Dispatches From The High-tech Gold Rush
Deep in the Yukon, the world’s most successful prospector is using advanced technology to find flecks of gold that could be worth billions. How does he find what no one else can?
Shawn Ryan at one of his mineral claims, northwest of Dawson City, Yukon. Though he’s sold the rights to tens of thousands of claims to big mining companies, he retains more for his own exploration.
THE LEGEND APPEARS like a ghost one afternoon, a long way from anywhere.
Deep in a valley that looks a lot like every other spruceand poplar-filled valley sprawling hundreds of kilometres south from Dawson City, Yukon, a mineral-staking crew slogs up a creek, humping chainsaws and smartphones. This is far-flung subarctic wilderness – no roads, no people, just a lot of bears and buckbrush. It’s late autumn in 2016, and the crew is fanning out across boggy moose pasture, crossing icy creeks just deep enough to soak their boots.
These men are claiming ground the way prospectors have for centuries, with a few modern improvements: They drive spruce posts into the dirt, blaze them with an axe, and scrawl a name and some coordinates with a black Sharpie. On one, the crew scribbles the name of a soccer mom back home. Eight kilometres down, the name of another local parent is scratched onto another post. Each name on a post signals the claiming of one eight-kilometre lease, which includes rights to all the precious metals and minerals that chunk of land contains.
Prospecting is a billion-us-dollar industry in Alaska and the Yukon – hundreds of small operations and a handful of big ones employ roughly 1 500 people, who do everything from geological assay to land surveying to drilling. This crew works for a man named Shawn Ryan, who is the most famous gold prospector in these parts, maybe in North America, maybe in the world. Ryan walked eight hundred kilometres across the Arctic, alone, and chased migrating musk oxen hoping to gather their wool, and revolutionised the mushroom-foraging industry by applying data analysis and technology no mushroom forager had ever used.
His success in prospecting for gold has been equally unorthodox. Over the past seventeen years, Ryan has developed an extensive soil-sampling program, using machines he dreamed up and built from component parts raided from other industries. The mineral- exploration company he leads is called Groundtruth Exploration, because Ryan feels he can get to the truth of what lies beneath the Earth’s surface better and faster than anyone else. It has made him a millionaire several times over. (On paper, Ryan is technically an independent prospector and his wife, Cathy Wood, works at Groundtruth. That lets him take on more jobs without the appearance of a conflict of interest. Ryan never misses a trick.) Ryan almost singlehandedly kicked off the Yukon’s second gold rush in 2009, and many people in his business think he’s on the verge of doing it again.
There are good prospectors out there, and then there is Shawn Ryan. Successful gold-finding has always been a combination of patience, instinct, persistence, resourcefulness, and a tolerance for risk. In Ryan, each of these always seems to be calibrated in perfect proportion. And he has introduced another element to the equation: technology. He uses drones and data sets and high-tech cartographic
innovations and two Astar D2 helicopters that he modified to use less fuel but develop more lift. But the question for hundreds of kilometres in every direction is: How does Shawn Ryan do it? Is it the technology that sets him apart, or is his sense about where gold might be somehow more acute than everyone else’s? How does anyone rise to the top of his field? In one way, however, Ryan is no different from any other prospector in the Yukon: Everyone is limited to one eightkilometre lease a year. He wants 224 kilometres, so he went to the local soccer team he sponsors and paid the children’s parents for their names.
It’s late in the day and one of the guys is running a creek, trying to land one more lease, when he notices something weird: The water is flowing the opposite direction from the other creeks in the area. Farther on, something else unusual: a pile of rusty prospecting tools beneath a large spruce tree, almost hidden by branches. They must be a hundred years old. He snaps a picture and keeps going.
A few weeks later, back in Dawson City, the crew sits around charging batteries and drying socks. Ryan pulls up, wild mushrooms rolling around the dash of his truck, looking very mad scientist – scruffy hair, stubble, eager grin. The crew smells of wood smoke. One of them pulls up a blurry picture on his phone – those rusty tools. Ryan reaches over fast and zooms in. Stares for a long moment.
‘ There’s this rumour,’ he says, leaning in, ‘about two natives in the late forties, early fifties. They’d walk overland from Dawson some hundred clicks to their camp at Coffee Creek. And there was this one spot they’d always deke off the trail and hand-bomb a bunch of gold.’ Not just flakes, he says. Huge, fist-size nuggets. No one knew where this was, but there were clues. He drops his voice. ‘One clue was that the creek drained opposite to the way you thought it should.’ He pauses. ‘ The next was that they left all their tools beneath a large spruce tree.’
ON THE PORCH of the old mobile home Groundtruth uses as an office, a dusty baby sits eating a popsicle beside a threelegged dog. It’s summer 2017 in Dawson City, the season is ramping up again, and it is breaking-records hot. Ryan’s leaning over the railing in pale, stretched- out jeans, talking to a mining consultant in khaki shorts and a golf shirt. The guy’s up from Vancouver representing a company that just swallowed twenty thousand of Ryan’s claims. Ryan will tell you there’s probably five million ounces of gold buried under those 964 000 acres – about R86.1 billion’s worth. Which is what prospectors do. They claim land, promise it’s full of gold, then sell it, leaving the buyer to do the mining. Except in this case, after selling the rights to those claims, Ryan got the mining company to give Groundtruth a three-year, multimillion- dollar exploration contract to find the gold.
Out at the Golden Saddle, one of the first claims where Ryan hit pay dirt, drill operator Jason Marwick takes samples with a remote- controlled hammer drill. The drill, powered by a Honda gas engine and riding on repurposed ATV tracks, was the first product of Ryan and Tao Henderson’s DIY approach to prospecting equipment.
Inside – past the sticky baby and faux-wood panelling – sits the ‘war room’, a radiating sauna of stacked 100-terabyte servers, Lenovo computers souped up with high- end video cards and big monitors, and buzzing Samsung smartphones. Here, surviving on pizza and coffee, geologists hunt gold virtually. Data streams in from Ryan’s ‘commandos’ – men and women in reflective vests who jump out of choppers outfitted with stealth drones, satellite internet, and remotecontrol drills – in the backcountry. They collect data on a range of complicated electrical measures, like resistivity and chargeability, and X-ray fluorescence, and generate topographic models – data the geologists interpret to tell Groundtruth precisely where to dig.
Ryan walks into the war room and stops dead in front of a screen displaying what looks like an ultrasound of a boa constrictor. ‘Holy cow!’ He lifts up his green ball cap with the helicopter on it, scratches a heap of silver hair. ‘ Wow, eh. Holy cow!’ Out at one of his bush camps, maybe 160 km from Groundtruth’s trailer, a crew has dropped a R500 000 camera on a data cable down a 100 m drill hole – a system Ryan adapted from the oil-and-gas industry (and tested first by taping a flashlight to a Gopro). In the trailer, Ryan can see into the Earth in real time, and he watches the feed wideeyed and astonished: ‘ You can’t invent that one. Holy cow.’
Maybe, somewhere on the planet, someone’s already thought of throwing a rig like this down a drill hole. But Ryan’s actually done it.
When Ryan first got to Dawson, a gold-rush town of faded, listing facades, he went after wild morel mushrooms, a lucrative crop if you can find them. He researched the places where wildfires burned hottest, soil temperatures, frost frequencies, rainfall, satellite imagery, old forestry reports, and his own harvests until he had enough data that he could fly a drone over a burn and know exactly where the mother lode would be. He’d chopper in and pick a week’s worth of mushrooms in hours. When Ryan turned his attention to gold, he realised that a prospector is really just a glorified bushman: someone who knows the land so well he thinks he can see right through it.
Ryan fills the trailer with the wonder and excitement of a boy digging for buried treasure. With his down-hole camera technology, he is documenting things almost no one ever gets to see, like water rushing through underground aquifers. And as he scrolls down the tube, he hesitates at a fragmented image on one of the screens. On another monitor, he scans columns of results that tell him what metals and minerals are in the dirt. Certain minerals suggest the presence of gold nearby. The right mix could mean – ‘ There’s the arsenic, huh. Where’s the gold, baby?’
In 2016, just before he sent that staking crew into the bush, Ryan discovered something. For years, he’d been hunting hard-rock gold, the kind packed tightly in veins and faults underground. But gold also occurs as placer (raw gold that has eroded from the veins and drifted into the dirt). The kind of gold you might find in a creek bed, under a large spruce. Ryan started reading Canada’s mining laws – something anyone can do but no one does – and discovered he could stake the hard-rock claims he’d sold again. For placer.
Ryan scopes farther down that digital drill hole, full of shadows and pockets of golden light. He keeps glancing at assay results. Then he lets out a whoop: ‘ There it is! There it is, Houston. Oh wow.’ Ryan is the only one still surprised when he finds gold. ‘ We’re not supposed to be surprised,’ he says. ‘ We’re supposed to be professionals, right?’
ONE OF RYAN’S crew, Dillon Langelaan, is up on a ridge a couple hours south of Dawson, shacked up in a wall tent with a satellite dish, surrounded by an electric bear fence. Midsummer is Groundtruth’s high season, and Langelaan is one of 170 guys Ryan’s got out in the bush. An East Coast farm kid fresh out of rock school, Langelaan’s on a threeman exploration crew, the kind feeding the screens back in the war room. But he’s been given a robotic gold-finding contraption that wasn’t in any of his textbooks, a machine created by a man everyone here calls The Doctor.
The Doctor is Tao Henderson. He wears black latex surgeon’s gloves, and black everything else, and is known to blast AC/ DC from his operating theatre – an insulated metal Quonset hut with a moose rack over the door, adjacent to Groundtruth’s mobile-home headquarters. When things break, Henderson fixes them. He also shrinks stuff – makes big industrial drills tiny and mobile. He and Ryan ferret out parts the way small-town boys build dune buggies, using whatever is lying around – an old bed frame, a bench seat, a small-block engine. In a neighbour’s backyard, they pulled the tracks off a 1970s Cushman Trackster ATV and threw them on a hammer drill. The zero-turn tracks have a 45° tilt front and back for tough terrain, and are powered independently, so the machine can navigate any landscape it encounters in the bush. It is part squat tank, part giant robotic mosquito.
Ryan has driven two hours of bumpy back road to see this invention do what traditional exploration crews do by gashing trenches with backhoes. They watch as the machine trundles through the buckbrush. The operator tugs the stubby toggles on a heavy rubber remote and the hammer drill pivots and spins, teetering precariously before rolling clumsily down the bank. He nudges a lever and the drill head slowly rises, folding forward like a person in prayer.
The jangling whine of the engine turns into a steady jackhammer thwack as the drill pounds steel casings down two metres, then retrieves them, now full of soil samples. The drill rolls over the moss without a trace, leaving behind a tiny dribble of golf-ball-size holes.
Digging a little deeper than everybody else, a little more often, Ryan has been stockpiling dirt since 2001, collecting more than 300 000 samples – arguably the largest geochemical sampling program on the planet. He used to plot his data on the government topographical maps everybody uses, until he figured out that they were inaccurate. Maybe other people had noticed this, but Ryan actually decided to make his own,
with Sensefly ebee drones he started testing in 2012, long before most people had even heard of drones. These stealth boomerangs fly grids autonomously, shooting pictures that are stitched together into high-resolution 3D topographic models forty times more detailed than Google Earth.
As the dirt-packed casings are pulled from the ground and threaded off the hammer drill, Langelaan bashes out the samples with a sledgehammer, catching the trickle of rocky loam in a plastic gold pan. ‘ You’re not only looking at rocks,’ says Ryan, crouching down next to Langelaan, rubbing the dirt between his fingers. ‘As a geo, a young guy learning, you should be trying to figure out the game.’ It’s like Sasquatch hunting, Ryan likes to say, this unrelenting search for the mother lode: ‘I believe the beast exists, even though no one’s ever seen it.’
Langelaan just stares at Ryan. Like he can’t quite believe this legendary prospector, a guy he learned about in school, is standing out here on the side of this scrubby mountain talking to him. Langelaan has a backlog of questions: How deep should they drill to hit ‘the zone’? Does bagging wet dirt change the assay results? Should he dry it?
You can tell Ryan recognises something of himself in this curious, kind-of-innocent kid. Ryan wants Langelaan to feel the same dazzling rush that he does when he works through these puzzles. Langelaan drops the sledgehammer and shows Ryan the mustard-coloured loam that keeps turning up. Ryan promises him a new X-ray gun to determine mineral content.
The right tool is always out there. Once, at what he calls a ‘geek conference’ in Colorado, Ryan found a technology designed to spot sinkholes and assess fuel spills with probes that zap the dirt and chart electrical resistivity. He figured if it could find that stuff underground, it should find gold veins too. So he got it, and instead of spacing the probes every fifty metres, like the instructions said, Ryan put his every five metres for a much sharper picture, and packed the probes in cat litter – the only bentonite source he could find in Dawson – to boost contact. That’s what Ryan’s telling this kid, Langelaan. There’s always a better way if you give yourself the time and space to think creatively. The job isn’t really the geology. The job – all jobs, really – is gathering up the knowledge, the science, then learning to let instinct navigate you surely through it. ‘ You’re actually hunting,’ Ryan tells
Ryan wants to make a drill that can bore a tunnel big enough for a robot. ‘We put one on Mars. Why can’t we put one down a 15-metre shaft?’
him, and he hopes he sees the special joy in hunting for gold (or Sasquatch): If you’re chasing something that’s mythical, seemingly impossible to find, the hunt never really ends.
AUTUMN IN THE Yukon means daylight is growing precious, the poplars are turning yellow, and Richard Daigle is boarding a Groundtruth helicopter to the placer leases Ryan’s crew staked one year earlier. He’s leading a team that’s going to spend a couple weeks taking drill samples, the first step to assessing the viability of the claims. The season is winding down and it’s late to head out, but Ryan’s insistent: There’s one creek that has to be drilled before the snow flies. The creek that moves in the wrong direction, where the crew found the rusty tools beneath the large spruce tree.
Gold seems to offer itself up to Ryan. ‘It actually becomes pretty much anticlimactic when you find it,’ he says. ‘Ding, ding, ding! It’s exciting on the first or second hole and then the euphoria’s over because, shit, it’s really there. Okay. Then you kind of stand back and go, “Shit. Okay, I guess I’m done. Hahaha.” Then you’re like, “Oh my God. Okay. Now what?” ’ That’s why, back at Groundtruth HQ, Ryan’s got The Doctor trying to figure out how to make a drill that can bore a shaft big enough to drop a robot – a placer mining bot that doesn’t exist yet. That’s the next step if Daigle’s drill samples come back looking good. Ryan reckons Groundtruth can build burrowing placer bots by hacking mini track machines he found online with existing remote- control technology. ‘It’ll be easy,’ he says. ‘ We put one on Mars. Why can’t we put one down a 15-metre shaft?’
Daigle has a face like an oilskin raincoat, patinated from life on the land moonlighting for mining companies – chasing other people’s dreams. He gazes out of the chopper as it thumps over ridge after ridge before eventually perching itself above the valley formed by the creek that runs in reverse. A couple of guys duck out and skid down the hill toward a miniature rotary-air-blast (RAB) drill on tracks – another of The Doctor’s remote- control contraptions. Before long, the men are slinging steel drill casings and buckets of pulverised dirt. Over the next several days, their progress is marked by puffs of white powder that rise from the valley’s black spruce, dust kicked up as the RAB jackhammers into the ground and busts up everything in its path.
By the time the crew roll under that large spruce and set up one last target, there’s snow on the ground. The RAB starts pounding and Daigle moves fast, washing samples pulled up by the drills, watching for that telltale flash of light. Gold.
Of course they find it. Ryan isn’t there – he’s not in the field nearly as much as he used to be. But he knew they would. He’d done the work to know the dirt, and he knew in his gut he could trust the legend.
The find is good enough, he’ll say, to consider a full-fledged placer-mining operation. ‘Surprisingly so,’ he adds, a little tease. Even though he doesn’t know yet, he knows.
THIS WEATHER ISN’T what Southern California promised. It’s cold and overcast, with a chance of ‘Why is this happening to me?’ My trusty passenger/wife, Jess, and I are ready to ride up north along a foggy patch of the Pacific Coast Highway on the newest edition of Honda’s sofa on wheels, the 2018 Gold Wing. The rain suits are in our hard cases, the heated seat and grips are warming up, and the power windshield is fully extended. With a 1 833 cc flat-six and a seven-speed dual-clutch auto transmission (no shifting) beneath us, I wonder when luxury cruising got so good.
In 1975, the new Honda GL1000 was a normal, stripped-down, street-style bike. It housed a kick-start 999 cc flat-four and a five-speed transmission mounted on a steel frame. Although it wasn’t intended specifically as a tour bike, because of its dependability, customers rode it long distances and added on aftermarket luggage bags and fairings. Honda encouraged the relationship, and soon, 700 000 middle-aged, leather-clad adventurers were pursuing their own vision quests on two wheels. That number is now at 700 002.
Honda followed up on the GL1000 with the first Gold Wings, constructed specifically to accommodate the needs of its early riders. Subsequent models had bigger engines, electronic ignition, longer wheelbases, more room for drivers and passengers, larger fuel tanks, an audio system, factory-installed fairings and luggage bags, and, in 1982, 98 , a an opt optional o a C CB radio. ad o. And even with the huge engine on the 2018 model, there’s hardly any noise or shaking. The four drive modes are derived from Honda cars and trucks. In Tour mode, it eats the bumps so well that I have to make sure Jess hasn’t fallen asleep. I pair my phone with the Apple Carplay system and crank up the road music.
Some light rain opens up. Any sane person would pull over. ‘Ah, let’s go for it,’ one of my split personalities says to the other. (Neither of us asks Jess.) I toggle it to Rain mode at cruising speed, switching the sensitivity on the ABS and the throttle. The new Gold Wing is 39 kilograms lighter than previous models, with new streamlined fairings that make me wonder how much protection we’ll have. But the bike handles with perfect confidence, and we’re dry.
From the late ’80s to the early 2000s, the Gold Wing experienced its most significant advances. In 1988, Honda added in two more cylinders. The 1990s weren’t much in terms
of technology, but then in 2001, bam! Fuel injection, an aluminium frame, smoother transmission and ABS braking. By 2006, the Gold Wing offered in-dash GPS and the world’s first motorcycle airbag. In 2009, satellite radio. And in 2012, ipod compatibility arrived.
After lunch, a true miracle: sunshine. I switch to Sport mode in the Malibu canyons, pull the throttle back, k, and wow. The Gold Wing tightens up with ith response that is overwhelming. The e big bike takes the canyon’s tight corners ners with ease and balance. Jess is a professional rofessional passenger, so I can pull the bike ke down low while the double-clutch smoothly oothly downshifts and powe powers out of the turn. This motorcycle seems to have it all. . My only sugges suggestion for next year: self-dri self-driving mode.
The mountains outside Dawson City are filled with relics of the region’s prospecting past – mossy, skeletal cabins and overgrown scars where miners once trenched for gold. Some of this land is now protected as part of Tombstone Territorial Park. But where it is not, prospectors continue to walk, drive, and chopper in to seek their fortunes.
For the past 17 years, Ryan has been running the largest geochemical sampling program on Earth. When government maps proved not to have the accuracy he required for plotting findings, he started making his own. Now, he can call up detailed information about his claims from just about anywhere in the world – including his home.
Staff in the Groundtruth trailer coordinate operations – streaming data, juggling helicopter flights and rescue operations, and monitoring forest fires. Even as Groundtruth expands to work claims in Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, and finds itself in demand on other continents, everything runs from this trailer.
Groundtruth geologist Greg Dawson uses a loupe to examine a rock sample. Dawson says his work at Groundtruth is ‘striving toward failure’: The faster, cheaper, and more efficiently he can prove there’s nothing under a given sample, the quicker the company can get to the pay dirt – and the higher the return when it strikes gold.
The all-new Gold Wing.
Honda embraces the Gold Wing as a true touring machine.
The 21st century brings fuel injection and ABS braking.
The Gold Wing’s predecessor, the GL1000, debuts as a stripped-down street bike.
Gold Wing lovers form a riders’ association.
Honda uses anechoic chambers to make the GL1500 quieter. Meanwhile, the number of hard-core fans grows.