Earth and environmental sciences students mine for gold in northern Manitoba

Mike Glendenning and his colleagues were prospecting for gold in the far reaches of northern Manitoba this summer, but may have inadvertently picked up some new knowledge in the field of entomology.

“There’s mosquitoes there, blackflies, horseflies, moose flies and new breeds of flies I’ve never even heard of,” the geology major and graduate student in Earth and Environmental Sciences said of the bugs he encountered during one of several two-week work rotations he’s done in the remote mining town of Lynn Lake.

Along with fellow graduate student Evan Hastie and recent graduate Ben Lane, Glendenning has been working with junior exploration company Carlisle Goldfields, “tromping through the bush” trying to find enough gold to justify re-opening an abandoned mine in the once thriving town. Lynn Lake was home to the Farley Nickel Mine and at its peak, had a population of more than 3,000 people. After the mine was exhausted in the mid-1980s and a subsequent unsuccessful attempt to mine gold, the population dropped to 300.

“It’s a single industry town without an industry,” said Joel Gagnon, an associate professor who along with colleague Ali Polat co-supervises Glendenning. “It’s basically the end of the road in northwest Manitoba.”

“It’s kind of grim there,” Glendenning admits. “There are rows and rows of boarded up houses. The fire department actually sets them on fire and burns them to practice fighting fires. It sounds depressing, but there’s lots of wildlife and some of the best fishing in the country.”

Dr. Gagnon said there’s good reason to believe there are ample deposits of gold in the region. The mining operation, which remains on site today, produced about 150,000 ounces of gold and 400,000 ounces of silver over three years in the late 1980s, but Gagnon said the company failed because their operating costs outweighed their revenue.

“They were a nickel mining company,” said Gagnon, who did his master’s degree work at the same mine in 1987. “Gold mining requires a different type of operation. They just weren’t the right kind of company to do that kind of mining.”

Glendenning said he and the other students spend a fair bit of their time searching for clues that tell them where gold might be found. One is the rusty colourization of surface rocks, an indication that ancient underground hot water systems might have transported and left behind pieces gold there almost two billion years ago, altering the chemistry of the rock in the process.

If they suspect gold might be found there, they work with company employees to site boring locations for drill rigs, which drill down 400 to 700 metres deep to bring out sample cores, cylindrical pieces of rock that are taken to the “core shack” where they’re described and sampled for their contents.

“There’s a huge societal and economic impact if we can find something,” said Glendenning, who will spend the next year making the 2,000-kilometer trip to Lynn Lake every two weeks to continue the search. “Everyone wants to know what you’re looking for and whether you’ve found anything because they all want to work.”

Glendenning, who grew up in the Essex County town of Belle River, said he hopes to stay on with the company when he completes his degree.

Editor's note: this is one of a series of articles about students from across campus who were engaged in cool research projects and other activities during the summer.