Worth its Weight in Gold – the Life of a Modern Day Prospector
There are a few rare moments in life when you feel like you've walked into some sort of epic feature film. Like everything is just a bit too fantastic to be real. That's how I felt when, after a long winding drive down dusty dirt roads, I stepped into Chris Fouts' home for the first time.
Chris is a prospector, and a geologist, though not always in that order. He divides his time between contract prospecting work for large development companies such as First Nickel, and traveling to mineral shows across the country, selling specimens from his extensive collection, and occasionally leading field tours, or consulting. As he leads me to the front room of his sprawling home, overlooking a large unspoiled bay, I am struck first by the view, then by the floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with history and geology tomes, then the display-shelves full of exquisite mineral specimens, and finally by the grand antique desk. Chris, rugged in his expedition clothes, starts talking about tectonic plates and the molecular structure of various minerals, with the charisma and authority of a university professor.
'Is this guy for real?' I think. 'Have I just wandered into Indiana Jones' study?'
You don't meet prospectors everyday; not in the age of teleconferences and software development expos. No, you're quite lucky if you chance across a true prospector. They're still around, but they've changed since the days of the old west. You won't find a lone wanderer panning for gold in a floppy brimmed hat, driven bush-mad by his solitude. You won't hear him exclaim, 'there's gold up in them hills,' as he spits tobacco juice at a rattle snake. Well, actually, you might.
“A prospector will tell you all the reasons why there's gold up in those hills,” says Chris. “A geologist will tell you why there's not.”
It comes down to a difference in perspective. Chris explains that by the time a geologist is finished their post secondary education, they are so hyperaware of all the various conditions that need to come together to create a large viable deposit of ore, that unless there's glaring evidence of its existence, they're not easily convinced it's there. Today's geologists know that most areas in North America have already been examined. Today's geologists have high tech equipment - that Batman and Bond would be envious of - to tell them what's under the layers of vegetation, soil and rock over which they stand.
Geologists like Chris know better. But Chris isn't your typical geologist. Sure, he's got the degrees and experience behind him; he's bona fide. But there's another side to him. In his heart, he's a prospector. And while geologists have their schooling, and funding, and tools and gadgets, prospectors have something even more rare and valuable. Faith.
“You'll never meet a pessimistic prospector,” says Chris. There's no accreditation for being a prospector. No doctorate degree. Prospectors learn what they know in the field, through experience. Without all that schooling, without learning the details of how rare and unlikely it is that conditions will come together 'just so' to create the right environment for crystals to grow, prospectors are unburdened and romantic.
“They're gamblers,” says Chris, explaining that prospectors always believe the next big find is right around the corner.
Before meeting Chris, I honestly wasn't sure exactly what a modern day prospector is. He tells me that at it's core, prospecting is just the action of seeking ore, which is any valuable mineral, so they can stake a claim and sell it to a developer. This is usually begun by examining an outcrop - that is, a large exposed area of bedrock - for signs of valuable deposits.
What constitutes as valuable changes with the times though. For example, Chris explains to me that at one time silver was just as precious as gold. I've always wondered why gold is so sought after in the first place. You can't eat it or use it for fuel, so what's the big deal? Chris laughs a little when I ask him about this, but answers my elementary question happily.
Gold doesn't corrode, and it's malleable. In days gone by, these qualities made it incredibly desirable. You could make a nice golden cup without too much effort, and not worry about it breaking or rusting. And yes, it's pretty and shiny. Silver, on the other hand will tarnish, which is why it's not as valuable as gold today. But, Chris tells me, that wasn't always the case.
“Silver didn't start tarnishing until the industrial revolution, when we put all kinds of sulphur in the air,” he says.
Wow. This guy is a wealth of information. Having never studied science beyond grade 10, in favour of an arts education, I take the opportunity to fire a bunch of earth sciences questions at Chris, one after another. He answers them all with ease and clarity. Then he gets on a roll and starts talking about the composition of magma, the difference between continental and seabed crust, and the presence of various elements throughout the universe. He has detailed answers to incredibly complex questions; some questions I didn't even know existed.
Chris makes Bancroft, Ontario his home, which makes perfect sense since it's the mineral capital of Canada, and has vast forests perfect for a long prospecting hike. Every August, thousands of mineral collectors from around the world gather in Bancroft for the Rockhound Gemboree. Indeed, this year, Chris will showcase his collection at the Gemboree's 50th anniversary.
“One of the things that makes the Bancroft area so special is a rock type up here called skarn,” explains Chris. “It's a metamorphic rock that's formed from the mixture of hot igneous rock intruding into preexisting sedimentary rock. Some of that sedimentary rock melts, and the two elements come together. This, especially in the Bancroft area, is very important for mineral collecting, because we find a lot of new minerals in skarn that we don't find otherwise.”
Chris tells me that he originally became interested in geology as a teenager. He was watching a show on tv, about the US military's experiments with earthquakes. They discovered that if they injected large quantities of water into the earth's crust, they could cause an earthquake in an area with low seismic activity. Chris thought this was fascinating, and couldn't stop thinking about it. He explains to me that the earth's tectonic plates are always in slight motion, moving at a rate of about 5 cm per year.
“If the plates just slid past each other, that would be fine, but they rub, and they get stuck,” says Chris.
This a problem in areas like the San Andreas fault, because it results in a build up of pressure. When the pressure mounts too much, suddenly you've got a catastrophic quake. But - and this is what young Chris found so interesting - if you introduce a lubricant, you can help the plates slide against each other, releasing pressure and resulting in a series of small quakes rather than one big destructive one. This idea of exerting some control over nature, for the common good, excited Chris, and ultimately drove him to pursue geophysics at Western University. Once he got there though, he ended up switching focus slightly and going into broad geology. There are just so many cool applications for a broad geology background.
“Geophysics is what lured me to university,” Chris says. “Geology is what kept me there.”
He tells me a story of a DEA agent that went missing in Mexico some years ago. After the US Government put pressure on the Mexican Government to find the agent, he suddenly turned up. Or, rather, was dug up. It was big news at the time, so the exhumation of the body was broadcast on CNN. Chris' eyes sparkle as he tells me the next bit.
“A geologist watching it on tv noticed that the soil on the body didn't match the dirt at the site,” says Chris. “So he phoned the FBI and said, 'Hey, you guys probably already know this, but just in case...'” Chris chuckles. “They called him in for an interview and hired him as a forensic geology consultant.”
This is what Chris really loves about prospecting. He says he feels like a detective. No, he doesn't solve crimes, but he uses a lot of deductive reasoning. The outcrops he studies give him all kinds of clues about what's underneath.
“I read the history of every rock I pass by like it's a book,” he says. “And the more I look at it, the more it tells me.”
With his prospector's heart, and his geologist's mind, Chris can look at a mineral specimen and tell you what it is and from where it came. He examines the shapes of the crystals, and the other trace minerals present. With his trusty tools he can pick into an outcrop and tell you whether you're likely to find copper deposits underneath. He knows which minerals like to “hang out together.” That's because he has a deep understanding of how elements on the earth come together to form minerals, and how, over time, heavier elements sink deep into the earth.
Don't worry though, you don't need all of Chris' insight or experience to go prospecting. You may not discover the next big iron deposit, but you could probably find yourself a pretty chunk of sodalite or quartz.
“You'll need a buddy, first of all, incase you get sick or injured. That and good footwear, a hat, and a chisel,” Chris says, as he pulls out his knapsack to show me. It's a Swiss Army one, made with real canvas and leather. Rightly so, because his tools are seriously heavy. Along with his chisel, he carries a hammer. It's a big hammer – twice as heavy as the standard issue mineral collecting hammer - because he uses it to jam his chisel into rock, which requires a lot of force.
“You should always have protective eyewear, too, because whatever force you exert, is going to come back at you,” he says, covering a bit more of the science theory I missed back in high school.
“Look here,” he calls me over. “The end of my chisel is all mushroomed, and bits of it have come flying off. You don't want that, or bits of rock, in your eye.”
Chris also carries a satellite GPS, a traditional compass (incase the battery in his GPS dies), and a water bottle in his knapsack.
I ask if he runs into any hazards when he goes deep into the bush prospecting.
“Getting lost could be a serious problem, and very embarrassing for someone who works in the bush, so we always keep our compass handy and fresh batteries for our GPS,” says Chris. 'Wearing sturdy boots to avoid tripping or turning an ankle is also very important. Watching for bushes or branches in the eye, dehydration, sunstroke and hornets nests are probably my biggest problems.”
When I ask about bears, Chris tells me the black bears that hang around the forests of North Hastings are usually docile and don't pose much of a problem, but that in other parts of Canada Grizzly and Polar bears can be aggressive so it's a good idea to carry either a noise maker or a gun, just in case.
“Moose go into a rutting season late in the fall and can be very aggressive, but generally are not a problem.” He pauses, and adds “We don't do field work during hunting season for obvious reasons.”
We share a laugh at this point, because we are both well aware of the magnitude of hunting season in Bancroft. New residents to the area are almost always flabbergasted, when, each November, everything goes on hold for hunting season. Don't expect your maintenance or repair provider to be available – they're all out in the bush. And what a bush it is. Chris wouldn't prefer to be anywhere else.
“I suppose the best part is working for yourself. You're doing a job but you're also looking after yourself, and enjoying the connection with the living world. You notice the sky and the weather; the shift of the wind blowing the leaves backwards, indicating bad weather; the sudden drop in the temperature of a cold front moving in; the smell of the awakening earth in the spring; rotting leaves in the fall; the trees coming into pollination, each species with its own smell. The warmth of the rock outcrops in the sun, the cool of a shaded swale. Identifying the different rock types as you pass through the forest; building a map in your mind and on paper. Finding something that no one has seen, or noticed, before.”
As we finish up our interview, the sun slowly sets over the lake, it's reflection dancing on the water below and on the mica and quartz crystals displayed on the deck. Chris' lovely wife invites me to stay for dinner. We talk and laugh over a long decadent meal, complete with Chris' homemade strawberry crumble. This is the life, I think, as I watch Chris and his wife glittering with love and satisfaction. There's gold up in these hills after all.