DAWSON CITY, YUKON — Shawn Ryan could have retired.
Ryan and his wife, Cathy Wood, are the Yukon prospecting team whose dedicated soil sampling led Underworld Resources to the million-ounce-plus White Gold deposit in 2009, a discovery that sparked a new Yukon gold rush. They also get credit for Kaminak Gold’s (TSXV: KAM; US-OTC: KMKGF) Coffee project, already at 3.2 million oz. and growing, and have at least another dozen soil anomalies on option to explorers across the White Gold district.
After years of scraping by on government grants and prospecting contracts, Ryan and Wood made it to the big leagues when Kinross Gold (TSX: K; NYSE: KGC) acquired Underworld for $138 million. With that payday, plus a steady stream of option payments, the team could easily have stepped back from the grind and enjoyed their just rewards.
Instead, Ryan and Wood spent the last 18 months figuring out how to make exploring for gold in the Yukon less expensive and more reliable.
“I could see the crash coming and I could see there was so much money being wasted up here,” Ryan says in an interview in Dawson City. “So we took a step back and thought, ‘If we’re going to keep this momentum alive, we need to add something new — we need to figure out some simple new tools that will increase drilling confidence without costing millions.”
That is what he did. Ryan and Wood’s company GroundTruth Exploration offers a suite of novel exploration technologies that can turn a soil anomaly into high-confidence drill targets (if the anomaly offers up the goods) — in three weeks, and for $100,000.
The process starts with GroundTruth’s unmanned drone. Bought from the Swiss military, the small, remote-controlled plane takes high-resolution orthophotos — geometrically corrected and scaled aerial photographs — of entire properties in short order. The time frame depends on the requested resolution. Taking pictures with 4 cm resolution the drone can cover 10 sq. km in a 45-minute flight.
Each photo comes with a black box file that identifies the plane’s location on all three axes, which lets a mapping program stitch them together to create a scaled image of the property. The accurate photographic overview helps geologists in many ways: in identifying structures that are impossible to see from the ground, in planning exploration programs and in overlaying various mapped data.
“For example, when we drape our induced-polarization (IP) sections on our orthophotos, they are pretty well bang on,” Ryan says. “Before we had to use topographic data from the government, which is out by 20 to 30 metres, so you were always draping in mid-air.”
The next step in GroundTruth’s process is high-resolution IP. IP is a well-established exploration tool, but for Ryan it was problematic in two ways. First, conventional IP surveys offer perhaps 25-metre resolution, but many gold-bearing structures in the White Gold region are much smaller than that. At the Coffee property, for example, many key structures are less than 10 metres wide, and get lost in conventional IP data.
Second, conventional IP involves two electrodes connected by a long, heavy cable, a system that has to be dragged from point to point. That requires line cutting, which means slashing a few-metre wide swaths through the bush for each IP line. Ryan found that time-consuming, expensive and environmentally impactful.
So he figured out how to increase resolution and limit line cutting with a new kind of IP. Powered by a lightweight battery instead of a generator, GroundTruth’s IP system includes 84 electrodes placed every 5 metres along a line, connected by a light cable. When all electrodes are in place, the system is turned on and data is collected. Then the electrodes get pulled out, the cable gets rolled up and the system is carried to the next line. The result is an IP map with a resolution of 5 metres — tight enough to catch smaller geological structures that get lost in regular IP surveys — that requires minimal line cutting and takes much less time.
GroundTruth and the client then assess the orthophotos and high-res IP data alongside the prospecting intelligence and soil geochemistry of a property. If areas of interest appear, it’s time to test some rocks. But that is easier said than done.
In the White Gold district, rocks are rare because the soil is usually several metres thick. To access bedrock requires trenching, often a complicated and costly endeavour given the area’s limited access, rugged bush and steep hills. So Ryan did away with trenching by developing Geoprobe, a modest, track-mounted hydraulic drill that can push through deep soils to take soil and rock-chip samples from the soil-bedrock interface.
Geoprobe is small — it comes apart into two pieces that can each be slung by an A-Star helicopter. Once reassembled, the Geoprobe can trample over most of the Yukon’s buckbrush to get where it needs to go. When it reaches a sampling location, its two arms fold out to create stability and the drill pops up to vertical and starts working. Within five minutes Geoprobe pulls bedrock samples from beneath several metres of soil.
The bedrock samples and the deepest metre of soil are immediately tested with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) gun, which provides rough assay information. If the XRF sees notable levels of gold or indicator elements, the company is notified and can adapt its exploration plans on the fly. And once it’s all done, Geoprobe leaves behind little more than some trampled bushes.
The goal, Ryan says, is to take a soil sampling, IP and trenching program that would usually cost $750,000 and make it available for $100,000, while also cutting the time frame for the program back from at least a year to just three weeks.
“In short, we’re trying to reinvent the wheel without costing a fortune,” Ryan says.
Yukon explorers are beating a path to GroundTruth’s door. Ryan’s only Geoprobe — which was a back-of-the-napkin idea in the winter — is booked up until the snow flies. He will make more this winter, along with a rotary air-blast drill mounted on a similar track system that will add another step to his low-cost, low-impact prospecting package: the ability to punch shallow drill holes into the best Geoprobe targets to see what the first 30 metres of bedrock contains, before bringing a full-sized drill rig to site.
“I want to be able to tell companies: this is your drill target, and you will hit,” Ryan says.
Cash-strapped explorers are keen to get their hands on that kind of certainty.
“That’s exactly what we need nowadays,” says Julia Lane, senior project geologist at Atac Resources’ (TSXV: ATC) Rackla gold discovery. “We need higher confidence in our drill targets in the least expensive way.”
Across the Yukon, geologists have said similar things.
“When you do get to the drill stage you want to make absolutely sure that you’re putting your drill in the right place,” says Mark Fekete, a director of Taku Gold (TSXV: TAK). “Drilling costs up here are enormously high and hard to control. So the cost benefit of using this system is enormous. And with the XRF, we get real-time numbers for all the key pathfinder elements. It’s just incredibly useful.”
The reasons for mining sector cycles are complex and academic, but GroundTruth’s response is simple and practical. Yukon explorers are responding similarly, using this season to map, prospect, analyze and reassess after a few whirlwind years.
Shawn Ryan is certain the excitement will return to the Yukon. He knows the White Gold district perhaps better than anyone else, having walked many of its ridges and spent countless nights poring over soils data to identify targets.
“We just need a couple more discoveries,” he says. “And I’ve got a couple good ones in the bag.”
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