Shawn Ryan likes to compare his day job to the search for Sasquatch.
The Dawson City resident is tracking something mysterious. No one has had a clear view of it, but everywhere Ryan looks, he finds evidence of its existence.
He’s hunting for the Klondike’s fabled motherlode. Or, as he likes to call it, “the beast.”
There’s good reason to think that if anyone can succeed in finding such a thing, it’s Ryan.
Over the past 13 years he’s discovered a string of promising gold properties, the most prominent being Underworld Resource’s White Gold project, which is currently estimated to contain 1.5 million ounces of gold.
In the past year, the White Gold discovery set off the biggest staking rush the Yukon has seen in at least a decade.
Fitting, then, that Ryan received kudos last week from British Columbia’s mineral exploration industry, which named him Prospector of the Year.
He and his wife, Cathy Wood, are partners of Ryanwood Exploration. The company has grown from having the couple as its sole employees, and being based out of their old “tin shack,” to employing 28 workers last summer to help with Underworld’s drilling work.
When Ryan options a claim to a company such as Underworld, he’s given right of first refusal for future exploration work. Underworld’s CEO, Adrian Fleming, calls Ryan “the best in the business.”
Ryan, 47, credits his success to patience, determination and a few hi-tech tools in his arsenal. When he started prospecting, Ryan depended on transparent paper, light tables and hand-coloured maps. He now relies in global positioning system co-ordinates, Google Earth and the latest geophysical maps produced by the Yukon and federal governments to chart his latest findings.
The focus of his problem-solving techniques is not limited to gold.
He used similar methods to ferret out explosions of morel mushrooms in the Klondike bush when gold prices had slumped, but there was a hot market for fungi in Europe.
While hunting mushrooms, he conducted methodical helicopter surveys in search of bush charred by recent forest fires – ideal conditions for morels to thrive.
In search of gold, he started with the latest geophysical maps produced by the Yukon and federal governments, and the hunch that something big has yet to be found.
“You have 13 to 20 million ounces of placer in the Dawson area,” he said. “It had to come from somewhere.
“It’s all detective work. It’s really a scientific game. That’s what’s fun about it. They say this is the only business where the probability to fail is the norm. You’re starting with a low probability of success.”
Like a shrewd investor, Ryan spreads his risks. He’s watched other prospectors bet it all on a single claim and lose.
Ryan, likening his work to a card game, prefers to “play 25 card games at once.” And he spends several years trying to build each case.
“You’re hoping out of that, you’ll win on three of them,” he said.
And it pays to be careful. The Golden Saddle deposit that became Underworld’s White Gold property could easily have been overlooked. What is now believed to amount to $1.5 billion worth in gold showed up in just two soil samples.
“We just walked right over top of it,” said Ryan.
The deposit could have been easily missed because only a small tip of it protruded into soils shallow enough to be captured by Ryan’s sampling work.
Later drilling work has revealed a deposit that extends at least 12 kilometres long and three kilometres wide.
The moral of the story: every sample counts. “They’re all little pieces of the puzzle,” said Ryan.
Behind Ryan’s vision and strategy is plenty of grunt work. Ryan and his workers explore an area by walking a grid and periodically pulling half-metre plugs of dirt from the earth using special probes that were originally designed by the Dutch to plant daffodils.
These samples are later tested at a lab for indicators of gold. The results are then plotted on a map.
Cathy Wood is affectionately called “the mainframe” by Ryan for the work she does to manage the more than 10,000 mineral claims registered in their company’s name.
She also hires their team, sizes-up prospective clients and, at one point, cooked enough lasagna and shepherd’s pie to provide 1,200 man-days of meals in the field.
Ryan is convinced more discoveries like the White Gold deposit will be struck in the next five years. And he’s determined to be the one who finds them.
“I’m working on fear. My biggest fear is to stop a mile short from the next deposit,” he said.
“It’s the best Easter egg hunt going.”
Contact John Thompson at