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Inside the search for gold in Northern Minnesota

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VIRGINIA, MN -- In the late 1800's, during early exploration of the Northland, some groups stumbled onto gold along the shores of Lake Vermilion and Rainy Lake.

When rumors of the find spread, Minnesota's gold rush was on.

A team of contractors near Virginia haul specialized gear through the woods to study what's below the forest floor.
Vermillion Gold President Kate Lehmann shows off a sample of the earth from near Virginia, which contains small flakes of gold.

Some mining companies were formed, but by the turn of the century, not a lot of gold was extracted and the rush turned to iron ore.

However, the DNR and geologists familiar with the Range will tell you there is a lot more gold in those hills.

That is why, for a select few, the hunt is still very much on.

On a cool day in mid-May near Virginia, a team of contractors smashed through the woods, clearing brush with hack saws and hauling generators, transmitters and cables.

The exploration team is happy to put up with rough terrain if it means finding the prize that may lie beneath.

"It's really a process of zeroing in and more zeroing in," said Vermillion Gold President Kate Lehmann.

Lehmann is in charge of this search.

Vermillion Gold is currently the only company searching for this particular precious metal in Northern Minnesota.

Kate Lehmann's father, Ernie Lehmann, founded the company in the early 2000's toward the end of a lengthy, successful career.

"He was a very active exploration geologist all over the world," said Lehmann.

But it was Northern Minnesota that piqued Lehmann's interest.

So After Ernie's death in 2013, his daughter kept his quest for gold here alive.

"It's highly risky business," said Lehmann. "It's a big roll of the dice to put money into exploration. You may or may not find something, but my father was all in in that way."

And going all in when it comes to gold starts in the air.

Vermillion Gold geologists recently went up in a plane over an area called the Virginia Horn, where they believe gold has the best chance to be found.

Using a magnetometer, maps are created to help narrow the search.

Then comes work on the ground, and that's where that four man exploration team comes into play.

They're doing something called an IP survey of the area that was mapped out from the air.

It entails covering 18 miles of forest and swamp on foot, hauling heavy equipment along the way.

The team goes along those lines, clearing brush, running cables, sticking probes in the ground and sending electrical current into the earth to get clues as to what is down there.

"This will show different areas of conductivity or resistivity in the bedrock, and geologists can use that data to dial in potential drill targets," said Bryan Harp, who's contracted by Vermillion Gold to do exploration.

After weeks of that grueling work, then comes time for Vermillion Gold's Chief Geologist to analyze all those readings.

"What excites me more about this area is that it is unexplored and there's tremendous potential," said Vermillion Gold Chief Geologist Bill Rowell.

Rowell helped start Vermillion Gold with Ernie Lehmann 15 years ago.

Reading the data gathered in the woods will help him determine where to drill a small hole and pull out a core sample of the earth.

Rowell would hope to see a lot of gold grains in the sample.

"If you are closer, the more grains you get," said Rowell. "If you had ten then it might be significant. If you have 100 grains then you might be close to something."

But drilling just one hole can cost six figures. And just one round of exploration and drilling combined can cost millions of dollars.

Past drilling has helped the company rule out other areas around Virginia, and they feel they could be closing in on something exciting.

"It has a romance," said Lehmann. "There's a little romance to it. I've been involved in a number of minerals and metals and nothing quite shines like gold."

"If you push hard enough, I have no doubt there are gold deposits here," said Rowell. "But can we keep it going?"

There are several active gold mines across the border in Ontario.

Geologists say part of why there are not any here is because gold is harder to detect.

Northern Minnesota has much thicker glacial till, helping hide the gold.

There are also a lot of companies snatching up mineral leases here to explore and mine iron ore, taconite, copper and nickel.

South African gold company AngloGold Ashanti withdrew exploration in Northern Minnesota last year, after years of spending large amounts of money with no major discovery.

So now it is just Vermillion Gold.

We will keep you updated on their progress.

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Dan Wolfe

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