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CUT FROM A DIFFERENT CLOTH - John Peter Ross always found a certain musical trait to nature, and loved prospecting in the North. Photo Courtesy of Yukon Geological Survey

Late prospector 'a colourful, good-hearted character'

John Peter Ross, better known by his friends as JP, died suddenly at his home in Whitehorse in late May at the age of 60.

By Jane Gaffin on June 18, 2008

John Peter Ross, better known by his friends as JP, died suddenly at his home in Whitehorse in late May at the age of 60.

The Yukon resident of nearly 35 years was a great promoter of the prospecting fraternity and a dedicated member of the Yukon Prospectors' Association, where, at the time of death, he was vice-president.

Born in Winnipeg on March 16, 1948, JP was a youngster when his nuclear engineer father's work took the family to Montreal, where JP, his twin brother, Bruce, and sister, Leslie, grew up and were educated.

JP was an intrepid, inquisitive, intelligent fellow, who graduated from McGill University in 1970 with a BSc in chemistry and a minor in biology that he referred to it as "learning animal behaviour".

A passion for wrestling advanced him to a national competition in British Columbia, where he stayed behind to earn money in the lumber and fish camps, a stepping stone to the Yukon after serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and doing time in the Vietnam War.

"I met this crazy hobby miner who kept his nuggets in his goldfish tank," JP reminisced in the 1991 Yukon Chamber of Mines' Claim Post. "He told me that the North was the place for a young man of my ilk."

JP hitchhiked towards Dawson City and was stranded for three days on the roadside at Carmacks, 160 kilometres north of Whitehorse. Prospects not looking too good on the highway, he finagled a canoe on the cheap.

He found an old road sign to substitute as a paddle and continued his adventure via the Yukon River to Dawson City, where he partnered with three prospectors to mine a river bar for gold.

"One of them was a robber; one hid all our food and rationed it out as he saw fit; and the third talked endlessly but did no work," he explained.

Besides wrong partnerships, another hazard in the prospecting business is money exhaustion. JP headed toward the old stand-by money-making machine. United Keno Hill Mines at Elsa was always hiring.

In the mid-1970s, he did his first stint pushing a broom in the mill.

"People were quitting so fast, I was promoted three times in the first five hours to the position of the ball mill operator," he said.

Later, while chasing butterflies for a hobby lepidopterist's collection, he became interested in exploring the hills and mountains with their boundless minerals.

Interviews with countless prospectors and miners turned his mind towards cracking rocks as a primary vocation, giving him the freedom to be his own boss.

While on the learning curve, the money supply kept running out and he returned to United Keno Hill four more times.

A prodigious reader, he ferreted out whatever scant materials there were on independent mineral prospecting. Government geochemical releases gave the degreed chemist enough fodder to keep him busy for 20 years.

"Today's prospector needs to know more, try new techniques," stressed JP, whose new-found career began in earnest about 1985. "Too many prospectors run out of patience and drop out of the game early."

He estimated about 85 per cent of Canadian mines were originally staked or discovered by independent prospectors who assumed a major part of the risk associated with finding a significant ore body.

"Big companies want sure things; the prospector looks for the needle in the haystack," he said. "The chances of striking it rich are low, so the prospector lives on option payments and cooks his own rice, beans and macaroni."

JP noted that the prospecting profession is a long-shot gamble that makes horse-racing look like a solid, stable business; income is erratic, from zero up.

Besides the financial risks, there are physical and social risks. "If you break your leg you are by yourself. You're up to your waist in water with an 80-pound pack on your back.

"One slip and you drown."

To boot, the lifestyle is not conducive to marrying. No wonder. This bachelor thought the primary purpose of a kitchen sink and water tap was for washing gold nuggets.

The sense of discovery gave him particular pleasure, and prospecting suited his disposition to a tee because "it takes a special breed of individual to go for 30 days without talking to anyone."

However, JP would catch up on lost words when he got back to town. He could talk faster and change subjects more often than most people's brains are wired to think.

A creative thinker and clever businessman willing to take a gamble, JP's rock-pounding career began to flourish. Soon, the rough years were rewarded with recognition.

In 1995, the Yukon Prospectors' Association (YPA) selected John Peter Ross as Prospector of the Year. His name is engraved in the base of the bronze prospector statue at the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue in downtown Whitehorse.

The YPA award, based on a prospector's successes in uncovering new mineral discoveries, celebrated his good fortune in finding the Killermun Lake gold property in the Ruby Range-Aishihik area.

Eight years after his first prospecting trip to Killermun Lake, JP still had a financial interest in the property he and a former partner, Rob dal Bianco, had staked in 1987. A drilling program turned up enough gold to encourage further exploration.

Working mostly alone, he explored the area north of Haines Junction and other parts of the Yukon and northern British Columbia.

He obtained rights to some eight properties that appeared to be rich in gold, lead, zinc, silver, copper as well as placer gold.

But big payouts for hard labour often take a while to materialize.

"It would be nice if you could go behind your house and find gold but you have to travel," he told Dianne Green for her "Top Prospector" article in December 1995.

JP rattled off a litany of financial outlays for such necessities as helicopters, assays and soil samples.

"A prospector might test 50 to 400 rocks per season. Your truck gets beat up. Your clothes wear out. The knees go on your pants. Tents go fast.

One of mine went in two minutes when a bear went through it."

The key to success was knowledge. JP kept reading and going to classes. He once placed at the head of an advanced prospecting course taught by the chamber of mines.

"I paid $25 for the course and the prize was a $37 rock hammer, so I made $12 by taking the course," JP calculated.

"It's been a big hurdle and a few frustrations to get this far," he continued. Four feet of snow burying his tent in July was nothing compared to the night seven bears were prowling around his tent.

"I had to drive 30 miles away to get some sleep," he recounted.

Still, JP liked being out alone where there were no pressures and listening to the sounds of silence.

"There's a certain music in nature - the wind, rock avalanches, bears at 3 a.m., gurgling streams and wind in the grass. Even the stars seem to have a sound to them."

Prospecting, a summer occupation, gave JP the flexibility he liked. In winters, he went to Michigan to see his mother, who predeceased him a couple of years ago.

If he had a lucrative summer, he pressed on to Southeast Asia to hang out in warm climes until spring came back to the Yukon.

JP will be remembered for his fashion statement-a pair of red suspenders-and for his poor man's Winnebago, an old Suburban whose doors were graced with the tell-tale faded letters of Capital Helicopters.

He shared his vast knowledge on an eclectic array of subjects willingly, an extraordinary trait for a person operating in the highly-competitive prospecting and exploration business where most people keep their secrets close to their vest.

JP was his own person, a man cut from a different cloth who flatly refused to conform to how society thought he should think and behave.

His staunch individualism earned him the rite of passage into Jim Robb's Colourful Five Percent.

"I'll miss JP a lot," said Bob Stirling, a long-time friend and mining colleague. "He was a real character and a person with a good heart."

A memorable memorial service and reception gave JP Ross a good send off from the Whitehorse United Church last Saturday.

It was unanimously agreed that JP had undoubtedly been received into the kingdom of God and was by now giving the Master new ideas about how He could run his business more efficiently.

Jane Gaffin, author of Cashing In: A History of Yukon Hardrock Mining, 1898-1977, is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer specializing in mining-related subjects. She can be contacted at janegaffin@canada.com.

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