Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mining hope in northern Manitoba

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FLIN FLON -- Nick Benyk is no geologist, but he knows the profession's old adage well.

"I've heard them say that the best place to look for a mine is around a mine," says Benyk, mayor of tiny Sherridon and its roughly 85 residents. "And I think it's proving out."

Indeed, Benyk's community, a speck on the map 60 kilometres northeast of Flin Flon, is among several former mining towns in northern Manitoba now earning a second look from prospectors.

Rising global demand for metals is giving renewed hope to communities that saw populations decimated as ore supplies depleted.

Snow Lake, whose populace is due to soar on the strength of its much-hyped Lalor mine and the more recently announced Reed mine, receives much of the press.

But under the radar is an impressive amount of prospecting around places like Sherridon, Leaf Rapids, Herb Lake, Cranberry Portage and Lynn Lake, all of which are desperate for more jobs.

Crystal Cockerill has long believed there was still mineral life left in her hometown of Lynn Lake, even after the last of a chain of mines shuttered in 2001.

Having spent most of her life in Lynn Lake, 320 kilometres northwest of Thompson, Cockerill recalls the glory days of 4,000 people and an active, mine-sponsored community club.

Today, Lynn Lake is a shadow of its former self. Fewer than 500 people live there, and the school at which Cockerill is librarian has fewer than 200 students.

But now junior miners are spending big bucks to drill on Lynn Lake's forgotten mining sites.

"I'm optimistic, I guess," says Cockerill, 50. "But what else is there to do but be optimistic? You have to be optimistic."

That sanguineness is shared to the south in Leaf Rapids, where the lone mine closed a decade ago but where copper and zinc exploration remains constant.

Asked if mining will resume in her town of 450, formerly 3,500, Mayor Geraldine Cockerill says "Sure it will.

"It should have never shut down in the beginning, but I guess the price of copper and everything was down and that's why they closed it down. But now with the price being up, there is stuff there already that wasn't mined."

While Lynn Lake and Leaf Rapids are relatively new additions to the "former mining town" category, some companies are returning to mines that have not seen production since the Second World War.

Callinex Mines has been drilling dozens of holes at the old Gurney gold mine, tucked away in the wilderness outside Cranberry Portage.

Like a number of exploration projects in the North, the work at Gurney is inspired by the skyrocketing price of gold. The trend has even extended to Herb Lake, the settlement southeast of Snow Lake that ushered in Manitoba's gold rush in the 1930s.

Nanika Resources has scooped up what it calls the "Herb Lake Manitoba" property, though this time it was copper and zinc that caught the prospectors' eyes.

Near Wanless, another tiny hamlet north of The Pas, QMC Quantum Minerals is exploring near the defunct Namew Lake mine, operated by Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting, now HudBay, out of Flin Flon until the early 1990s.

Yet companies have not ignored the more well-known mining success stories of the region. There is, after all, ongoing exploration near both Thompson and Flin Flon.

Recent years have brought to Flin Flon talk of restarting the adjacent Tartan Lake gold mine, active briefly in the late 1980s, but so far the hype has yet to translate into shovels in the ground.

Back in Sherridon, residents are hopeful plans to reopen the nearby Puffy Lake gold mine, also silent since the late 1980s, amounts to more than just talk.

Auriga Gold Corp. is eyeing both open pit and underground mining at the site.

At the same time, HudBay has teamed up with junior miner Halo Resources on a promising search for feasible copper and zinc in the Sherridon area.

At 58, Benyk, who owns Sherridon's general store, is too young to remember the town's boom times of 1,500 (or more) people in the 1940s.

But he recalls well the closure of Puffy Lake in 1989 and how the unemployed fled to places like Thompson and Flin Flon.

What has kept Benyk in Sherridon is his love of the outdoors. In the winter he goes ice fishing within two kilometres of his home and in the summer he harvests wild rice.

And in the back of his mind was always the belief that some day, his beloved community would enjoy a mineral-fuelled rebirth.

"There is ore here and it's just a matter of time until something gets going to take advantage of that," Benyk says.

Jonathon Naylor is the editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2012 A10

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