EDMONTON, Alberta - Somewhere, the ghost of Robert W. Service is smiling.
In a modern replay of the gold rush sung by the old bard of the Klondike, dozens of mining companies have recently staked thousands of fresh claims in an area that once teemed with old-time panners and prospectors moiling for gold.
But this time, instead of swarming over streams and gravel beds teasing out flakes of the precious metal, miners may have found the fabled and elusive mother lode.
"We've finally found the first one that actually shows enough gold in one spot to say, 'Ahh, this is the type of deposit that could have produced the Klondike,"' said Shawn Ryan of Dawson, Yukon.
Ryan has combined 10 years of old-fashioned bushwhacking and the latest high-tech data-gathering to find a goldbelt nine kilometers long. The prospector's find is in the so-called White Gold area, south of Dawson, near where the White and Yukon rivers meet.
The area isn't new to gold-seekers. In the late 1890s, it was part of the Klondike Gold Rush, which saw tens of thousands of hopeful "cheechakos," or newcomers, flood into the Yukon hoping to pan and sluice their way to riches.
Dawson's population swelled to 30,000 as creeks and gravel bars yielded millions of dollars of gold. Much of it was spent in bars such as Diamond-Tooth Gertie's, which provided Service with rich material for his oft-quoted odes such as "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
The sources of that gold were never found. But Maurice Colpron of the Yukon Geological Survey says the White Gold find could be one of them
"The mother lode is still out there and that's the hype around the White Gold area."
Plenty of miners seem to think so.
There are at least 29 junior mining companies active in the area. About 7,900 claims have been staked since late 2006.
Mineral exploration spending in the Yukon has gone from $7 million in 2002 to more than $100 million in 2007 and 2008. Even in recessionary 2009, government figures suggest mining companies will spend as much as $60 million.
Early drilling results explain the rush. Many operating mines exploit deposits that yield one gram of gold per tonne of ore. White-Gold-area miners report 100-meter stretches of claim that yield three or four times that.
One company says a small section of its claim contains 410 grams of gold per tonne.
"People are really starting to realize this is a great place to explore," said Susan Craig, director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines and president of Northern Freegold, one of the region's main players.
White Gold boosters also point out that the region is on the eastern end of the Tintina belt, a vast stretch of gold-bearing rocks that stretches 150 kilometers between Alaska and the Yukon.
Territorial Resources Minister Brad Cathers credits some of the activity to reduced royalties, stable land claims and a devolution agreement with the federal government that allows decisions to be made in Whitehorse instead of Ottawa.
He also points to the speed of the Yukon's regulatory system. Cathers talks about a mining road running across the Yukon-Northwest Territories boundary that needed upgrades: Approvals for the N.W.T. side took 900 days, while the Yukon section took 69.
"It's really a competitive advantage for us," Cathers said.
But none of the current excitement would exist without the hard work of Ryan, who originally moved to Dawson 17 years ago to pick wild mushrooms, and his wife, Cathy Wood. About 10 years ago, Ryan, who had worked in mining in Timmins, Ontario, began to get interested in prospecting.
Combining the latest digital mapping technology and computer data analysis with old-school boot leather, Ryan and Wood walked one ridge after another, season after season.
"If we don't get it one year, let's check the next ridge over," said Ryan. "This may take 10 years here, and we're prepared for the long haul."
"If you've done your science right, you know something's going to be in here and you just keep banging the bush," he said. "If you believe in it - that's the other hard part."