Gold fever drove record exploration year

Mineral exploration this year is expected to top $150 million. “That’s probably the best year we’ve had,” said Mike Burke, head of Yukon’s mineral exploration branch.

Mineral exploration this year is expected to top $150 million.

“That’s probably the best year we’ve had,” said Mike Burke, head of Yukon’s mineral exploration branch.

Thank record-high gold prices, two major discoveries and the growing sophistication of the industry.

Most work clustered around the White Gold district, near Dawson City, which garnered global attention when Kinross Gold Corp, one of Canada’s biggest gold producers, gobbled up the White Gold property this spring.

One of the bigger exploration projects this summer occurred just 30 kilometres south of White Gold, at Kaminak Gold Corp.’s Coffee property.

This summer the company launched a $9 million exploration program. It drilled 76 holes, extracting 16 kilometres of core samples.

Having made eight gold discoveries, the company staff are “ecstatic,” said Tony Reda, vice-president of corporate development.

Each discovery sports a java-flavoured title, such as Latte, Americano and Double Double. The results were promising enough that Kaminak plans to spend $15 million to drill another 30 kilometres of core samples in 2011.

The mining boom isn’t just good for helicopter companies, assay labs and other contractors tied to the exploration industry, noted Reda. It also spurs spinoffs for Yukon’s restaurants, hotels and other services.

This summer Kaminak ran a 40-man camp. Next summer’s operation will be bigger, with between 70 to 100 workers, said Reda.

Add another notch for Shawn Ryan, who has become Yukon’s most famous prospector for his discovery of the White Gold district. Coffee is one of several properties that Ryan staked, sampled and sold to exploration companies.

Much of the flurry of activity at White Gold involves latecomers trying to stake property adjacent to Ryan’s finds. Another staking rush is underway near ATAC Resources’ Rau property near Mayo.

In all, roughly 72,000 claims were staked this year. One Friday afternoon, the Whitehorse office of the mining recorder was crammed with 14 people while staff notarized 2,500 pages of material, according to the mineral exploration branch’s newsletter.

ATAC has done most of the staking itself near Rau, having now claimed more than 1,400 square kilometres, but the company’s high-grade drill intercepts have prompted others to flock to the area.

The appeal of Rau is that it shares many characteristics with the gold-rich geology of Nevada. Finding another Nevada in the Yukon has long been “a holy grail for geologists,” said Burke.

“It could be a very large, high-grade deposit,” he said.

Yukon’s last big staking rush occurred in the Finlayson area during the 1990s. It led to the discovery of the Wolverine property, where Yukon Zinc Corp.’s underground mine finally opened this autumn.

Today’s technology allows exploration work to continue year-round. It’s a big change from the 1980s, when Burke worked in the exploration business.

He recalls having to string single-sideband radio antennae off trees and hoping the weather would hold so that he could get a clear signal. Now, satellite phone and internet access mean “you’re never really isolated anymore.”

Lighter diamond drills may be flown into remote areas by helicopter, whereas before, “I think you needed to drag it around with a bulldozer,” said Burke.

And assay labs are able to sniff out far more from a bag of dirt. Shawn Ryan’s discovery of White Gold involved a lot of hard work in the field, but it also required a lot of clever pattern recognition involving the mapping of indicator minerals with computer models.

“There wasn’t a hope in hell you could do that 20 years ago,” said Burke.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.