Published: February 2014
Yukon: Canada’s Wild West
A modern-day minerals rush threatens one of North America’s last great wildernesses.
By Tom Clynes

Shawn Ryan recalls the hungry years, before his first big strike. The prospector and his family were living in a metal shack on the outskirts of Dawson, the Klondike boomtown that had declined to a ghostly remnant of its glory days. They had less than $300 and no running water or electricity. One night, as wind sneaked through gaps in the cladding, Ryan’s wife, Cathy Wood, worried aloud that their two children might even freeze to death.

Today the couple could buy—and heat—just about any house on Earth. Ryan’s discovery of what would eventually amount to billions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure has helped reinfect the Yukon with gold fever, and fortune seekers have stormed the Canadian territory in numbers not seen since the 1890s.

The minerals rush has reanimated Dawson’s weather-tilted bars and bunkhouses, whose facades glow in pastel hues during midsummer’s late-night sunset. The scene could be from more than a century ago, with bearded men bustling along wooden sidewalks and muddy streets, hooting and trading rumors of the latest strikes and price spikes. Inside Diamond Tooth Gerties casino, miners mingle with tourists and cancan girls, thronging four deep around beer taps and poker tables.

During the first Klondike stampede prospectors plied nearby creeks with picks and pans and shovels, and a bartender could sweep up a small fortune in spilled gold dust at the end of a big night. Nowadays mining’s heavy lifting is done by a mechanized army of bulldozers, drilling rigs, and flown-in workers. The claim-staking boom has cooled since the price of gold has stabilized, but an ongoing high demand for minerals and the Yukon’s industry-friendly regulations continue to attract mining companies from as far away as China.

At Shawn Ryan’s expanding compound at the edge of town, helicopters thump overhead, fetching GPS-equipped prospectors to and from remote mountain ridges. Ryan is 50 years old, but he radiates the eagerness and intensity of a much younger man. “This is the biggest geochemical exploration project on the planet right now,” he says, his grin revealing a couple of missing upper teeth, “and maybe in history.”

In the modular office he calls his war room, radios and bear-spray canisters surround a trio of computer screens atop a plywood table. A self-taught geologist, Ryan uses the left-hand screen to display the colored maps he generates from his ever growing database of soil samples, looking for anomalies that might betray a hidden body of precious ore. On the center screen a blue grid overlays a map of the Yukon, showing the claims he currently owns; since 1996 he and his crews have staked more than 55,000 claims, enough to cover a landmass larger than Jamaica. Ryan uses the right-side screen to track his gold-related holdings, which notch up in value whenever an economic jolt sends investors fleeing to precious metals.

As the material needs of the world’s seven billion people continue to grow, the rush to exploit the Yukon’s exceptionally rich resources—gold, zinc, copper, and more—has brought prosperity to a once forsaken corner of the continent. But the boom has brought to the fore a growing tension between those who would keep one of North America’s last great wildernesses unbroken and those whose success depends on digging it up.

“They’re blanket-staking the whole territory,” says Trish Hume, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Though Hume does mapping work that’s mining related, she worries that the Yukon is reaching a tipping point where the environmental and cultural costs of mining outweigh the benefits. “The people coming up and taking out minerals aren’t asking what happens to the animals we hunt, the fish we eat, the topsoil that holds it all together. And when the boom is over, how does our tiny population afford to clean up the toxic mess?”

Larger than California but with only 37,000 inhabitants, the Yukon drives an immense wedge between Alaska and the bulk of Canada. From its north coast on the Beaufort Sea, it stretches to the south and southeast, taking in tremendous expanses of lake-dotted tundra, forests, mountains, wetlands, and river systems. Walled off by some of Canada’s highest peaks and largest glaciers, the territory is almost completely unsettled, its sparse population scattered over a few small communities and the capital, Whitehorse. It is also rich in wildlife, an Arctic Serengeti whose extreme seasonal shifts beckon vast herds of caribou and other animals into motion. Among its wildest quarters is the Peel watershed, an immense wilderness, which drains an area larger than Scotland. “The Peel watershed is one of the few places left where you still have large, intact predator-prey ecosystems,” says Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon Conservation Society. “From wolves and grizzlies and eagles on down, it’s a wildlife habitat of global importance.”

The Yukon has long served as a migration waypoint for humans too. During the last glacial period, when most of Canada was buried under a mile of ice, Alaska and the Yukon were part of an arid, glacier-free pocket called Beringia, which linked Siberia and North America. Animal bones discovered in the Yukon’s Arctic and carbon dated to 25,000 years and older appear, to some archaeologists, to have been broken or cut by humans—though many scholars contest this claim. It’s clear, however, that human populations were permanently established by about 13,000 years ago, when retreating glaciers opened up corridors that allowed people to migrate north and south.

These nomadic hunters brought elements of their culture and technology with them. Eventually Dene (sometimes referred to as Athabaskan) languages became widespread. Even now, Navajo and Apache speakers in the American Southwest share words and sentence structures with many of the Yukon’s First Nations peoples, despite centuries of separation.

The Yukon’s early inhabitants hunted bison, elk, caribou, woolly mammoths, waterfowl, and fish, and they competed for resources with carnivores such as wolves and Beringian lions. Due to climate warming and other factors, some of these animals died off. But others, such as the barren-ground caribou, thrived in such numbers that native peoples adapted their own movements and lifestyles to the animals’ migrations.

“We’ve been depending on the caribou for at least 10,000 years,” says Norma Kassi, former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. “Our oral tradition tells us that a Gwitchin man sealed a pact of coexistence by trading a piece of his own beating heart for one from a living caribou.”

The Porcupine caribou herd is named after the big westward-flowing river that many of the animals cross twice each year. Their journey begins 400 miles to the northwest in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Each spring more than 100,000 caribou converge on the coastal plain to gorge on protein-rich cotton grass. Massing in groups of tens of thousands, the cows give birth almost in unison—possibly a “swamping” strategy that allows the majority of calves to survive the predations of grizzly bears, wolves, and golden eagles.

When the calves are just a few weeks old, the herd begins to move south, a cacophony of clacking hooves, bellowing cows, and bleating calves. Though the adults’ towering antlers give them a top-heavy, somewhat comical appearance, caribou are among nature’s most graceful travelers, custom-built for their journey across mountain ranges and rivers into the windswept marshland that is the traditional hunting ground of the Vuntut Gwitchin.

The snow is flying as my plane banks over the Porcupine River and touches down in Old Crow, the Yukon’s northernmost community. Unconnected by roads to the rest of the world, the village is a jumble of raised wooden houses whose outer walls are decorated with caribou and moose antlers.

The Gwitchin are among the last people in North America who meet most of their nutritional needs by hunting and gathering. Through the slats of smokehouses, I can see strings of drying meat and fish. The caribou are due to begin moving through the area at any moment, and the mood of the village is energized and upbeat. Barrel-chested men pilot all-terrain vehicles through snowy gusts, and children run around in T-shirts chasing sled-dog puppies.

Robert Bruce, a genial, Santa-like man in his 60s, rides up on an ATV, a smile stretching across his broad face. “The caribou!” he yells. “They’re here!”

A few minutes later we’re inside his house eating caribou stew, talking of the herd’s long-awaited arrival, and sharing family history. Bruce grew up on the land, moving with the seasons to harvest wild game, fish, and berries. Though he, like most Gwitchin men, still hunts or fishes nearly every day, life in Old Crow is not primitive. A village store offers expensive packaged food flown in from Whitehorse, and satellite television and the Internet have enabled the Gwitchin to see themselves in the context of the wider world. Alcohol is banned, but substance abuse and identity issues have had profound effects on the community, especially young people.

As we talk, Bruce’s adolescent grandson, Tyrel, sprawls on the couch, half watching a Three’s Company rerun. “Tomorrow,” Bruce says, winking, “we’ll take him hunting.”

The government had claimed nearly all of the Yukon territory as crown land. A hard-fought land-claims process recently returned control of some of the land to its native inhabitants, allowing them to again be the guardians of the places where they travel, hunt, and fish. But some threats, such as climate change, are outside the community’s sphere of influence. “See those riverbanks collapsing?” Bruce says as he steers his aluminum motorboat upstream. “That’s the permafrost thawing. Ten years ago we’d have ice on the river by this time. And now we have animals like cougars coming here, and new plants that cover our blueberries and rose hips. That’s where we always got our vitamins.”

Like other Gwitchin elders, Bruce has traveled to Washington and elsewhere in the U.S., appealing to the American people to protect the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds. Politicians have tried multiple times to open ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas leasing. Drilling could tap a reservoir of billions of barrels of oil—and, biologists say, displace the caribou from their core calving grounds. “We call it vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii,” Bruce tells me, “the sacred place where life begins. To us, it’s a human rights issue. Because when the caribou are gone, our culture is gone.”

In a few minutes Bruce squints and guns the motor. “Caribou!” he yells, reaching for his rifle. Moments later he pulls up alongside a swimming herd of six, selects a bull in mid-pack—“We never take the leaders,” he says—and dispatches it with a shot to the neck. It’s not the sort of hunting that would pass the test of sportsmanship farther south. To a Gwitchin, though, hunting isn’t recreation; it’s a means of acquiring protein and fat in a place where efficiency has always meant survival.

As Tyrel grabs hold of the caribou’s antlers and Bruce steers the boat toward shore, I realize that something’s not right. It’s autumn, but this herd was headed north. “We’re seeing more of that now,” Bruce says, as he swipes his knife blade across a sharpening stone. “Caribou are smart, smart as humans. But we’ve gotten confused, and now the caribou are getting confused too. So many changes.”

With their light-on-the-feet lifestyle, native Yukoners saw little value in the heavy metal they noticed sparkling at the bottom of sunlit creeks. Prospectors began poking around the Yukon in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1896 that three miners dipped their pans into a creek near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. News of the strike finally reached civilization 11 months later, when the first newly rich miners descended gangplanks in San Francisco and Seattle, staggering under the weight of their riches. Within days headlines around the world were screaming, “Gold! Gold! Gold! ... Stacks of Yellow Metal!”

Thus began one of the most extraordinary outbreaks of mass hysteria in modern history. The term “stampede” was a fitting and quite literal description, as tens of thousands stormed the ticket offices of the steamboat companies that were heavily promoting the Klondike’s get-rich-quick possibilities and struck out toward a wilderness for which few were prepared.

“My father said they came like mosquitoes,” says Percy Henry, 86, an elder in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. “Isaac, our chief, said that they would destroy our land—and that there was nothing we could do to stop them.”

The newcomers converged on a soggy floodplain that the Tr’ondëk Hwech’in had used as a fishing and hunting camp. Within months the nearby forests had been cut down, and tens of thousands of stampeders were digging in nearby creeks. By the summer of 1898 Dawson City was a rough-hewn metropolis of 30,000, with telephones, running water, and electric lights.

And then, even more quickly than it had begun, it was over. In 1899, a year after Dawson was declared the capital of the newly founded Yukon Territory, word of a new strike in Nome, Alaska, drew many miners downstream on the Yukon River. Others, bent by scurvy and drained by the realization that their dreams had come to nothing, sold what they could and headed home. Over the next decades a few men found work on the gold dredges that began to work the rivers and dammed-up creeks, creating the snaking tailings piles that are Dawson’s defining landscape feature.

Much of the territory had emptied out by 1953, when the capital was moved south to Whitehorse. But Yukon’s brawling, big-mountain physicality has continued to tug on adventurous imaginations.

“You could definitely say I heard the call of the wild,” says Scott Fleming, 42, a soft-spoken carpenter from Ontario who arrived in Dawson in 1992, chasing the promise of a life that could be both hardscrabble and good.

I get to know Fleming during a 13-day canoe expedition on the Snake River, which twists through the Bonnet Plume Range, eventually emptying into the Peel River. The Peel watershed is one of the largest still pristine river systems on Earth. Long insulated from development by its remoteness, the watershed in recent years has drawn the mining industry’s attention. As First Nations and conservation groups push for protection, the Peel has become the subject of nationwide petition drives, election-year debates, and competing proposals to protect or develop the wilderness area.

Fleming ran into Ryan, also from Ontario, shortly after arriving in Dawson. Ryan had come to the Yukon in his 20s to do some fur trapping but quickly turned to mushroom hunting, supplying wild fungi to the lucrative international restaurant trade. Then he got hooked on gold prospecting.

In the Yukon, much of which was never glaciated, gold deposits come in two forms. So-called lode ore is held solidly in rocky veins where it was borne up through the Earth’s crust. Placer gold is created when lode ore is loosened by erosion and carried away from the main ore body by water and gravity, concentrating as flecks and nuggets in streambeds and buried under gravel and sand.

“Shawn was convinced that the mother lode was still out there,” Fleming tells me one night as we cook dinner by the last rays of sun. “He said that for the past hundred years people were seeing the tracks and not the beast.”

Ryan hired Fleming as his first employee, and for the next six years the two men used bicycles, a beat-up wooden boat, and mostly their own feet to access promising-looking wilderness. Refining their rigorously scientific system of collecting and analyzing data, the two men began to home in on what would eventually prove to be millions of ounces of gold. But just when Ryan had persuaded his first major investors to come on board, Fleming departed to pursue a career in carpentry.

On day five of our Snake River expedition I ask Fleming why he left on the eve of the big payoff. Our group of eight has taken a daylong break from the river to hike up to Mount MacDonald, a multi-spired wonderland of rock walls, glaciers, and hidden box canyons.

“Shawn’s a great guy and greener than most,” Fleming tells me when we stop for lunch in a high meadow sprinkled with arctic poppies. “But being out on the land every day and seeing places like this, I guess it had an effect on me.” He gazes out over the river and across the purple mountains that sprawl to the horizon. “I realized I didn’t want to be part of tearing it up.”

We follow a milky stream up the valley, springing across thick beds of sphagnum moss. We step over moose and wolf tracks and pause to watch a golden eagle making halfhearted dives toward a young Dall sheep huddled on a ledge under its mother. It’s nearly midnight when we return to our riverside camp, which is newly adorned with a pile of grizzly scat.

By morning the weather has turned, dusting the surrounding mountaintops with snow. We don dry suits, tarp the canoes, and launch toward a formidable canvas of dark clouds.

The wind and rain come in hard over the next two days, raising the river and dislodging tree trunks, which we swerve to miss as we race downstream. The waterway braids through broad valleys, its branches converging and quickening to squeeze through white-water canyons. The rapids test us, tossing bucketfuls of glacial water in our faces, freezing our hands, threatening to overturn our heavy canoes as we dodge boulders and bounce through rolling wave trains.

The river serves up gifts too: fresh-caught grayling, which we cook over an alder fire. A summit cloaked in deep red alpenglow. The camaraderie born of shared challenge in a place that’s real and raw. With each day on the river we’re all breathing more deeply, feeling more robust and confident.

Thus far we’ve seen no sign that humans have ever set foot here. And so it’s jarring when, on the ninth day, we spot an oil drum lying on its side atop a strand of red rocks.

A few miles up a tributary of the Snake, one of North America’s largest iron deposits was discovered in 1961. The site was test mined but never fully developed. Since then, demand for steel in Asia’s emerging economies has renewed interest in the Crest Deposit, and mining industry advocates are talking of developing a rail link to the coast.

“Overland access is always the Achilles heel of wilderness,” says Dave Loeks, chairman of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. “Right now the Peel as a wilderness is as good as it gets. We’d better have a darn good reason before we develop it, because it’s a one-way gate. The mining industry always makes big promises, but now we have closed mines in the Yukon that are leaking arsenic and cyanide and lead. Instead of paying to clean up the mess, the companies just go bankrupt.”

But Bob Holmes, director of Mineral Resources for the Yukon government, says the industry has changed. Holmes, formerly a manager at the Faro lead-zinc mine—now the site of a more than $700 million government cleanup that will require an estimated hundred years to complete—says new bonding and reclamation policies have reduced the risk of major failures. “Nowadays you can’t put a shovel in the ground until you have a closure plan.”

Environmentalists say the Yukon’s archaic mining laws are long overdue for an overhaul. “Mining is part of our history, and no one wants to see it go,” says Lewis Rifkind, of the Yukon Conservation Society. “But the current technology can do terrible damage, and we’re still regulating it with laws written when that bearded guy on our license plates was crouching in a creek, shaking a pan.”

The Yukon’s so-called free-entry system allows any adult to stake a claim on the majority of the territory’s land—including some native lands and private property—and to use the land in virtually any way necessary to access the mineral resources below, subject to regulatory and environmental rules. Recently, however, an appeals court decision has cast doubt on the Yukon government’s right to allow prospectors to explore and stake claims on some traditional lands without first consulting the affected native peoples and accommodating their rights.

The royalty rate for placer mining—37.5 cents an ounce in Canadian currency—was set in 1906, when gold was valued at $15 an ounce. From April 2012 to March 2013, Yukon placer miners produced some $70 million in gold and collectively paid $20,035 in royalties.

Yukon’s premier, Darrell Pasloski, says reform of the royalty and free-entry systems is not a high priority on the government’s agenda. “Placer mines are like the family farms of the Yukon,” says Pasloski, whose 2011 reelection campaign was heavily supported by mining interests. “And the free-entry system creates opportunities for the little guy. A story like Shawn Ryan’s wouldn’t exist if you modified that.”

Nearing the end of my stay in the Yukon, I find myself back in Dawson. Gold has just topped $1,700 an ounce, and there’s talk that it could break $2,000.

“People keep asking if I’m going to cash out, now that I’ve made my fortune,” Ryan says. “I tell ’em, ‘Aye, are you kidding? This is the greatest Easter egg hunt on Earth!’”

I hitch a ride on a helicopter to a promising site near the Ogilvie Mountains that Ryan’s team has been exploring. As we take off, I can see up and down the fabled gold rush creeks—Bonanza, Hunker, Eldorado—where bulldozers have replaced that bearded guy shaking a pan.

Within minutes, though, I’m buzzing over mountains blanketed in thick forest and roamed by wildlife. I land in a light drizzle at a hilltop campsite, where I meet Morgan Fraughton, then one of Ryan’s project managers. Guided by his GPS, Fraughton and I head out to a nearby ridge and spend the day walking a traverse line, stopping every 50 yards or so to twist a hollow auger into the ground.

The hillside, covered with moss, fireweed, and lichen, is a miracle riot of color and nutrition. Underneath the vegetation the dirt is just as colorful and diverse. Fraughton’s auger brings up samples of yellow sand, bluish loam, green gravel, and red clay. “If we get data back that looks positive, it’s supercrucial to get out and stake it quick,” Fraughton says, as he photographs and bags the dirt. “It’s like the Wild West the way rumors fly in Dawson. A couple weeks ago we went to stake an area where we’d found good soil, and someone had already staked it.”

The rain tapers in the late afternoon as we make our way back to the prospectors’ camp. As we descend a steep, boulder-strewn hillside, I mention something Ryan told me: “I tell people not to get too attached to all this beauty. We just might want to mine it.”

Fraughton sighs. “Yeah, I can see how that kind of thing can make people nervous,” he says. “But there’s no guarantee that this will be mined. If it is, I hope it’s done in a responsible manner. But I’m just a prospector. If I wasn’t out here, someone else would be, making 300 bucks a day.”

As we approach camp, the clouds begin to part, splintering the sunlight into beams that spotlight a few of the broad-shouldered mountains jostling by the hundreds toward the horizon. A half dozen summits, suddenly bathed in ethereal yellow light, begin to sparkle and steam. It’s a natural spectacle on a scale so vast it seems impossible, at this moment, that any of it could ever be in short supply.

Fraughton and I sit down for a minute to pick a few blueberries and take it all in. “You know what the amazing thing is?” he says. “I’ve been all over this territory, and it’s hard to believe, but it’s this good everywhere. Wherever you go, there’s just mountains and more mountains, too many to name, too many to count. And I think, What if one of them disappeared? Would it really make a difference?”

Tom Clynes is author of the forthcoming book The Boy Who Played With Fusion. Photographer Paul Nicklen lived in the Yukon for much of his adult life.