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So You want to be a prospector?

It's dirty work, but some people like it

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Apr 14/03) - A pick, a shovel and five dollars will get you started but there's one other thing you'll need if you choose to become a prospector -- a lot of patience.

Well-known Yellowknifer columnist and local prospector Walt Humphries has been at it on his own since the 1970s. He has yet to strike it rich, but for him prospecting is not a mere quick get-rich scheme, it's a way of life.

"The idea that a prospector goes out and finds something, makes a million dollars and then just retires, most of them don't do that," says Humphries. "If they had a million dollars they'd just use it to get a little better and farther afield."

There are only about 20 people actively prospecting in the NWT.

Five dollars will net you a prospecting licence from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, although the licence is free if you continue prospecting for more than 25 years.

Humphries says while it's uncommon for prospectors to have a university degree in their field, in geology for example, most have some basic understanding in mineralogy before getting into the business. Mostly, plain common sense is a prospector's best resource.

"You can go to university to do it or you can educate yourself," says Humphries.

"The more you know, the better your chances of success in finding things. Most of them, even if they don't have an official degree, are quite knowledgeable about field geology and that sort of thing."

Where to dig?

After obtaining a licence, the next thing an aspiring prospector needs to do is catch up on their reading. Humphries recommends researching the particular mineral one is interesting in pursuing and then about the area they hope to find it.

Many areas in the NWT are covered by aboriginal land claims, and are thus out of the question. Also, one must be aware of already existing claims made by other prospectors.

A prospector's claim can be anywhere in size from 52 acres up to 2,500 acres. A prospector must perform $2 worth of work per acre per year to keep it in good standing.

And then of course, there's the equipment, although Humphries contends the tools one needs to do the job are still relatively simple.

"Basic prospecting is basically just something to break the rocks with, a prospector's pick or hammer," says Humphries.

"A hand lens to magnify the rocks so you can see better, a compass or GPS so you don't get lost, maps of the area, and a pack sack to carry your stuff and some samples bags, and then you can start prospecting."

Finding a rich mineral deposit is the hard part. While there are obvious signs prospectors look for when reading the rocks, some are more apparent than others.

"Basically, what the old-timers didn't find would be underneath muskeg in a linear kind of place," says local prospector, Robert Carroll.

"Unless they just happen to dig there to see what was there, you'd pretty much have to diamond drill through just to see what was there."

When a prospector does find a promising strike, the next step is to decide what to do with it. An enterprising prospector may choose to develop the property himself, but that takes time and a lot of money. The easiest way to make a profit is to "option" out the claim to a larger mining company -- that's if they want it, of course.

Carroll is still waiting to strike a claim big enough to start a mine although he has come close.

"For gold it would've been Giant Bay on Gordon Lake," says Carroll.

"I drill a discovery hole there which created three years of work and a little bit of mining. But no, they never did make a mine out of it. They took a bulk sample out and decided it wasn't viable."

Carroll did make a find last November -- this time a potential diamond-bearing kimberlite dike -- for fellow prospector Dave Smith out on Great Slave Lake's Drybones Bay which seems promising.

The ABCs of prospecting

Novice prospectors are not alone. The territorial government does offer courses to prospector hopefuls. As a matter of fact, one began last week in Fort McPherson. The GNWT also offers about $90,000 a year to assist prospectors in covering their expenses through the Prospectors Grubstake Program.

Diane Baldwin, who heads the program, says while interest in taking the course is not widespread there's always some who want to take it.

"A lot of people don't want that lifestyle so it's important to keep teaching these courses because you only find a few new prospectors every year," says Baldwin.

"There may not be a lot of money in it. People are spending their own money as well as the money the grubstake program provides, so it's not a way to get rich."

Hugh Arden's father began prospecting in the Great Bear Lake area during the uranium rush back in the 1930s. It's been in his blood ever since.

Arden followed his older brother Darcy, who passed away last year, down south from Great Bear in 1938 to prospect for gold.

The two-brother tandem went on to explore all across the NWT over the next several decades, making substantial finds at Coppermine and Pine Point. Arden still tries to get out prospecting as often as he can.

"We prospected all over the place -- Coppermine and different places," says Arden.

"It's interesting, you know. Gold in Great Bear has only been found not too long ago. Nobody knew there was gold there but I've got a gold property up there."

Darcy's widow, June van Dine, unlike either her husband or brother-in-law, never had a life-long love for rocks but she came to enjoy it after meeting him in 1986 while working as a nurse at Stanton Territorial Hospital. "It's a lot of work, dirty and buggy and everything else," says van Dine.

"I liked it because we were together, but it is hard work."

For Humphries, the best thing about being a prospector is getting away from it all.

"Most prospectors do it because they like the lifestyle," says Humphries. "They like being out in the bush and exploring.

"I like nature, and I like the bush so I find that quite enjoyable."