The story is legend. He came from the prodigious gold hub of Timmins, Ontario, to comb the forests of B.C., Yukon and Alaska for gourmet mushrooms. Eight years on, he thought, why not hunt for gold? Through the Yukon’s long winters, he read everything he could get his hands on—old mining journals, archived files, geology books. And then he set out to find the motherlode— the long-rumoured bedrock source that has slowly eroded, shedding millions of ounces of gold into Klondike riverbeds.
Life wasn’t easy. He, his wife Cathy Wood and their two kids lived in a tin shack and got by on territorial prospecting grants. But his novel exploration methods eventually paid off. Twice.
Shawn Ryan’s two gold discoveries—the White Gold and Coffee deposits, projects now owned by major miners Kinross and Goldcorp—spurred what many called a second Klondike gold rush, which brought hundreds of millions of exploration dollars into the territory early this decade. Then the gold market tanked. Just as quickly as they came, the droves of miners left the Yukon. That was fine with Ryan. He’s gone back to the drawing board to seek out the territory’s next big gold deposit. And though he’s found the first evidence of it, the motherlode still eludes him.
What was it like prospecting in your early days?
When we were poor, I would hitchhike a lot of helicopter rides into the bush. I’d have my pack ready and I’d let the helicopter companies know, if they’re doing an empty load in to go pick a government guy up or something like that, do you mind dropping me off or maybe picking me up in a week or four or five days from now when you come by empty.
Once, they let me on with an hour’s notice: “I want to go into that mountain!” That was actually in the Tombstone before it was a park. I ran over and I was in a rush to go. I was only going to be there for the night because he was going in that evening and coming back in the morning.
So I get in there. We actually found a whole pile of cool mineralization. Okay, I’m ready at eight o’clock in the morning and then the fog starts rolling in and then it starts snowing. “Shit!” I’ve got no tent or nothing. I managed to make a little cave under the rock and found enough wood—there was hardly any because we were above the treeline—so I could make a little fire and warm up some. Luckily, my lovely wife packed me a nice lunch because I was going, “Oh, I don’t care. I’m only there for eight hours.”
I spent the night there. The next morning? No, it’s still not coming in. I’ve gotta backtrack. I’ve got no map, but I got in there on the Ski-Doo in the wintertime [and knew the area a bit]. So I walked out and found an old outfitter’s cabin. I managed to hang out there for the night. And then I had to cross the Blackstone River, so I made—with some old plastic around there—some hip-waders and crossed the river. Then I thought I remembered where the path that I came in with the Ski-Doo was, because now it’s foggy and cloudy. So I managed to climb into the mountains and, shit, it was the wrong valley. And now I’m lost. And I’m going, “Now you’re screwed. You’ve got no compass and you’re somewhere in between this river and the highway.” I couldn’t get my bearings. Finally the sun poked out and I went, “That’s north now. Okay, that’s where I’ve gotta get into, that next valley.” By the time I get to the highway, it was day four.
And when I made it to the highway, listen to this, my wife showed up with a bag of Doritos and a Coke. Within an hour. I said, “Holy crow! I can’t believe it!” She says, “Well, I was giving you one more day then I was gonna call the cops.” [Laughs.] That ended up being a high-grade deposit. But you have to do stuff like that every once in a while.
The Doritos and Coke must have tasted pretty good.
I don’t drink coke anymore, but I tell ya… [Laughs.]
But that’s how I started with Cathy. The irony was, we took our old 1942 freighter canoe with a 30-horsepower, and headed straight up-river, I didn’t know what I was really doing but I thought I could get far enough out of Dawson with the boat, so we went up about 100 miles and parked our butt at the mouth of the White River. And we camped there for a month. She was cooking for me and she was big and seven-months pregnant.
I still remember, one day we got stuck in the White River—because it’s shallow in the mud there. And she looks at me and she’s in the front of the boat and she’s going, “What the hell? What are we doing now?” And I said, “I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got to get out and push.” She’s looking at me—“Are you kidding me? If I have this baby, man…”
We didn’t know what we were doing—grabbed a few rocks, doing some silts and learning the game of prospecting. We were within about 800 metres of the White Gold deposit that whole time. It just so happens that we found it years later, but we had parked our butts right in front of that deposit. We were that close.
Is it just like an internal magnet?
Yeah, there’s something to this. Prospecting is part instinct. You can’t quite touch it. That’s the difference between a prospector and geologist. The prospector will go bang a rock because he gets a feeling, a sixth sense to go and bang it. Versus the geologist who says, “No, no, I gotta go. It’s gonna be over here on this structure—I learned it in the book.”
To me, that’s the most fascinating thing about your story—the self-learner. It makes sense that you would do things differently because you’re not trained to do it the way it’s always been done.
Exactly. That was my advantage—the naivety of going into it. That’s my job, just to go find clues and build the story. I know the bush and the cost of moving around in the bush—or at least, I understand the logistics. “Okay, if I have a dollar, how do I make this dollar last?” You’d go to Toronto and say, “Look, I’ve got a property in the Yukon. I’m going to go looking for a target on there to drill. It should take me two years, but I’ll have a really good target to drill by Year Three.” The guy would say, “Come talk to me in three years.” Versus, if you put on another hat [as a traditional junior miner] and ran in the same door and said, “I’ve got a great Yukon property and we’re going to drill it this year, whether it’s ready or not.” He’d say, “Here’s $2 million. Go blow that $2 million.” What we said was, forget it. If we slowly build these things up, then you get a better probability because this is what it’s all about—the probability is there’s nothing there. That’s extremely high.
We’ve lost our patience in exploration. The Hemlo Gold discovery was hole No. 76. So when we go to drill four or five drill holes, because they’re so expensive, and you don’t hit anything, well, people pack up and leave. The juniors only have a two-year shelf life. They may work it one year, but you better drill it Year Two and if you don’t get nothing by Year Two, you’re out of there, you’ve got to look for another property, versus I’ll have properties for ten years under my belt before I sell it because I’ll just do a little bit more work, a little bit more, so the probability when they go in and try to drill this, they should hit something.
That’s why I call the junior market kind of like the coke freaks of our business—instant gratitude. [Laughs.] I’m going, “Things take time, man!” That’s the Yukon advantage. When it shuts down in the winter, it gives us time, if you’re smart enough, to research your data and look it over. I call it 80 percent R&D, like computer work, and 20 percent execution in the field, when you get the window to open up.
What are you up to now?
We’re just getting ready to launch a whole new [company]. We’re rolling out the door, using all of this technology [see sidebar on p.16]. What I could do for $100,000 now was like $500,000 just a few years ago.
The old model was juniors would poke four or five holes, poke a few here, kind of keep the story going, get a little bit of money, keep your salaries coming in. They would milk it. But now we’re kind of going in with a different mindset. You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princess. But let’s kiss ’em all and let’s do a good job. Instead of doing four or five holes, put 25 holes with this new RAB drill, for the same price. We’re either going to kill it or we’re going to find something. But if we kill it, that’s fine. We move on. Because we don’t want to waste our time on a dud property. But most people don’t want to know that answer. This new technology that I’m bringing—if there was a negative to it, at least from the market side, they’re going, “Shawn, the probability of you killing my project in two or three weeks now, instead of two years, is extremely high.”
Let’s not fool around, and if the gods are with us we’ll find the deposit. Statistically, we should, because we have about 20 projects that are well-advanced. We’re not looking for anomalies. We know what’s going on. We’re going in for the killshots now. So we should have a good run here. Statistically that should lead us to one or two more quick discoveries and then that will get everybody fired up again because everybody’s going to go, “What the hell? It’s happening again here. Let’s get back in action.”
But that’s like mushrooms—where you find one, there’s always more.
What’s harder work: prospecting or mushroom picking?
I think mushroom picking is harder work because it’s more brutal. It’s like slave labour, but a labour of love in a sense. I think it’s an addiction because when you find a mushroom and then you look up and you see more, “Holy!” It’s giving you a little adrenaline, something’s going off in your head. “There’s some more! Oh, there’s some more!” [Laughs.] And then you run around the hill. We were out there picking the other day—it’s the same rush as finding gold.
What I do now for my morel picking—I actually drone the fire first. We send the drones out and I could tell you to the metre where the mushrooms are going to be. And I mean, to the metre.
You’ve done pretty well financially. What keeps you hungry?
Well, we’re good. We could retire now. Once we found the first one, I looked at my lovely wife and said, “You know what? I’ve just lost my excuse of trying to make a living. We just made it now.” Now, the reality is—I love the game. There’s no better game. Because it’s science and it’s art. With these colour screens and the GIS, you get all this data and you can put different colours in, you actually see patterns and then that’s my job—I run to the geos and I pull them in and I say, “What is this pattern? This is real. Now you guys go into the field and get me an answer.”
It’s like hunting. You’re tracking this moose and you’re calling him and you’re getting more excited and he’s coming and you call again. The killshot is… ah. We do all this exploration—all these theories, you’re scratching your head and everybody’s looking at screens and you go to the field—when you actually find the gold, it’s almost anti-climactic. And now you’ve got to drill the deposit off, and I call that mop-up. We’re the recon team and that’s where the excitement is. As soon as you hit it, then you’re landing it. It’s time to leave. Our job’s done. And we’re going to look for the next rush. “Okay, you guys are mop-up now.” And they’re all like, “Look at us! Look at us!” They all got their egos too. And I’m laughing, “You guys are mop-up.” [Laughs.] Anyways, it’s fun.
But you think about it—you can’t do this anywhere else. I feel quite fortunate at this period and this time. This opportunity was once-in-a-lifetime, to go into the Klondike and find the missing links. And we still haven’t found it, truly, in the Klondike yet. That’s still a mystery that’s continuing there.
Check out our WEB EXTRA for Shawn Ryan's take on the Yukon's mining future and finding the motherlode.