By Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative ReporterYukon News
Thu., Oct. 28, 2021timer5 min. read
It started with a childhood obsession.
“I was a sandbox kid right from the time I could eat dirt. I wanted to be in it,” Dean Gray, founder of Earth & Iron Inc., told the Yukon News.
Gray built that obsession into a thriving earth-moving business, Earth & Iron Inc. The family-owned corporation had over 200 Caterpillars and built highways, cloverleaf interchanges and oil fields all over Alberta.
Six years ago, Gray and his family shareholders were looking to change things up, and so, like many before them, they looked north to the Yukon.
They visited one of the stars of a television gold-mining show operating near Keno City. They liked what they saw, and recognized their competitive advantage.
Gray said he figured right away that their experience and excavation equipment was the right kind of stuff for placer mining gold along the creek beds in the Yukon. He thought they’d give placer mining a try, maybe for five years or so.
One of two huge operational rock sorting machines, fabricated for Yukon ground. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)
Breaking into the business
Unlike some who come to mine for gold in the Yukon, Earth & Iron took a technical approach right from the start. They hired a former Yukon government geologist, another geophysicist just out of school, and a third with a couple of years of experience.
“We ran our own drill and we ran our own seismic resistivity,” Gray said.
Earth & Iron hauled in an assay trailer and used science to follow the gold veins.
“We had our own little geological program going. As for the earth-moving part of it, we would have an advantage over a lot of people to go and pull off what we pulled off,” Gray said.
“We set up like the Boy Scouts. We brought extra of everything — we had extra pumps and more equipment than we could operate in one day.”
Gray brought his own equipment and people north. Otherwise, he sourced everything he could locally, spending millions in the Yukon. He admits we was a little surprised when he realized Yukon companies didn’t set up accounts for miners, so they adjusted and paid as they went. He followed the rules, worked with the regulators, and left the claims clean and tidy behind him, according to government inspectors.
“We found a lot of value and a lot of places and we got some significant, they call it rare earth nuggets. It was huge for us and it was a really unique discovery,” Gray said.
The biggest nugget they found was 5.6 ounces. The uniqueness of their finds lay in the crispness of the gold, having absolutely sharp edges. Gray explained how that meant the gold had not traveled, or been softened and rounded by typical glacial till gravel and movement.
“We could have literally scraped it off the top of a vein or out of a vein as we were digging it out. Usually, nuggets you see are smooth and rounded off. And some of these are sharp enough to cut your fingernail with.”
Gray’s family stayed a year longer than expected. He tried one season with another of the gold mining television stars, but realized that’s not how he likes to do things. Gray worked with the regulators, followed the rules, explored new claims, bought others, built roads, spent millions, and made millions.
“We did business and I think we did good business,” he said.
He conceded that deep pockets help mining operations do less harm to the environment.
“We bought some claims outright that were with existing licenses,” Gray said. “And then we developed some of our fresh staking into licensed, explored ground. Some places we bought where people hadn’t found anything, we drilled, tested and discovered.”
Gray and his son fabricated what they needed. Like tailgates onto the back of 773 Cat rock trucks to contain the wet pay rocks while they were coming up the steep and deep ramps built up from their excavations on the creeks.
“It’s the Yukon — it’s the whole thing — it’s big. Even the opportunity and the creeks and the valleys and the vast landscape is huge,” he said.
The Yukon is big, mining is complicated, and it’s arduous.
“We did a lot in the short time, but it took a lot a lot of work,” Gray said. “It’s hard work, in fact some of the hardest work we’ve ever done. And I’ve done hard work.”
Mining excavators pending sale on display near Mayo. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)
Pulling out of the Yukon
Now, Gray and Earth & Iron are pulling up the stakes they laid six years ago.
On Oct. 26, Earth & Iron’s mining’s equipment went up for live auction from Edmonton. Ritchie Bros. auction house handled it all, as Earth & Iron Mining packs up to leave the Yukon.
Right now, the equipment is neatly displayed on a gravelled yard at the north end of Mayo, at the intersection of the Stewart highway and the Silver Trail.
The replacement value of the equipment is in the tens of millions of dollars. Used Caterpillar D-9s and -8s, and loaders and hydraulic excavators are lined up side by side, buckets and blades and tracks ready to go.
In a parallel line, there are a dozen of 773 Cat rock trucks, graders, and another row of normal trucks.
Behind, compressor boxes are lined up, scores of pumps on wheels, more than enough to fuel a diesel man’s dreams.
Across the yard, there are sea cans and trailers of test labs, five or six new bunkhouses and two mammoth dredges custom-built for Yukon conditions.
And that’s not all.
On the block the following day, on Oct. 27, were 513 Mayo district placer claims that were divided into six parcels (including current water licenses), itemized with maps and photos of gold nuggets. The total value of Earth & Iron’s claims sold for just over $900,000.
Gray said for the sale, he could of the played the long game and divested slowly, but he’s feeling his years and misses his family.
By all accounts, the market for used machinery is good now. Gray has fielded inquiries from civil contractors, governments, First Nations, and calls from the United Kingdom, Dubai and Eygpt. It will cost a purchaser $50,000 to $60,000 to transport a large excavator or dozer from Yukon to Alberta. But the worldwide internet bidding system of Ritchie Bros. makes the equipment buying world a small place.
“I’m going to be 64 here right shortly and got a young son Stuart. He’s 34 and he has young children,” he said, explaining it was a family decision.
“Anytime, I’ll pick family first.”
And Ritchie Bros. will handle everything else.