VP of Exploration, Argonaut Gold Inc.
I used to not know how to spell geologist and now I are one. Back in 1973, before I decided to be a geologist, I was working as a helicopter mechanic for the Forest Service and traveling around to forest fires. I had just got out of the Army and I was living in Placerville, California and taking a few classes at the local community college. The school was affectionately known as UBR (University Behind Raley’s). There was a Professor there named George Wheeldon who was teaching Geology. I took George’s 101 Geology class and quickly realized how much I appreciated knowing about the geologic world around me. I can’t remember what I used to think about my surroundings before I took this class. It seems normal now as I go about my business to constantly size up my geologic surroundings – what does it all mean? I remember the first George Wheeldon field trip was down to the Mono Lake – Mammoth area of California. We all climbed up into the Sierras above Convict Lake to visit an Ordovician roof pendent that was host to Graptolite fossils. The idea that this formation was deposited in an ancient sea 450 million years ago and was now sitting on top of a granite mountain was way too much for me to comprehend. I mean “how did that happen”. I suddenly realized that I was missing out. So much to learn and so little time! George’s enthusiasm for geology and the earth sciences was contagious and I knew that geology was my future. George, (who is also a member of GSN) if you are reading this I owe you a big thanks (again).
I decided to say good bye to my career in aircraft mechanics and set my sights on rocks. At the time I had no real idea what a geologist did to pay the bills but I didn’t much care. I could pack everything I owned in the back of my 1965 Chevy pickup so wasn’t too concerned about making responsible decisions. After taking as much general education and electives that UBR had to offer, I set out for the Mackay School of Mines. While in Placerville between deciding to be a geologist and actually heading for Reno, I got married to Cris. And the biggest thanks of all go to her. We have been married for nearly 40 years now and she has put up with a lot from me and my geologic adventures. She went to Reno with me and her efforts and support made it possible for me to graduate in 1979 as a real geologist. While attending UNR I spent two summers working for Homestake traveling around Nevada mapping and sampling gold districts. This is when I started to see how a person might actually earn a paycheck doing this geology stuff. How about that? Spend your life looking for gold and getting paid for it. With Homestake I had the good fortune to work with some real topnotch “old-school” geologists that taught me the basics and I think put me on the right track. It was these summer jobs that convinced me that I made the proper decision to follow the geology trail.
My first job out of school was with Gulf Mineral Resources who sent me to Montana to work on a moly porphyry system called Bald Butte. Gulf gave me a Dodge pickup and expense account and sent me to Big Sky Country. How good is that? My time working on this porphyry deposit and studying others pretty much turned me into a “magmatist”. The importance of intrusive systems to mineralization cannot be overstated and the more mineral systems I see the more I believe it.
While with Gulf I also worked in central Nevada and had the good fortune to be part of the Hill Top discovery located in the Northern Shoshone Range. During this time I also learned to really loathe the Upper Plate, but this is another story. When I went to work for Gulf I figured I would stay with them for 30 years and retire. Well five years later Gulf didn’t even exist and I was confronted by a new reality. This geology business isn’t all that secure.
After Gulf I soon obtained a job with a recently formed company called Pegasus Gold who had started an open-pit, heap leach operation at Zortman-Landusky in Montana right when the gold price jumped to over $800. The money was rolling in and they were in a serious property acquisition mode.
Pegasus pioneered heap-leaching of low grade gold deposits and when I hired on they had just acquired Florida Canyon. I was the first project geologist for Pegasus there and put in the first holes for the Company. Homestake and Asarco had already drilled parts of the system but during their time the gold grades were considered too low to be economic. We were the first to see this as a potential mine. I ran the exploration program until we had drilled out a resource of around 250,000 ounces which was the point when the Company made a production decision. Although I stayed involved with the project when it went into development, I moved into generative exploration as a Senior Geologist. Over the next 15 years that I spent with Pegasus I moved around to multiple locations including Argentina where I relocated with Cris and two kids. This was a fantastic adventure and the Company did well with the acquisition and testing of numerous prospects. Several of these properties are still active with various companies some 15 years later. One property in particular is looking to be a world class mine. Unfortunately, our Argentina Exploration program was cut short when the Company, having invested heavily in the Mount Todd gold operation in Australia, went bankrupt. It was a perfect storm of falling gold prices, increasing production costs and lower than expected recoveries (among other things). Pegasus was a great company filled with quality professionals and it was sad to see it all end.
After Pegasus I went to work for a well established Vancouver based Canadian Junior called the Northair Group. Most of my time with them was in Peru where I was looking for outcropping ore bodies. Yes they are still out there. The Company picked up and tested multiple land positions and two of the projects we drilled continue to have economic potential. Soon after drilling one project it was invaded by illegal miners and we had to pretty much escape with our lives. I hear that there is now an extensive open pit where we drilled our first holes. The company still has the land but the social problems are only getting worse. On the other project, Bre-X related fallout made it impossible to raise money and this combined with a tough underlying deal caused us to walk away. Work by another company years later expanded the property potential to over two million ounces. Turns out the metallurgy here was so bad that this group also gave it the adios. Peru was an interesting adventure and I learned much. The country certainly has potential for discovery and I might end up there again one day. While with Northair I also experienced a real taste of working in northern Canada and also even had a few Nevada projects. I greatly enjoyed my 11 years working for the Northair Group and learned much about how things work in the Junior market and am grateful for my many Canadian friendships.
I left the Northair group in early 2010 to join my current employer, Argonaut Gold. Argonaut is a new company and mostly Mexico focused. The Company currently has two operating gold mines with another future operation in the permitting phase. With Argonaut it was apparent that the best place to look for gold was at a gold mine and programs under my direction nearly doubled the Company’s measured and indicated gold resources over a two year period. I must say that working for an aggressive group with gold production to fund exploration is a wonderful thing. The Company continues to seek out new projects both in Mexico and elsewhere and I am still having a great time being a geologist. I should also add that I have been a member of GSN for over 30 years and proud of it.
This is what it’s all about!
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