A superstar prospector has chosen Newfoundland and Labrador as his latest exploration playground
Shawn Ryan is a prospector with a reputation for turning fieldwork and data analysis into tangible gold finds. From a tiny operation, partnered at every turn by his wife Cathy Wood, the Ontario-born Ryan has optioned ground in the Yukon with gold estimates running into the billions of dollars. Just one existing prospect alone—White Gold in the Yukon—has a potential yield of over two million ounces, according to Ryan.
But these days Ryan has more than the Yukon on his mind. He’s trained his keen eye for gold on the East Coast—Newfoundland and Labrador to be exact. In the process he has set off a staking rush in this province that is revitalizing its mining sector. “If I was 25 years younger and I found Newfoundland first instead of the Yukon, I’d be in Newfoundland,” says Ryan, who lives in Dawson City, Yukon year-round. “I had never been there before and I was super impressed when I got there.”
If I was 25 years younger and I found Newfoundland first instead of the Yukon, I’d be in Newfoundland.
Shawn Ryan, prospector
In the Canadian mining world, Ryan is a big deal, and his journey from a nature-loving kid who trapped and picked mushrooms to a mineral prospector with a knack for finding gold has been chronicled in numerous publications. In May 2011, a New York Times profile went so far as to christen Ryan ‘the king of a new Yukon Gold rush’, the same year Ryan was given the Bill Dennis Award as prospector of the year by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada.
It’s easy to see why scribes are smitten with Ryan. His unconventional route to exploration success reads like a Hollywood script. Born in a mining camp in Timmins, Ontario, Ryan worked trap lines and moved west across Canada before landing in the Yukon. A stretch of years spent foraging for mushrooms with his wife Wood (and making very little money at it) morphed into the search for another valuable commodity in the area—gold. After six years perfecting his prospecting technique, based largely on deep dives into data and his own ground work with soil samples, Ryan optioned his first mineral claim.
Since then, the hits have kept coming for him. One example is the deal he inked in December of 2016 when Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. bought 19.3 per cent of the shares in a company Ryan had formed that had 12,300 claims in the White Gold district south of Dawson City. Before that deal had been struck, Ryan had already made $3.5 million when an associate formed a Vancouver-based company that bought all those claims. Now Ryan, and his prospecting company GroundTruth Exploration Inc., hope to duplicate their Yukon success in central Newfoundland.
His entry into the Newfoundland and Labrador mining sector is good news for a province in need of economic bright spots. From peak employment figures in the 1970s of approximately 7,000 people employed in mining, Newfoundland and Labrador currently has the fewest number of people working in the sector since the post-confederation era. The good news is that since the 1980s, despite overall declining employment numbers, wages for those employed in mining have continued to climb as the remaining jobs have become more skill-oriented and technical in nature. For rural Newfoundland and Labrador, the possibility of highpaying jobs, no matter the number, is a potential salve to an economy that has been weathering a global downturn in the mining and oil and gas industries.
The ‘Ryan effect’ is already paying dividends. Ed Moriarity, executive director of Mining NL, the province’s mining industry association, says an uptick in recent staking activity has a direct correlation with Ryan’s entry into the field. It’s been just over one year since Ryan first staked ground, and others players are jumping back into the province.
“In the first six months of 2016, there were probably 2,750 claims staked. This year, there were 13,406 staked claims in that same six-month period. If you go to 2016 and look post-July into December, you see the impact of Mr. Ryan because in that period, the second part of 2016, there were 17,869 claims staked,” Moriarity says.
Moriarity says the boom really kicked off in September 2016 when Ryan staked a block of 5,000 mineral claims in central Newfoundland’s ‘Dunnage zone’, a historically productive area that held the Buchans mine and the Duck Pond mine, as well as Anaconda Mining’s current operations in the Baie Verte area. Once it became known Ryan had staked such a large block, it set off an avalanche of staking activity that caused the province’s mineral staking claim system to crash.
But before the great staking rush of last year, Ryan had been on the ground in Newfoundland and Labrador for a year conducting fieldwork. By September of 2016, the time had come to take action. Members of the Department of Natural Resources had been told by Ryan to expect a heavy volume of activity. Nevertheless, the usually robust system crashed, leading to a few tense hours through September 23-24. “Once we staked our first initial big block and we crashed the system, then that started a little mini-staking rush once it came back online,” Ryan says.
According to Ryan, the man who turned him on to Newfoundland and Labrador was John Clarke, the manager of the Mineral Incentive Program with the Mines branch of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Natural Resources. He was the person who first approached Ryan about the gold potential in the province after striking up a conversation with the prospector at a mining event in Vancouver. “It was John Clarke who brought Newfoundland to the forefront of my research and basically pointed out that I should have a better look,” Ryan says.
Pretty much the entire island is potentially prospective for gold.
Clarke’s promotional efforts, along with the mountains of existing data from government surveys and past exploration work, convinced Ryan to do his own ground work in central Newfoundland to suss out its potential. “Some companies come in and move through it quick,” Ryan says. “Once I started doing my research in there I realized there was a lot of potential.”
What is it about Newfoundland and Labrador that convinced this uber-successful prospector to put time, effort and money into searching for gold there? Clarke says high quality geoscience data and the long history of mining in central Newfoundland’s Dunnage zone were important factors. “If you look at most of the historical producing mines on the island, most of them are actually in the Dunnage zone,” Clarke says. “Pretty much the entire island is potentially prospective for gold but historically, most of the known gold occurrences are concentrated in the Dunnage zone and on the margins of it. The margins of the Dunnage zone are particularly attractive.”
Ryan has a reputation for being a risk-taker. He once spent his and Wood’s life savings—a mere $3,000 at the time—on a soil sample project for a promising prospect near Dawson City. However, the fact he had a wealth of data to scour over in Newfoundland and Labrador, and that central Newfoundland, and the Dunnage zone in particular are proven mining hot spots, mean his foray into the province is not some wild goose chase.
And after 20-plus years in the prospecting game, Ryan has learned plenty of tricks of the trade that have helped him unearth promising deposits he can option to mining companies like Agnico Eagle. He’s meticulous in collecting soil samples, a practice where prospectors collect soil on a claim so a chemical analysis can be done to determine the proportion of metallic or non-metallic elements in the sample.
Taking thousands of soil samples carefully spaced at 50-metre intervals can pay off. The more ground a prospector can cover, the less likely he or she will miss a big gold deposit. Ryan also treats the soil sampler as a valued member of the team and provides a two-week training course before they start. “Usually your soil sampler is your lowest paid guy on the team. But the reality is he’s your primary scout. He’s the guy who’s going to eventually find something for you,” Ryan says. “He’s the guy covering more ground. So put training into that guy, make sure he’s well-kept and well-fed. But don’t give him too much work that you’re going to get quantity over quality. You want quality all the time.”
While it’s too early to tell if Ryan’s claims and exploration work will lead to significant gold finds in the province, his interest in Newfoundland and Labrador is already benefitting the region. Mining exploration in Newfoundland and Labrador last peaked following the discovery of the Voisey’s Bay nickel deposit in the 1990s. In recent years, the drop-off from that high has been steep. Moriarity pegs the 2016 numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador at $22 million in exploration spending. “That’s probably the lowest it had been in a very long time,” he says.
But with $32 million in spending commitments for 2017, exploration is bouncing back. “We’ve seen a turning of the corner in terms of the staking piece,” Moriarity says. “We’re seeing commitments on the ground to do work. The rush is not simply the snapping up of available ground. With this new spike in staking, real dollars are being committed to exploration activity.”
Those dollars are finding their way into communities in central Newfoundland. Millertown’s Lakeview Inn on the shores of Red Indian Lake is owned by Terry and Barb Sheppard. This year the inn was full for the summer season. However, the guests weren’t tourists coming to enjoy Millertown’s rustic scenery; they were members of mining exploration crews. “I’ve been at this for about 17 years,” says Terry Sheppard. “In probably 12 or 14 of them our primary customer base is exploration people.”
After its 10-year run, the closure of Teck Resources’ Duck Pond copper and zinc mine in 2015 left people in the area waiting for the next development. The hope is that Ryan’s staking, and the interest it has generated in central Newfoundland from other prospectors and mining companies, will lead to more mines being developed. “Optimism is a big thing,” Sheppard says. “People see all the exploration and it gives a sense of hope for the development of a mine again. Exploration sort of died out from 2008 until recently. It’s going crazy again. There’s a lot of movement and a lot of optimism. Right now exploration is everything for us.”
Of course, without exploration, future mines won’t be found and developed. And that’s what makes Ryan’s interest in central Newfoundland so important. If he’s as right about the province’s gold potential as he was about the Yukon’s, happy days will be here again for the island’s mining sector and the communities that depend on it.