Since the end of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, Alaskan prospectors have been portrayed as harmless old sourdoughs with endless stories and Grizzly Adams beards searching for a grubstake and a lucky strike. They were a slowly disappearing breed as big-time miners with modern equipment bypassed Alaska in favor of more lucrative hard-rock mines in the lower 48. But ever since the astonishing surge in gold prices, Alaska and its miners have boomed. Mining claims filed with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management increased sevenfold last year. There are more miners in the state than ever before in this century, and production has more than quadrupled. Alaska is expected to yield up to 100,000 ounces of gold this year.
Even that figure may be low; ornery and secretive by nature, miners habitually evade taxes by bartering their gold, smuggling it into Canada or simply hoarding it against a price rise. "Figuring out how much they mine is like trying to get teeth out of a hen," complains Federal mining engineer Jim Barker. Complicating his problem is the miners' deep hostility to bureaucracy and new vigilance against claim jumpers. "Some miners won't hesitate to shoot anyone who goes too close to their sluice box," warns one—and helicopter-borne agents of the Bureau of Land Management are now careful to avoid areas where they have been mistaken for rustlers and shot at. The miners' protectiveness is in part a factor of their unquenchable optimism. Says University of Alaska mineral expert Dr. Ernest Wolff: "You can't find a miner in Alaska who doesn't believe the price of gold isn't going to hit $500 an ounce." (Last week it was $393.)
Only a few dozen miners make even a decent living, yet almost no one leaves in despair. Why? The answer can be found at Hope, one of the oldest mining towns in Alaska. Nestled high in the snow-capped Kenai Mountains amid virgin forests of hemlock, spruce and birch, Hope (population: 50) is a tableau of frontier America. The buildings—a general store, the Discovery Café, the post office (with 1930s-vintage gas pump)—are of log or old weathered wood, and Main Street ends at Turnagain Arm, an inlet north of the Gulf of Alaska. They say Hope makes a person forget where he comes from, and most of the new breed of miners—a hard-drinking, gun-slinging, womanizing lot—are on the run from something: alimony, bill collectors, old grudges. Then, too, as 21-year-old Dudley Benesch says: "There's something mystical about gold. Everybody has a fantasy about it."
The work is backbreaking. Finding Alaskan gold means sifting it out of the gravel that collects along the paths of rivers and streams. Some prospectors invest their life savings to lease "Cat mining" rigs—bulldozers, backhoes, frontloaders and sluices that can gobble up yards of earth and sift it quickly. Some spend all they have to buy suction pumps to lift gold from riverbeds. The less affluent pan for nuggets the old-fashioned way. Yet, in spite of increasing violence, brutal conditions and the overwhelming likelihood of failure, Hope's miners stay on. They are sustained by the unreasonable belief that a gold strike is, as one put it, "just a shovelful away."
For Walter Kleewein, that shovelful had better come soon. "I have to make it," says the 47-year-old prospector with desperation. "I've used everybody I can for a grubstake as long as I can." While his wife and eight children stay in Anchorage, visiting him on weekends, Kleewein is working a leased claim on Resurrection Creek near Hope—and getting nowhere. His $250,000 rented rig has broken down several times, his costs have spiraled, and he is finding gold at roughly half the rate he anticipated (he needs eight ounces a week just to pay expenses). The result: "Nothing is left for me or for my wife, Caralee, to pay the bills at home," he says. This month, with no money in the till, Kleewein must meet a $20,000 equipment payment; he has decided to sell his modest trailer home and two plots of land rather than quit. Says the once-affluent master mechanic: "There are people making it in gold mining. Why can't I?"
Ironically, some people make money in gold mining because of Kleewein and miners like him. Al Johnson, for example, has twelve claims in the Resurrection Creek area and leases one to Walt for 15 percent of the take. (To establish a claim, a citizen need only demonstrate that a given piece of state or federal property—usually 20 acres in size—has potential for yielding minerals; the government will register the claim for $5.) John Moffitt, 29, worked recently for Kleewein and calls his job "the greatest." "You get as much out of gold mining as you put into it," he says. He and his brother bought dredging equipment to work a claim of their own—also leased from Al Johnson. The Moffitt brothers came up with only a couple of ounces for their trouble and their $2,000 investment, but John will be back next year. "It's a simple and uncomplicated life," he says. "I'm happy."
Tim Geiermann, 45, cheerfully admits that he lost $50,000 at his Resurrection Creek site a few years ago, but the onetime gandy dancer, construction worker and college dropout is not ready to call retreat. "The challenge in gold mining is digging in the right place," he explains. The right place, Tim firmly believes, is his claim on Dollar Creek, 100 miles northwest of Hope. "It can take anywhere from five and a half hours to three days to get there," he admits. "Last year it took the first miner a total of 19 days to go the last 20 miles. He had three Cats moving 20 feet of snow. I followed him in." In addition to transportation problems, Geiermann has had numerous equipment failures and three floods at Dollar Creek this year—leaving him with a hefty loss. Still, he is far from discouraged. "This creek shows promise," he insists.
For most miners, the promise remains unfulfilled. "You have to be patient and strong to mine gold," argues Dudley Benesch, who caught the fever at age 14 and considers most newcomers fly-by-nighters. While still in high school, he co-founded a mining equipment store that is now the state's largest. His brother Dave recently joined him as partner in the venture. From behind the counter, Dudley has heard enough horror stories to be cautious of gold fever; nonetheless, he was nearly killed in 1977 when he tried to dredge a creek at floodtide: "These rocks were coming by me, then a tree stump passed within a foot of my shoulder, and then the whole tree went by. In nine days we recovered less than three-quarters of an ounce. It was disastrous." Yet Benesch concedes: "I'd do the same thing again if there was gold at the bottom of the creek."
The November snows will soon make prospecting impossible in Alaska, and the miners will return to the cities to count their earnings or patch up their wounds. Next year the price of gold may be higher—and so may the costs and the number of miners. Their chances of a strike will be no better. Most of the gold-bearing streams in the state have already been cleaned out twice—during the Gold Rush and the Depression. The huge dredges of the Alaska Gold Company of Nome—the largest machinery of its kind in the state—will likely account for one-quarter of the precious metal found, just as they have in past years. From 200 to 300 large Cat mining operations will compete for the lion's share of the rest.
Dudley Benesch insists that small miners' dreams aren't foolish—while making a tidy business of selling the equipment these dreams are based on. "Gold mining is one of the few hobbies where you stand to make money," he says. "You can make a living with an eight-inch dredge. We know a lot of people who have earned $15-20,000 in five months." The mystery is that even those who have lost that much share his optimism. Consider Bill Grady, who had a $200,000 Cat mining operation near Hope in 1976 and by 1978 was $29,000 in the hole. After he went bust Grady suffered a stroke. Yet he stayed in Hope and is usually to be found over a beer at the Discovery Cafe. Though paralyzed on the right side, he is making plans with his girlfriend, "Nasty Nancy" Hood, to try again at a leased claim at Bear Creek. "I'm going to go bigger this time," Grady vows. "Once I got nine ounces in half an hour. I know the gold is there."
Three days before Christmas in 1977, with seven 9-mm. bullets in his body and his life in its final hour, D. N. Bowers was brought into the little town of Chicken in the Fortymile Country of Alaska. As he lay dying in the arms of townsmen, Bowers told a gruesome story. He and his partner, "Polack Joe" Hajec, had been sluicing for gold at the junction of Napoleon Creek and Fortymile River. Suddenly, he said, they were set upon by armed claim jumpers. One of them unloaded his pistol into Bowers; another pumped two rifle shots into Hajec's back, killing him instantly. Word of the attack took wind like an arctic storm, and every gold miner in the state knew exactly what it meant: Prospecting in Alaska had once again become a deadly serious business. As one miner puts it, flourishing a .357 Magnum: "I'm not worried about animals. It's the two-legged clowns you have to watch."