Unlikely miner becomes unexpected TV star
“I love what I do up there. I love the thrill of it, and I love the chase."
Ken Foy is living proof that one seemingly insignificant decision can set the course for the rest of your life.
For Foy, that decision took place in the summer of 1991. Fresh out of high school, he was all set on a career as a helicopter pilot when his father asked him to come up to the Yukon for the summer to work at his gold mine.
“I made the mistake of saying ‘yes,’ ” Foy said, and he’s been in the Yukon pretty much ever since.
Not only did Foy become an “accidental” gold miner, today he finds himself playing yet another unanticipated role as one of the stars of Yukon Gold, History Channel Canada’s flagship reality series. The show follows Foy and three other family-run gold mining camps as they seek to sluice their way to riches—or at least break even—in Canada’s unforgiving northern climate.
Set in Dawson City, the show takes viewers to the actual site where the historic Klondike Gold Rush began. Despite scientific and technological advances, the miner’s life hasn’t changed much in 100 years—it’s the same risky work with the hopes of a big pay-off.
Foy was resistant about participating in the show at first, but at the repeated urging of fellow miners and Vancouver-based Paperny Entertainment, which produces the series, he finally agreed. However, he had a few conditions that had to be met first.
“I went into this wanting to tell a true story,” Foy said. “Some guys (on other shows) complain they lose production due to filming. There’s no way I was going to let that happen. I make money from the mine, not the cameras.”
Foy's insistence on authenticity surprised even the hardened reality TV crew sent up to capture the show’s initial season.
“Our first camera guy bragged about filming in war zones in Africa,” said Foy. “But after one day with us, he said there’s no way I’m filming with these guys anymore.”
Three seasons into the show, Foy brags that they now have some of the best camera and sound people in the business documenting their operation. In fact, he and his crew have become so accustomed to being filmed that sometimes they forget the cameras are there.
“We say stuff on the mikes that gets us into trouble all the time, because we forget we’re being taped. Watching it back, you definitely see ways to improve your social skills.”
Ironically, Foy's determination to depict gold mining as it really is has generated criticisms from some of the very people who urged him to participate in the show.
“It’s been harsh from the miners, I’m not going to lie,” Foy said. His fellow gold diggers were particularly incensed that Foy allowed a couple of accidents to appear in the first season, including a rolled bulldozer and a dropped conveyor. They claim this has generated increased scrutiny from the health and safety regulatory bodies who are paying much closer attention to all gold mining operations since Yukon Gold went on the air.
“Before the show, (the regulators) only required us to wear steel-toed boots. But then they were hit with a massive number of emails saying, ‘What about hard hats and high-visibility vests (which are mandatory in other provinces)?’ Some of the old-school miners were mad about that, but the changes were coming anyways. However, there’s no question the show has painted a massive target on our chests.”
One area that Foy wishes Yukon Gold would feature more is the efforts that go into environmental reclamation. Placer mining is governed by increasingly strict regulations, and Foy and his fellow miners are proud of their achievements in this area.
“It would be great if some of that made the show,” Foy said.
Not surprisingly, Yukon Gold has also generated renewed interest in the prospect of heading up north to find your fortune. But Foy has some words of caution for anyone considering such a venture.
“I think it’s a scary time to get into the industry right now unless you’ve got deep pockets and are up for an adventure.”
Foy said that the minimum investment required for an operation his size (a seven- to nine-person crew) is $1 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of leasing the ground.
“The ground is getting leaner, too," he said. "It’s turning into more of a volume game. You really have to know how to move dirt. There’s not much easy gold left out there.”
Despite the challenges, Foy has no regrets about either of his unintended careers.
“I love what I do up there. I love the thrill of it, and I love the chase,” Foy said. “The show is as real as it gets, and it gives me an opportunity to show my friends and family what we really do.”
- Placer mining is the mining of ancient stream beds (alluvial deposits) for gold and other minerals. Several methods are used to extract the ore and separate it from the sand and gravel. These include open-pit and underground mining, hydraulic mining, panning, sluicing and dry washing.
- The average purity of the gold found in each deposit is 80 per cent. Each creek has its own unique “purity signature,” which indicates where the gold originated. No matter how clean they get the gold, miners can still expect a two per cent melt loss once the gold is refined. This means one ounce of gold on-site typically translates into 0.8 ounces of gold once refined to 99.9 per cent purity.
- In the heady days of the Klondike Gold Rush, some ground was so rich that a mere shovelful could yield $4,000 of gold in today’s dollars. Today, placer miners have to settle for as little as $10 per yard (approximately 120 shovelfuls) in some places, although most ground is richer than that.
- The lean ground has spurred a number of technological innovations over the years that enable miners to capture fine gold particles, which are particularly difficult to separate from other concentrates. One such innovation is hydraulic sluice box riffles, which constantly inject water into the gold recovery mats from below rather than relying on the settling velocity of gold. Another is a new rod mill system developed by Randy Clarkson of the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association. It grinds fine waste minerals into powder while flattening the tiny gold particles, allowing them to be easily separated from the unwanted material.