Four years’ of painstaking detective work by a young Canadian geologist has helped propel his father’s junior exploration company to the brink of a major discovery in the uranium-rich Athabasca Basin of northwestern Saskatchewan.
Garrett Ainsworth, a graduate of London University’s prestigious Birkbeck College and a Professional Geologist, is currently Vice-President of Exploration at Alpha Minerals Inc.(TSX-V: AMW). He was nudged into uranium exploration by his father, Ben Ainsworth, a known name in Canadian mineral exploration.
As a Vice-President at Hathor Exploration in 2005, the senior Ainsworth helped steer development of Hathor’s massive Roughrider uranium deposit in the Athabasca until Rio Tinto bought the company in 2011 for $642 million.
Not one to stand idle, Ben turned his attention to a promising area around Patterson Lake South, about 70 kms from mining giant Areva Canada’s former producing mine at Cluff Lake, from which more than 60 million lbs. of uranium were extracted.
Ben Ainsworth’s company, initially called ESO Uranium, negotiated a Joint Venture (JV) with Fission Energy in 2008 to explore their adjoining claims at Patterson Lake South, which shared a common geophysical anomaly.
“We both had done aerial surveys, and some ground work, and we thought it would be a good idea to put that into a 50-50 joint venture,” says Ben.
His son Garrett seized with enthusiasm the first major opportunity of his career and was made Project Manager.
From 2008 on, he immersed himself in the historical records of the Athabasca Basin and the Patterson Lake South area in particular, spending months poring over old reports and surveys, transcribing and digitizing data.
Garrett gleaned an important first clue from the pages of the Geological Atlas of Saskatchewan, which revealed “some good-looking conductors just to the south of the original Joint Venture properties.”
With a friend, Garrett staked claims on three blocks for the JV. As they cut the claim lines, they came upon a spring tainted with what looked like iron sludge. Analyses showed there was radon and radium in the red mud — uranium indicators.
Further historical research turned up a report done in 1977 that showed a radon anomaly on the JV property, 1.2 kms by 1.6 kms. “It stood out on the page,” says Garrett. “It got me pretty excited when I saw that.”
He was intrigued, and a little puzzled, that whoever prepared the report had apparently written off the radon anomalies as due to the presence of “exotic” boulders in the glacial till.
“To me the word ‘exotic’ meant they thought the boulders came from too far away to be of interest,” says Garrett. “But they weren’t paying attention to what happened at Cluff Lake. These boulders don’t usually travel that far.”
The Cluff Lake mine had about seven separate deposits, all of which were traced back from nearby boulder fields.
In 2009, Garrett was able to persuade his father to undertake a spectrometer survey to confirm his theories. If he found a boulder field, it might lead him directly to the uranium mother lode.
Ben Ainsworth recalls: “The survey resulted in a map showing some singular events that appeared to be due to uranium sources. This map sat on Garrett’s wall for two years and he kept saying: “I’ve gotta get up there.”
Adds his son: “The survey showed those radioactive anomalies were uraniferous. You had radon, you had an uraniferous signature, you had a spring nearby with radon and radium, and all of this down-ice from historical conductors. Everything was now fitting together.”
Money was still tight, but, says Ben, "eventually we put together a $40,000 budget to get (Garrett) up there. He called me back after his first day out in the bush and he said — very softly because he was standing in a cook shack full of people he didn’t want to hear him — ‘We did it, dad.’ I said, ‘What did you do?’ and he said, ‘We found high-grade boulders."
It was a discovery Garrett will long remember.
“It was supposed to be my last field job, because times were pretty tough and I’d agreed to sign a contract to work with another company. Then, on the first day on the survey, we discovered high-grade uranium boulders.
“The first two boulders we found were nothing special. As I walked by a tree, I saw the scintillometer spike up and I did a double take. I kicked some soil out of the way and put my scintillometer down and it went to 150 counts per second (cps). I dragged my shovel out of my backpack and started digging down. The scintillometer went up to 600 cps, then 1,200, then 5,000. I couldn’t believe I was getting such high radioactivity. It went off scale before I could even see what was causing it. I took the shovel, and with one cut a bunch of black (stuff) spilled out into the pit I had dug. My first reaction was that it was burnt log, like charcoal, and then I picked some up. I didn’t have to look too closely before it registered that what I was holding in my hand was high-grade uranium.
“There was a lot of hooting and hollering. It was incredible. I’d always thought it would be so amazing, to be the first man on the ground finding those boulders.”
After the euphoria, reality returned.
Garrett’s boulder field discovery is among the largest in the Athabasca basin and the boulders are unusually large and high-grade for the region. Twenty-five boulders had grades of more than 10 percent uranium and the highest grade assayed at 39.6 percent. The largest boulder, more than 40 cm long, came in at 25.7 percent.
However, “One of the problems with these radioactive boulders is that they stand out like a bright light in the middle of a dark sky,” says Ben Ainsworth, Alpha’s President and CEO. “They get your attention very strongly, but in between the boulders you have nothing. If you average out all the material, it’s more than likely you would find that there was not enough uranium to make it worth mining.
The next question to be answered was: “Where the heck do the boulders come from?”
For Garrett, finding the boulders meant he would now be more than ever committed to Patterson Lake South. “I went from being in the office maybe 80 percent of the time, to being in the field 80 percent of the time,” he said.
Early in 2012, the JV began a $2.76-million, 33-hole winter drill program roughly 3 kms up-ice from the boulder field. In April, the last month of the program, results suggested they were on the right track. One hole returned a bedrock intercept of 19.5 metres, averaging 935 cps, starting just 98 metres from surface, with seven metres averaging above 1,000 cps. Further holes continued to indicate elevated radioactivity.
The next milestone came in November 2012, when the project reported intersecting a six-metre wide interval of high-grade mineralization at shallow depth in basement rocks. Assay results included 12.5 metres at 2.49 percent uranium.
Ben Ainsworth called it “the most significant discovery of new mineralization in the southwest Athabasca Basin area since Cluff Lake and Shea Creek” and he credited “good science and the hard work of an exploration team and its contractors who pushed their limits to get here.”
This winter, a new drilling program is underway “focusing on the discovery area with a much more detailed drilling pattern.” Results from the first two holes of the Winter 2013 program, released Feb. 7, revealed near-surface, high-grade uranium mineralization. One hole reported a 37-metre wide interval of well-developed mineralization; the second a similarly well-developed mineralization at a 21-metre interval.
Says Ainsworth Snr: “Two elements are very important for the viability of a mining operation at Patterson Lake South: the shallow depth and the high grade. The infrastructure is good; we’ve got a highway through the property, electric power not too far away and a population of local people who could benefit.”
And he’s upbeat about the project: “I think we are close to the source of the boulder field.”
And so is his son.
“Absolutely, I’m convinced we will find it,” says Garrett. “The detective work we’ve done has got us to where we are now. We have followed a methodical exploration approach and we are continuing to use every tool that we can — every analysis — that will point us in the right direction.
“It’s the dream job of any geologist. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here.”
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