NOME -- Last year around this time, phones here were ringing off the hook as inspired viewers of the Discovery Channel's reality show "Bering Sea Gold" inquired about dredging in Nome and striking it rich, just like on TV.
The prospect of a modern-day gold rush with all its ramifications caused much anxiety for the City of Nome as well as state agencies that regulate mining, public safety and commerce.
In preparation for the summer season, an interagency work group consisting of the City of Nome, state departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation, Community and Economic Development, the Alaska State Troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard formed and came up with proactive strategies to brace for the influx of new mining outfits and individual fortune seekers. The season began with more questions asked than answered. How many miners would be coming to Nome? Where would they stay? Would there be strains on Nome's services and who would pay for them?
According to most agencies, the summer came and went, and the expected chaos did not ensue. "Some of the expected issues did occur, but at a lower level than expected," Nome Police Chief John Papasodora said. There were low-dollar thefts, people drank and partied, there was an increase in DUI citations and an increase in domestic violence cases. There were squabbles among mining operators and an increase in four-wheelers operated on state roads and throughout the city. "Fortunately ... we didn't have any serious incident. We had many incidents, but none of them were super serious."
Newcomers lost money
Kerwin Krause with the Division of Mining, Land and Water at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said the dismal weather gave inexperienced miners a taste of operating in Alaska. "A lot of those newcomers didn't have a good idea what they were doing, and they ended up going home, having lost a lot of money," Krause said. "If you're seasoned in Alaska, chances are it didn't happen to you. It's hard to get everything up and fully operating."
Krause said DNR issued 177 permits, but not all applicants actually showed up and mined Norton Sound. Two years ago, by contrast, DNR issued fewer than 100 permits to small dredges.
Based on conversations with miners who plan to mine this year, Krause said he expects at least six more dredges operating Christine Rose-style, with a barge as the base and a mounted excavator on top. "I would think these larger vessels will cause more congestion issues at the harbor," Krause said.
Nome's small boat harbor saw plenty of congestion this summer when rough seas and bad weather prohibited gold dredgers from going to work for weeks at a time and everybody -- including the fishing fleet, visiting boats, fuel barges and cargo barges -- were crammed in the harbor.
Nome Harbormaster Joy Baker said that Nome harbor office issued vessel-docking permits to 97 dredges and 31 support craft in 2012, not including smaller vessels pushed into the water from access points at East or West Beach. Baker wrote in an email that overcrowding attributed to the dredges required considerable staff attention. How did it affect day-to-day life at the port?
"Inclement weather amplified the overcrowding issue, and when vessels are kept from working for nearly three weeks, tempers can get tense," Baker wrote. Among the issues:
• Port staff keeping vessels out of the way of working cargo craft at the barge ramp;
• Complaints of vessel lines getting tangled;
• Vessels breaking free;
• Rearranging boats to utilize all the space to make room for more craft, while keeping everyone in compliance with new permitting rules, insurance and docking locations.
"That resulted in a very busy season," Baker wrote.
No deaths, major incidents
Monitoring the safety of the mariners, the Coast Guard came to Nome a couple times to conduct outreach and educate vessel owners on Coast Guard requirements. Coast Guard Lt. William Albright said that Coast Guard performed dredge safety checks and that two-thirds of the 30 checks were satisfactory.
The most common deficiency, Albright said, was missing safety equipment such as lifejackets, flares, navigation lights and fire extinguishers.
"We can say there were no deaths and no major incidents reported which required the Coast Guard's response or investigation," Albright wrote in an email to the Nugget.
The Coast Guard continues to work on the premise most Nome dredging is recreational, but larger vessels and operations from Outside have arrived.
Bob Hafner, a veteran Nome gold miner said his season was cut short. "The month of June basically constituted one third of the mining season," Hafner said. Hafner, working on Bill Howell's dredge, had to take the dredge apart and spent most of June on land doing repairs. After that, the weather turned rainy and stormy for most of the summer. Hafner put the dredge in the water on July 5, and went to work in the recreational area. Prior to the influx of the new miners, he said, local miners had an unspoken gentleman's agreement to not occupy a spot that another dredge had worked on before. In the recreational area, miners are not allowed to mark "their" territory by leaving an anchor or a buoy behind. In former years, miners respected each other's work spot and left it alone. Last year, Hafner noticed, as soon as he left the spot he had mined, a newcomer would race to the area and set up.
Hafner said he's not going to worry about it. "I just accept it as part of the business and move on," he said. "I thought it was a rather cordial season," he said. "Fact is that you need each other out there," he said.
DNR enforcer Byron Redburn, hired on for the season, said that he dealt with some minor permit violations.
On land, one of the limiting factors for incoming miners is the cost of living and the perennial housing crunch that Nome sees every summer. One of the Nome's worries was that miners didn't have adequate accommodations and would squat frontier-style on "empty" land, erecting shanty-style shacks, as has happened on West Beach.
Mitch Erickson worked to establish the Nome Gold Alaska campground. He said out-of-town miners occupied 16 sites with one to four occupants on each site.
Most brought containers with them, some stayed in tents. There was a PortaPotty, and the utilities even provided garbage service twice a week, toward the end of the season, Erickson said.
Did he have a rough crowd? No, Erickson said. Nothing happened, no brawls, no fights, no trouble.
"The worst complaint I had was that a guy couldn't sleep because the birds were so loud," Erickson said.
The crowd he dealt with were adventurers who wanted to experience a modern gold rush. "They weren't in it professionally, they just wanted to learn and then maybe come back," Erickson said. The campers were hailing from Florida, California, Ohio, New Jersey, Idaho, Louisiana, Washington, Utah and Alabama.
Erickson said it ended up being a lot of work, and that he also had to tend to Nome Gold Alaska's own mining operations as well. "We did this as a courtesy to the community," Erickson said.
The Department of Environmental Conservation's Allan Nakanishi said no wastewater discharge violations were reported. The City of Nome asked the DEC to investigate a fuel sheen in the Nome harbor when foul weather forced vessels into the harbor. By the time DEC was on the scene to investigate, weather had improved and the sheen was gone.
Buffers for fishermen
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game requested a stipulation to be built in the permits, to have a 300-foot buffer for suction dredges around set gill nets and a one-mile buffer around anadromous streams from the time the ice moves out to July 15. The stipulation was adopted into the DNR permit to protect outmigrating salmon smolt, Scott Kent of Fish and Game said. A half-mile buffer around the anadromous river mouths stayed in place until Sept. 15 to protect subsistence fishing activities.
"We thought it worked really well," Kent said. "We got a lot of feedback from subsistence fishers, saying that the buffer really helped."
More miners coming?
Krause wonders whether last summer was the peak of newbie miners trying their hands at Nome mining. "Fact is that there was a lease sale in 2011 and that's not going to happen for another 10 years," he said. Consequently, the leases are spoken for and newcomers must either make arrangements with current leaseholders or mine in recreational areas.
Miner Bob Hafner is not so sure. "I think we will continue to see an increase in new mining outfits to come to Nome," he said. "I think there will be another wave of people coming to Nome."
Speaking as the Nome Chamber of Commerce president, Hafner not that not only did the miners do well, but dollars also were spent at local grocery stores, auto parts stores, hardware stores and car rental companies.
Not every miner struck it rich. The Nome Food Bank reported empty shelves by the end of the summer season due to frequent visits of some out of town miners, said Food Bank director Paula Davis.
It's not know yet how much gold was mined, Krause said. Miners don't have to fill out their mining license tax return forms until May.
The second season of "Bering Sea Gold" has begun airing on Discovery Channnel. A spokesperson for Original Productions, the production company behind the show, would not confirm what the producer's plans are for this year.
Diana Haecker is a reporter with the Nome Nugget. Used with permission.