After The Gold Rush
At the turn of the last century, when gold was discovered in Alaska’s wilderness, prospectors came from all over the world. Some of them did indeed get rich - one dredging machine alone netted seven and a half million ounces of gold - but many also perished, unprepared for the country’s harsh winters.
Alaska’s loose gold was very quickly gathered up and later arrivals, if they survived, went home empty-handed, but the town of Fairbanks flourished - and has been busy ever since. Today it has an unusual mix of old and new; log cabins in the centre of town next to fast-food outlets, a university with a stunning view of Mount McKinley and a collection of huge gold nuggets in its museum.
A century on from the gold rush, locals claim that there is still a million dollars worth of gold left inside the mountains, but environmental issues prevent the re-opening of mines. Yet what does happen is that the internal streams bring small particles of gold out into the rivers with the silt: it is now a national hobby finding it.
At weekends, men, and occasionally women, head for the rivers to spend a peaceful day with their trays, sluice boxes, spades and jars panning for gold.
With the help of a local, Mick, I learnt how to dig down into the silt at the side of the stream and fill my bowl with dirt. Slowly I got the hang of swilling the bowl just under the surface of the stream so that the top layer of silt was washed away.
As the gold flakes are heavy they sink to the bottom of the dish. Then with an ear-dropper I sucked up the tiny flakes and deposited them in a little vial of water.
It was a beautiful sunny day, with the light bouncing off the water and I began to appreciate the peace of a day’s panning. My back was aching slightly from all the bending so I took a tip from another local, Bob, and sat on a boulder a little way in the stream, though I wished, like him, that I’d worn Wellington boots.
Bob told me that he came here as often as possible, in all weathers, and had been doing so for 20 years. At least he takes something home to show for his efforts, because even just a few flakes can be collected in a vial and sold at the tourist shops.
“My best day was when I found a nugget worth $20,” he grinned, “but even the smaller amounts add up over time.” He recalled a golf course being built nearby. “When excavating the dirt they were pulling out pieces as big as their thumbs.”
Bob had all the right equipment, a strange combination of a special plastic sluicing tray with a green mat to help trap the gold at the bottom. He was professional, but he still lent me his spade, advised me on where to dig and didn’t object to my being in his patch, not even when I pulled a nugget the size of a pea from the bottom of my bowl. “Beginner’s luck!” he said.
I asked about the danger posed to prospectors by bears because I had heard that encounters were common near rivers, where bears come to fish. It seems that, in general, the bears leave people alone, but everyone in Alaska has a bear story. In Bob’s case, the bears were after his fish lunch, rather than him or his gold.
Later I showed off my catch.
“It will be 24-carat gold,” Mick promised.
When I asked him when he was going prospecting next he laughed. “You’ve caught the bug!” He could be right. It’s addictive. And, of course, there is always that chance of getting very rich and starting a gold rush all over again.
The easiest way to fly to Fairbanks is via Seattle. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from London Heathrow to Seattle from £220 one way. Both American Airlines (0845 778 9789; www.aa.com) and Alaska Air (www.alaskaair.com) fly into Fairbanks from Seattle. If you would prefer to travel partly by rail, the Denali Star train goes to Fairbanks from Seward (from £87), or Anchorage (from £76), from mid-May to mid-September, and passes through some amazing scenery. For additional information see www.alaskatravel.com.
There are several good hotels in Fairbanks, but living in a log cabin feels more authentic. A cabin at 5 Star Log Cabin 00 1 907 322-3483; www.5starlogcabins.com) costs about £66 per night, based on double occupancy, and a minimum three-night stay, and is located next to a spruce and birch forest.
Gold panning tours vary: some include a miner’s lunch, others a tour of a museum, or a talk by a local historian. Prices differ as a result, but start at £10 for adults, and £5 per child for the basic panning trip, including transport from Fairbanks. Try Gold Dredge No 8 (www.golddredgeno8.com), or for a more detailed historical tour, see Grayline Alaska (www.graylinealaska.com) . Also see www.alaskaticketsandtours.com.