Finding Gold in Fairbanks

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North America » United States » Alaska » Fairbanks
June 8th 2017
Published: June 12th 2017
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After a night of little rest and even less sleep I awoke with Sharon declaring “Eureka”! I thought that she’d discovered the motherload in Fairbanks; but, perhaps just as good, she’d found the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge and they had a room for us tonight. Our tour at Gold Dredge Number 8 had been moved back to 10:30AM so we were in no rush this morning; still, we wasted no time going out to breakfast. We used GoogleMaps to find the nearest Denny’s, and as it turned out, it was just around the corner where we discovered that this was the northernmost Denny’s. It was not particularly busy on this Thursday morning, and we had a seat by the window. I chose my normal eggs over medium breakfast; but, with jalapeno bacon breakfast, and it did have a bit of a kick.

We then headed north out of town on the only road that leads to Prudhoe Bay, where we planned to be just a couple of days from now! We were passing through a major gold mining area that had once caused many who dreamed of becoming rich to flock here by the thousands. Most of course never did strike it big; but, there were still jobs available for those willing to work hard. Either way, this was no place to come if you weren’t willing to work hard! We found the turnoff to Dredge Number 8 and had no trouble finding a place to park in the large gravelly parking lot. There was one ticket agent in a tiny phone-booth-like office that might otherwise have been mistaken for an outhouse. Speaking of outhouses, I was thinking it would be a really good time to find a restroom. I must have been dreaming. The only other man-made object that I saw was this really massive raised pipeline, that meandered of to the horizon in either direction, weaving around mounds of dirt and oscillating ground. Spruce and alders obscured whatever other man-made objects that might have been there. After we got our “boarding passes” from the ticket agent, we walked over towards the pipeline, found a couple of benches on the other side of the foliage behind the ticket booth. There were a couple of dilapidated buildings off to the left, and I spotted a signpost that had a M*A*S*H like signpost that I hoped would point to a restroom or WC; but like the signpost in M*A*S*H it instead pointed to places like Nome and Anchorage and San Francisco. I rejoined Sharon on the bench when a young fellow who looked like he was dressed for another era with a wide brimmed cowboy hat and a bandana around his neck sauntered towards us. That’s when I saw the ticket agent run up to him, whisper something about tour groups arriving and how to handle their tickets, and just as quickly rushed off and disappeared to the right behind the bushes. Less than five minutes later she came rushing back, running but not running, definitely in a hurry, just not as much a hurry as she was before, and she resumed her position in the ticket booth. I turned to Sharon and said, “I think this may be like China, where the guide their gave directions to the bathroom as: Go right behind the bush.” I walked on down and then saw the two outhouses discretely place behind a few young spruce trees. I wave for Sharon to come on down; because, she too was looking for the restroom.

We were directed to walk on over to the buildings on the left to discover that they were a train station. The conductor came up to us and took our boarding passes and we got in the open-air seats in the front of the train that had perhaps eight or ten passenger cars. The first car was all that was needed to take our fellow passengers out to the dredge until they loaded another bus load group further back. Several other buses were loaded on the A train behind us. And we discovered that we were to be entertained by Earl the Singing Conductor of Dredge Number Eight. He had a guitar and regaled us with stories of his life both in Alaska and as a performer where he met many famous performers and had the opportunity to play with Johnny Cash. He performed his version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” substituting various Alaskan towns and hamlets and instead singing “I’ve Fished Everywhere” which was quite catchy.

Once the train started we passed a couple of re-enactments of mining life of the individual prospector. The first featured that young cowboy we’d seen earlier, who we now realized was dressed as the typical prospector of a placer mine. At the next site the prospector was using more advanced hydraulic technology and a hoist to remove promising gold bearing dirt from the depths of a drift mine. Because gold is so heavy compared to other materials it tends to settle to the lowest depths at bedrock. Placer miners try to remove top soil and get down to bedrock, getting below the frozen tundra; but, doing this as near the surface as possible. Sometimes one might need to bore many tens of feet and even hundreds of feet to get to that bedrock. At the bedrock, you hope to find “the color” and you begin to remove soil along the bedrock digging horizontal tunnels to get to this material. Digging down to bedrock is generally called placer mining. Once you begin digging horizontally, what are called “drifts”, you commence drift mining. And the miners who do this, yep, they’re called drifters.

We arrived at Dredge Number 8 which was a large mechanical monster with huge bucket scoops connected to a belt drive which continuously would scoop out gold bearing soil, haul it up to a giant sluice-like contraption that would begin the separation processes. Huge piles of spent tailings would be accumulated and washed away. The gold would be captured in coconut fiber traps that captured the heavy materials separated by the dredge. These would be periodically checked to recover the gold. For an operation this size, two major resources are needed. First is a massive water supply. A stream was diverted to channel this large amount of water to the dredge sight. Second, they need a reliable source of power to run the large electric dredges. For this a power plant was built in Fairbanks. The water was used to strip away the topsoil down to bedrock. Where we began our train ride the conductor said that one hundred and fifty feet had been removed (and this was at the site of the eighth of these massive dredges). An active mine exists today less than one mile away. After stopping briefly at the dredge where we got a demonstration of how to pan for gold, the train took us on to where we could have a go at panning for gold. A massive tent had two-sided seating on benches around several rows of water troughs. We were handed our “poke” as we got off the train, a bag with our pay dirt which we dumped into our pans and then covered with water and began panning with a vigorous back and forth motion that produced an audible scrapping sound as the stony pay dirt began to separate. To both of our delights, when we finally got down to the end, we were both rewarded with color in the pan, little distinct golden flecks that stood out against the rusty colored pan once all that other debris had been washed away. Sharon was done first; in facts, I think I was the last person to finish. Although, at the end of the day it was Sharon who weighed in with $6 of gold; while, I wound up with $12 of gold. We mixed it all together, and back at home Sharon has gold from her first visit at the dredge. She said back then they didn’t have the train and were able to walk thru the dredge but it wasn’t the easiest thing to walk thru and has probably been deemed too dangerous since then. The train ride around it as someone explained things was nice.

There were chocolate chip cookies for us to eat after getting our gold weighed. And the conductor serenaded us with some fiddle music on our way back. Among his many hats, he also goes around performing at various venues, including at the Westmark that evening. This peeked Sharon’s interest since we would be staying at the Westmark when we return from the North. As I write this, we’re already back from the North, and we’re at the Westmark, and that Sharon saw that the hotel schedule is featuring some local musicians while we’re here. The laptop was one of the items that we weren’t able to take with us on the journey north in order to meet the weight restrictions for this journey so is the reason we’re trying to catch up today.

We returned to our motel, and got our bags, which I got to carry downstairs, all of them! We got the car packed and Sharon went to turn in the keys. We were about to drive off when the guy at the front desk came running over noting that we were leaving early, and worried that there might have been something wrong with the room. Sharon said no, that our plans had changed and that we needed to leave. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that we just didn’t like the room even though it did have a mounted bottle opener on the wall. When Sharon had dropped off the key she said that he was there with his wife and mother and kids; and, he had been extremely helpful when we arrived giving us a map and directions for getting out to Dredge Number 8. The rooms were very clean just very small and not well laid out (i.e. the bed in the corner) and had no air conditioning for a very warm spell in Fairbanks.

We drove to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge and they had a room ready for us to check in, even though we were early. We decided to do our laundry and got two loads washed and two loads dried. We went back to retrieve the dried laundry and before we’d even gotten a handful of clothing out of the first drier, the lights at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge went out, and we were in the dark… I mean really in the dark. Someone came in with a flashlight and guided us to the lobby where we waited for the lights to come on. The girl at the front desk was visibly anxious, obviously being new to the job, and saying “Oooh, I just got trained on this yesterday.” She first needed to make sure that all of the fire doors in the building were closed. They had tried a few obvious checks trying to restore power, and when those hadn’t helped they were in full safety and facility protection mode. They’d already determined that nobody was in the elevator (which we had been less than one minute before the power went out). I was thinking, that wouldn’t have been a problem at the first motel; but, I don’t think Sharon wanted to hear that. It took about fifteen minutes and then they did restore the power, and we retrieved and folded our clothes and got things packed away for our continuing journey. We needed to go to the airport to drop of the rental car, and planned to pick-up the shuttle from the hotel to bring us back. The front desk advised us that the shuttle was across town right now; but, was headed to the airport. We got the number to call just in case we missed the van. We dropped off the car, and soon found ourselves waiting with others also headed for Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, so we were pretty sure that we were in the right place. The van showed up as promised. Luggage for the two other groups, one couple and one gentleman travelling by himself, was loaded into the back of the van and we all piled in and then the driver got in, turned the key, and NOTHING. The van would not start. He checked with his dispatch and got authorization to load us into two taxis and get us to the lodge. Since we had no luggage with us, we were able to share a cab. I’m thinking, I’m okay with this van breaking down; but, tomorrow I’m getting in a van that needs to get me over some rough country, and I’ll be in that van for two days, and going through some places where you really don’t want to break down.

We walked to the adjacent restaurant for dinner called Pike’s Landing. It is a sprawling restaurant with ample outdoor seating along the waterfront, and some covered outdoor seating where we found a table. After looking at the surroundings, and the menu, I remembered that I’d been here before. On a business trip to Alaska this was where the group I’d travelled with had dinner one night; although, we hadn’t stayed at the lodge. I remembered, that we’d had some trouble finding the restaurant on the first night so we hadn’t made it here until the following night, with some help from co-workers at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. That time, we had sat out in the sun for five hours until nearly ten o’clock at night, and I’d gotten sunburned pretty badly because I wasn’t wearing a hat. This time at least, we were in the shaded section, and I had the additional protection of my trusty red hat (not to mention that we wouldn’t be sitting here for five hours). All that I ordered was the crab soup and an iced tea. Sharon ordered the chicken tenders, or as the menu described them: One Pound of Chicken Tenders. I figured that Sharon wouldn’t mind sharing some with me, and I could probably have all of the honey mustard sauce that they came with. The iced tea was dreadful, again. I don’t think they brew iced tea in much of Alaska, and all that you seem to get is the Lipton Instant Tea (which at least is better than Nestea). I ordered a glass of Alaskan Amber to help quench my thirst. As we were eating Sharon said, “You’ll never guess who I just saw!” I started to turn, and she admonished me, “Don’t stare… guess.” I couldn’t imagine. “The guy from the train.” I asked, “Is he still wearing that turquoise outfit?” Sharon replied, “No, He’s got an orange one.” This I had to see, and there he was in a neon orange outfit, which at least seemed to compliment his flaming bleach died yellow and golden air blown doo. He may have had a matching kofia; but, I didn’t see that. “Don’t let him see you,” Sharon advised.

We returned to the lodge, finished packing, and relaxed before our journey north.


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