Don Waite has spent the past 45 years immersed in photography.
From his early career as a identification specialist with the RCMP to his most years of restoring historical photos, Waite has been sifting through a rich history of one of B.C.’s most sought after treasures – gold.
Now the Maple Ridge author is set to release his latest book, British Columbia and Yukon Gold Hunters, a History in Photographs.
The 260-page hardcover will be available at Black Bond Books by mid-September and encompasses the photographs that spell out the great lengths miners took to get the precious metal out of the ground.
For Waite, the book is a passion that was well worth the more than four decades of work.
“It was definitely a labour of love,” he said. “It’s not just finding photographs, but finding the appropriate pictures and then gleaning the information as to why the photographer took that particular picture in the first place. They obviously wanted to tell a story.”
Waite first got the idea to share these stories after he was initiated to life in B.C. in the late 1960s. Raised on a dairy farm in Renfrew, Ont., he left home at the age of 19 to join the RCMP. Initially stationed in Burnaby, New Westminster, and Maple Ridge in 1967, Waite took an initial interest in photography.
His new-found hobby quickly turned into an asset on the job with the RCMP. Waite transferred to Ottawa to take a training course in identification, specializing in photography and fingerprinting.
After seven years on the force, he left the RCMP in 1971 and relocated back to Maple Ridge, where he opened a camera store and portrait studio.
It was then that he first heard the legend of Slumach’s Gold.
Allegedly worth billions, the legend has intrigued prospectors for more than 100 years with stories about a potential fortune found by a native man in the mountains around Pitt Lake.
Waite was hooked. He published his first book in 1972, titled Fraser Valley Stories. Other books were to follow, including The Cariboo Gold Rush, published in 1975, and the Langley Story, commissioned by the municipality in 1977.
But his passion for photography has never wained, he said, and the love of those ancient memories is what fueled his latest book.
He spent years collecting photos from the provincial archives in B.C. and the Yukon and hunting down shots from private galleries. Images of forests stripped bare, ramshackle mining camps hastily erected, with miners dreaming of the next big find.
Ever since Waite has learned to use Photoshop, he’s been restoring photos, bringing them up to the quality needed to republish. While tedious work at times, he said seeing the hard cover book has made it all worthwhile. More than 100 images, some his own, most from archives, line the pages.
“A lot of people don’t realize there is 48 hours of labour that goes into some of the restorations so that it’s publishable,” said Waite.
The Cariboo gold rush lasted all of three years, from 1860 to 1863, but produced countless tales, said Waite.
It’s most famous prospector, Billy Barker, discovered gold down river of the Williams Creek area, close to Stouts Creek. His discovery of 60 ounces was the largest in the area and the city that sprung up after his discovery, Barkersville, was named after him.
“But like most, he died penniless,” said Waite. “It was like the stories you hear when people win the lottery. It’s too much money and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Waite is always amazed at what lengths the miners used to get the gold out of the ground. He said the photos show the crude feats of engineering and the obvious perils that came with it. One particular photo that stands out for Waite was one snapped in the Yukon in the late 1800s. The bottom of a mining shaft was lined with thawing equipment that produced tremendous amounts of steam needed to thaw the bedrock.
“It was incredibly difficult work. And dangerous, for sure. There were constant cave-ins.”
Waite’s love affair with B.C. gold mining history also landed him a spot on the History channel’s Canadian original series Curse of the Frozen Gold. The first episode airs at 10 p.m. on Aug. 26 and delves into the legend of the lost treasure of Slumach and his lost gold mine.
“My nickname for the show was the legend, a legend in my own mind,” he laughs.