One soil at a time,” said Shawn Ryan, describing the gold-hunting technique he has perfected in a decade of working what has become the hottest exploration play in Canada.
After collecting more than 200,000 soil samples since 2003 and leading at least two junior mining companies to the most significant gold discoveries in the new White Gold District of Yukon Territory, Ryan is happy to share the particulars of his slow and careful approach to prospecting.
The former Dawson City prospector, who recently moved to Whitehorse, is the genuine article – a self-made millionaire in the speculative world of modern-day mineral exploration. He is credited with the discovery of the mineralized system that led Underworld Resources Inc. to define the 1-million-plus ounce Golden Saddle gold deposit on the White Gold Property in 2008.
The discovery of Golden Saddle touched off a staking rush in the mountainous terrain south of Dawson City in 2008.
In a hospitality suite at the 2009 Roundup in Vancouver, Ryan also convinced the management of Kaminak Gold Corp. to come to the Yukon and explore the Coffee Project south of Golden Saddle. After two seasons of exploration, Kaminak President and CEO Rob Carpenter said the property could host up to 5 million ounces of gold.
Meanwhile, the staking rush in the Yukon is continuing unabated. In 2007, 7,500 claims had been staked in the Dawson mining district. By the end of 2010, claims in the district had has soared past 50,000, and explorers fanned out to stake an unprecedented 160,000 claims across the entire territory.
At last count, some 72 companies have earmarked a total of C$320 million for mineral exploration spending in Yukon in 2011, and that sum is expected to increase as the summer field season draws closer.
Mushroom picker to prospectorSoft-spoken and boyish-looking at 48, Ryan has a quick grin and casual manner that belie his keen observation skills and devotion to painstaking research. His wife, Cathy Wood, is an equal partner in their prospecting enterprise, Ryanwood Exploration Co., and Ryan is quick to point out that her work alongside his during the past decade is an integral part of their success.
Ryan and Wood actually started working in the region 20 years ago as mushroom pickers, cashing in every summer on a few short weeks of the lucrative wild crops. As the seasons passed, the coupled researched the science of wild mushrooms and gained skill in determining timing, location and size of the crops.
Around 1999-2000, the mushroom market began to dry up, and Ryan decided to shift his focus to gold prospecting.
At the time, Ryan and Wood were living in an old tin shack near Dawson with no running water or electricity, but Ryan said he told Wood that they would be out of those living quarters “in two years time.”
“I told her a good story would sell. Within a month, the Bre-X scandal popped up and there went the idea of selling a good story,” he said with a laugh.
The setback proved to be good fortune in disguise. Drawing on the skills they had acquired doing research, the couple studied Geological Survey of Canada’s archives and other sources for information about the geology of Yukon Territory.
“We were trying to get a good feel for what was out there and what had been done,” Ryan said.
Soil sampling with a twistDuring this period a well-known geologist told Ryan that the days of a lone prospector walking into a junior’s office with a few rocks in his hands were over and that modern prospectors had to present an entire mineralized system to get the attention of most juniors.
Ryan needed a technique for finding mineralized systems.
“So I asked myself, ‘How do I find a mineralized system as a prospector on a low budget and grubstaking from year to year,’ ” he said.
When it became clear that the area he wanted to explore was the heavily timbered but unglaciated terrain that bordered the historic Klondike placer gold fields of west-central Yukon, Ryan said he realized that traditional techniques of taking rock samples from outcrops would never work. With only 2-3 percent outcrop exposures in the area, he would need another approach if he was going to survive.
That’s when Ryan began experimenting with soil sampling. Still, it took two more years to figure out how to be truly effective with the technique. Soil sampling traditionally has been relegated to the bottom of the mineral explorer’s toolkit. Considered the least important job in the exploration process, companies typically hire high school students to gather soil samples as quickly as possible during the summer months.
Ryan discovered that a more methodical approach to soil sampling could yield much more promising results. He refined his approach and hired older workers that he provided two to three weeks of special training and tasked with working quickly and carefully to take reliable soil samples.
“It was quantity versus quality,” he said. “In our business, one or two soil samples can be the clues for finding C$2 billion worth of gold, so we try our best at taking a quality soil sample every time.
Ryan also discovered that the shallow “b-horizon” where soil samples are typically taken did not provide the best results in the unglaciated terrain of the Yukon. Instead of taking soil from the b-horizon depth of 10-15 centimeters that would yield 10-12 parts-per-billion gold, workers dug down 60-80 centimeters, or 2-2½ feet, to take samples that assayed 200 ppb.
“One has to dig a little deeper,” Ryan said. “We tested the technique in different terrains and the results were consistent – the better samples were taken from the lower “b-” and upper “c-horizons.”
During this period of trial and error, Ryan also hit upon the perfect tool for taking samples – a soil auger, or tulip planter from Holland.
Advice along the wayAbout this time, Ryan happened to get confirmation that he was on the right track from a well-known industry geologist, the late Ricardo Presnell.
“What happened was that I figured out the deep soils on my own in 2001 and 2002 and was working with soil augers actually on 9/11/2001. I remember because I couldn’t get dropped off in the bush because of the ‘no flying’ (restriction imposed after the terrorist attack.),” Ryan recalled. “But what I did is use a soil auger to take soil across the new Lucky Joe magnetic high-low contact area and the response was dramatic in that it indicated high copper values right on the magnetic high-low contact for kilometers. (Later, this turned out to be the Ryan trend).
“I optioned the claim block the next season in 2002 to Copper Ridge (Exploration), and we conducted a deep soil sampling program in June of 2002. Ricardo came up to visit the property in July of 2002 just when we were receiving the assays. It was then that Ricardo came out to the field to have a look at what I was doing and confirmed the way I was working was the best way to evaluate the target.
Ryan said the real value of the feedback from Presnell at this point was that “as a scientist he confirmed that I was on the right track and that I should continue with my work.”
Kennecott Exploration, for which Presnell was working at the time, had optioned the project from Copper Ridge by early 2003 and returned to work the Lucky Joe Project during the summer of 2003.
“That same summer I did a joint venture with Kennecott and (Presnell and I) conducted the first large regional soil auger sampling program south of Dawson City,” Ryan recalled. “The joint venture idea for first right of refusals was that Kennecott would cover helicopter, assays and camp cost (food), and I would cover wages for my guys. We (took) soil samples in the Thistle Creek area, looking for more Lucky Joe-type targets.
“Kennecott’s objective was to find a copper-gold target. I had already staked the White claims by then and I sampled across the Golden Saddle ridge during the Kennecott regional. The results jumped out that we had a nice new gold zone. Ricardo liked the looks of it, but management was very specific at the time that only copper-gold targets were to be looked at. So since the soil only indicated gold, Kennecott decided to not to pursue the target, and Ricardo had to pass on following up the soil anomaly,” Ryan said.
“That’s the pain in the butt of working for a major,” he added.
Ryan said he and Presnell kept in touch over the years, and ironically, Underworld hired him to work on the WhiteGold/Golden Saddle project in 2009. He said Presnell was part of the geology team that visited his JP Ross claim block and convinced Underworld President Adrian Fleming to option the claim block from him during the late summer of 2009.
“As it turned out, he was bang on, and we uncovered a large gold soil anomaly in late 2009, Ryan said.
Presnell was killed in an avalanche while skiing in Utah in January 2010.
“I have great respect for the man as he was a real scientist and was always willing to teach and explain the world of geology,” Ryan added.
Deciding where to lookRyan compares his quest for the source of Klondike gold to the search for another fabled creature – Sasquatch.
“What kind of beast produced all the placer gold in the Klondike, which has 13 million to 20 million ounces of known placer production. Does it exist or is it all gone, which was a rumor at the time?” he said. “The Dawson district has been mined for placer gold for over 100 years. All the placers were like Sasquatch’s tracks. You saw all this gold and no source.”
Ryan chose to pursue a regional soil anomaly that he identified at the head of four placer creeks. Known as Thistle Mountain, the claim block was the Black Fox, which Kinross picked up when it acquired Underworld.
“We found a quartz vein on a road between two placer creeks, and the next question I asked myself is, ‘Where is everybody?’ ” he said.
Ryan found the quartz vein with just three soil samples taken in 2003, along with about 400-500 others across the area. The quartz vein turned out to be part of the White Gold discovery, but it took the prospector and Underworld, which optioned the claims, five more years and thousands more soil samples to map out the 9-kilometer by 3-kilometer, or 5-mile by 2-mile, system known today as the Golden Saddle deposit.
Help from technologyThe prospector said important factors in the success of his soil sampling programs are advances in assaying techniques and the development of better, more powerful computers during the past decade.
“Eight years ago, I remember using stencils and Whiteout and writing everything down,” he said during an online presentation in January.
To mark 400-500 soil points on a map with three elements – lead, zinc and silver – would take a long day in 2003. Today, Ryan said he can use the ICPS assay method to correctly map 10,000 points in 10-15 seconds and do all 36 elements at the same time.
The assay technique offered by Acme Laboratories is better and cheaper, according to Ryan, who has used consistently used it since he recognized the importance of soil sampling to his prospecting efforts and began carrying out large soil sampling programs in 2002.
“Now I have a database with 200,000 soil points that we can use to compare the soil samples from way back then with the data we’ve collected now,” he said.
Advances in GIS systems also give Ryan confidence in the accuracy of the locations where samples are taken within 5 meters. In addition, he is able to access satellite data on the Internet free of charge.
By contrast, the majors were paying C$20,000 for this information a few years ago,” he added.
Phenomenal growth in samplingRyan’s annual soil sampling programs have continued to grow exponentially. In 2007, Ryanwood’s soil samplers took 8,000-10,000 samples during the field season. By 2010, their annual collections had mushroomed to 70,000 soil samples. Ryan plans to boost that number to more than 150,000 soil samples this year.
On the heels of growth in his annual sampling programs, Ryan has steadily increased the number of claims his company has staked in the White Gold area.
One analyst estimates that Ryanwood has snapped up 12,000 claims, or 60 percent, of the 20,000 claims staked in the area.
Ryan cited the Coffee and Dime projects as examples of how effective his soil sampling programs have become. He optioned the Coffee claims to Kaminak in 2009 on the results of 3,000 soil samples, which identified a big mineralized system that stretched more than 10 kilometers, or 6 1/2 miles.
“In 2010, we added another 10,000 soils that expanded the system by 6 kilometers, (4 miles), and it keeps growing, Ryan said. “I think I can say with confidence that we’ve found (White Gold’s) big brother.”
Ryan also optioned the Dime Project located north of the White Gold and Coffee projects. He said the claims are near an old gold showing with a placer creek located below it.
Ryanwood collected 3,000 soil samples on the property in 2010 and identified a 4.5-kilometer by 1.5-kilometer anomaly.
A five-hole, 657-meter initial diamond drill program conducted by Stina Resources Ltd. in September confirmed a significant gold discovery on the Dime Gold Property.