Keno City’s silver lining
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
Driving into Keno City is like travelling back in time.
With its ramshackle cabins and dirt streets, the small mountain village at the end of the Silver Trail highway looks like the set of a movie.
But there is a lot more to it than that.
These days, Keno is abuzz with economic activity.
Sixteen months ago, the first mine in two decades went back into production.
But it’s not just the minerals around Keno that businesses are hoping to exploit.
Dirk Rentmeister and his wife, Tracy de la Barre, think Keno has a lot more to offer than just high-quality ore.
Their Silver Moon Bunkhouse is Keno City’s newest business.
Originally they were going to start a bed and breakfast, a sort of Yukon version of the Bob Newhart Show. But when mining started up again, they rejigged their idea a bit.
“We had plans to do it around my retirement age (in) 2016,” said Rentmeister, who runs a contracting business in Whitehorse.
“But we both said, if we wait ‘til then the mining boom might be over and we’ll be depending strictly on tourism, so why lose an opportunity.”
Instead of a bed and breakfast, the couple built a six-room bunkhouse, along with a house for themselves up on the hill.
Rentmeister, who grew up just down the road in Elsa, has always loved the area.
“There’s hundreds of miles of backcountry trails,” he said. “The scenery, the tranquility of it all, at that time, was pretty attractive,” he said.
When the mine shut down in 1989, he left. He didn’t look back until he met his wife.
Originally from Montreal, de la Barre first fell in love with the Yukon after spending time in the territory as a kid.
“One of the first things that she did was show me where she was introduced to the Yukon, which was Kluane,” said Rentmeister. “I said, ‘Well I got to show you where I lived.’”
When she saw Keno, she fell in love with it.
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
“I thought, ‘What better luck could that be?’” said Rentmeister.
“It’s God’s country,” added de la Barre.
But they know Keno is not for everybody.
“Here’s the catch,” said Rentmeister. “That crowd we’re expecting to be there will just be good company with a few bucks. They’re not going to be what makes or breaks us.”
“It was always about the lifestyle and not just about making money. Anyone who goes up there and expects to make millions is missing a few marbles.”
It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy a town at the end of the road, said de la Barre.
“You have to be a little bit quirky to hang out there,” she said. “It’s the Colourful Five Per Cent.”
“Six per cent now,” added Rentmeister.
They had talked about buying a piece of land in Keno for years, but de la Barre had her heart set on a piece of land owned by their friend Bob Busch.
Then one day Busch vanished.
“There were dirty dishes in the sink, food in the fridge, he just disappeared and nobody could find him,” said de la Barre. “The animals took it over eventually.”
They tracked him down a few years later and made a deal. Cleaning up the property, however, was another story.
“It was a dilapidated mess,” said Rentmeister.
Like true five per centers, they found an eccentric way to solve their problem.
“We were sitting around drinking beer with Mike Mancini (their good friend and owner of Keno’s pizza place) and went, ‘So what would happen if we just like lit that house on fire up there,’” said de la Barre.
It wouldn’t be the first time they’d demolished a house that way.
Years earlier, the couple bought a derelict Whitehorse property that used to be owned by the Tundra Tramps biker gang. To get rid of the house, the Whitehorse fire department used it for fire practice. It was burned down almost 20 times.
The couple thought the Keno City fire department might be interested in doing the same thing there.
It wasn’t, but it did offer them the use of its truck in case things went wrong.
It only took 20 minutes to burn the old house to the ground, but it took them four years to build things back up.
“These are exciting times right now in Keno,” said de la Barre. “They’re scary times because of the unknown elements.”
When Alexco Resources reopened the Bellekeno mine in 2011, it also built a rock crusher and mill less than a kilometre from town. All the noise and the unknown risks of the dry stack tailings pile have a few people packing up and leaving town.
But even though the debate in Keno over the mine can get pretty heated, most people in town are supportive of mining, just not how it’s being done right now, said Rentmeister.
“The reason I am where I am financially was because of my start in mining,” he said. “How can you kick that gift horse in the mouth?
“You take 20 years off any one of us and there’s not a one of us that wouldn’t go mining again.”
Both Rentmeister and de la Barre are hopeful that a middle ground can be reached with Alexco.
“If everybody does what they’re supposed to be doing and respects the concerns that are being voiced, there’s no reason it can’t work,” he said.
“Hopefully it will be a win-win not a lose-lose.”