.

Andrew Querner

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John Nesbitt displays an old rail spike inside the J&L Mine.

Andrew Querner

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Mine mechanic Ken Sperling says that track-mine crews work with two miners at the face – partners who have to be able to rely upon one another in every way. When miners come back into the shop at the end of the day, they are so perfectly coated with mud and dust that, Sperling says, "If they stand still, they look like a rock statue."

Andrew Querner

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The only Chinese worker on the J&L site has been a junior geologist, Tao Song – a University of British Columbia grad who says he came to Canada because there isn't much respect in China for smart students "who like rocks." He was delighted, coming out of school, to find a job in Canada and then to get permanent residency.

Andrew Querner

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