Prospectors Dig Alaskan Beach, Dredge Up Gold, History
Prospectors Dig Alaskan Beach, Dredge Up Gold, History
LISA LEVITT RYCKMAN
Aug. 03, 1987
NOME, Alaska (AP) _ The people on the beach look like rubber-booted marmots, dirt flying high behind them as they attack the holes created in the name of the gold diggers who came here before them.
''It's groundhog city,'' observes Don Mackie, who has already coaxed a few significant gold flakes from his hole on the stretch of sand 12 miles from Nome.
News of his find spreads like wildfire as far as 300 feet away, where some of Mackie's fellow prospectors are hanging loose outside Grizzly Bear's Chow at the Cripple River mining camp.
For the past two summers, this tundra bluff where the Bering Sea meets the Cripple River has been a prospecting paradise to hundreds of members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.
In 1985, the group persuaded two women who owned 2,000 acres of deeded land to sell it to them rather than to the big gold companies. About 400 prospectors formed a public company, Global Resources Inc., and paid more than $1.1 million for the parcel, where they built a frontier-style resort town for summer use by any of the group's almost 100,000 members.
''We've got about 15 miles of the river, and it's got gold in every bit of it,'' said George Massie, president and founder of both the prospectors association and Global Resources. ''It's really good for the kind of mining that we do by hand.''
The first 100 arrivals of the summer are busily digging and panning, staking claims on the beach, rattling rocker boxes and slapping at mosquitoes.
''Most people's lives are so damn dull. Very few people ever have a real adventure,'' said Ben Murray, a retired schoolteacher from San Luis Obispo, Calif., who expected to be prospecting on the beach for two weeks with his wife, Nenita. ''This is adventure. It's the thrill of the find.'' On the ridge above him, it's just as it might have been 90 years ago: the rows of snug two- and four-person bunkhouses with common walls and names like Bedrock Bitsy's, Empty Arms and Hangover Hilton; a mess hall with a stove created from a 70-gallon drum that generates enough heat to chase 100 prospectors into an arctic night; a saloon at street's end complete with stools fashioned from driftwood and a portrait of Cripple River Tundra Tillie, naked as a jaybird and stunning in her utter lack of proportion.
The scene is authentic right down to the rocker boxes they're using on the beach, reproductions of the famous ''Cape Nome rocker'' that brought fortune and frustration to so many. Ninety years later, nothing does a better job sifting gold from sand, Massie declares.
There is tradition here and history and, for those who believe in such things, the ghosts of the estimated 20,000 fortune hunters who jammed the beach and streets of Nome in the summer of 1900, part of the West's last major placer gold stampede.
A trio of amateur prospectors known as the ''three lucky Swedes'' struck pay dirt in 1898. Two years later, Nome had become the world's busiest seaport without a harbor.
It had also become, as one observer put it, the ''strangest community ever seen upon the face of this old Earth.'' The city, five miles long and two blocks wide, swarmed with gold seekers jostling for room and shouting over the din of constant construction. On the beach, recent arrivals and scores of dogs pawed through heaps of freight and luggage, and the lines of tents stretched out of sight.
A tent or two dots the beach today, shelter for a few contemporary prospectors. The city of Nome is beyond boom but not exactly bust, with about 3,500 residents, all of whom seem to be planning either to stay forever or leave tomorrow. Many work for gold companies.
There is still gold here, plenty of it, in the sand, in the sea, under the sidewalks, even in the sewers.
George Massie's son, Perry, a mining engineer, talks about how one gold company tried unsuccessfully to get everyone in town to move so they could dredge the ground.
''You get a shovelful of dirt out of the street in Nome, there's gold in it,'' the younger Massie said, recalling a street project a few years back in which people hauled up bucketloads of dirt and washed as much as $30 worth of gold from every one.
George Massie pilots his single-engine Cessna out over the town and the sea, pointing out grassy folds that stretch from the beach into the tundra like furrows in a brow, the one physical remnant of the furious mining of almost a century ago.
''They had 20,000 prospectors working this beach in 1900 by hand method, and you can hardly find where they worked today unless you know where to look,'' Massie said. ''But you take a large dredging operation that worked in the 1920s, you can still see where they worked.''
Large-scale dredging is fine with proper regulation, Massie said. The injustice comes when the little guy with the shovel is lumped in the same group as the big guy with the bulldozer.
''What's happened is the environmentalists have gone after mining, period,'' he said. ''Some organizations are not educated about recreational- type mining and the small prospector, and therefore in a lot of cases, there have been no provisions made for him.''
In Alaska, the state Fish and Game department offers recreational mining permits to small-time prospectors.
''(That) has been real helpful in preserving what I consider a national treasure, and that's our prospecting,'' Massie said. ''It almost became extinct, you might say. It was an endangered species. And now it's come back in the state of Alaska and the lower 48, and it's alive and well and a lot of families are enjoying it.''
Massie's family has enjoyed it for years. Perry, 25, learned to pan as a 10-year-old on a hunting trip in Montana. The Massie story smacks of true West adventure, how they met and befriended an old prospector who taught them to pan and willed them his claims. They went back every summer to prospect, and eventually, his father and others founded ''Gold Prospector'' magazine and the Gold Prospectors Association of America to promote their pastime.
It's possible to turn gold fever into good profit with a pan, a shovel and equal parts of know-how, patience and determination. Blueberry John, now in his 70s, has attained near-legendary status as a beach miner, averaging as much as an ounce-and-a-half a day over the summer mining season, or some 40 ounces a year, which he sells piecemeal to tourists for double market value, Massie said.
Out on the beach, Perry Massie is helping the first-timers locate the richest deposits. Look for the darker layers known as ruby sand, where the material is heavier, he advises. He demonstrates his panning technique, shaking the green plastic pan, tipping it at an angle and washing off the top layer of light sand, shaking it again and washing again. Finally, there they are, flecks of gold as tiny as grains of sand and brilliant as the summer sun.
''There's about 50 percent of the guys that come back every year. There's about 30 percent who wish they could,'' said George Massie. ''And there's about 10 percent that turn out being sourdoughs - out of dough and sour on the country.''
But on the first day out, nobody's had time to sour up. They're having too much fun.
''This is our first time prospecting,'' said Pat Buhler who, along with husband Bill, has owned a gold store in Bullhead, Ariz., for almost 15 years. They came to see if the stories customers have been telling them for years are true.
''There's something about gold that just lures you,'' she said. ''I don't know how to explain it. It just gets in your blood.''
EDITOR'S NOTE - Lisa Levitt Ryckman is the AP Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.