Rising gold prices revive 'spell of the Yukon'

"Off to the Klondike we go." The battle cry of the mass hysteria of the turn-of-the century is heard again throughout North America and even farther afield. The latter-day sourdoughs are drawn by the same "spell of the Yukon," so powerfully exerted by the "cussed" gold then as now.

Robert Service, bard of the "Trail of '98," certainly would approve of it. As the value of the yellow metal exceeds $700 (US) an ounce, notwithstanding the occasional fluctuation caused by a jittery market, the "Trails of a Thousand Tales" once more are getting crowded.

Admittedly, no one is climbing the forbidding Chilkoot Pass -- the dreaded overland route to the Yukon gold fields from the Alaskan coast -- on foot any more. Neither is anyone rafting down the treacherous Yukon River, which gave its name to Canada's remote nothern territory.

The new breed of gold prospectors arrive in relative comfort. They travel in air-conditioned motor vechiles as far as existing roads will take them. They come in private planes, swooping down on the steel-hard ice cover of the Yukon's numerous lakes to set up base camps as close as possible to the fabled "creeks." They use tractor-drawn sleigh trains to transport supplies instead of the mules used as the beasts of burden in yesteryear, whose skeletons are still to be found scattered along the mountain passes. Snowmobiles -- motorized toboggans -- have replaced the "mushing" dog teams.

Conveyances may have changed, but the frontier romance of the wide open places, the bitter -50 degrees C. winter weather, the glowing northern lights, and the glitter of the precious nuggets are said to be eternal. So, apparently, are the hardships. Modern technology might get prospectors to the spot that much quicker, but those "who moil for the gold" today suffer from the cruel cold and the exhausting shoveling and shifting of the alluvial gravel of the riverbeds exactly as their predecessors had.

Some of the gold diggers posses sophisticated gadgets said to pinpoint even the tiniest specks of gold left behind by earlier panners. Some prospectors in the taverns of this territorial capital and mining-industry staging post boast of washing up two to three ounces of gold in a good day's work. Some are spending as if they had that kind of money, too.

Already there is the odd corporate operation either in place or soon to commence which will use high pressure hydraulics to flush hundreds of tons of sediment daily. Nearly 3,000 miles of river valleys throughout this mighty land have been claimed under prospectors' placer permits. That's virtually all the prime prospecting areas of the Yukon. Evocative place names like Bonanza Creek, Promised Landing, Squaw Flats, Lac La Barge, Indian Portage, and Calvary, so long part of the folklore of the Yukon, are coming to life.

Last year, the Yukon exported about 33,000 ounces of gold. At least that is the declared amount on which royalty was paid. Most Yukoners believe that much more gold, perhaps three times as much, has been produced and has either remained within the territory awaiting better prices or has been smuggled out of the sparsely populated and casually policed land. Ironically, the federal government that administers the Yukon is charging 1906 royalty rates of $1.50 (Canadian) on locally produced gold intended for removal

One Canadian company is offering well-heeled prospectors its portable black box, said to be able to separate even the most minuscule speck of gold from the mud and gravel of the riverbeds.

Other hardy souls trek up the creeks and valleys of the Yukon toward the Artic Circle in a relentless search for the eluive "mother lode." Some of the less adventurous panners are satisfied to rework the tailing of the earlier hot spots with varying results.

The fact is that the higher the price of gold goes, the harder and deeper the prospectors are able to dig into the piles of bone-hard leftover. According to some mining industry experts, the price of gold has to go up somewhat more and stabilize at possibly $1,100 an ounce for some time before really large capital investment in sophisticated operations could be considered. Also, few miners expect that the exceptionally low federal royalty rate will last much longer.

Whatever share the Canadian government might decide to exact from the gold miners, of course, will inevitably affect the economies of future enterprises.

The higher metal prices in general have helped the economies of the Yukon's zinc and lead mines. World demand for base metals is on the upswing.

As a bonus, the lead and zinc mines now get much higher prices from the silver produced as a byproduct. The two underground gold mines at Yellowknife, the capital of the neighboring Northwest Territories, are milling rock of very low ore content, which they could not possibly handle at lower gold prices.

Unlike the Yukon, the gold prospect of the Northwest Territories are nearly all underground, embedded deep in the granite of the massive Canadian shield.

There are as many as three gold mines to the north of Great Slave Lake that were either worked previously or were identified but never put into production. These could be reopened if the price of gold permanently moved over $1,000 an ounce, miners say.

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