May 19, 2024

Gold Mania in the Yukon

Recently, I went to see them again in their new home in Whitehorse, the territorial capital, and I sat with Ryan one night as he talked business over the phone. His right arm was stretched around the back of his head, holding his BlackBerry to his left ear. “Those guys were at 6 cents a share last year, now they are over a buck, and they got nothing,” he said. “When you look at it, it’s like a hundred claims.” The shares Ryan was talking about belonged to a mineral-exploration company, one of his many competitors. The claims are mining claims, a government license to extract minerals from a 50-acre patch of wilderness. To Ryan, a hundred claims is pathetic. He and Wood own more than 35,000 claims. “We just passed Luxembourg, and over the summer we’ll be the size of Samoa,” he continued, describing just one of his projects. Credible estimates of the amount of gold still buried in his properties run to the billions of dollars.

Ryan is the king of a new Yukon gold rush, the biggest since the legendary Klondike stampede a century ago. Behind this stampede is the rising price of gold, and behind this price is fear. As the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates very low to stimulate the economy, gold bugs make nightmarish predictions that loose money and a huge federal deficit will crush the value of the dollar and bring ruinous inflation. Gold holds its value when national currencies collapse and is easily imported and universally traded. It feels like the perfect investment for the apocalypse. A few weeks ago, gold passed $1,500 an ounce, an astonishing level. George Soros warned of a bubble back when gold was barely over $1,000. Glenn Beck cried that the run was just beginning: just wait until the United States is bankrupt and the real trouble starts. Gold bulls talk of $2,000 gold, $5,000 gold, even $10,000 gold. But 10 years ago, when Ryan made his first discoveries, nobody cared at all.

Ryan has been in the woods his whole life. At age 15, he was snaring foxes, martens and mink near Timmins, Ontario, where his father worked in a mine. Trapping in Canada is regulated through licenses called trap lines, and Ryan didn’t have a trap line of his own, he just went where he pleased. This is called poaching, and eventually he was caught. Instead of turning him in, the trapper he was poaching from put him to work. Ryan would skin animals until midnight, then go to school without bathing. Looking back, he understands why he was socially isolated. In his 20s, Ryan came west to work a trap line of his own in the sparsely populated expanse of the Yukon, but his plan changed when he learned about mushrooms.

Twenty years ago there was a kind of gold rush in mushrooms that enticed itinerant pickers to make a long circuit through British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon, collecting chanterelles, matsutakes and morels. The market was driven by demand in Paris and Tokyo, and brokers built a network of little buying stations wherever mushrooms were fruiting. It was cash on the ground, and the pickers taunted one another with stories of thousand-dollar days. Ryan eventually settled near Dawson, once the roaring center of the Klondike gold fields, now a community of about 2,000 people surrounded by wilderness and close to good morel-picking territory.

Ryan met Wood in 1992 at the height of the mushroom season. He was down in Whitehorse shopping for supplies when he noticed a young woman standing outdoors in spangled tights selling bundles of sage. Wood, who was from New Brunswick, had been working for a Toronto bank, but she didn’t like it. After she quit, she took her savings and rode across the continent on a motorcycle. By the time she got to Whitehorse, her cash was gone. When Ryan walked up, she was reorganizing the last of the sage into smaller packets so she wouldn’t run out of stock before something else turned up. He was a striking person, compact and strong, with hair braided nearly to his waist. And he had a good thing going: the banks of the White River should be thick with morels. Did she want to come pick with him?

Gary Wolf ( is a contributing editor for Wired. His last article for the magazine was about self-measurement. Editor: Vera Titunik (

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