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Yukon's placer miners stay strong as gold prices drop

It's been a tough year for hard-rock mining in the Yukon. Yukon Zinc's Wolverine mine shut down in January, taking over 200 jobs with it.

It’s been a tough year for hard-rock mining in the Yukon.

Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine mine shut down in January, taking over 200 jobs with it. Just across the border in the Northwest Territories, North American Tungsten’s Cantung mine has also filed for creditor protection, permanently laying off 50 employees this summer.

Thanks in part to low mineral prices, Capstone’s Minto mine is currently the only operating hard rock mine in the Yukon.

But beneath the boom-and-bust cycle of the territory’s big mining operations, away from the headlines and the outrage over jobs lost and bills not paid, the Yukon’s other, oft-forgotten mining industry is still chugging along in the background.

“Right now, placer mining is booming because the other sectors of mining aren’t,” said Randy Clarkson, head of the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association. While hard-rock mines can shut down for 10 or 20 years until mineral prices rebound, he said, “placer miners don’t have a choice.”

“They’re more like a family farm than a mine,” he said. So they keep working, through good times and bad.

Placer mining grew out of the original Klondike Gold Rush, when thousands of people travelled north to pan for gold in riverbeds.

These days, the technology is much more sophisticated, but the principle is the same. Placer miners dig through tremendous amounts of creek-bed gravel, looking for deposits that are rich in gold - so-called pay dirt. That pay dirt is then sifted through sluice boxes, which allow the heavier gold particles to settle out.

It’s labour-intensive work, and miners can never be entirely sure when or where they’ll find gold.

“In reality, placer mining’s very tough,” Clarkson explained. “These guys take huge risks daily. You’re used to having years with no income and the occasional good year.”

The Yukon has one of the largest placer gold deposits in the world. According to Clarkson, there are now about 130 placer mining operations in the territory, many of them run by multi-generation mining families. That’s partly because it takes years of experience to become a skilled miner.

The Favrons are one of those families. Lisa Favron, who runs Favron Enterprises with her husband, Guy, is a fourth-generation miner. Her great-grandfather moved to North America from Finland and hiked across the Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The family has never left.

But if it was the promise of wealth that drew Favron’s great-grandfather to the territory, that’s no longer what keeps the family in the business.

“It’s not that profitable, really. I’m not in it for the money,” Favron said. “Placer mining is the family farm of the North. I get to stay home with my kids, and I’ve raised my kids myself. There’s not a lot of families that can say that, that they have breakfast, lunch and dinner together seven days a week.”

Favron said her oldest daughter is now working for the company, and her 14-year-old son wants to run the business when he’s older.

It won’t be an easy life. From May to September, Guy Favron often works well over 12 hours a day, six days a week. And as time goes by and dirt is mined two or three times over, profitable gold deposits become harder to find.

“Nowadays, you just hope for a realistic amount of gold in your pit,” Guy said.

For now, though, things aren’t too bad. The price of gold has been dropping, and now sits just above $1,100 an ounce. That’s not great, but it’s better than it was in the 1990s, when prices occasionally dipped below $300 an ounce.

The low Canadian dollar is also a boon to placer miners, since gold is sold in U.S. currency.

Guy said placer mining hasn’t been hit as hard as hard rock mines in the territory because the overhead costs are so much lower. When the going gets tough for placer miners, they just buy less equipment and do repairs instead, he explained.

“You’ve got to be able to survive basically with nothing,” he said.

Of course, there are still those who come to the Yukon with a dream of making their fortune in gold.

“I get calls all the time from people who want to come up with a gold pan and a shovel and want to make a living,” said Clarkson. “I say ‘You’re about 130 years late.’”

But there are newcomers to the industry here and there who seem to be making it work. Dean Russell, president of Dominion Gold Resources, bought his company in 2013 after a brief visit to the territory in his private helicopter.

“I decided this was really something cool to do, so I bought a mine,” he said.

Getting started in this industry is not an easy thing to do. Russell has the advantage of being “well-financed” - he sold his previous business to a Fortune 500 company - while many miners are not.

But Russell says it’s the people and the lifestyle that drew him to the North, not the prospect of amassing another fortune.

“The thing I like about gold mining is there’s no customers and there’s no competitors,” he said. “It’s more about being here, and having a team and living in a great spot.”

For the Favrons, despite the challenges, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

“I was raised in it, so I’ve never had another job,” said Guy Favron. “I have no regrets for living my life the way I was brought up. You are your own boss. It would be tough to give up.”

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