Making Good in Canada
Chapter XIII - Prospecting for Minerals


Sooner or later the new arrival is certain to fall a victim to the prospecting fever. It strikes down one and all without distinction, and there are very few temperaments which can resist the unfathnoble fascination of scratching the mountain slopes, sifting the alluvium left by the receding river, or washing the black sand thrown down in the bed of the mountain stream. One can understand somewhat the young man full of life and vigour embarking upon the quest, for the spice of adventure which it affords, but that the older, gnarled, and knotted members of the community should fall ready victims to the crazy is beyond comprehension. In this case years do not bring wisdom; the possibility of becoming rich in the twinkling of an eye cannot be smothered; gold attracts the young and the old as positively as the magnet attracts the iron filings.

The requirements for prospecting are few. Indeed, the less bulk to which necessities can be reduced the better, because a cumbersome equipment hampers progress. A knowledge of geology is essential, but this is generally acquired while knocking about the mountains in a general manner, it can be gathered easily by a display of normal intelligence when accompanying well-equipped mining expeditions, and is far more serviceable than digested textbooks. A small pick, a pan for washing, a good jack-knife, and one or two other light tools will meet every need. One must not overlook the commissariat, for the fastnesses in which Nature locks her treasures are not very supporting to mankind. By the aid of the rifle, bear, deer, and other animals of the forest may be brought down to afford juicy steaks; fool-hens, grouse, and partridges may be clubbed and shot in the bush, while salmon and other tasty fish may be hooked or trapped in the streams.

The life is maddening: it quenches all thoughts of father, mother, sister, brother, or friend; the general results are so disappointing; one becomes suspicious that even one’s shadow may betray the whereabouts of a trace of colour that has been found. The senses lose their appointed movement and Pie drummed into activity. One can tell the professional prospector at a glance. He is uncouth to an extreme degree, though his hospitality cannot be denied. He is heavy-eyed, morose, and listless. He knows nothing of the outside world and its movements —and cares less. His one thought, one absorbing topic of discussion, and one object in life is the discovery of mineral. His company, when you meet him in the frontier town, is depressing. He answers in monosyllables unless you broach his favourite subject, and then he eyes you with a furtive suspicion, fearing that you are bent upon worming out the secret of his heart. Now and again there is a reaction; Nature kicks at the abuse of the human engine, and the prospector lets himself go. He indulges to excess, and haunts the saloon or pool-room for the whole twenty-four hours, until at last his bodily powers succumb to the unusual treatment, and the prospector is forced to his couch to recuperate.

Yet meet that selfsame individual in the heart of the wilderness as I have done, and you find him the cheeriest companion alive. He has become so dependent upon his own resources that he fears nothing. He will give you half of what he has with the utmost generosity; his bonhomie is astonishing; and if you have a fit of the blues at your luckless isolated situation he is as cheerful as a sandboy. Then you appreciate the man at his true worth. He braves the elements; neither fain, snow, tempest, nor flood, provoke the slightest fear. He is ready for any emergency. He knows the trackless forest like an open book; can read the rocks like print; laughs when his larder is well nigh exhausted, and at once sets about easing his situation with fish, fur, or feather. He lives the Indian life, but to-day is superior to the Indian, for the simple reason that his intellect, which is so abnormally dull in the town, is strung to a high pitch when he is in the wilderness, with Nature as his sole companion.

I met one man of this calibre who was one of the finest specimens of manhood which it has ever been my fortune to see. He was as strong as a lion, and had never known what illness was. His clothes were few and scanty. As a matter of fact those he possessed well nigh defied the artifices of needle and thread to keep together. No matter what the weather was, he discarded a coat and pursued his daily task with his shirt open and his chest exposed to the elements. His feet were encased in semisteel armour, for nails and leather were about equally divided in quantity. No socks enclosed his feet, and his nether garments were of the flimsiest description. His home was a tent, more or less proof against the attacks of the heavy rains. His bed was a crude affair fashioned of poplar logs set about 18 inches above the damp ground, while the carpet was weeds and grass. He had a short length of candle stuck in an empty tin inverted and with a hole knocked through its bottom to grip the waxen dip. It was used but seldom, for when ho offered it to me one night the wick defied my attempts to light it because it had rotted!

His fare was an rude as his life. Pork and beans for the most part three times a day, week in and week out, washed down with tea and assisted occasionally by a tin—he had no plate or basin—of viscous, repulsive oatmeal which had grown musty through age. Now and again he went to the trouble of preparing bannock, but that was seldom. Outside his tent was a small patch where he had planted a few lettuces and onions, and these were struggling for existence with stones and weeds as keenly as he himself.

With the first streaks of dawn he was astir and busied himself with his morning meal, which, being of a simple character, occupied but very little time in its preparation. Breakfast discussed, he armed himself with his axe and pick and sallied off into the mountains. Perhaps he did not return for two or three days, living as best he could on what he could bring down with his gun or trap from the creeks. As the shades of evening cast long shadows upon the ground and lit up the snow capped mountains in fantastic hues he strode homeward as hungry as a hunter. In a few minutes his camp fire was blazing furiously, the eternal pork and beans were sizzling merrily in the pot, and were eaten with more relish than an epicure enjoys the dainties concocted by a world-famous chef in a celebrated hotel or club. When the meal was finished he sprawled on the ground before the fire and carefully examined for traces of mineral the specimens of rock he had brought home with him.

Now and again the daily toil among the rocks was relieved by a hunting expedition. He had built a canoe with which he plodded along the silent rushing waterways. The canoe was truly primitive. The planks were logs of trees which he had felled and pared down, with infinite labour with the axe, to the required thickness. It was a sturdy, business like-looking craft, but one which the average person would view with ill-concealed distrust. If he could not overcome a difficulty with his canoe, he set to work fashioning a raft, with which he crossed the widest waterways, discarding it when he reached the opposite bank.

Civilization to him was another world. The frontier on one side was 170 miles a way, and on the other between 200 and 300 miles. He received news of what was happening outside his own little world from fellow-toilers who chanced to pass his way, or from Tndiana. When I first met him he was enjoying a daily paper two months old, and reading it with as much gusto as if the events narrated therein had happened only twenty-four hours previously.

Another prospector and a companion set off on an expedition, and had just returned after an absence of eighteen months when I chanced upon them. During that interval they had not seen another being, red or white, and for a week scarcely two dozen words had passed between them, for they had nothing about which to talk. The world to them was an utter blank for a year and a half. Even when they did come into the outpost they failed to evince the slightest interest in current happenings, were silent concerning their adventures and privations, but were unduly loquacious as to the results of their expedition, and displayed, with the greatest pride, the fruits of their toiling among the rocks.

As a rule, two or three, or may be five or six, kindred spirits co-operate in a methodical search. Such a syndicate does not confine itself to the discovery of one metal—all minerals of commercial value are grist to the prospector's mill. Two or three of the party are certain to be hardened under the stones of experience, and in such company the neophyte can acquire considerable and valuable knowledge. Expenses are shared, and the profits likewise. This procedure is preferable since, in the event of a large strike being made, and covering more area than one man its at liberty to claim, the whole may be roped in completely by several members working together, and naturally the marketable valve of such a holding, if development proves its worth, is increased more appreciably than if only a small corner be secured. By this means, also, forces can be scattered, or one or two can be spared to travel between the isolated community and the outpost of civilization for the purpose of bringing in provisions and other necessaries.

Prospecting will afford the participator the maximum of adventure of the most varied description, and this is better shared by six men than borne by one alone. One party we met were bent on a survey of some likely gold-bearing rock in the vicinity of Mount Hobson. We were bent on getting to the base of this hoary old monarch, which was no easy task, seeing that the mountain is isolated by muskeg, large cedar groves, and is wailed in by heavy rock slides without the sign of a path to guide the explorer. These boys knew a short cut and promised to meet us at a certain point to give us the benefit of their experiences, as they had forced their way into this forbidding country before.

They started off from their camp, which was about fifteen miles east of our tent settlement. When we met them they were in a sorry plight. They had been crawling round the edge of a rocky hump very warily, with their pack horses carrying all their worldly possessions when something went wrong. The pack-horses slipped on the shale, aid the packs, becoming dislodged, went careering gaily down the steep slopes of a deep gully. The gunny-sacks containing their provisions and other impediments came to grief against the sharp pinnacles of rock and were sent flying in all directions. Practically everything was lost, but when we reached them they did not appear to regard it as more than a huge joke. One of the party was somewhat glum. The gunny-sack had contained his whole supply of tobacco—eleven pounds—and he was inconsolable over the loss of his nicotine, for without his pipe he felt quite lost. His comrades joked endlessly over this episode, because it did not affect their comfort one iota, as they did not smoke. Unfortunately, while we could help them out somewhat with provisions, we could not extend material assistance in connection with the fragrant weed, as we were on short rations ourselves. Our prospecting friend did not look forward very enthusiastically to the prospect of being compelled to be satisfied with ki-ni-lci-nic—the Indian makeshift from willow bark is an indifferent substitute for the genuine article.

The discomfort the man afflicted with the gold-fever will tolerate is astonishing. I have seen many sad evidences of misplaced toil and zeal in the form of a decaying shack pitched beside a rippling creek, or a homemade rocker hiding itself in the weeds. Occasionally more grim signs of the toll Fortune exacts from those who attempt to woo her in this wise were revealed in s drooping cross fashioned from two poplar sticks nailed together and enclosed within a tumbling picket fence. These monuments tell tragic stories cl many a forlorn hope. In some cases the expedition had come to grief ; in others, members of the party had succumbed to illness, or had met with an accident which terminated fatally. Although the survivors had not hesitated to perform the last mournful rites, they had loft the spot as if it were accursed.

Going down the upper stretches of the Fraser River, the Indian guides one day drew attention to the rotting walls of what some time past had been a shack. It was back from the river, and was scarcely discernible among the trees. The roof had gone and the scrub was thriving luxuriantly in what had once been the combined living and sleeping apartment. That crumbling ruin recalled one of those stories associated with the search for gold which make the blood run cold.

The Fraser River always has been a great magnet of attraction among prospectors. Tracebo; gold in more or less paying quantities can be washed out from the dirt forming its bed. These specks of yellow have been brought down from the mountain slopes in the far interior, and the more adventurous prospectors ventured into the closed wilderness to trace the source of 'this supply, dogging the glittering particles as relentlessly as the bloodhound clings to his trail. They were confident that somewhere among the mountains a huge treasure-chest of gold was hoarded by Nature to enable such quantities to be disintegrated and carried 500 or 600 miles down the waterway.

Four prospectors set ofi on one of these expeditions. There was no trail to the country they bought; the only available highway was the treacherous river. Indian dugouts were acquired and loaded with the prospectors’ stock-in-trade and provisions. It was by no means an attractive journey, as they had to drive their flimsy craft, some 400 miles over one of the worst stretches of this “bad river,” where the current is so strong that one cannot paddle against it. Progress can only be made by hugging the bank and poling the canoe upstream as if it were a punt. By toiling hard for ten hours on end an advance of possibly twenty miles a day may be made.

That expedition was dogged with ill luck. While pushing along hard one day, the pole in one of the prospector’s hands snapped in half. He lost his balance, and with a despairing shriek tumbled into the wafer, where he was picked up by the wicked current and whisked downstream. Before his comrades realized what had happened he was some distance away, battling frantically for his life, but ere they could extend him any assistance he sank from sight! Two of the others were so unnerved at this stroke of bad luck that they favoured the abandonment of the project, but the third decided to go ahead. At last, after much debate, the journey was resumed.

In due course the party reached a little creek which danced down from the summits of the mountains above, and as this appeared a likely spot for investigations the canoes were pulled in, a clearing was made in the bush and in a short while a shack was run up. With a roof over their heads the party settled down to work in grim earnest. The presence of black and, which is almost a positive sign that gold exists, in the creek, spurred them to prodigious efforts with the pan. Small quantities of the mineral were the rewards for this industry and the prospectors diligently pushed their way up the banks of the creek towards its source, certain that they were on the right trail.

Precisely what happened, or how much success attended their efforts, never will be known. Certain it is, however, that they obtained some quantity of gold, which they hoarded up in their gunny-sacks in the true prospector’s fashion. One night a member of the trio grew covetous. He murdered his two comrades, buried them outside the shack in the dense bush, and then, grabbing their small wealth of metal, fled from the scene. It was some time before the murder leaked out, and by that time the criminal had made good his escape, whence no one knew. Still, the forces of law a ml order in this Far West have been called upon to elucidate far more baffling mysteries than this, and with far more blender clues to aid them. A description of the missing man way secured after the murdered comrades had been exhumed and identified; the hue and cry were raised throughout the country. No doubt was entertained, but that sooner or later the criminal would be run to earth, although he had secured a start of several weeks. It is a strange circumstance that, although the Great West spreads over many thousands of square miles of dense forest which hug their secrets tightly, fewer crimes perpetrated in their fastnesses go unpunished than in a large city of a million or more people.

The sequel was as dramatic as the crime. Although Justice was indefatigable, the capture of the fugitive appeared to be denied. As a matter of fact, he was enjoying himself hugely with his ill gotten gains. He sauntered into a town and created a good impression, as he appeared to be a hustler. He was out driving a buggy one day when his horse took fright and bolted. The man was caught unawares, and was pitched out of the vehicle, to be thrown head first against a tree stump. His skull cracked under the impact, and he was hurried off to hospital suffering from concussion of the brain. The doctors held out no hopes. He never recovered consciousness, but one night he commenced rambling in delirium. The nurse endeavoured to pacify him, but to her surprise he was relating a grim story in too vivid, detail. Suspecting that something was amiss, the nurse summoned the house-surgeon, who at once communicated with the police. An officer arrived, and after listening to a few words of the unconscious man’s rambling he recognized the fugitive for whom search was being made high and low. The police clung to the bedside, and from the incoherent statements uttered in delirium, they were able to reconstruct the tragedy more or less, for the details were uncannily precise. Although the man missed the hangman’s noose, Fate broke his head, and so Justice was satisfied. A far more convincing narrative of the terrible tragedy of that right in the lonely shack upon the banks of the Fraser River was obtained than if the murderer had made a cold written confession just before his execution.

The fate that overtook two other prospectors was almost as grim. They ventured out on foot in the spring, with their provision packs, pan, and picks strapped to their shoulders, and penetrated to the heart of the interior. When the time came to beat a retreat before the winter season, they found that their constitution and physical endurance had been undermined from roughing it in the wilds for several weeks. To make matters worse their provisions ran out, and the bush yielded little sustenance in game. On top of this calamity they lost their way. The Indian can pick up the trails in the silent depths of the forest as easily as the town dweller can follow a city’s streets from the names inscribed upon the walls at the comers, but to these two prospectors the blasings were worse than a maze. The river was their objective, since once they struck the waterway they could fashion a raft and in this manner drift into civilization’s boundaries. But they could not pick up the river, though they were positive that it lay before them. They wandered to and fro, taking first this trail and then that, but to no avail. Every one was a blind alloy, and more often than not after trudging alorg despairingly for hour after hour, faint and weary, they came back to the point from which they had started in the morning. This is one of the sorry tricks played by the forest, and it demands a strong will to stand up against such mocking rebuffs.

The winter fell upon them: the white mantle slipped down the mountain slopes, but those two prospectors did not return. Their friends grew somewhat anxious, knowing full well that they were not equipped in such a manner as to withstand the rigours of winter. Then news of their discovery came to hand. Two or three Indians out trapping and hunting for furs stumbled over two huddled heaps lying side by side in the trail. At first they took them for merely snow-covered pieces of deadfall and would have passed on but for their dogs. The huskies came to a dead stop and commenced to bark frantically, at the same time scraping furiously at the hillock. The Indians cleared away the snow, and there, stiff and cold, were the bodies of the two prospectors within 20 feet of the river they had sought so urgently! The two bodies were brought into the nearest settlement, where there happened to be a doctor. A post-mortem examination revealed the fact only too plainly that the men had sunk down from sheer exhaustion and had died from hunger, for apparently they had not eaten a bite for over a week.

Prospectors as a rule confine their scouring energies to the summer months, because they cannot carry in sufficient provisions to tide them over the winter. As the snow-line gradually descends the mountains they hurry into the settlements. When I reached the rising towns of Telkwa and Hazleton in New British Columbia, prospectors were coming in by the score from the Babine, the Cascades, and the Fkeena Mountains. Each had his gunny-sack crammed with ore slung over his shoulder, or possibly upon a pack-horse. All bore visible signs of their toil and the hard knocks they had received in the gorges and gulleys of the ranges on every hand. Their clothes and footwear were badly knocked about, their hair was tangled and matted, their faces were covered with ragged beards, their eyes were bleary and bloodshot from exposure to the elements: taken altogether, they presented a strange, unkempt spectacle. The hairdresser was kept busy for hour after hour with his clippers and razors, and the store drove a lively trade fitting out the boys with garments in which they could get back to the towns for the winter, for most of these worthies’ came from Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, and other American cities.

Though the task is exacting, the prizes to be won are not to be despised. The northern mountains of British Columbia are packed with gold, silver, galena, coal, and other valuable minerals, but their discovery is by no means easy. Hudson Bay Mountain, a sentinel of the Cascade Range, is a mass of metal from base to crest, and has been the scene of tremendous prospecting activity during the past few years. Indeed, it would be difficult to stake a new claim upon its slopes to-day, for the discoveries of various prospectors jostle one another on all sides, and even the edges of the mighty glacier are not free from the prospector’s determination to accrue wealth.

The Babine Range is being searched from end to end just as diligently, and here again many remarkable finds have been made, metals of all descriptions being found in abundance. One prospector had made a strike, which, although it appeared highly promising at first sight, was too rich in mineral to be of commercial value. It was copper, and some of the assays ran up to 60 per cent.! The mineral could not be blasted, and could not be excavated with a pick, because, being so pure, it was quite plastic, and was like putty to handle.


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