Photographs by Paul Nicklen
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?”
through Nat Geo