Placer Exploration in the Yukon

Placer Exploration in the Yukon

In the spring 2016 I was hired to help on a large scale placer exploration program in the Yukon. The property is located in a part of the Yukon where very little placer activity has taken place. We had a small team of three guys and a lot of equipment.

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The Yukon, like BC and Alaska, was explored and settled by prospectors in the late 1800s.  The Klondike gold rush of 1896-1899 was the largest and most storied gold rush in history.  It is estimated that over 100,000 gold seekers migrated to the Arctic territory from places like San Fransico and Seattle.  The Yukon’s economy is still driven by mining and the local culture is completely saturated with gold rush era influences.  A great example is Yukon Gold, the flagship beer of the Yukon Brewing Company, has part the the famous poem “The Cremation of Sam Mcgee” on the label.

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The Robert Service poem is part of Canadian heritage and is part of the school curriculum across the country.  After several trips prospecting in the Yukon it takes on different meaning than a quirky poem that you have to read out loud in grade three.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

On a Monday night in early April at 9PM I received a phone call. “Your flight leaves Vancouver in the morning for Whitehorse. We’ll fill you in on the way.” Typical for this kind of job. I had been expecting the call for a few weeks but it still caught me a little off guard.

Approximate location of the camp
Approximate location of the camp

On arrival to Whitehorse I had been advised that one of our crew would meet me there. I had never met this guy before but I knew he was an old placer miner. The Whitehorse airport is small and we were the only flight. There were several people waiting for passengers so I had to guess. I noticed a guy wearing rubber boots and looked like a placer miner to me. I introduced myself and luckily he was the right guy.

Aerial shot of the placer claims
Aerial shot of the placer claims

We spent a couple hours rounding up additional gear before catching the charter to the camp. I was crammed in a Cessna 206 with the pilot and a bunch of gear. We had all the 5 gallon pails we could buy at the Whitehorse Home Hardware, drill bits, my gear, a 45 gallon drum of diesel, and a bunch of other stuff.

Soon after leaving Whitehorse we flew over Lake Lebarge which is the location where Sam Magee was famously cremated.

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Lake Lebarge

The pilot warned me that the runway was a little rough. We took a couple passes and lined up to land. It was rough all right, made of gravel and ice, we bounced so hard that we almost took off again. My two crew members were waiting to greet me at the plane. They were excited to meet me, especially since I brought a 24 pack of Kokanee. The beer didn’t last the night.

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The two guys that I was working with had already been there for several weeks. It’s a rustic camp and there was no water available for showers or anything. I thought my team mates smelled pretty bad when I arrived but after a few days we all smelled the same. A few weeks later temperatures were high enough to rig up a pump system and a shower. This is not the first rustic camp that I’ve been to where we have satellite internet and no showers.  These are interesting times to be an explorer.
TheCamp

The camp consists of three canvas tents, a seacan and an outhouse.  The tents have “hippy killer” stoves that burn wood.  They work well most of the time but you have to chop wood every time you want heat.  Wood floors had been constructed which is certainly a luxury over dirt floors.  Our kitchen is in the same tent as the office.  There’s a propane stove/oven and plenty of food.  We used paper plates so we wouldn’t have to wash them, they worked great for starting the stoves when we were done with them.

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The main goal of this program was to carry out a sampling over the property.  The drilling and sampling will allow us to find and evaluate economic placer deposits. Our primary tool was a Nodwell mounted drill with a 12″ auger. Some areas were sampled by excavator where the ground was not suitable to drill. Material was collected with the drill and excavator and processed on site with a small wash plant. In addition to gold values we developed an understanding of bedrock depth, characteristics and the distribution of placer gold.

Our Auger Drill
Our Auger Drill

Most of the gear was brought in on the winter trail. The trail is about 100km from the closest dirt road and requires the ground to be frozen and snow covered. Our two Nodwells, Toyota track truck, quads, fuel and everything was brought in over the trail. With a light load it can be travelled by snowmobile in about 4 hours each way. With the heavy equipment it takes 3-4 days. There are impromptu camps along the way but nothing with heat and very little shelter. The guys were prepared of course.

On the trail
On the trail

Nodwells are pretty cool machines.  They were invented in the 1950s to service the oilfields of Northern Alberta and the Arctic.  These beastly machines have super wide tracks to spread their weight on soft terrain.  They have a unique drive system that uses rubber tires on the track.  Operating one is similar to driving a tank.  You pull levers to brake the track on either side.  We had two of them, a big Nodwell for the drill and a smaller one for a support vehicle.  The Nodwells have a lot of character, check out the yellow plywood interior and gun rack.  The small one is named “Picasso”.  The photos will expand when clicked.

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We located and mapped several trenches that were used for ground sluicing dating back to the 1898 Yukon gold rush. The old timers diverted the creek to flow through hand cut trenches. The water was then controlled via a series of gates to strip away overburden. Sort of like hydraulicking. There’s not much left of the old workings today but it gives us an idea of where the pay streaks are.
Old Timer's Trenches
Old Timer’s Trenches

Sampling is key to any placer operation.  Sloppy or inadequate sampling spells the death of many mining operations.  After all you wouldn’t get married without going on a date first.  We collected samples with a rugged 12″ auger drill.  Each sample had a set depth interval and a measured volume.  With accurate measurements we can extrapolate the sample data to evaluate the deposit over large areas.  For example if we sample 500mg (1/2 gram) from 10 pails of material,  that equates to just over 3 grams per cubic yard.  We did have some just like that, and better.

Fresh Drill Samples
Fresh Drill Samples

After collection by the drill our samples were run through a mini wash plant.  We were using a cool machine called “The Prospector” by Goldfield Engineering.  The Prospector uses a water driven pelton wheel to create a vibration.  That’s awesome because all it needs is a 2″ pump to run.  The wheel rotates an eccentric weight similar to the way the a cell phone vibrates but on a larger scale.  Using this machine I processed over 15 cubic yards of samples over 7 weeks.

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The Prospector really eats through material.  The shaker screen breaks it up almost as fast as you can feed it. It struggles when there is a lot of clay though.  After each sample interval is run a cleanup is necessary.  With this machine it’s a quick procedure.  The concentrates from each sample are panned out with a gold pan.  The gold is then dried out and weighed to be used in grade estimates.

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As the summer solstice approaches the days get longer in the Yukon.  In the summer the sun does not set in the Arctic it is after all the land of the midnight sun.  The lack of darkness takes a little getting used to.  In early May we had a couple of Northern lights shows that were pretty good.  At that time there was about 2 hours of darkness where the Northern lights were visible.  A week later it would no longer be dark enough.

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We encountered few animals on the trip.  This is described as a “hungry” part of the Yukon.  One bear tried to enter our camp.  It was a very large black bear, the electric fence slowed him down but it took a few bear bangers to scare him off.  A huge mangey wolf casually pranced right in front of us one night.  All the animals are big in the Yukon.  Even the mosquitoes.  They are so big that they often get up and fly away after you swat them.  Unless you are willing to really smack yourself in the face, they are not going to die.

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For some samples we had to use the excavator.  The auger drill does not work well in areas where the permafrost has melted.  We tried a few spots and the mixture of water and loose gravel would not stay on the auger flights.  The excavator does not have that problem since it scoops up a bucket full of material, water and all.  We used a huge 4″ pump to drain the holes first then sampled the bedrock and regolith with the hoe.  The samples were of course put into pails and we measured the volume before processing.

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We had a few other machines to help out as well.  A couple of bulldozers, some quads, a side by side and a ’96 Toyota pickup with tracks instead of wheels.  We took the tracks off once the snow was all gone using the hoe to lift the truck.  Why bother with jacks when you have those Tonka toys kicking around.

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The winter trail conditions rapidly deteriorated as the weather warmed up.  The ground here is like muskeg with lots of water and mud.  Just about everything got stuck at some point, except for the Nodwells.  We had to cross a few creeks, mud and sometimes straight trough the trees.

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The pursuit of gold will make men do strange things.  In our case it involved a ton of work travelling over unforgiving terrain to drill holes down to bedrock.  Our persistence and determination paid off though and we discovered a pay channel that extends over much of the drilled area.  It is going to take some more work to map out the full extent but we already have clear evidence of a great deposit.

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After 50 straight days it was time to go home.  Our ride out was a DHC-3 Turbo-Otter, an impressive aircraft designed by de Havilland, a Canadaian company, in the 1950s.  The Otter took our whole crew and all our gear without any issues.  The turbine engine gives it the STOL capabilities to takeoff and land in a rugged bush airstrip like the one in this camp.  We stopped along the way to drop off one of our guys and pick up some much needed beer before landing in Whitehorse.

I had a wild night in Whitehorse to close off the trip before heading home to BC.  It was a good time in the bush but it is nice to return to the comforts of modern civilization.

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The Search for Klondike Lode Gold

The Search for Klondike Lode Gold

In the summer of 2010 I was hired to work with a team to find hard rock gold in the Klondike.  We explored a group of claims on the Indian River.

IMG_1741My crew stayed at a camp operated by a character called Big Al.  That name might sound familiar because he has been featured on the popular TV show Yukon Gold on the History Channel.  Of course at that time we had no idea he was going to be a celebrity.  During the trip we heard a rumour that Hoffmans working a few claims over were filming for a TV show, it turned out to be the hit series Gold Rush on Discovery.  We were surrounded by gold mining TV stars but didn’t know it yet.

Klondike Tailings Piles
Klondike Tailings Piles

Indian River Yukon

The Klondike is a place that has a very storied history and was the site of the greatest gold rush of them all.  California, Oregon, and British Columbia had their gold rushes and stories but the Klondike was like no other.  Between 1896 and 1899 over 100,000 adventurers made the journey from all over the world to the largely uninhabited Yukon territory in search of gold.  What made this rush different is the long journeys and overall inexperience of the Argonauts.  At the time of discovery El Dorado and Bonanza creek were the richest creeks in the world.  Some claims on El Dorado were getting $27 to the pan once they hit the pay streak.  That is equivalent to about $750 per pan in today’s money.

My team met up in Whitehorse the capitol city of the Yukon Territory in early August 2010.  We then rounded up some remaining gear and drove in a rented truck up to Dawson City.  As you arive in Dawson City you can see the remains of over 100 years of placer gold mining. Before you reach the town you can see large tailings piles lining the sides of the highway.  When looked at from above they look like something that was produced by a giant insect.  The tailings piles were put there by humongous dredges that scoured the Klondike drainages until 1966.  It is estimated that each of the dredges were producing as much as 800 ounces of gold per day!

Aerial View of Kondike Tailings
Aerial View of Klondike Tailings

Dawson City is a cool town.  The residents have maintained the look and feel of Dawson’s heyday during the Klondike gold rush.  The streets are dirt with wood plank sidewalks.  Most of the buildings are original in the downtown area and many commercial buildings have the false front that was the norm during the gold rush era.  There is even a law that all signs have to be hand painted.

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There are no corporate stores or businesses in Dawson.  Everything is locally owned and operated.  Some of the original establishments from the 1890s are still in operation today.  Diamond Tooth Gerties is one such establishment which offers games of chance and nightly can can dancers 7 days a week.  Anouther is Bombay Peggy’s which operated as a brothel during the gold rush.  It has turned into a classy bed and breakfast now.

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My Crew posing with the Can-Can girls

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Dawson has several historic bars as well.  One such bar is the Downtown Hotel.  We stopped in there one night after visiting several other bars and took part in a local tradition.  It is called the Sourtoe Cocktail.  Only one of my crew was willing to take the shot with me.  The Sourtoe Cocktail is a shot of Yukon Jack whiskey taken with an amputated human toe in the glass.  They keep the toe in a jar of salt above the bar.  Apparently the tradition started with a bootlegger losing his toe due to frostbite.  I was informed that this was their 6th toe which makes you wonder where they new ones came from.

Bombay Peggy'sThe Toe

The Bonanza Creek Road is the main access to Indian Creek.  Along this historic route there are plenty of relics of past mining adventures.  Most notably the historic Dredge No. 4 which mined Bonanza Creek until 1959.  There are other dredges as well and plenty of old heavy equipment that was abandoned by miners of the past.  There are abandoned bulldozers, excavators, trucks and other random big machines.  There is such a surplus of iron that many bridges use large dozer shovels as retaining walls.

Dredge No. 4
Dredge No. 4

We were tasked with finding the source of the placer gold in the Indian River.  We stayed at Big Al’s camp and were exploring mineral claims that overlapped his placer claims.  His knowledge of gold bearing benches as well as historical research was very important in our search.  Likewise our findings were beneficial to Al in exploring new placer areas.  Most of our time was spent exploring old miner’s trails on quads and by foot.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a great time.

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We came across several old mine shafts and evidence of placer mining was everywhere.  My crew participated in some of Big Al’s cleanups too.  It was exciting to see the amount of gold that he was pulling out.  We participated in all the steps of his cleanup process from cleaning the sluice to the concentrator jig and so on.  At each stage a fair amount of rum was consumed it seemed fitting when surrounded by hundreds of ounces of gold.

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Yup, that's exactly what it looks like.
Yup, that’s exactly what it looks like.

In our hard rock exploration we employed several techniques utilizing traditional prospecting as well as soil sampling and statistical pebble counts.  The soil sampling was conducted with helicopter support which made it a lot easier.  We were bagging close to a hundred samples per day each which was more than we could carry in the bush.  At the end of the day we’d chop out a helicopter landing area and radio the chopper.  Then we’d pick up the samples that we cached during the day.  Hard work but a lot of fun too.

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We spent a total of six weeks prospecting the area.  We took a lot of samples to be sent in for assay from all over the claims.  Prospecting in the Yukon is similar to BC, there is not a lot of exposed rock around.  Unlike the barren lands of the North West Territory and Nunavut there is plenty of forest and vegetation covering the rock.  We spent a lot of time in the helicopter scoping out rock outcrops.

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There seemed to be a correlation between the garnets that were showing up in the placer operation and high grade gold.  When the placer miners hit the paystreak they got a lot of garnets with it.  We started prospecting up a creek called “Ruby Creek” assuming it was named for the abundance of garnets.  The hunch turned out be be right.  We chased the garnets up to some large outcrops near the top of the mountain.  The samples contained a lot of garnet but not a lot of gold.

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From an old mineshaft that we found near a cabin we discovered that the miners hit a layer of pure quartz conglomerate.  And it was loaded with gold.  We then knew what to look for.  The search for the source of the Klondike gold continued for several weeks.  We encountered giant moose, grizzly bears, Northern Lights and some great people.  On several occasions we thought we found the fabled mother lode but the samples returned disappointing assay results.  Some of the more random samples showed the highest grades.  They say gold is where you find it.  We did not find the source of the klondike but we did manage to have a great time and got paid for it.

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