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Some 'Bering Sea Gold' miners pulling in more than $10,000 a week

Craig Medred
Mark Queen, a cook on a research vessel anchored in the Nome harbor, pans for gold while waiting to go out. August 29, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
One of the many places in Nome where entrepreneuring gold dredgers can turn their gold into cash. August 29, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Gold dredging boats anchored in the Nome harbor. August 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Nome mayor Denise Michels has had to respond to the large influx of gold dredgers flooding the city in recent years. August 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An underwater gold dredging boat leaves the Nome harbor on August 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

NOME -- The small boat harbor here was already clogged with gold dredges in late August when Brian Sanders and Forrest Fisher motored in, out of yet another Bering Sea storm. Lucky to find a spot in the inner harbor, where most dredges were rafted together three or four deep, they tied up and jumped off their makeshift watercraft. Decked out head to toe in dark neoprene suits, the two pudgy, middle-aged Californians looked a little like big black bears scrambling onto the planked float.

Outside the harbor, the wind kicked up past 20 knots from the north. White caps littered the surface of the ocean as far as the eye could see. Across Seppala Drive from the dock on a rise above a bog, the headstones at the old graveyard on Cemetery Hill loomed white in the sun. Some mark the final resting places of unlucky adventurers who came north planning to get rich quick before returning home at the start of the 20th century.

Gold brought them north then. Gold brings them north now. Sanders said the men hoped to find "a shit load.''

With the yellow metal now fetching close to $1,800 an ounce, the reality television show "Bering Sea Gold'' fuels the idea it's possible for anyone with basic diving skills and a boat to vacuum a fortune from the floor of the ocean not far from this community of 3,695 some 540 miles northwest of Anchorage. There's no doubt the City of the Golden Beaches is witnessing a modern-day gold rush.

Mad rush north?

Nome officials were in a bit of a panic at the start of the summer, fearing an influx of thousands of miners, but that never happened thanks in large part to the red tape of the modern day. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources capped the number of permits available for offshore dredging.

"We had probably expected more people than showed up,'' said city manager Josie Bahnke, but what they got was more than enough. She and Mayor Denise Michels estimate 400 to 500 people came north to chase gold. That might not seem like all that many, but a summer population jump of more than 10 percent in an isolated, rural community is obvious. And when it comes hand-in-hand with a tourism boom, a treeless, windswept frontier community can begin to feel almost crowded at times.

"Tourism is up 60 percent,'' said Michels, who largely credits the television exposure. "It's good for business.''

It's also a little ironic, given that Nome tried for decades to promote tourism on the Seward Peninsula without much success despite the area's rich history and extensive road system. The latter is a rarity in Alaska.  In most communities, even sprawling Anchorage, there’s one road in and one road out. Nome lacks any road in, but if you fly there and rent a car, you can drive three roads out. The Nome-Teller Highway runs for 72 miles northwest to a Native village of 245 on the shores of Port Clarence. The Kougarok Road rolls into the Kigluaik Mountains to the north on its way to a dead end 89 miles from town at the start of a trail to the old mining community of Taylor. And the Nome-Council Highway covers 73 miles east to an old mining camp on the Fish River.

Rich mining legacy

The 20,000 or more gold miners who swarmed the countryside in the early 1900s left a rich legacy across the territory through which these roads pass. The detritus of Council City and the Solomon River Railroad are rusting along the Nome-Council Highway, which isn't so much of a highway as a dirt road. The engines for the rail line were shipped north from New York City in 1903 and served miners until 1913, when a massive Bering Sea storm washed out the tracks and left engines and cars stranded. They never got moving again.

But the long-abandoned rolling stock of the railway is just part of what one sees on a drive around the gravel "highways'' of the Seward Peninsula. The hills themselves are everywhere cut with remnant ditches from when miners dug channels by hand to move water long distances to power placer-mining operations. The miners made Nome the largest city in Alaska in 1900 with an official population of 12,488. At the time, a third of all the white people in Alaska reportedly lived in the community.

The new gold rush is nothing like the old one, but it has reinvigorated Nome. The port, in particular, is booming.

"There were six dredges 10 years ago,'' Michels said. "There are 88 today with 30 support vessels. The number of dredges, I believe will continue to grow. Last year at 40, we were maxed out. At 120 vessels (now), we have nowhere to put them.''

Still, they all manage to squeeze into the harbor. It's not like there is much choice. There is nowhere else to go for shelter when the winds start to howl across the vast nothingness of the barren seas that separate the United States from Siberia. You can't quite see Russia from here, but it is not far over the horizon, as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pointed out in making an observation later to be twisted into a now-famous and long-running joke.

The Russians are "our next door neighbors,'' Palin, then the Republican candidate for vice-president, famously told Charlie Gibson of ABC News, "and you can actually see Russian from land here in Alaska.'' The phrase was later spun by Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey who parodied Palin, saying: "And I can see Russia from my house.'' It stuck to Palin like glue, and the rest is history. The reality, meanwhile, is that Alaska and Russia are physically close.

It's more than three times as far from here to Anchorage as from here due west to Russia, although one couldn't find a community much more American than Nome. It is permeated with frontier grittiness and the kind of characters such places attract. In that context, the new gold rush is a lot like the old gold rush.

$10,000 a week? 

Asked why he decided to head north from California, the 52-year-old Fischer answers simply, "It was worth trying. I was tired of working for other people. I don't have to worry about politics or bull crap now. This is my second year.''

Neither he nor Sanders, 43, were willing to say how much money they made last year, but they did let on that they figure to have lost $30,000 to $40,000 because of a storm that blew up in August. "This is the first we've been in the water in three weeks,'' Sanders said.

Do the math here: $30,000 to $40,000 for three weeks breaks down to $10,000 to more than $13,000 per week. The two men split that, of course. But even then, a man can do OK for himself at $5,000 a week for 20 weeks, if he gets lucky. And if he can actually work for 20 weeks. And if the gold holds out. And if the machinery doesn't break and cost a small fortune to repair. And if the weather doesn't blow up.

There are a lot of ifs.

Suffice to say, Fischer and Sanders weren't counting on making enough to get them through the winter. They planned to return to California before the end of September to look for work. "Truck drivers,'' Fischer said. "Really, anything we can do to make money.''

But they’re also planning to be back in Nome next May. "I figure I've got five years left at this,'' Fischer said.

Palin's their hero

Even with the proper diving gear, Bering Sea waters are cold and the work is difficult. Fisher and Sanders had clearly gone at it hard. Their black diving suits sported huge, white, silicone patches on the knees where the men had worn through the fabric crawling along the seabed with a suction dredge. Still, the duo seemed happy to be doing what they were doing, and they thanked Palin for luring them north.

"We watched the Sarah Palin show (Sarah Palin's Alaska),'' Fischer said. "She's our hero.'' Then he laughed. It was hard to tell whether he was being honest or facetious.

"You need to go talk to that guy,'' he added, as another miner brushed past on the dock.

"Why?''

"He's one of the stars of Bering Sea (Gold),'' said Fischer, who didn't seem all that upset that he wasn't on the show, which has been known to put dredgers under a little extra stress in the interest of getting better video.

"Sometimes you've got to ride herd on them,'' confessed harbormaster Joy Baker. "They can get a little over the top.''

Then again, this community, which hasn't changed all that much from its early frontier days, can sometimes get a little over the top itself. In one episode of “Bering Sea Gold,” Shawn Pomrenke, one of the most successful miners on the show, went out for a drink and got in a disagreement in a bar. Depending on which version of the story is being told, Pomrenke got stabbed or accidentally slashed open his hand on a glass. Nome can be a rough and tumble place. But Nome these days -- unlike in earlier times -- has a local police force to keep an eye on things, and the people themselves might be a bit more civilized.

"Most people are pretty good people,'' Michels said. "Most people are pretty well behaved.''

Learning year for Nome

Mayor Michels actually worries more about what happens with the miners offshore than on. One miner has already drowned. Sid Cone, a 70-year-old dredge operator from Montana, died last summer. His hometown newspaper described him as "a fearless and restless adventurer who was willing to try anything."

"We don't want any deaths,'' Michels said. "We don't want any oil spills in our harbor. We've prepared as much as we could. This has been a big learning year for the port.''

What comes next, nobody knows. "It just depends on the price of gold,'' she said.

As she talked a research vessel operated by a partnership formed by AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., a South Africa-based mining company, and DeBeers, the world's most famous diamond-mining business, was searching for a hoped-for mother-load of gold offshore. The AngloGold-DeBeers partnership paid about $7 million for state leases offshore in 2011. Some believe more than 10 million ounces of gold could still be lurking there.

That's 10 million reasons for an even bigger gold rush to Nome next year.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com