Trail blazers: Runners staking gold minesMarch 30, 2012
By Mihira Lakshman
The start line was a 1,200m hike from the nearest road. The course was a measured square mile in the backcountry of Northern Ontario, an hour and a half northeast of the mining-hub of Timmins. At stake was a $500 bonus for winning the claim.
On a drizzly morning last June, James Gosselin was going through the same routine he always follows before any race: a warm-up jog, some light stretching and strides before heading to the starting marker. But unlike a traditional road or track race, he synchronized his watch with his rivals and duct-taped his shoes to his ankles. A prospector had already paid him $500 just to show up. He would get another $500 if he completed the bush mile faster than anybody else. Gosselin, 34, has won dozens of these claims before. A former Canadian mountain running champion and CIS All-Canadian from the University of Windsor, he sized up the competition. “One guy I was racing against was sitting [at the start] having a cigarette with his dog beside him,” Gosselin recalls. “There’s this 60 year-old man telling you he’s ‘going to beat you,’ and that ‘you’re too young and inexperienced.’”
The practice of claim running in Northern Ontario dates back to the early 1900s, when prospectors were claiming the first mines. Rare, valuable minerals, including gold, have been mined in the region for about a century. In order to get the rights to mine a particular section of land, prospectors have to secure the claim by erecting posts on the four corners of the area. Most of the sections are a square mile - 400m by 400m - in the middle of nowhere. Many claims are far from roads and inaccessible by most vehicles. The land usually becomes open to staking at 9 a.m. on a date set by Ontario’s ministry of northern development and mines.
Although the province’s mining act outlines the rules for the process, claim-staking actually operates more like the Wild West. Gosselin, who has been claim running since 1997, not only takes on other runners seeking the same territory, he also must outrun four-wheelers, dirt bikes, jet skis and helicopters, on occasion. According to provincial law, prospectors can use any means necessary, as long as they meet at the northwest corner of the section at 9 a.m. on the set date, usually June 1. Many portions of Crown land become available on that date because it’s when property-tax defaults take effect.
Provincial officials are rarely present for claim-staking as prospectors battle for the rights. Some prospectors hire runners (who also must obtain a prospector’s license), while others attempt to get through the bush on vehicles. When there is water involved, jet skis play a role. Each team lays down their four corner posts the day before, without standing them up. On the morning of the claim run, the first person to erect all four of his team’s posts and write down the time that he reached each of the posts, wins the claim. There’s no starting pistol and no judge at the posts - everyone just synchronizes their watches at the start. While prospectors usually video the process, cheating inevitably occurs, especially when there’s nobody to enforce the rules.
Gosselin remembers one incident when a rival prospector stole his final post. “When I came in to write my finishing time down [on the final post], my post wasn’t there anymore. It was on camera that I came in first, but since I didn’t record it on a post, it wasn’t really official,” he says. The camera didn’t show the post being stolen, but the company that hired Gosselin for that run later fought and won the case in court.
It’s a high-stakes game. Although the prospectors are sometimes shelling out hundreds of dollars to hire claim runners - even more for vehicle help - if they successfully earn the claim, mining companies could offer millions for the rights. “If you stake a gold mine, I can’t even put a price on it,” says Compass Exploration’s Norm Collins, who hires Gosselin to run for him a few times each year. “It’s a dirty game for sure. There’s a lot of backstabbing and a lot of illegal moves that happen out there,” Collins adds.
The process is steeped in tradition. The claim-stakers must “blaze the trail” between their corner posts to officially mark their territory. Runners carry hatchets as they sprint down the 400m stretches between posts, putting marks in trees every 50m. Usually the prospectors that hire the runners will mark the path with tape on the trees, but sometimes orienteering and bushwhacking are necessary. The main skill, however, is speed. Gosselin says cross-country athletes make the best claim runners since they are strong enough to handle the hills and treacherous footing. “I usually wear an aggressive trail shoe, and duct tape my shoe to my ankles, so it doesn’t come off. And you can build [the tape] up around your ankles to protect them.” Every few steps, he expects to fall. “You bite the dust, big time.
Although prospecting has been around in the area for a century, hiring runners to stake the claims is a relatively recent phenomenon. “It used to be just prospectors who would normally do this,” says Collins, who has been in the business for 20 years. His father, also a prospector, came up with the idea of using cross-country runners. Collins and his younger brother were both competitive high school runners, and they found the competition in claim-staking somewhat pedestrian in the late 80s and early 90s. “We used to kick butt,” he recalls. “Eventually a bunch of our friends from the local high school (Theriault High School in Timmins, Ont.) - a good running school - started doing it for my dad and other companies around town.”
Gosselin was recruited when he was a top Theriault runner in the late 90s. Back then, he recalls, there weren’t many other runners doing it. It wasn’t long, however, before prospectors started to realize that runners could move through the woods faster than most vehicles. Prospectors started recruiting cross-country runners from nearby Laurentian University. Soon some of the claim runs were like university races recalls Guy Schultz, a former claim runner and Timmins native, who now coaches the University of Western Ontario cross-country team. “Sometimes you would have two Western guys and two Laurentian guys going after the same claim.”
In 1996, a large swath of old growth forest became available in the Temagami area of Northeastern Ontario. For decades, the Crown land had been tied up in negotiations with local First Nations. After it was settled, the Province opened it up to mining, setting the stage for one of the largest claim runs in history. “When this land was opened, there were an awful lot of people and exploration companies interested in acquiring the land,” says Clive Stephenson, a provincial mining recorder, based in Sudbury, Ont. “It was a major competitive situation. There could be 10 different groups wanting the same area of land. Some brought in athletes that could cover the ground as quickly as possible.”
Schultz remembers travelling up to the remote region when he was a top CIS cross-country runner. He drove a couple of hours north of Timmins, with seven other teammates from his UWO cross-country team. “We looked up in the sky, there were at least five or six helicopters flying all over the place, dropping people off. [The prospectors] brought us there and we slept there the night before because it took a while to get into the middle of the bush.”
The night before, the runners prepared the trail, clearing a path to make the morning’s run easier and safer. “We brought up eight guys, and they had four major lines they wanted us to run, and they put two of us on each line,” Schultz says, noting that for significant, highly contested claims, prospectors liked to assemble their runners in pairs. “They would hire two guys, then if one went down and got hurt, you still had a back up. You’re running through bush, so anything can happen.” Schultz and his teammates won every claim that day.
Wardle, another former All-Canadian, admits he was nervous that day. “You knew these guys were counting on you. You’re getting paid and there are a lot of unknowns about whether it’s actually going to work.”
The routes are rarely a perfect square on even terrain. There are sometimes adjacent claims happening at the same time, occupying some of the same territory. “Even though we decided that you’re going to run this 400m by 400m piece of land, and even if nobody stands beside you at the start line - at the first corner - there may be another piece of land that somebody else is doing that overlaps yours. It’s not a grid pattern. If somebody didn’t know what you were doing, you’d look like a crazy man because you’re just running through the bush as fast as you can.” Wardle says.
There are sometimes sections on road, or shortcuts through water, and certain teams without runners will place vehicles along the route. More often than not, elite runners can still make up the ground when their rivals are forced to ditch their machines to get back into the bush.
Once prospectors secure the mining rights and sell it to a mining company, the company has two years to work and explore the land. If they don’t do sufficient exploration within that time period, the land goes back into the claims pool. The process often repeats several times for the same portion of land since prospectors and mining companies can’t always afford to explore every claim, but still want to hang on to the mining rights, or prevent another company from getting it. It’s a similar story with land adjacent to an existing claim. Gosselin says he’s done many claim runs in territories that appear to have more strategic value than mineral worth.
Stephenson, a geoscientist who has worked for the ministry for five years, has reviewed hundreds of claims and seen the odd dispute. He says it’s not that common to use runners, but they are advantageous in certain competitive backcountry claims. “I don’t know if I’d [use runners] all the time. Staking has to be completed to a certain standard. If a claim is deficient, there’s always a chance that the mining recorder will refuse the application.”
It’s soon to be a moot point, however, as the use of runners to stake claims will shortly be obsolete. Ontario’s Mining Act has been changed to move to a system of electronic map-staking, similar to most other provinces. The changes will likely take effect next year, Stephenson says. From then on, when Crown land becomes available, mining companies will be able to bypass the prospectors, and stake claims online. If there’s a dispute, the claim will go to the company that completed the process first, not by erecting posts, but by clicking a mouse. Some prospectors say it’s going to ruin their livelihood and the integrity of the claims.
“It will almost wipe out the small prospectors. Staking is not the only thing a prospector does, but it is how we make most of our money,” Collins says. Claim-staking involves more than just running and putting up posts. The prospectors generally prepare the land and do preliminary research and tests to determine if a claim is worth mining. “A good staker can add valuable insight on a claim while surveying, such as finding old work done years ago that might not have been documented, like trenches, pits or old shafts,” he says. “We see a lot of things that most others don’t.”
For Gosselin, a teacher, claim running has been a way to make some extra cash, while putting his speed and endurance to good use. Despite the intimidation from the cranky 60-year-old smoker at the start of his most recent run, Gosselin won the claim easily. “As soon as we started going, his dog took off and started chasing me. He nipped me a few times,” he says. It wasn’t a big deal. Over the years, Gosselin has learned to expect the unexpected when staking territory in the woods. This summer might be his final chance to take home $1,000 for running an eight-minute mile through the backcountry trails of Northern Ontario. After the changes to the Provincial Mining Act are implemented, staking a claim will be more like buying a concert ticket than a Wild-West-style race.
Mihira Lakshman is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Running.