Monday, July 30, 2007
DAWSON CITY, YUKON — "All that glitters is not gold" is a saying we all know well, and in the Klondike of the Gold Rush this had great meaning for those who lusted after this gleaming treasure. Today, as we tread the same paths they did in these rugged northern hills, we also realize that there are many golden things that do not glitter — like perfect summer days, wonderful adventures, far-off places, and the treasure of loved ones.
Val has been reading all the stories and accounts of the Klondike Gold Rush as we have traveled these regions. Right now he’s reading the story of George Carmack, whose news of gold discovered in Bonanza Creek in 1896 was the impetus for thousands who braved untold hazards to try and strike it rich. That very creek is a stone’s throw from our campground!
The amazing thing is that people are still making a living by mining for gold here, and we decided to visit such a family to see how it works in 2007. The Goldbottom Mine Tour is run by the Millar family, who have claims along the Hunker and Goldbottom Creeks about 15 miles from town. Today we were the only two people who signed up for the complete tour, and Deborah Millar took us up to their camp along a bumpy, dusty back road, pointing out the operations of neighbouring miners as we passed them. Deborah’s parents moved from eastern Canada to the Yukon in the early 1950s and have been in the mining business ever since.
Goldbottom used to be a vibrant mining town, complete with trading posts, roadhouses, blacksmiths and a population of about 5,000 people, all around the area that is now the Millars’ claim. Only one building remains — the roadhouse, and the family uses it as their summer home, with a display case in the front room where tourists can see artifacts from the old days, and even mastadon bones and ivory tusks that they have discovered while digging.
Some others joined us at the camp, so there was a small group of us who went with Deborah to the site they are currently working on. Dredges went through the area in the old days, so the nuggets are pretty well mined out, but there is enough placer gold (pronounced "plasser"), or gold bits the size of the seeds in bananas or even smaller, to keep them going. In addition, there are certain sections that the dredges appear to have missed which have yielded some more exciting quantities.
The Millars use a back hoe to scoop up the dirt and gravel and dump it into a large hopper. It then passes through a large pipe made of metal mesh that separates out the larger chunks, and, with the help of water, washes the remainder through sluices that capture the heaviest part of the material (which is the gold), along with the finest gravel, in plastic matting that resembles a coarse plastic scrubby. That mixture is removed by buckets full for further sorting back at the camp. Washing out the silt and gravel and lifting out the black sand — which is magnetic, making it a bit easier — eventually leaves various sizes of gold bits, from banana seed size up to the size of a small glass bead. These bits are mixed with a chemical like washing soda and melted at high heat, and the soda takes away the last of the dirt.
The gold still needs to be refined, but this is done by the assayer. Deborah says that silver, which is mixed in with the gold, is separated out, and the value of the silver is about enough to pay for the assaying process. Then their buyer will convert their gold to dollars, and they’re off to the grocery store! It’s quite a process.
Once we had followed this whole operation, Deborah invited us to try panning for some gold ourselves. Val and I had a bit of experience from our visit to El Dorado in Fairbanks, but this started with a heap of dirt beside the stream which we shoveled into our pans ourselves. Then, equipped with borrowed rubber boots and with a bit of instruction, we waded into Hunker Creek to wash away all the rocks, stones, pebbles, gravel, sand and silt, and looked, REALLY closely, to see what remained. My pan held one minuscule speck of gold, while Val managed to glean five slightly more robust specks! We were planning our trip to Hawaii already! We gathered these tiny treasures into a small glass vial filled with water, which was ours to keep. It was great!
Tonight, back at the trailer, there was a rain shower that was caught by the sun, setting a beautiful rainbow in the sky. The rainbow’s end, to the west, looked like it had settled right about at Hunker Creek. And we know for a fact that there was gold at the end of that rainbow!