An Expensive Lesson
As we turned onto the Dalton highway the sun was just starting to dip below the horizon to the north, it was midnight, this is Alaska the land of the midnight sun. We had begun this trip at this time of night because we wanted to arrive at the river between 6-8:00am. The Dalton Highway is a gravel road that was built to accommodate the Prudhoe Bay oil fields 450 miles to the north of Fairbanks. There are no services on this road except two truck stops, one on the north bank of the Yukon River and one in a place called Coldfoot 200 miles to the north of the Yukon River. If you get in trouble you are on your own.
Alaska is a land of extremes and the weather is no exception, by the time we reached the mighty Yukon River we could see a dark line of clouds stretching from east to west as far as the eye could see. Just north of the Yukon River we ran into the rain, it was really coming down. This was not good, as most prospectors know, swollen rivers are not the best places to try to prospect. Immediately the road turned into a slick gumbo and as we traveled, the spray from passing tractor-trailers, whose road this was, covered our truck and the canoe on top with a thick layer of gray mud. 50 miles north of the Yukon we pulled over into a gravel pit, got out the Coleman stove and cooked some of the food we had brought. We couldnt really call it dinner or breakfast, it was three oclock in the morning, it was just food. While stretching his legs and sipping his coffee, Dan called me over to see a very large set of Grizzly tracks in the wet mud ..Well, time to leave.
Our story really had its beginning some six months before in the heart of the Alaskan winter. It was December, the time when all a prospector has to do is wait for next summer and reflect on summers past. We had seen an ad in the paper offering to sell two claims. Having nothing better to do, we made an appointment to meet the owner the next night. It turned out that he had two recorded claims on the Koyukuk River that he wanted to sell, he needed money for Christmas and was not working.
He showed us four 5oz. vials of course flakes that he said came from his claims. He had supposedly got them with a two and one half inch dredge the preceding summer. Needless to say, we were excited, gold was almost $800.00 per oz. and what he held in his hand was worth $16,000.00!!!
He was desperately trying to hold on to his gold, but he needed money. He wanted $8,000.00 for the two twenty acre claims and he would sign a quit claim deed. For me, that was a lot of money, and no guarantee that the gold he showed us was from that claim. We could not test the ground before we bought it because it was December and that ground would be a hard as concrete. Fortunately a geologist from the Dept. of Natural Resources had visited his claims that last summer and could verify that what he said was true. He had taken 20 oz. of course flakes in about thirty hours of work. We bought the claims and waited impatiently for summer.
Leaving the bear tracks in the mud, we again headed north, full of anticipation, and doubt, it was still pouring cats and dogs. What would the river be like? Would we be able to properly prospect the claims we had bought? We had never been to the Koyukuk River before, so we didnt know what to expect, was it large, was it small, would we be able to navigate it? We did know that our claims were only three miles downstream from where the road crossed the river, so how bad could it be?
The winter before, while waiting for summer to
come, we had done some research on the claims and the area surrounding them. We found that
there were two large blocks of claims adjoining ours on the west or, left limit of the
river. There was also a large cat mining operation opposite our claims and just downstream
on the right limit. This information not only served to confirm that we had made a good
purchase, but had the exasperating effect of immediately adding to the length of the
We had set up camp on a small rise of land that would keep the tent out of any standing water .we hoped. We began by tracing the creek from the river until it began to rise up to a ridge that rose out of the valley floor. The creek traversed a small swampy area that held the water very well. Nowhere was the creek over three feet wide and went from ankle deep to mid thigh in places. These swampy areas are called "muskeg" in Alaska, they consist of mounds of grass with water in between. The mounds of grass can be as much as two feet high and you cannot walk on them, they tip over and spill you into the water. Attempting to walk between them is frustrating because if the grass mound is two feet high, and the water between a foot deep, you have to lift your leg three feet at each step.
We noted that on our right there was a bench about twenty feet high, this bench looked like it had been formed by the erosion of the ridge that we were approaching. It also looked very much like the small creek had, over time, washed through the bench at this point. We continued up the creek until it became very steep and boulder strewn. At this point it was not possible to do any digging without a lot of boulder moving to get to the gravel below. We opted to return the way we had come and concentrate our efforts lower down. Try as we might, we could not find a piece of ground that was not covered with standing water. It was impossible to dig and test the gravel in this swampy area.
At this point we were forced to seek the high ground, this would not be the best place for prospecting but it was all we had. It would seem that we had made a mistake in not bringing our 2 ½" dredge, this would be the only way to prospect this piece of ground.
Climbing to the top of our bench we began to take some samples. As is the case in most of the interior of Alaska, the ground here was covered in a thick blanket of moss and lichen. Lichen is the staple food of the Caribou that roam these hills. Rolling back the thick carpet of moss with our shovels, we found gravel, not rounded and water washed, but sharp angular gravel. Dan said that he didnt think that this looked too promising and I had to agree. We took a shovel full and put it in the pan and climbed back down the bench to the creek. In just a couple of minutes we had the pan of gravel reduced to the point that we could see the bottom of the pan when we shook it. You can imagine our surprise as we carefully washed the remaining contents of the pan and saw yellow gleaming up at us from the green bottom of the pan. GOLD! And from the first shovel of gravel. There were 12 colors in the first pan, and each successive pan yielded anywhere from 10-20 colors. This was what we had waited for all winter for. We prospected for the rest of the day in the pouring rain, then turned in for the night. We would have to leave in the morning, the river was getting dangerously high.
The next morning the river looked ugly, it had stopped raining but you could see the river was still rising. It was all our little motor could do, with Dan paddling as well, to make any headway against the current. It took about two hours to go the three miles, but we made it back to the truck safely. We were happy prospectors, talking excitedly about our discovery all the way home, and making plans to come back.
The expensive part of this story happened about two weeks later. I had a business in Fairbanks that demanded a lot of my time. A problem developed with my bank over a very large business expansion loan I had. They made some illegal moves and I sued, and from then on things got hectic. To make a long story short, I never could get back there to do the assessment work to keep the claim.
Then the inevitable happened, the guy I had bought the claims from re-filed on them. He has held them for the past eleven years. But this year I got a break, I was checking the claim records and found that he had dropped them. The Federal Government instituted a $100.00 per year fee for each claim held. This has caused a lot of miners who were just holding claims to drop them, because of the expense of holding a large number of claims. Needless to say, I will be heading north with my new partner, Jesse, this spring to re-stake these claims. It has been a lesson well learned.
1998-2004 James Foley