B.C. Gold Rush 2.0

It’s the Wild West again, with ?prospectors scouring the province, ?hatching conspiracy theories and ?keeping nuggets close to the body?. As we approach Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon, Lloyd Myers tells me about a secret vein of quartz. He found it hunting last year as he tracked a deer across a dry creek bed near Kamloops; he looked to the ground and there it was, shining like a beacon. It haunts his dreams at night, this crystalline streak of white rock that he’s sure is going to make him filthy rich. ?

Lloyd Myers, gold prospecting | BCBusiness
Lloyd Myers dreams of finding fortune the same way 19th-century Fraser River prospectors did, alone in the wilderness with a pan and some luck.

It’s the Wild West again, with 
prospectors scouring the province, 
hatching conspiracy theories and 
keeping nuggets close to the body

As we approach Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon, Lloyd Myers tells me about a secret vein of quartz. He found it hunting last year as he tracked a deer across a dry creek bed near Kamloops; he looked to the ground and there it was, shining like a beacon. It haunts his dreams at night, this crystalline streak of white rock that he’s sure is going to make him filthy rich. 

It’s no coincidence that I’m hearing this as we drive along the fabled Cariboo gold rush trail, which stretches from below Yale north to Barkerville, traversing country steeped in gold rush lore, both old and new. We’re on our way to pan for gold on the Fraser River just below the old Alexandra Bridge near Spuzzum – and if there’s precious metal to be dug, hacked or panned from this site, my friend is intent on taking some home.

The new generation of amateur prospectors

By day, the 43-year-old Myers is a Vancouver carpenter. But on weekends and during hunting trips throughout the year, he is an amateur prospector, one of an increasing number of British Columbians scouring the woods, streams and backcountry in search of the precious metal. Spurred by the price of gold, which recently surpassed $1,800 an ounce, a new generation of prospector and rock hound is drawn to what was once the fixation of an obsessive few.

“Ten years ago, it was considered really odd if you were prospecting on your own, but not so much anymore,” says Daryl Friesen, a Langley-based prospector who has chased gold and treasure across B.C. for 20 years. “Because of the price of gold, there’s more interest now from a mainstream audience.” 

Despite its rising popularity, hobby mining remains on the murky fringes of the B.C. mining industry. No one, including the provincial government, knows exactly how many amateur miners there are out there, or how much money they collectively earn from the land. Then there is the difficulty of defining a hobbyist: the farther you move away from the Lower Mainland, the blurrier the line becomes between amateur and professional.

One thing is clear: while many B.C. hobby miners are initially drawn to prospecting by dreams of riches and even the necessity of supplementing income, the pursuit quickly becomes about more than just money. A conversation I had with a seasoned prospector on the eve of my trip with Myers illustrates the point: “Watch out, you might get addicted,” he warned me, his tone turning serious. “It’s not the finding of gold, it’s the search for it, and where it takes you.”


BC gold prospecting
Image: Christopher Pollon
To prospectors, around every bend in the Fraser
there just might be a sandbar bearing the glint of

B.C.’s gold prospecting history

It’s nothing new for masses 
of amateur prospectors to descend upon the rivers and backcountry of B.C. in search of riches; in fact, the crown colony of B.C., which later joined confederation as the province of B.C., would never have existed without them. Beginning in 1859, at least 30,000 Californians – almost exclusively unruly rank amateurs – invaded the lower Fraser River with the same aspirations that people like Myers have today, forcing the British to declare a mainland colony to prevent the expansion-hungry Americans from absorbing the land that became B.C. 

Given that the province has been scoured by successive waves of prospectors since then – most recently by professional geologists and exploration companies since the early 1960s – it’s easy for the layperson to assume B.C. has been well picked over. But the layperson would be wrong. 

Veteran Williams Lake prospector Eric Brigden – known widely by his prospecting name, Greywolf – says gold can still be found in virtually any gravel deposit in the Interior. The present-day hotspots for prospecting cover much of the province, including the middle Fraser and Quesnel rivers, the Barkerville area, and eastward through the southern Okanagan past Rock Creek to Nelson and Cranbrook.

Tom Schroeter, a mining and geological engineer with over 40 years’ experience, concurs that B.C. is blessed with mineral wealth, but adds a caveat. The challenge for any rockhound, professional or otherwise, is that 75 per cent of the province is covered by “overburden” consisting of mostly earth and trees. Since a prospector can only judge what’s there by what can be seen on the surface, significant mineral finds remain difficult to unearth. 

Still, there are many stories of luck and chance to inspire the hobbyist into action. Schroeter tells me how Mike Warshawski, a Vancouver dentist and weekend prospector, discovered what became the Northair silver mine near Whistler in the early 1970s. More recently, a self-taught Yukon prospector named Shawn Ryan subsisted on picking mushrooms, raising his family in a tin shack for a time before his persistence led to the discovery of the White Gold district south of Dawson City. The White Gold Project, now owned by Kinross Gold Corp., is believed to hold at least two million ounces of gold. The popular belief is that Ryan has located the ultimate source of all the gold collected during the Klondike gold rush. He is now a media star, one of the Yukon’s wealthiest miners, and an inspiration to outsider prospectors everywhere.

Panning for gold on the Fraser River

BC gold panning
Image: Christopher Pollon
Lloyd Myers works the gravel banks at bends in the
river, scanning his pan for the telltale gleam.

Thus inspired, Myers and I are trying our own luck about 20 kilometres above the site of the first lucky strike of the 1859 Fraser gold rush. Just south of the infamous Hell’s Gate, this stretch of the river is a nightmare of converging currents, whirlpools and boiling muddy water the colour of unpolished jade. A tourist placard on the highway marks this site as the location of an early 1860s river ferry station, built to end the mass drowning of miners trying to access rich gravel bars on the opposite bank.

The water is unusually high for this time of year, submerging the gravel bars; our only option is to climb down to the steeply piled riparian boulders. Myers finds a slight curve in the river and decides to try his luck there. The trick, he says, is to look for gold at bends in the river, where it will often accumulate behind big boulders. 

Myers calls me over to a tiny patch of sand, and in the harsh mid-day August sun, the surface glitters – a good omen. We dig sand and moss into our pans and set to work. I discover that panning is a fine art. My first pan becomes a messy stew of sticks, rocks and mud. But eventually a golden flake settles along the bottom of my pan, small enough to fit under my fingernail. I stare hypnotized at the fleck of precious glittering metal, surprised to feel my heart pounding.

When I later recount this experience to prospector Daryl Friesen, he chuckles. “They call it gold fever, and it gets worse the more you do it,” he says. “Can you imagine your reaction if there had been a nugget the size of your thumbnail in the pan?”


Hobby mining and treasure hunting

Friesen, who had suggested we pan at the Alexandra Bridge site, is a prospector with a twist. He is also a devoted treasure hunter, which means he spends a lot of time researching B.C.’s rich history of lost mines and forgotten treasure caches. Treasure hunting is one of the many subgroups of hobby mining; it’s equal parts historical investigation, prospecting and conspiracy theory, prompting the emergence of a cottage industry in publishing led by such B.C. publishers as Heritage House Publishing Co. and Hancock House Publishers. Entire paperback catalogues cater to treasure-hunting intrigues, including such titles as Lost Bonanzas of Western Canada and my personal favourite, The Fraser Canyon, Valley of Death.

As I discover, there is a practical side to treasure hunting. Slogging through the backcountry to find your own riches is time-consuming, back-breaking and potentially life-threatening. The prospect of tracking down a cache of gold in a fabled cave or lost mine shaft – the sweat supplied by some forgotten soul who drowned or died in the bush – is pretty enticing.

Friesen is 39, but becomes breathless, like a hyperactive kid, when he talks about the quest for treasure. The highlight of his career so far has been finding a piece of the legendary B-25 bomber that crashed into Spindle Canyon at the north end of Pitt Lake in 1953, rumoured to be carrying a vast fortune in stolen Nazi gold. All of the plane wreckage has been found, but the gold has not. 

Friesen owns and works about 20 claims, which include a promising abandoned underground mine site in the Stave River valley. He buys and sells a small number of claims, and sells advertising space on his Spindlequest.com website and treasure-hunter forum. 

“The Internet has revolutionized prospecting by bringing people together,” he says. “There’s an older generation of prospectors out there who have been able to meet a younger generation of prospector and hand their knowledge down, and it’s all because these online communities exist.”

Placer gold mining

Friesen says the only place in B.C. where prospectors have the potential to make a real living is in the Cariboo, the broad interior plateau stretching east of the Fraser River to the Cariboo Mountains and south from just above Quesnel to Clinton. Friesen says it’s still possible to find placer ground there that’s rich enough to work, and land not considered profitable 10 years ago is now prime, given the spike in gold prices. Up there, he says, a mini-gold rush is going on right now. 

“Greywolf” Brigden estimates that 1,500 people are currently involved in placer gold mining – the separation of precious metals from the sand and gravel of existing or dried-up river beds and glacial deposits – in the Cariboo region alone. This includes numerous Alberta and Lower Mainland residents who work claims each year during the sunnier months. A former independent logger, he makes about a third of his income from placer gold mining; the balance comes from selling his own self-designed mining equipment and advising other miners on how and where to find loot on their claims.

Brigden sees placer mining as a potential seasonal industry in the Interior that can alleviate the economic chaos created by downturns in the forest industry. He estimates that in Williams Lake the lumber industry is down to about 35 per cent of what it was just three years ago. Many of the currently unemployed are without benefits, he says, because they were independent truckers or loggers, or participated in the informal economy. 

Brigden is inspired by Depression-era B.C. history. In 1938, the federal and provincial governments trained unemployed men to be prospectors, gave them stakes and sent them into the woods in groups. It’s time to do this again, he says, and much of the groundwork is already done: two years ago he secured B.C. government funding and designed a similar prospecting crash course for unemployed men to be offered by a local university in Williams Lake. But the program fizzled, and Brigden believes it was because the tuition for the 15-day course was set too high for the unemployed locals to afford. “If the government could get off its butt, this would be a way for a lot of people to supplement their income through placer mining, gold recovery and possibly tourism as well,” he insists.


Dead-staking mineral claims

A lack of training resources for prospecting is just one concern. The practice of “dead-staking” is another. The province moved to an online mineral-claim-staking system in 2005, which made it possible to buy claims over the Internet; in the process, it enabled a speculative industry where “dead-stakers” snap up huge numbers of promising mineral claims with the goal of flipping them for profit. As a result, valuable ground remains untouched. This despite a May 2010 announcement by then-Minister of State for Mining Randy Hawes, who vowed to crack down on the practice. “When some guy can sit in his living room and stake B.C. claims for 40 cents a hectare, online staking is too easy,” he told me at the time. Reached in August 2011, a B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesperson said proposed fee changes and maintenance requirements have been delayed, adding, “We are hoping to have implementation in 2012.”

Brigden says there are dead-stakers out there right now hoarding a thousand claims, including prime locations in the Cariboo, with no intention of setting foot in the bush. He’s frustrated, but resigned too. “Speculating on claims has always been part of mining here; that’s never going to change. But the players are going to change because of the finances, that’s all.”

Something else that will likely never change is the under-the-table, cash-only ethos of the hobby and seasonal placer industry in B.C. The amount of money involved in this informal industry is nearly impossible to quantify – “it’s all cash, so you can understand part of the secrecy about it,” says Brigden. He says true hobbyists keep their gold for “show and tell,” or sell their small amounts to gold buyers; more sophisticated placer miners will take their gold flake and dust (known as “flour”) directly to smelters. Larger nuggets are often sold directly to goldsmiths and jewelry designers. 

But most miners on that continuum between hobbyist and professional don’t want to talk about money at all. In a world where an ounce of gold is worth more than $1,600, it’s a question of security. “A lot of folks out there would love to knock off a miner with gold in their pocket if possible,” says Brigden.

Back in the Fraser Canyon, the subject of money comes up in my conversation with Lloyd Myers. Upon further questioning, he says his dream of the quartz vein leading to gold is less about getting “filthy rich,” and more about being happy. “It’s a dream to be able to work it as a claim, and to make a living from doing what I love out there in the wilderness,” he tells me as we drive home.

Selling gold for cash

I’m not entirely convinced. The following Tuesday, I head to Vancouver Gold on Broadway in Vancouver, one of at least 25 businesses in the Lower Mainland that buy placer gold for cash. (I learned about the company from its banner ads on Friesen’s website.) I show up with a small glass bottle containing gold flakes panned during our trip. It doesn’t look like much upon further inspection, but that’s not really the point. I’ve found gold. 

Security is tight: the door is locked and visitors can only get buzzed in. Sam Pollock, brother of the company founder and manager of the flagship Vancouver location, meets me at the door. Tall and skinny, he appears to be in his early 20s.

Pollock tells me the family business is expanding to six new stores in Canada this year, with three new staff starting in August at this store alone. The phone rings constantly even though it’s just after 9 a.m.; I overhear an employee complain she can’t keep up with the flow of customers. 

Prospector visits are way up. About a year ago the Vancouver outlet was seeing one prospector a week. In August 2011, there are at least a dozen a week. Half of the prospectors are what Pollock calls “curiosity miners” – greenhorns like me who want their meagre placer findings evaluated. The other half know what they’re doing: those customers typically sell between $400 and $800 of placer gold each visit. The increase in prospector business is “directly proportional to the price of gold and attention it gets in the media,” he says. 

Pollock uses tweezers to extract what he calls my “most promising flake” – the very one that hypnotized me on the banks of the Fraser. He puts it under an X-ray machine, which resembles an ink-jet printer, to determine the purity of the metal. The results flash onto his laptop: 53 per cent zinc, 42 per cent nickel, even a tiny bit of something called palladium. 

“It’s like fool’s gold,” he says with a grin. Pollock pauses and looks serious again. “Not that I’m calling you a fool.”