I grew up in the suburbs across the Hudson River from Albany NY. I attended Columbia High school, where I enjoyed science and metal shop classes. I was also active in that odd combination of activities known as the Boy Scouts. I attended State Univ. of NY at Albany (SUNYA), and then in 1974 moved to Seattle to attend the Univ. of Washington graduate school in geology. I worked briefly part-time for the USGS in Seattle, and then at Cities Services Minerals for two summers in Alaska. In 1978, I started full time with U.S. Steel in south Texas. This lasted about 4 years, with the 2nd two years out of Salt Lake City. I was laid off in 1982 and went 11 months with nothing. Parker Gay at Applied Geophysics hired me in 1983 and I worked as their chief geologist for about 4 years. In 1986 I worked a couple of months for Fidelity Investments “Fidelity Investments, how can I help you?”, and then got back into mineral exploration with Battle Mountain Gold for about a year, and then with Santa Fe Pacific in Reno. I explored at and near Rabbit Creek and Buffalo Valley for several years and then started evaluating properties elsewhere in the world, especially Latin America. I was living in Santiago, Chile when Newmont took over Santa Fe in 1996-97, and accepted Newmont's offer to move to Elko, where I have been ever since. In mid-2002, Newmont let me go after yet another merger and I have been doing geology-GIS consulting to the present.
I have always been affected with the 2-wheel travel bug, first on bicycles, and now on motorcycles. A fellow SUNYA student and I did a bicycle camping trip through New England in the summer of 1971. We were in such good shape from bicycling we were able to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine in ¼ the recommended time. I also did a solo bicycle trip from Bellingham to Tucson in 1977. For motorcycles, I started with a mini-bike bought from a friend and rode it around the back yard in a circle (we had a small back yard) until I killed most of the grass. Then it was on to a Hodaka Ace 100, Yamaha DT250, and about a dozen others over the years. At about 10 years old, a neighbor gave me a telescope mirror making kit, where you have two pieces of glass and you grind them together to make a concave paraboloidal telescope mirror. I made a 6” telescope out of the kit and this started me out on astronomy, optics, cameras etc.
At SUNY Albany I started studying astronomy, but after 2 years I realized that a career in astronomy did not have enough outdoor content for my taste, so I switched to geology. Fortunately I lucked into one of the best plate-tectonics geology departments in the world. I had already taken all the math, chemistry and physics required courses, so I was able to concentrate on geology courses for the last 2 years. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on island arcs that was my first (and so far only) peer-reviewed publication. There was one economic geology course offered but they wouldn't give it because I would have been the only student. I made up for this at UW by taking virtually all of Eric Cheney's courses even though did a non-economic geology field thesis and spent a couple of summers during grad school working on recon projects in central Alaska. In my first helicopter flight I couldn't understand a word the pilot was saying over the intercom and was reduced to pointing to where I wanted to go. After a couple of days I was able to understand him. The pilot was the elite of the crew. He got a tent with a wooden floor and an unlimited supply of Oreo cookies. Geologists got neither. Another pilot thought he was still in 'Nam and would fly at 100 knots 10 ft. above the tundra all the time. I couldn't see anything of the geology and was afraid a grizzly would rear up and take us out. We were looking mainly for porphyry copper and VMS deposits and didn't assay for gold on a regular basis because gold assays were expensive. The gold price had recently risen from $35/oz. to $800/oz., but few believed it would stay as high as it did. I spent one more summer reconning in Alaska for U.S. Steel in 1978.
In 1978 I entered the “permanent” work force during the nuclear power uranium boom, looking for roll-front deposits in the south Texas coastal plain. The drillers could easily drill two 600 ft. holes a day in the soft sediments, at a cost of ~$1.30/ft., so we kept busy. This is where I learned that drillers could break anything; one crew even broke their drill rig in two! They jacked it up and welded some plates to the frame and were back drilling in a couple of days. I didn't like Texas so much (too flat, and too far from skiing). After 2 years, I got transferred to Salt Lake City, and worked for a couple more years mostly in the northern part of the McDermitt caldera looking for volcanogenic uranium, and later in the western US for gold. The Three-Mile Island nuclear plant accident ended the uranium boom, and I was laid off from U.S. Steel in 1982 as they gradually cut out all exploration.
With Santa Fe in Nevada I did a lot of exploration in areas covered by alluvium. I carried my small dirt bike in the covered back of my truck, for use when the road got bad, or I wanted to search a large area off-road. I learned later that this became known to colleagues as my “escape vehicle”. I don’t think I could get away with this today, with all the corporate safety concerns.
I spent a lot of time for Santa Fe in the Andes countries of South America in the mid-90's looking for possible property acquisitions. “The terrorists are coming, we have to leave”. This after sitting down to eat in the evening after a quick look at a gold-rich VMS a mile off-road in Colombia's coast range, with plans to take a more thorough look in the morning. “Oh, but you can finish eating”. But somehow our heart wasn't into dinner anymore. We walked out to town through ankle-deep mud in the darkness. At the Oronorte mesothermal gold mine, I asked about the pile of curved plates outside the mill. It turned out that they were part of an un-assembled cyanide plant, and the reason it was still in a pile was that they were afraid that if they made any gold bars they would be stolen. It turns out that most of their pyrite concentrates were being hijacked anyway. I experienced my only big earthquake in Santiago. We all had time to run outside of the Santa Fe office and wait for about 45 seconds before it was over. No damage occurred.
At Newmont in Elko, I even had the good fortune to discover ~1M ounces of gold in the Peninsula deposit near Battle Mountain. It’s still sitting there, but I am confident that it will eventually be mined.
Exploration sure is fun.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger