A view of the old mining town of Stewart, British Columbia, CanadaWhile on a recently assignment in Northern British Columbia, I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining exploration company prospecting for gold. Like most city people, I know very little about mines and mining beyond the occasional bad press those companies get when they cut corners, or become lax, causing damage to the environment.

So it was enlightening to meet these people in person and to hear about their work. The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of “core samples” – cylinders of rock that have been cut and extracted from below ground with a diamond drill.

The samples are taken and examined to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues.  The photo below shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold mixed in with the rock on the top left edge of the core.

A core sample of rock showing flecks of gold, taken from a mining exploration company, British Columbia, Canada.

The people I met were nonchalant about their work, which they regarded as very regular and even mundane; similar to how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But like with archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed expectation and excitement hanging in the air around them. Their work is a bit like playing the slots.

When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture mentally, and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding a metal with seemingly little intrinsic worth beyond its human-endowed value of profound wealth, the entire operation seemed a bit surreal.

As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.

When I asked what other geographical areas they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.

“Well, none,” he said, taken aback. “Part of the point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”