May 2012

Strike it rich

Unearthing the secrets of discovery at PDAC

By Barbara L. Campbell

Rob Carne, president and director of ATAC Resources, receiving core from drills at the company’s Rackla gold project in the Yukon | Courtesy of ATAC Resources

Although exploration for metals and minerals attracts more funding every year, discoveries are hardly keeping pace with worldwide demand. For discoverers, the statistical odds of success are not encouraging. Indeed, Robert Schafer, executive vice-president of business development at Hunter Dickinson, likens their tasks to tackling “a jigsaw puzzle with 60 per cent of the pieces missing.”

During PDAC’s 2012 convention in Toronto, Schafer and John Morganti, president of Morganti Advisors, co-chaired a panel discussion called “The discoverers,” featuring five top members of the exploration field to try to “extract some of their secrets,” Scha­fer said.

Key personality traits described by geosciences consultant Vic Wall of Vic Wall and Associates suggest that today’s successful discoverers do not differ markedly from those who went before them. Wall painted a picture of “hungry, obsessive, driven optimists.” They are risk-takers, he said, who possess confidence and persuasiveness.  

Nobody argued with his description, but what must would-be discoverers do in order to reach their prized targets?

“Stick your neck out and make a decision,” urged Mark Rebagliati, vice-president of exploration at Hunter Dickinson, in a call to take action based on knowledge and intuition, rather than stalling over the growing lists of risks. Rebagliati’s own decisions have prompted discoveries including the Hollister gold deposit in Nevada and porphyry copper-gold deposits at Mt. Milligan and Kemess, BC, at Xietongmen in Tibet and on Alaska’s Pebble East property – the world’s third largest gold resource.

“Do what you have a passion for,” said Ron Parratt, a director and executive chairman of Renaissance Gold, in Reno, Nevada. “This is no typical eight-to-five job. Look at the assays, not the clock,” he quipped.

David Lowell, who heads Lowell Mineral Exploration of Rio Rico, was not alone in his belief that discoverers need to “think outside the box.” Lowell’s unconventional view of the slant of a fault line in Arizona resulted in the 1965 discovery of the Kalamazoo porphyry copper deposit.  He also found the porphyry deposit at Vekol Hills, where he says he lived in an abandoned mine tunnel.

Lowell is more than a bit of a maverick; his presentation took a lighthearted dig at convention, pondering whether good students, who follow the rules and embrace dogmatic thought, actually make poor explorers.

Nevertheless, Lowell and his fellow panelists form a highly educated group, whose names leave a trail of degrees and certifications in their wakes. And while the characters and actions of today’s discoverers echo those of their predecessors, the technological skills they need are solidly rooted in the present. Technology has revolutionized the terrain. 

Geological skills are increasingly important, said Wall, whose expertise brought him top prize in the 2001 Goldcorp Challenge, when the company provided data about its Red Lake mine and invited entrants to identify where the next six million ounces of gold were mostly likely to be found.  

“The evolution of software has really helped the exploration business,” added Rob Carne, president and director of ATAC Resources. Since 2007, ATAC’s exploration activities have uncovered precious metal mineralization in Yukon’s Rackla river area, where previous explorers had recorded no findings. 

“I don’t think we could work without models,” Wall told the audience. Most of the panelists, however, agreed that current models leave ample room for improvement. And, although Parratt applauded the use of genetic models as well as the variety of new tools available to discoverers, he pointed out that more choice also means more ways to make mistakes. “Using all the tools in your box simply doesn’t make sense. Boot leather on the ground is still really important,” he said. Parratt also suggested that real discoverers create their own good luck. “You have to get out there and drill, and keep drilling. That’s where you make the discoveries. And, sample, sample, sample; you really can’t take enough samples.”

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