There is gold in the mountains of the Yukon. More than 100 years after the Klondike Gold Rush, prospector Shawn Ryan is searching for the Mother Lode. Ryan, and his wife, Cathy Wood, are leading a new Klondike Gold Rush that has made them millionaires several times over.
"I don't have enough fingers and toes to name off what he has found," said geologist Mike Burke, "He has found a number of small deposits to larger deposits. It's at least probably a million ounces of gold."
Burke met Ryan in the mid 1990's while he was head of the Yukon Territories geology office and Ryan made frequent trips to Burke's office in Whitehorse. Burke is now Chief Geologist for Golden Predator Corporation, a Canadian mining firm.
More than a century after the last great gold rush put this cold corner of Canada, on the map, Ryan is at the same spot on Bonanza Creek where "Skookum Jim" Mason and his two partners pulled out the first gold nuggets that started the gold-searching stampede of 1896.
Ryan, a 47-year-old Canadian backwoodsman with a high school education, may very well be the Skookum Jim of our time. He has spent the past decade quietly staking claims that grant him exclusive rights to mine. Everyone else had all but given up on Klondike.
"You just never know how big this thing could get," Ryan said.
He is referring to his 40,000 claims, which could contain 1 million ounces of gold and cover roughly 1.5 million acres -- a mountainous area bigger than the state of Delaware. Today, each claim is worth billions of dollars as the price of gold approaches $2,000 an ounce.
Before chasing gold, Ryan and his wife, Cathy Wood, 44, were chasing mushrooms. The professional mushroom pickers wandered the Northwest for eight years chasing elusive morels and chanterelles, which high-end restaurants are willing to pay top dollar for.
When describing their living conditions during their mushroom days, visions of the year 1898 rather than 1998 come to mind. The couple's tin shack had no toilet, no running water, no phone and no power.
"There was one front room that was an old wood stove and we had a little propane and stove top," said Wood. "We had a couch and a little side table, and then there was a back room that had a bed, like a king-size bed, that was up off the ground because it was so cold."
"So underneath there, we stored all sorts of books and food. It was like a little squirrel's nest under there," he said.
For the couple, the gold search was not any easier.
"We were broke," Ryan said. "Like one time we had 3,000 bucks, actually, in the bank and Catherine allowed me to spend it in the middle of February. I said, 'Are you sure?'"
He spent their last $3,000 staking gold claims and hunting for hard rock gold. "Placer gold" are the tiny nuggets dredged from creek beds, and hard rock gold is harvested from rocks. To make large-scale mining worthwhile, miners have to find an ounce of gold dust per ton of rocks.
"The days of a prospector finding a rock and running out of the bush and making money on it are pretty well over," Ryan said.
It was not before long that Ryan loaded his pick-up truck with rocks and brought them down to show the experts in the territorial capital.
"He rolled into Whitehouse late Friday afternoon just as we were heading out for beer and brought in a bunch of rock samples that he had been out prospecting," Mike Burke said.
Burke recalled that he and Ryan met into the night -- so late that he missed his dinner. He had no idea the conversation with Ryan would lead to a new Klondike gold rush.
"The Shawn and Cathy thing is everybody's dream," he said. "It's the Canadian dream. It's the American dream to go from rags to riches and to work and to have it pay off. So theirs is a perfect story."
Shawn Ryan: From Rags to Riches
Ryan's real innovation comes from his method of exploration. His main piece of equipment is a tulip bulb planter from Holland that he uses to dig down into the dirt. He then samples the soil closer to the rocks beneath.
With the advent of new supercomputers and inexpensive GPS receivers, Ryan has created a huge database that generates detailed maps. The mapping includes multi-colored patterns which show potential hot spots for gold.
The maps greatly increase accuracy. Referring to the gold, Ryan said, "eventually, we have to drill a 2-inch hole, with the drill, and you could easily miss it."
Once too poor afford electricity or running water, Ryan and his wife are now millionaires many times over. They negotiate million-dollar deals but say the money isn't what drives them to hunt for gold. Their roots remain in that tin shack.
Cathy Wood confided that she actually prefers silver to gold. "No bling, bling here," she said.
Surrounded by lush greenery, Shawn Ryan approaches the landscape with the pragmatism of a backwoodsman. To him, the wild Yukon territory is a resource, not just a picture postcard.
"Don't fall in love with it," he said. "We might want to mine it one day."