“We got the results back and they were off the canoe!” declares prospector John Robins in his Vancouver office Thursday, recalling the 2002 Aviat diamond discovery now controlled by Stornoway Diamonds (TSX:SWY).
Robins had arranged a $60,000 prospecting syndicate looking for nickel in Canada’s north. His team ended up finding diamond indicator minerals, by accident.
A broker’s assistant who put up $5,000 at the last minute received a first payout of $250,000 when BHP bought an initial 20% interest in the project.
“You should have seen the look on her face,” Robins beams.
The mining entrepreneur has had an incredible career as a prospector and geologist, finding success in his 20’s after the Eskay Creek gold discovery, and later helping to build several successful mining ventures, including Kaminak Gold, which was acquired by Goldcorp last year for $520 million, and new Canadian diamond producer, Stornoway, which boasts a $620 million valuation on the TSX.
Robins was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1959, an only child. His dad was a forest ranger who brought the family along on long trips in the Canadian wilderness, where father and son shared a love of the outdoors.
The Robins family moved to the Kamloops, BC area when John was 14. He attended Caribou College (now Thompson Rivers University), studying biology, expecting to have his own career in forestry. Robins transferred to UBC in Vancouver, and enrolled in an elective mineral exploration course, where he was inspired by tales from a colourful professor, and switched his full-time academic focus to geology.
In Robins’ words, “It was really about the adventure. The ability to travel anywhere in the world and see places nobody else has seen. At the core of me, that’s why I love prospecting and exploration.”
Robins worked in the Hemlo, Ontario area in the early 1980s, after the famous Canadian mining discovery, which opened his eyes to the commercial side of the industry. There he met prospector Don Mckinnon, who had staked Hemlo. “He came bouncing into the project in a big Lincoln Continental,” Robins recalled.
Robins’ first score personally came from another notable Canadian gold discovery several years later. He and partners were prospecting in Northern BC in the late 1980s and had staked several properties in the Golden Triangle area, when, as luck would have it, another explorer made their own rich silver-gold discovery on Robins’ doorstep.
Robins and partners made a mint selling properties to various public companies that entered the area. They even ended up with a royalty (“mailbox money” in mining parlance) that lasted through the life of the Eskay Creek mine.
It was just the beginning of Robins’ commercial success.
“For the dollars invested, the biggest win we ever had was our prospecting syndicate that led to the formation of Stornoway. That was a $60,000 syndicate that we did privately with our company, Hunter Exploration. We were originally looking for nickel in the Melville peninsula in the arctic. It was only a ten day prospecting trip. The nickel thing was a bust so we decided at the last minute to collect some samples, real crude, beach sands, looking for diamond indicators. We took 12 samples spread between the top of the Melville and the bottom -- over 500 kilometres. Spaced 80 kilometres. But one of them, just fluke of flukes, was on a small little lake, that we didn’t know at the time, half way along the lake was a big honkin’ outcropping kimberlite. When we got the results back on that, the diamond indicator chemistry was off the canoe.”
“You could go lifetime after lifetime and not duplicate that success.”
Yet he’s had other “once in a lifetime” discoveries.
Robins founded Kaminak Gold, which discovered the Coffee Gold project in the Yukon, acquired by Goldcorp last year. It’s the first major gold mine to be discovered in the Klondike area since the Goldrush of 1896.
“It was the classic exploration discovery story. Stream sediment sample. Soil anomaly. More soil sampling. Trench. Drill. Discovery. About as basic an exploration discovery as you could get. Hit on the first hole.”
Robins credits a great team at Kaminak, including former CEO Rob Carpenter, who Robins calls “a genius”, and Eira Thomas, who succeeded Carpenter as CEO and helped negotiate the company’s sale.
His latest venture, Bluestone Resources (TSXV:BSR), recently acquired the fully permitted Cerro Blanco gold and Mita geothermal projects in Guatemala from Goldcorp and raised $80 million, attracting investment from billionaire Swede Tycoon, Lukas Lundin.
I asked Robins about risks to the deal.
“We want to see the hot water get de-risked, obviously. The technical risk of the project is dealing with the temperatures. The engineers we have are some of the best out there. They think it’s not a problem. With grade you can overcome technical challenges. For this it is just dewatering and some refrigeration. The exploration potential is phenomenal. There’s 1.2 million ounces at 10 grams now. I would be surprised if there’s not 2 million ounces there at better than 10 grams, probably.”
“Mining projects in Guatemala have had social issues in the past. There are challenges. Where else are you going to find the real win?”
Robins says on an ideal timeline, the project could achieve full commercial production in 2 years.
Darren Klinck, a former OceanaGold executive vice president and head of M&A, replaces Robins as CEO at Bluestone on August 1, freeing up Robins to spend more time on his passion project, K2 Gold (TSXV:KTO).
After the sale of Kaminak (hence the name K2), Robins wanted to continue to build on his team’s momentum, expertise, and relationships in the Yukon.
He recruited Steve Swatton, an experienced mining executive, former analyst, and friend, to be the company’s CEO, with Robins as Chairman.
Gary Freeman, who founded and later sold Pediment Gold to Argonaut for $141 million in 2011, is another large shareholder and director. Experienced mining engineer Craig Roberts, and financier Fred Leigh round out the board.
K2 Gold has less than 20 million shares outstanding (less than 30 million shares fully diluted) and last traded at 32 cents, for a market cap of roughly $6 million, far from Kaminak’s former heft.
The company’s flagship Wels property is a promising early-stage gold discovery with a big footprint, Robins says.
Wels is “one of the most significant new grassroots gold discoveries in the Yukon in the past 5 years,” according to the company web site. “A single rock sample returned 149.5 g/t gold, trenching highlights include intersection of 8.8 g/t gold over 40 m including 9.15 g/t over 40.5m and drilling to date returned 97.5m @ 0,76 g/t, including 3.11 g/5 over 19.5m and 5.71 g/t over 9 m (with visible gold).”
K2Gold drilled 5-8 holes into Wels in June and results are expected shortly. The company has active exploration programs at three other early-stage Yukon projects. Wels is the company’s flagship, but K2 would consider exploring in other jurisdictions to complement the Yukon’s seasonality. In other words-- the company is committed to continue to explore other projects in the event Wels is a bust.
BC is no longer high up on the list of places Robins wants to explore because digital claims staking tools have “ruined the spirit of exploration,” he says. Nearly anyone can stake mineral property rights in BC today through the internet without having ever set foot on a property, making it highly competitive to assemble large land packages in prospective areas. Robins would like to see a return to the days of physical staking, forcing prospectors to visit the bush and employ actual science. Physical staking is still the standard in the Yukon, another reason he favours the jurisdiction.
In addition to a successful career as a mining executive, Robins is an advisor and mentor to countless young prospectors, executives, and geologists. His own mentor was Don McLeod, whom Robins called the “Godfather of the Golden Triangle” during McLeod’s memorial recently.
For McLeod, and Robins, it was never about the money.
“The number one thing that gets me going is just the concept of exploration. Last weekend I was up at my cabin exploring in the mountains, getting out in the middle of nowhere and seeing a part of the world I have never seen before. It’s the closest thing I get to a spiritual experience.”
“It could be the other side of the mountain or it could be finding that vein of gold --- Nothing beats it.”
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