Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A True Gold Mining Adventure

Breakup causes gold fever relapses

Our early and easy breakup was bound to bring about the urge to wash dirt - or as someone with gold fever would put it, “go prospecting.” Gold fever is a dangerous condition. Much like malaria, if it doesn’t kill you outright, it will go asymptomatic only to flare back up at a later date.

For most recreational miners in Alaska breakup equates to a relapse of gold fever. There is something about days above freezing and the sound of rushing water in a stream that causes the condition to flare up. So it was early last week, when my friend, Don Wright, and I decided to go out for the first time. 

Small sluice... small gold
I planned on writing about the experience, but nothing notable occurred - particularly in the gold finding department - so that idea was scrapped. However, it did occur to me that back in the fall of 1997 I recorded in my column a true prospecting adventure involving myself and two mining buddies that would be worth repeating.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, in the years the column ran there were two recurring characters, Knucks Mahoneigh and Blizzard Bob (B.B.), both of which were along for this fiasco. This story is based on absolutely true events.

Space constraints in the paper prevented mentioning a few details that might be of interest to the readers, so please forgive me taking the liberty of inserting some parenthetical comments as the three installments are presented. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments. I’ll answer them as a reply.  

Photo from Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum. Big sluice, big gold.

Miner Problems

Knucks Mahoneigh and I tried not to look too bored as our friend Blizzard Bob (B.B.) launched into yet another of his long-winded lectures about gold mining. We hadn’t had a meeting of the NORSMen (NORSMen: North Road Supportive Men— a benevolent society dedicated to the fuller appreciation of cheap beer, cigars of dubious origin, and recreational mining issues) since May that hadn’t been spent with B.B. trying to drag us into active participation in his mining efforts. It was now early November. Maybe, just maybe, Knucks and I might have been more inclined over the months to heed B.B.’s golden siren call, if we hadn’t seen the man in action. 

B.B. has been pursuing the El Dorado of the north, off and on, for years. His gold production doesn’t noticeably decline during the off periods. The only real difference between his down time and those times he is in the heat of his prospecting endeavors is the amount of trouble he gets into.

More recently, B.B. decided to move up into suction dredging.  He bought an antiquated setup that included not only the suction dredge, but also a dry suit large enough for simultaneous wear by B.B. and several of his closest friends.  The extra length of the suit had a habit of drifting up the suction hose of the dredge, dragging B.B. right along.  Plugged into the dredge, there was little he could do but flop around in the creek like a snagged salmon.  This happened with enough regularity that Knucks and I were enlisted to serve as his lifeguards.  While B.B. vacuumed the bottom of the creek, we amused ourselves with a sluice box nearby.  When B.B. gave the  signal - a gurgled “AUGH!” followed by much splashing - one of us would wade out and shut off the engine on the dredge.

With all that in mind, it’s little wonder Knucks and I resisted B.B.’s constant offers to become “bona fide partners.”  We felt safe as B.B. launched into what would undoubtedly prove to be another partnership pitch; the mining season was over. We would remain noncommittal for the winter months to avoid hurting his feelings. Maybe he’d give up on recruiting us by May. 

B.B. droned on. Knucks and I alternated the duty of providing grunts at regular intervals to give B.B. the impression he wasn’t talking entirely to himself. It was Knucks’ turn to grunt, so I allowed myself the luxury of contemplating the El Stinko cigar I held. As I tried to decide whether the El Stinko was truly a fine combination of selected blends and filler material, or a combination of stable sweepings wrapped in old newspaper, I heard Knucks say, “Say B.B., that sounds like a good idea.”

I hadn’t actually heard what B.B. had said, but his intonation was one that required, at the very most, a grunted, “We’ll see.” That response was such a shock, I actually inhaled some of the noxious vapors emanating from the cigar. The resultant coughing spasm pitched me to the floor. 

“You gonna make it there, A.E.?”

“Yeah,” I wheezed, crawling around on all fours, “just checking to see if I coughed up any vital organs.” 

“Well,” B.B. said, “if you’re all right, I’ll go get that map.”

When B.B. slipped out of his garage into the house, I turned to Knucks. “What good idea? What map?” 

“B.B. found a spot where we can stake an actual gold mining claim. He wants us to be his partners.”

“Are you NUTS?” 

Before we could take the debate any further, B.B. returned with his map. He unfolded it on a workbench, and started in on a sales pitch that would have made any Florida swamp-bottom peddler proud.

“You guys remember that creek by the campground we worked in July?” 

“Yeah,” I offered, “the one where if we’d have dug there long enough, we might have found enough gold to buy the glasses we’d need to see the gold flakes we found.”

B.B. continued, “We worked the bottom section of that creek, because the upper sections were claimed... or so I thought. Guys, have I got a deal for you! Look at these little squiggly lines. See how close together they are? That means there’s a deep cut right there. All the gold is settling out in that stretch... and best of all: it’s open for staking.” 

I scrutinized the map while B.B. explained how he had gone to Anchorage to look over recorded mining claims and learn how to file a claim. His gold fever was contagious. Knucks’ eyes were starting to glow. Fast action was required.

“B.B., point out exactly where you want to stake the claim.” He pointed to a spot along a deep, narrow canyon. “Okay... that’s what, about a mile beyond the end of the two mile trail to the canyon?”   

“You know how accurate those maps are. That trail could go right on up the canyon.”

“Yeah,” Knucks agreed, “can’t hurt to have a look.” 

I caved in to peer pressure, trusting that Knucks’ ardor would cool over the course of the winter. However, B.B. and Knucks decided that since recent warmer weather had melted most of the snow that fell in October, the following weekend would be a good time to go.

“I dunno guys... might be dangerous.” 

“No sweat,” Knucks assured me, “B.B. promised not to take the dredge.” 

NEXT UP: Slip-slidin’ away

(Author's note: That is no exaggeration about the map's inaccuracy. Until more recently, the USGS topographical maps available were based on surveys from the 1950's and 1960's. Also, the small amount of gold we had previously found might be based on the fact the creek, Crescent Creek, has been mined off and on since the 1890's. That dirt has been turned over more times than Old MacDonald's corn field.)

No comments:

Post a Comment