Klondike placer miner honoured for paleontological finds

Stuart Schmidt makes a living looking for gold, but he often stumbles on a different kind of treasure - skulls, bones and tusks from ice age mammals.

'I always find it very special to find a really nice steppe bison skull in good shape,' says Stuart Schmidt

Stuart Schmidt with the helmeted muskox skull he found in September at his placer mining operation near Dawson City. Schmidt was given a 'Yukon Beringia Research Award' this week, in recognition of his many paleontological finds over the years. (Nancy Schmidt)

Forget about gold.

For Stuart Schmidt, working as a young boy in Yukon's Klondike gold fields with his miner father, the real treasure had no luster.

"You'd find all kinds of different bones during the summer, and you have a pile of them ... three or four feet high," he recalled.

"It was always really intriguing to think of a beaver that was the size of a Volkswagen bug ... gold doesn't necessarily seem so special when you're that age."

Schmidt grew up to follow in his father's footsteps as a Klondike placer miner — and a sort of accidental paleontologist. Over the years, he's dug up so many ice age bones and fossils that he was recently given a Yukon Beringia Research Award.

Schmidt with Yukon's Culture Minister Jeanie Dendys. The award is for Schmidt's 'incredible career-long effort to support our paleontologists and their colleagues,' Dendys said in a statement. (Government of Yukon)

In a statement, Yukon culture minister Jeanie Dendys praised Schmidt's "incredible career-long effort to support our paleontologists and their colleagues." 

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Schmidt recently made headlines with an especially rare discovery, for Yukon — a helmeted muskox skull and horns that he found while digging a drainage ditch at his claim in the Indian River Valley, near Dawson City. It's estimated to be about 25,000 years old.

"That was really fun to find, because I'd never seen anything like it before. It looks more like something out of a science fiction film or something, with a very small brain cavity and an awful thick skull," he said.

A Klondike tradition

Placer miners in central Yukon have been digging up ice age mammal skulls, bones, tusks and fossils for more than a century — essentially, since the Klondike gold rush.

Today, they're legally required to turn any finds over to the territorial government. 

Schmidt is happy to do so because it means he gets to talk to professional paleontologists and learn about what he's found.

"It makes it more exciting to know where they come from, and what their history is and everything like that," he said.

"There's nothing we would do with the bones anyway — they would just sit in a corner and rot, if the paleontologist didn't come and get them."

Of course, gold is Schmidt's bread-and-butter, and it's what he's looking for when he's out digging up mud and rock. But he's always partially on the lookout for bones, he says.

"I always liked bison skulls," he said. "I always find it very special to find a really nice steppe bison skull in good shape."

He's also grateful for the award he's just received, saying it meant "a little more than I expected."

"Certainly, it's a bit of icing on the cake."

With files from Sandi Coleman