Gold Fever!
February 22nd, 2011

I hate myself for saying it, but I’ve become hooked on the Discovery’s Channel’s latest reality show “Gold Rush.” Who among us hasn’t considered pulling up stakes and heading north to Alaska in order to strike it rich? Or, at the very least, extract enough gold flakes from Porcupine Creek to cover the next house payment?

Last night I watched five episodes in a row. Finally my wife came down and asked if I was coming to bed. “And what’s with the goatee?” she added.

I’ve been a closet prospector for a long time now. It all started with George “Buzzard” Massie, who founded an outfit called the Gold Prospector’s Association of America and who hosted a long-running infomercial on the Outdoor Channel. Wherever Buzzard looked, there were golden nuggets in abundance. All you needed in order to find them was a GPAA membership kit, which included a graduated set of pans, a treasure map and something called a snuffer bottle. The reason early day prospectors didn’t find all the gold is because they didn’t have snuffer bottles!

It so happens I have one of those kits, even though I’m not a GPAA member. They’re quite easy to come by, and cheap, if you frequent yard sales. I got mine from a fellow I met in a hot tub at Cactus Pete’s Casino in Jackpot, Nevada. Co-incidentally, George “Buzzard” Massie died in 1993 of a massive heart attack while preparing to climb into a hot tub.

Luckily, in the wilds of Alaska there are no hot tubs to worry about. Mainly, it’s mosquitoes and grizzly bears that will bedevil you and distract you from your work. And the last thing you want is to be distracted, because the entire jury-rigged operation is falling apart. The machinery is antiquated, the operators are inexperienced, the maintenance man can’t function without daily infusions of morphine. If something heavy doesn’t fall on your head and crack your skull, the boss man will get in your face and his chin whiskers will poke your eyes out!

The claim’s partners are a most contentious lot. In one episode a disgruntled crew member resigns in a huff and drives off in his extended cab pickup truck. Because gas in Alaska costs five bucks a gallon, I can only assume he doesn’t get far before he has to abandon the truck. So he hitches a ride with an Ice Road Trucker, who takes him as far north as Dutch Harbor, where he signs aboard a crab boat skippered by the imperious Hillstrand brothers. Next thing he knows he’s washed overboard into the icy waters of the Bering Sea. At which point he dies—but wait! In the nick of time he is rescued by Bear Grylls, who outfits him with a wet suit fashioned from the skin of a dead seal.

But I digress. What I take away from the program is the impression that gold mining is not only hard work, but also requires some expertise and entails enormous operating costs. Last year I had the opportunity to tour the Newmont open pit operation in northern Nevada, and I’m here to inform you guys that your shovels and five-gallon plastic buckets are no match for a fleet of 250-ton dump trucks. Snuffer bottles? I didn’t see any snuffer bottles.


On the tour I learned that the so-called “easy” gold has already been found. Nowadays the big operations are all going after microscopic particles, not nuggets. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any nuggets out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found by some lucky skunk who doesn’t know any better than to stop looking.

I’m thinking of my old friend Chris Christopherson who, while digging underneath his saloon in Murray, Idaho, unearthed the largest gold nugget ever found in the Coeur d’Alene mining district. Christopherson was acting on the advice of an old man named Ike Hinkle, who used to run a dredge on Prichard Creek. Hinkle had said the gravel was especially rich near the saloon, and evidently he was right.

See, that’s how you find gold. You interrogate some bewhiskered old codger who’s on his lost legs, or else you pick up a rock to toss at a stubborn mule and discover to your surprise that it’s not just an ordinary rock. Or else you become a gravedigger. A colorful resident of Murray by the name of Stovepipe told me a story about the time he’d been assigned to dig a grave in the local cemetery and had gotten carried away after the hole began to “show color.” By the time the foreman came by to check on his progress, Stovepipe was twenty feet down and closing in on bedrock.


I don’t remember whose grave it was, but at today’s gold prices, I reckon it might be worth one’s while to exhume the ore body.

-Richard Menzies