Question: How does today's miner strike it rich? Answer: With his `gold card,' of course

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WELCOME to Caribou (pop., 2). An early snow is falling here at 10,000 feet above sea level. A heavy white mist has rolled in on the Cross Gold Mine. Bounding across the gravel road, six matted and yelping dirty dogs of varying sizes besiege the rare visitor to this nearly forsaken place. Fortunately, they have been well fed. Tom Hendricks owns these dogs - and this mine.

``You made it,'' he says as he approaches, extending a well-muscled forearm. He looks every bit the miner, wearing coveralls, heavy boots, and the fiberglass miner's helmet with a battery-powered lamp that will light our way through the depths of the mine.

Like the adventuring gold miners of American history, Mr. Hendricks's story has its own, modern-day romance: In the tradition of striking out with a few coins and a dream, he used a MasterCard to charge a plane ticket to California 15 years ago - where, at age 23, he persuaded the owners of the Cross Mine to let him lease the old facility. Starting with just a pick and shovel, Hendricks reopened the mine by himself in 1973.

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Today, Hendricks and his crew of five are on the verge of of what should be the most glorious era of gold production in the mine's history.

If Hendricks's success echoes the gold rush lore, the man himself - who speaks quietly about world economics, gold prices, and politics - bears little resemblance to the feverish, half-crazed miner in the Gabby Hayes image.

``I'm not obsessed with this thing,'' Hendricks says, holding a cup of coffee and a hint of a smile. ``I truly love the work and the challenge.''

He is happy just to have survived in this business, and to have turned a modest profit in the 15 years. But a certain fire in his eyes reveals a muted yearning all miners have for the fabled ``bonanza'' or ``mother lode'' - a superrich vein discovered once in a lifetime, and probably never. ``I'd be lying if I didn't say that a little part of what makes mining fun for me is the chance of hitting a bonanza.''

Hendricks's operation is one of only a handful of small gold mining companies in continuous operation left in the United States. Colorado, which had hundreds of such gold and silver mines as recently as the 1930s, now has only about five continuously operating small gold mines, according to the Colorado Mining Association. Hendricks represents a diminishing breed of young mine entrepreneurs, only a few of which have succeeded.

An early picture shows Hendricks shoving a one-ton ore cart up out of the mine. Today he uses small electric engines to travel into the mine and haul ore out. In the winter, howling winds of 60 to 80 miles an hour rocket through this valley, often piling up 14-foot-deep snowdrifts. Equipment tends to break down in the bitter, subzero cold, but work continues.

The truly remarkable thing about all this effort is that it's aimed at extracting a fraction of an ounce of gold hidden in every ton of rock. With gold priced at about $400 an ounce, Hendricks says a ton of gold-bearing ore will yield an $85-a-ton profit after expenses.

Better equipment and better technology have made the work a bit easier than it used to be when old-timers lay on their backs in the wet, cold semidarkness, hacking away at a rich vein with a hand-sledgehammer in one hand and a steel spike in the other. But it only takes a brief trip into a mine to discover that even with technology, there is still nothing easy about mining.

Stuffed into my own set of plastic coveralls and slicker, heavy rubber boots, helmet, and heavy belt with battery pack on it, I am almost ready to go. Hendricks hands me a plastic case about the size of a brick. ``This is a self-rescuer,'' he says. ``If you feel funny, or like you might faint, just pop the top off, bite on the rubber mouthpiece, and breathe.'' The self-rescuer turns carbon monoxide, a common mining hazard, into breathable air.

Hendricks directs me to sit cross-legged on a cart in front of a small electric mining engine. As the engine lurches ahead into the mine, a cool, moist draft exhales from the shaft. The tiny train emits a low electric whine, sliding forward into the mountain toward a distant light bulb. Wooden supports in the tunnel flit past and give way to bare, solid rock walls. Passing the first light, we round a bend and continue until the tunnel ends. Here, 160 feet down, and a football field horizontally inside the mountain, we stop.

In the sudden silence, Hendricks explains that in the early '80s, when gold prices soared above $800 an ounce, he had managed a crew of 12 men pulling about 50 tons of ore a day from the mine. Since 1973, he has blasted, hauled, and milled $3 million worth of gold ore - no small feat for a relatively tiny mining operation.

Cross Mine is considered a gold mine with high-grade ore, with its yield of one-third to one-half an ounce of gold per ton of gold ore. By contrast, in South Africa, where nearly half the world's annual gold production of 50 million ounces comes from, a ton of ore contains only an average of about 0.15 ounces of gold.

At this 160-foot depth, Hendricks lifts a sheet of metal on hinges to reveal a ladder descending to four lower levels, a total of 200 nearly vertical feet farther into the earth. ``We won't go down there today,'' he says.

Instead, we retreat back down the shaft to where the tunnel opens into a larger cavern. With water dripping from the ceiling like rain, Hendricks points up toward a vein worked by miners in the late 1800s. The narrow opening running on an angle upward reveals where the old miners chipped and blasted their way into the mountainside, following the rich ore wherever it went.

``Everyone thinks they they can just open up one of these old mines and find gold,'' Hendricks says. ``That just isn't true. These old-timers weren't stupid.'' With his headlamp darting up onto a rock shelf, Hendricks reveals wooden supports placed by miners of another century to keep the mountain from clamping shut.

Dynamite is the weapon that miners still use to break away sections of gold bearing ore. But smashing away at a rock face with a hammer and steel spike to drill a hole for dynamite charges is no longer necessary. Pneumatic drills punch a six-foot-deep hole for dynamite in about two minutes.

Despite such labor-saving devices, Hendricks says he works 60- to 80-hour weeks, living six days a week in a small cabin he built for himself near the mine. A native of Colorado, Hendricks grew up in Colorado Springs. He worked in seven mining operations starting at age 14. Later he studied geology at Colorado University, quitting school just before graduation to restart the Cross Mine.

Physical hardship is an obvious part of the job. But over the years, Hendricks has also learned to endure the mountain of paper work he must file with state and federal agencies. His operation, like all mines, is closely watched by by the Environmental Protection Agency. He takes water samples weekly and files EPA water quality reports monthly. He is smart enough to know he must either play by the rules - or get out.

``These are the challenges that make it fun for me,'' Hendricks says, adding with a smile: ``I'd get so bored if I didn't have these things to deal with.''

When we emerge from the tunnel, two gold geologists, Larry Barrett and Ty Schuiling, are logging and splitting core samples in the shed. Samples will be assayed and results used to map new veins of gold.

This is an encouraging time for Hendricks. His mine has attracted new financing from an Australian mining company and is set for a flowering that the mine hasn't seen since its heyday - the boom days of Caribou in the late 1800s. Within a year, Hendricks expects to be pulling as much as 200 tons of ore a day out of the mine.

Mike Savage, a young man with close-cropped hair, walks by and says ``G'day, mate,'' imitating the accent of the new Australian investors. Mr. Savage is a rare breed these days: an apprentice miner. He is also the other year-round resident of Caribou, aside from Hendricks.

Carrying a thin cardboard box loaded with drilling samples of rock strata, Savage plops the box onto a table loaded with samples. Five men crowd around the box. All eyes are on Mr. Barrett and Mr. Schuiling.

Finally, the two men pronounce their verdict: mostly mediocre samples, except for one. ``Looks like there might be something good in this one,'' Schuiling says, handing the cylinder of rock to Hendricks.

Hendricks points out a single fleck of gold embedded in quartz, barely visible to the naked eye. He looks up and smiles. ``We always get excited when we see gold.''

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