Walking over the granite bedrock near Prosperous Lake, I keep my eyes peeled for the telltale quartz veins. They shoot left and right, zigzagging across the rolling rock in straight lines that intersect in splaying patterns. As a prospector, this is the kind of geology that should get one’s heart beating fast: it’s prime ground for interesting minerals.
Advice from one of my instructors runs through my mind as I stare at the milky-white marbled vein: “The carbonate halo could mean you’re getting closer to carbonate alteration.” Hmmm, I have no idea what that means. I remember another tidbit.
“It’s a gabbro, altered mafic rock; it’s had to follow a shear zone to the surface.” Nope. I’m fully on my own here.
Then I hear the voice of lead instructor Jessica Bjorkman. “Gold failed the geology course,” she says, explaining the mineral’s tendency to be found in unexpected places. She would know. Bjorkman comes from a family of prospectors; she and her sisters all found their way into the family business and out into the bush within years of reaching adulthood. She led yesterday’s classroom session: a rushed three or four hours that included the bulk of what I had learned about minerals years ago in my university earth sciences course.
But the lessons didn’t stick any better as a crash course than they had over a whole semester. I know I’m generally looking for sulphides—not because they are valuable, but because they generally indicate the presence of gold. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’re not going to see gold, you’re going to see sulphide minerals,” says Mark Richardson, another instructor.
Sulphides can look like pyrite (the “fool’s gold” we’ve all seen in quartz) or stringy, lead-coloured arsenopyrite. Sulphides can look like rust. They can be shiny. Or dull. They may smell like sulphur. Or they may not smell at all. They can be found alongside quartz. Or not.
But I’m not just looking for the right rocks. It helps to look in the right places, like faults within rocks because those cracks can fill with minerals that contain gold. It’s also a good idea to pick around areas where gold has already been found. Piggybacking on someone else’s work is a tried-and-true method of looking for pay dirt. TerraX Minerals, which is looking to build the next gold mine in the Yellowknife area and hosting today’s field course, spent its early days analyzing historic core samples dating back some 80 years.
It’s in one of those decades-old prospecting scenes that I find maybe my fortieth rock of the day—an unassuming fist-sized piece of quartz with not much in the way of sulphides or anything to distinguish it besides its location. It’s in the waste-rock pile from a nearby trench, possibly cut a couple of generations ago, judging by the foliage growing through it.
The rock cracks open with a few blows from my heavy prospector’s hammer, and there it is: buttery and yellow, shining in subdued confidence, unlike showy pyrite. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in the wild. A nearly microscopic fleck of gold.
The mining sector has formed the foundation of the Northwest Territories’ economy for nearly a century. Its capital city, Yellowknife, owes its very existence to the discovery of gold. Mining currently represents about a quarter of the territory’s GDP, and as the diamond mines begin to wind down, there are widespread fears of a looming economic catastrophe.
Part of the government’s response has been to develop a new “made in the NWT” Mineral Resources Act. Introduced in February, it includes plans for an online map-staking process, requirements for benefit agreements with First Nations, and the ability for governments to temporarily ban or encourage exploration in certain areas.
Its effects could be profound for individual prospectors, a dwindling breed.
“There used to be a lot more people into prospecting,” says Walt Humphries, a local Yellowknife legend who has been prospecting for more than 50 years. “It used to be a lot easier and faster moving.”
Bjorkman agrees. “People don’t realize the job still exists,” she laments.
That has all resulted in a situation where the next mine, the one that could keep the economy moving—or keep it chained to resource extraction, depending on your outlook—remains out of sight.
“There’s just not enough exploration going on in the territory to find the next big mine,” says Hilary Jones, with the Mine Training Society.
Established in the early 2000s as the territory’s diamond mining industry was ramping up, the Mine Training Society is a partnership between public and First Nations governments and the mining industry. It was a way to get workers the skills they needed to participate in the coming boom, and for mines to recruit the people they needed to make it happen.
Once a year it offers a two-day course to anyone interested in learning about prospecting. I decided to take it. Upon completion, I’d have a hammer, a licence, and, hopefully, an idea of how to make my fortune.
The class is in a third-floor room in downtown Yellowknife’s Aurora College building. Battery-acid coffee and delicious muffins are on offer, and I arrive late out of the pouring rain.
Among our 13 class participants, there are 13 languages spoken—including Urdu, Mandarin, Hindi, and American Sign Language.
People are here for all kinds of reasons: a Somali man wants to learn to find diamonds (he’s told that that is pretty much impossible without a large company’s resources, but is not discouraged). There’s a local civil engineer who, on a hunch, has a spot picked outside of town that he wants to learn how to stake for himself. I meet a retiree who wants to find gemstones like water sapphires, mostly as a hobby. A man from Délı̨nę says a local prophecy about “an orphan (like him) who will see something no one else recognizes” pushed him to try out prospecting.
With brief introductions out of the way, we dive right into what might be the most demoralizing hour ever in an ostensibly encouraging course: the paperwork. Who knew prospecting was actually 80 per cent paperwork? There are permissions to secure and databases to check. The government is introducing a new online staking system, but getting that up and running will take years. Meanwhile, prospectors still have to go out and cut literal wooden stakes, and place them in the ground. In the field, keeping track of every stake’s GPS location—and the time they were staked—with photos, route logging and paper notes is vital.
And even once a claim is staked, that’s just the beginning: thousands of dollars’ worth of work needs to be done on an average claim every year or, short of being granted extensions, the lease expires. That’s meant to encourage companies and individuals to actually do advanced exploration work like having samples tested or doing geomagnetic surveys—contributing to the public knowledge of what’s under the ground, rather than just sitting on claims. But for a hobbyist prospector, it can mean a big investment of time and money.
The class is visibly deflated. The key to our fortune isn’t a lucky strike or even a carefully planned exploration. It’s a mountain of paper. For a roomful of people who had been hoping to throw down the shackles of traditional jobs for the high-risk, high-reward world of prospecting, the idea of diligently maintaining a file cabinet full of paperwork is clearly a major deterrent.
But luckily Bjorkman is here to liven things up. Her stories of crashing through bush on staking rushes, photos of heavenly backcountry finds and her pure love of rocks and minerals reinvigorates the class before it’s too late.
Selling a claim to a mining company can be a major payday. But the ultimate goal for any prospector—the one-in-a-million lottery ticket—is to have a claim evolve all the way into a mine. That could mean tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties.
So will my gold find, shining in the afternoon sun, make me rich?
Not really. When it’s assayed, the sample represents about six grams of gold per tonne of rock, with less than a dollar’s worth of gold in the sample itself. And anyway, TerraX owns the rock.