The Lure of Gold

Marlin Bree


Sailor searching for gold ends up with ballast

Excerpted from Marlin Bree’s new “Bold Sea Stories 2.”

Mesmerized by the land and sky, I drove along the Queen’s Highway. Mists swirled about as I followed Lake Superior’s mountain range, crossing eastward around the enormous lake on the Canadian side.

With Persistence safe in Thunder Bay’s Prince Albert Marina, I scouted ahead while waiting for the lake to settle down. In a turbulent mood, Superior wasn’t especially welcoming to small-craft sailors.

But I had plenty to catch up on. A gold strike had been reported in a moose pasture. Rumors spread that it was a big one, and I felt like a modern-day Jack London in search of gold fields, fascinated by the lure of gold.

Superior’s minerals had caught the headlines before. A deserted underwater silver mine, once the world’s richest, lay along this northern shore. I spent a stormy night aboard Persistence docked at Silver Islet, Ontario.

Out my window, clouds scraped against the pine-clad mountains of the Canadian Shield. On the other side, the land sloped down to a rock-hewn shoreline pummeled by pounding surf and dotted with round, rugged islets. Superior was a different lake here than it was on the southern side.

Despite the spectacular scenery, I felt isolated from the world’s largest freshwater lake. But that would change. I still had a sailboat passage to complete after my quest for the gold fields.

Besides, fall was coming soon. I could feel it in the air.

A gold strike had been reported in a moose pasture. Rumors spread that it was a big one.

Down a steep road to the waterfront, I looked for an old railroad hotel. Off to my right, the Rossport Inn jutted from the top of an embankment. Built in 1884 as a railroad hotel and pay station by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Rossport Inn’s rock foundation and rugged timber construction proclaimed its lineage. The inn had seen much history on Superior’s wild and remote northern side.

“When you’re out on the lake around here and stop on one of the islands,” innkeeper Ned Basher told me, “you feel you’re Robinson Crusoe. If you found another footprint, you’d be surprised.”

I didn’t doubt him. An ex-jet jockey in the U.S. Air Force, Basher had flown over the area and fallen in love with Rossport and the old inn. He bought it, cleared out decades of accumulated dirt from the Canadian wilderness and sanded 100-year-old maple floors down to their original lightness to bring the inn back to life.

On the balcony, Basher and I peered over the beautiful harbor and nearby islands. A carefully mowed patch of grass beside the railroad tracks below caught my eye. The bright area of green among the wild grasses and flowers of this old fishing village was unexpected.

“The Canadian railroad system is quite accommodating,” Basher explained. “They drop off fishermen, canoeists and campers at all points along the system and pick them up a week later by prior arrangement. The train goes through here twice a day—that patch of grass qualifies as our landing ramp.”

“How do I find Hemlo?” I finally asked.

“The gold strike is just down the highway.”

Ned was on to me.

“I checked my map. Hemlo is not marked.”

“As you go to Marathon, look on the left-hand side of the road, and you will see development,” he said. “It might be difficult getting in, but there are some large structures.”

I wondered what I would find. Perhaps the days of Robert Service lived again in this north country: Gold pokes bulging with dust. Dance halls, old saloons, gambling dens and scary dreams.

The innkeeper cautioned me. “Many people are interested in prospecting up here, so be careful.”

“What do you mean?”

“You might hear some very imaginative stories.”

Perhaps it was the smoke-filled café or the late hour, but he did not look like a geologist.

The man at the waterfront café wore red suspenders and heavy rubber boots—not the leather lace-up type favored by timber cruisers. He was tall and thin, gimlet-eyed, and wore his dirty green wool trousers tucked into his boots. With a grizzled beard and scraggly gray hair, he had not seen the inside of a barbershop for some time.

“Yah! I am geologist,” he said.

Perhaps it was the smoke-filled café or the late hour, but he did not look like a geologist.

“You know vat iss dere?” His north woods eyes shifted cautiously around the barroom. “Gult.”


“Yah, iss troo!” His eyes gleamed. “Huntsful und huntsful…Gult!”

He looked around him to assure himself that no one had overheard. None had or seemed to care, so he continued in a muffled voice. “Eye haf found zee lost gult mine.”

I remembered the innkeeper’s admonition. “How did you find the lost mine?”

“I study zee satellite photography. Zen, I find zee mine.”

“You found gold nuggets?”

“Yah.” He sensed my reluctance. “I sent zee samples to zee government and mining companies.”

“What did they say?”


“Right here?”

His eyebrows knitted together. “Ach! I am not divulging.”

I tried another tack: “How big are the nuggets?”

“Beeg!” He held the palms of his hands open. “Huntsful und huntsful.”

“Where are they now?”


I frowned. “Does anybody know about your find? The mining companies that already surveyed this area, for example?”

“No!” he roared. “Und nobody iss going to know, if dey don’t come up with zee money.”

“What are you asking?”

“Maybe hundred million.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Iss a lot of money, but iss a lot of dough aftervard, too.”

“What do you think you got there?”

“Beeg find. Beeger than South Africa, second to none.”

“That’s fantastic.”

“Maybe first to none.”

Dazzled, I walked into the dark night. Superior’s surf boomed below me. I had met my first prospector. What would Jack London have done?

He looked around him to assure himself that no one had overheard. None had or seemed to care.

I tried to envision a gold rush, but as I drove along the shoreline, I saw no grizzled old prospectors panning for gold. This wild area of the Canadian north shore seemed almost deserted—except for a lot of trees and rocks.

Late in the day, I pulled into a Canadian roadside café. The small, dark-eyed waitress hustled over. Elna told me she had lived here since it was moose pasture.

“Didn’t you know that there was gold here?” I inquired.

“No.” She shrugged. “Did you?”

I thought for a moment and pressed on. “What happened? Did somebody pan for gold, and one day, there it was?”

“No, nothing like that,” Elna replied with a smile. “The mining company suspected there was gold, then checked into it—and so they just found the largest gold strike in North America.”

“And now everybody’s got gold fever.”

“No one’s feverish here,” she said, wiping off the counter. “Not even lukewarm.”

I pulled out my ace, a wrinkled newspaper clipping: “GOLD! CRY ARISES FROM SUPERIOR’S NORTH SHORE,” read the headline from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. I had carried the clipping on Persistence taped to the cabin’s nav station and now to the gold fields.

“Estimates to be worth over five billion dollars,” the article read. “…gold rush… prospecting fever spreads.”

“Here?” she sniffed. “You mean with the donkeys, and the pans, all over the countryside?” She laughed. “No, no! Today it’s all mechanized, with lots of technical people, lab work and mining specialties.

“Mining today involves little specs in the ore. It takes tons and tons of ore to make an ounce of gold and loads of technology. It’s not something you can just pick off the ground.”

Elna continued enlightening me: “Some friends went down into the mine. The mining company showed it to the townspeople.”

This would be interesting. “What was it like to be deep inside a modern gold mine?”

“Black,” she said. “It was pitch black down there. When they shined a light around, they just saw little bitty specs in the ore.”

She leaned forward on the counter. “How about a refill on that coffee—and got any more good newspaper clippings?”

Going down 2,600 feet into the ground for gold rolled around in my imagination. Was it worth it?

I drove some more until I wondered if I had missed the gold fields. Then, off to the north, I saw brightly colored structures resembling part of a transplanted North Sea oil rig. Driving up to the Teck/Corona Mine, I met Denis Lanteigne, who had been a gold miner before he became a security guard.

“Down around 2,600 feet,” he told me, “it’s rather cold, around freezing and damp. You see with a small light on your battery-powered cap. It’s pitch black, and there’s no other light source around; you feel you’re blind. If you turn out your lamp and stand in the dark, you lose your balance and fall over.”

Going down 2,600 feet into the ground for gold rolled around in my imagination. Was it worth it? I wondered. Could you pick nuggets out of the walls?

“Here, it’s in very minute traces,” Lanteigne said. “I’ve heard the percentage of gold per ton is from seventeen one-hundredths of an ounce up to thirty-two one-hundredths of an ounce.”

I wondered how they found gold in such microscopic quantities.

“They take core samples, like a slice of cheese, and analyze them. It’s accurate: They know where the gold is, in what quantity, and how to get it. They can pretty well pinpoint the vein.”

“How do you know where to dig?” I asked.

“They tell you to go straight where you’re going, up or down, or turn left 60 degrees.”

“But you can’t even see the gold.”

“It’s too small. It doesn’t reflect in the light, and you can’t see it in the rock.”

I shook my head. “How rich is the Hemlo field?”

“One-third of the world’s gold production.”

“Where can I find some?” I said, joking.

“You passed right by a large outcropping of gold-bearing rock.”

“Right by the entryway?”

“That enormous pile of rocks.”

I had a thought. “Mind if I have a sample?”

“We got more than we need.” He smiled.

I selected a rock about 12 inches long and 8 inches wide from the pile of stones. I turned it over: It was a dull, dark gray color. Nothing glittered.

I carried it back to my boat and placed it in the bilge. Now my little sailboat had a souvenir of Superior’s gold mines and a novel form of ballast.

Gult. I wonder what Jack London would have written.

Marlin Bree

Marlin Bree is a long-time The Ensign contributor and many-time award winner. The jocular story of his search for gold appears in his “Bold Sea Stories 2: True Boating Tales of Adventure and Survival.” And yes, it’s all true. The gold-bearing rock is out of Persistence’s bilge and guarding a stack of papers on the author’s desk. It makes a fine paperweight.

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