MacKenzie, Joan

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                                        JOAN MACKENZIE
                                       By Cathy Carnahan


In 1976, at age 14, Joan MacKenzie was bored, so she quit school and decided to pursue a dream. That dream was to dig for gold.

Her grandfather, William Alexander MacKenzie, took part in the Klondike gold rush in 1898 and the Chatham teenager was determined to go back to Yukon to retrace his steps.

“It sounded like an interesting thing to do,” MacKenzie said in an interview at her home in Chatham. When I was growing up, my parents (John and Lorna MacKenzie) were storytellers. And, in a modest sort of way, our family was always aware of our heritage. I remember when I was young I also wanted to go to New Zealand and be a sheep farmer,” she said grinning.

MacKenzie opted to travel across Canada, however, and in 1976 made her way to the Yukon. It was a move she has never regretted.

The odds of a young girl making it alone in the north were low, but she succeeded. She is too modest to say how successful she was, but she said she had a lot of luck. “I just went from a pick and shovel operation to staking claims, selling and actually trading claims, to performing a partnership with Basil,” she said.

Basil Bryant is now her husband. “In May of 1979 we formed our company, and in the fall I married him. We were corporate partners before we were husband and wife, so I still call him my partner,” MacKenzie said. “The locals say I staked all around him,” she said smiling. “There weren’t very many women when I went up there, so I had my pick of the litter.”

Both she and Bryant are placer miners. “Placer means you only use water to extract the ore, and the type of ore we’re looking for is gold,” MacKenzie said.

“We’re becoming an extinct species because of government regulations and the environment. New federal regulations are being drawn up, so the way you mine your ground is being dictated, and it’s too costly. There is need for protection, but it is sad to see the whole industry die,” she said. “It complements the tourism industry too… because miners and mine sites are quite accessible to the tourists. There used to be between 200-300 placer miners about five years ago. I doubt now if there would be 60.”

In New Brunswick, there are no registered placer miners, Fred Edney said in an interview. The deputy mining recorder for the provincial resources and energy department said there are about 1,000 prospectors, however.

“Most of the mining operations in the north are family run,” MacKenzie said.

“It’s in your blood and you don’t want anything else. It’s a way of life. It’s just like a farmer digging in the earth.

“The northerners are people who are there because they want to be there. “They are very self-sufficient. They don’t look for a crutch or the government to survive.

“Robert Service said, ‘Only the strong survive,’ and it’s true,” she said. “It’s a very romantic land in a very strange sort of way… and I think that’s what I enjoyed most.”

MacKenzie bought a log cabin on Bonanza Creek for three ounces of gold – which was about $500 at the time – and gradually converted it into a small comfortable home. There was no running water, electricity or phone, but she didn’t mind. She still doesn’t. “I’d cut a hole in the ice to do my laundry, melt snow for drinking water, and my entertainment was…a radio,” she said. Each fall, she’d buy enough supplies to last the winter, she’d make the 16-mile trek to Dawson City so she could take a shower.

The cabin, on a sub-Arctic mountainside, is still MacKenzie’s home in the north, although she returned to Chatham in the fall of 1988. She and Bryant live here in the winter with their two daughters, but each summer Bryant returns to work in the north. He was born in Alaska and the Yukon has been his home for many years. MacKenzie respects that and also accepts the fact that sometimes they must be apart for months.

“We’ve got the best of both worlds. We appreciate each other. I think I’ve got the edge actually,” she said. Many people work nine to five and their whole lives are routine, but that’s never the case with them, she added.

                                     Mining like farming

Mining is a risky business, says Joan MacKenzie. “Mining is definitely a lifestyle. We’re half living in the past. It’s a lot of hard work, and very seldom is there ever a pay day. “You can just compare it so much to farming. Everything you make is put back in. The rainfall can make or break you because you need so much water to mine with,” MacKenzie said.

“Nearly all miners almost end up dying paupers. It’s not about getting rich. The nicest thing about it is that you’re your own boss,” she said.

“In the mid-eighties we sold most of our mine sites, but we retain an interest in properties there. And if, and when, the price ever gets good enough or justifies mining, and the government regulations improve, we’ll look at mining again.” In the interim, her husband Basil consults to mining operations.

                                    Joan MacKenzie loves adventure.

This summer, the Chatham woman plans to cross the Chilkoot Pass, which connects Alaska and British Columbia with the Yukon. The pass was the entrance into the Yukon at the turn of the century during the gold rush.

The Yukon was also MacKenzie’s home from 1976-1988. She and husband, Basil Bryant, still have a home on Bonanza Creek, in fact.

In 1897, when the news of the Klondike gold discovery flashed around the world, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people set out for Klondike. Approximately 40,000 made it, and Dawson city turned from a tent and log cabin boom town to the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco.

Joan’s grandfather – William Alexander MacKenzie – spent eight years in the gold fields. When he returned to New Brunswick, he had $65,000 in gold.

He died in 1957, three years before Joan was born, but he has always been her hero.

She was told when her grandfather went to the Chilkoot Pass, he and the other miners each had 2,000 pounds of supplies with them. At the top of the pass, William Alexander MacKenzie abandoned his supplies and took only his oatmeal and rice, plus a dog he bought for $250. Then he and his partner walked down the Yukon River ice ahead of the other gold miners who were waiting for the spring breakup.

Little did MacKenzie know some day he’d be a legend, but down through the years the stories of his adventures were passed on and cherished. In his granddaughter’s comfortable home in Chatham, a large portrait of him hangs in the living room. She has staked over 100 claims herself, but there is one which is rather special. It’s called Papa’s Claim, affectionately named after her grandfather.

When she arrived in the Yukon, her first stop was at the archives in Whitehorse to see which creeks her grandfather had staked and mined on.

“Then I travelled to Dawson, and I guess naturally I picked the closest stake to town – which was Homestake Gulch on Upper Bonanza Creek,” said MacKenzie. A claim is 500 by 1,000 feet on each side of the creek. The land is federally owned, but miners lease it from the Crown on an annual basis. “As long as you work your property and pay a filing fee, you remain in good standing with the Crown and they’ll renew the claim,” MacKenzie said.

“When I went in (June 1976) gold was $168 per ounce and many of the creeks were open. They weren’t staked because the price was so low,” she said.

Gold is now about $350 American per ounce, but MacKenzie recalls a boom in February 1980 when it went to $1,000 per ounce.

“I can remember when I hit a hot spot. I mined until 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said.


Source: Miramichi Leader – February 17, 1993

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