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How It All Got Started

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It's Sunday morning and the snow outside my window high in the Colorado Rockies keeps getting deeper and deeper.  I feel in the mood to reminisce on my Alaska prospecting experience, maybe the next best thing to actually being up there.

    In 2005, after reading Norma Cobb's book "Arctic Homestead", I knew I had to get to Alaska somehow.  I was already into dredging here in Colorado but I wanted more excitement and better gold, so I commenced doing my research on the last real frontier.  A good start came in my joining the Alaska Gold Forum and I absorbed just about everything I read.  That lead me to the Alaska Resource Data Files [ARDF] where I homed in on specific areas of interest.  Since the Cobb adventures took place in the Eureka/Manley Hot Springs area, that became my focal point.  It wasn't long before I was becoming conversant in Alaska geography, geology, and culture even if it was from my home 3000 miles distant.  By the end of the summer of 2005 I could stand the anticipation no longer.  I suggested to my wife, Alethea, that we take advantage of some low plane fares and take a quick, week trip up to Alaska to see some of the things we had been reading about.  I need to mention here that Alethea had read Norma's book first and had been reading other books on Alaska pioneers and remote living in the wild north country.  It had been her long held desire to live a homesteading life, so it didn't take any arm twisting to convince her to make the trip to see the land she', too, had been dreaming about for many years.

   Bill Bohan was my first real contact with Alaska and more specifically with the Fairbanks region.  We had corresponded and made arrangements to get together once we got up there.  I had been fascinated with his tales of air boating to his claims on Ottertail Creek in the upper Chena drainage.

So, fittingly, it was a wild ride on that airboat and a day of working Bill's 10" dredge that comprised my first true Alaska adventure.  And I even returned with some gold to boot.

    During that rainy, cold week with the birches turning gold beneath the ever present low hanging clouds, we ventured out the Elliot highway to Eureka to find Lost Creek Ranch, the Cobb's homestead.  To seasoned Alaskans driving 80 miles on a gravel road with almost no signs of civilization is no big deal.  Yet for two chechakos from Colorado, it was akin to leaving Earth to visit the moon.  We never found the homestead...drove right past it and dead ended on the Rampart Road where Granite Creek passes under an inconguous state-of-the-art concrete bridge.  We knew, however, that we were in the vicinity of Lost Creek and that alone fed our spirits.  We would be back.

    Over the winter, back in the lower 48, we began formulating plans to return to Alaska for the summer.  I had purchased an older 32' Airstream travel trailer and a fine '93 Dodge 1 ton, diesel, 4wd, dual wheeled flatbed truck to make the trip.  In between my full time work as a furniture restorer I built a 7' x 10' box on the flat bed.  But it was no ordinary box.  It could be completely disassembled into panels that could be loaded on a trailer an hauled into the bush.  It had a roll up corrugated steel door big enough to accommodate a 4 wheeler, a man door and an extendable top that could be raised to have a wrap around window on three sides that was insect, weather and bear [maybe]proof.  And to do the transporting into the bush I had to have a 4 wheeler.  I found an almost new 2004 Polaris 400 that had been rolled and severely damaged that I picked up for $1500.  It was mostly frame parts that needed replacing or straightening and armed with a good repair manual I was up for the task of rebuilding the machine.  It took me about 5 months and $1100 in parts to complete the job but by spring I was bouncing around our property learning how to handle the amazing beast.

   Most importantly, my evenings were spent in serious research to find likely places to prospect.  My search included territory from the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers eastward to the White Mountains.  Serpentine Ridge and the Tofty area above Manley was high priority as were the drainages around Eureka.  I didn't spend much time investigating the immediate Fairbanks area as I had been told that there was really no decent claimable ground to be staked.  I became very proficient at using the DNR's and recorder's office online files and by July I had a couple of notebooks filled with maps, creek and bench geology, regulations and prospecting and mining information.

    We left Colorado in early July, the big red Dodge towing the Airstream with the 4 wheeler trailer behind it.  Bringing up the rear was Alethea driving our old GMC "Jimmy" with a 17' aluminum canoe on top.  Quite the train, and illegal too, which we weren't aware of till we were far up into BC.  It was a marvelous trip but not without its mishaps.  Most notable took place as we were nearing Dease Lake, B.C..  Doing about 55 mph down a long hill I felt a jolt with an accompanying loud scraping noise.  Somehow the Airstream had become disconnected.  Fortunately, and in large part due to having dual wheels, I was able to bring the truck and trailers to a stop thanks to the safety chains keeping the two vehicles joined.  Turns out I had forgotten to change out trailer balls before we left Colorado.  With a bit of rough road the 2" ATV trailer ball I had been using before the trip was not sufficient for the 2 3/8" Airstream hitch.  A passing motorist stopped and happened to have the proper sized ball in his tool box which he kindly gave us.  With the right ball and some wood blocks we got the trailer rehitched and we were on our way, a bit rattled but no worse for the wear except for 6" of trailer jack ground off.

    Upon arriving in Fairbanks we spent a few days at the Tanana Valley Campground before resuming our journey back out to Eureka.  By now we had determined where exactly was Lost Creek Ranch and our first Alaska bush campsite was a wide spot in the Minook Creek valley/ Rampart road.  A few miles before we reached that destination we stopped to chat with the occupants of a pickup headed the opposite direction hoping to get more information.  The driver happened to be one of the main characters in Norma Cobb's book, life long miner John Shilling.  He was cordial but reserved, probably suspecting we were just another couple of "end of the roaders" not likely to be seen again.   The most valuable piece of advice came from another valley resident.  Mark Exeter, another miner with whom I had corresponded, forwarned us that if we camped anywhere near Lost Creek Ranch Les Cobb would inevitably pay us a visit to determine who was poking around his territory.  It would be in our best interest to have a bottle of Jack Daniels to share with him when he showed up.  We didn't have anything to grease the wheels, so to speak, but did pick up a pint the next time we were in Fairbanks.  Well, just as Mark had warned, it wasn't long befor Les pulled up in his pickup to find out what we were up to.  We invited him in and offered him a drink, which, of course, he accepted.  He was nothing like the person we had read about in Arctic Homestead.  Instead of the brash, wild eyed, woodsman/miner/big game guide, this Alaskan, now in his 50's, was uncharacteristically mellow and welcoming.  The relief and elation Alethea and I both felt at being accepted by the "patriarch" of the Minook Valley was immeasurable. 

    To be continued


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    In the previous episode I mentioned that we were originally intending to be in Alaska for just the summer.  By the time we left Colorado our plans had changed.  We bit the bullet and decided to do a full year in the Alaska interior.   However, we weren't up there long when we determined we were going to have to find some way to replenish our bank account if we were going to survive the long winter.   It so happened that John Shilling showed up at our campsite, probably checking to see how we were getting along, and I shared with him our dilemma.  When I let him know that I had been a  mine equipment weldor for several years he was quick to inform me that a local miner had recently lost most of his crew and would probably be very interested in talking to me.  John seemed to have his ear to the ground regarding just about everyone and every thing happening in the Eureka area.  He even knew that John 'Tobe' Larson, his wife and son would be returning that evening from the Tanana Valley Fair and that if we parked our trailer up at the junction of the road we'd be able to catch him.  We thanked John and followed his suggestion.  We hadn't been at the new site very long when a shiny new red Dodge flatbed pulled up.  Suspecting it was Tobe I approached the truck, introduced myself, and related what John Shilling had told me.  Tobe's eyes lit up and he just about jumped out of the truck and hugged me.  He desperately needed a welder/operator and told me to show up at his camp the next morning if I wanted to go to work. 

   Tobe's camp was situated about 4 miles from ours and after showing me around he suggested we move the trailer to a nice spot near his fine log cabin.  That was easier said than done as there were two small but steep creek drainages we had to negotiate...the Airstream rode very low.  Tobe had to resort to reworking one section with a dozer and even then we barely made it up the far side.  But in the end we got set up and settled in and then were invited to dinner with Tobe and his family.

The next day at the mine site, Tobe familiarized me with the equipment I would eventually operate and repair from time to time.  Most impressive were the 6' x 30' trommel and the 9' diameter jig both of which he designed and built himself.  Next was a 2 yd Link Belt excavator, a Cat D-9 dozer and a smaller dozer used to push tailings.  I had never operated any large equipment but was eager to learn.  I took to the excavator very quickly and was turned loose to do the majority of the feeding of the trommel.  I also had plenty of time on the two story jig and it's small clean up jig.  When any welding was needed I took care of that.  As  summer wore on into fall and the mining season drew to a close I was feeling and acting like a real gold miner and not ready to resume the nomad life.  Tobe was not ready either and asked if we wanted to stay on through the winter and help out in his big shop in Fairbanks.  On top of that he offered us one of three nice new dry cabins on his home site on Ester Dome rent free! We couldn't have asked for better, a good paying, steady job and a warm spacious place to live complete with TV, internet and a fine, insulated, infared lamp heated outhouse.

   With the internet I was able to continue my search for minable ground and it was December 2005 when I made an exciting discovery.  While pouring over mine claim status plat maps I noticed a drainage north of Fairbanks that had claims on it's lower portion but not the upper.  Mine records for that area showed a lot of previous ownership even up to two years past but no recent activity.  It was open state land with no restrictions, close to town with relative easy access.  It seemed too good to be true.  The next day I went to the DNR office, confirmed my find and had one of the geologists help me with loading all the coordinates for 11 40 acre claim blocks into my gps device.   No matter that it was the 3rd of January and -30 F, I packed up my staking gear consisting of pre inscribed surveyors tags, flagging, hatchet, nails, a 357 mag pistol, headlamp,food and a thermos of hot coffee, loaded them on a homemade sled and started snowshoeing up the frozen snow covered creek.  Access was gained through another miner's claims below the area I was planning to stake.  I had about three miles to cover just to get to the upper drainage and I was working with less than 5  hours of daylight.  There was no road, no trail, just snow, glaciered creek ice and scrubby black spruce.  It was exhilerating to say the least.  But I soon realized that the snow shoes were more of a problem than a help as they repeatedly caught on buried brush.  I discarded them and dogedely plowed through the foot and a half deep snow.   I trusted my gps and it proved itself by taking me exactly to my first corner.  I knew that because I found an old corner flag a few feet away.  With my limited time I was able to stake only 8 or 10 corners that first day, but I couldn't have been happier.  Surprisingly, my cell phone worked and I called Alethea to tell her of my success and that I was calling it a day.  I'm not sure how I got back to my truck before total darkness set in; I must have run much of the way.  After a few more days of dragging my sled across the valley floor and up the hills on either side I had my claim blocks marked.  Though I was convinced that no one was ahead of me to claim the ground I did not delay in getting to the Recorder's office to make my efforts official.  It was almost unbelievable...I was the owner of very promising mining claims in Alaska!

   More to come.

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On one of my staking forays I dropped down through a birch grove into another small drainage.  Up ahead in the middle of the valley standing starkly in the bright sun was a strange gray pole.  Several rusty cables supported it weakly and coming closer I could see it was two poles lashed together, small end to small end, and braced by a ring of short, small diameter poles.  From my reading I recognized the old sentinel as a gin pole and a gin pole indicates a mine shaft nearby.  About 150' away and across the little creek was a mound about six feet high and covered with birches. Lying on the side of the mound and partially covered with snow was a large rectangular bucket held together by riveted or bolted strap iron and wire.  A heavy bail and pulley were attached.  Next to the bucket lay a large steel contraption I recognized as a "carrier" , an ingenious device that traversed a high line with the loaded bucket hanging below on up to the gin pole where it's contents were dumped.  Atop the mound was a large depression filled with all manner of rusted sheet metal, timbers, dirt and rocks.  This was the shaft.  The heavy high line cable sagged above the pile and continued on past where it was fastened to an enormous turn buckle whose lower end disappeared into the ground.  Coming up and out of the shaft was a 1" diameter pipe covered with rusted tin cans and it led to a mostly collapsed small log structure.  That was the steam line and the cans were filled with moss for insulation...ingenious!  Though the steam shack was quite filled with snow there was no mistaking the old boiler and a one lung steam engine connected to the "donkey" hoist.  It was all there, a genuine Alaskan drift mine.  I could scarcely contain my excitement as I called my wife to tell her the news.  I determined then and there that this old mine would some day return to life, but the process of restoring it to operating status would have to wait for warmer weather.

    I continued working for Tobe the summer of 2006 out in Eureka so I didn't have any time to devote to my claims and specifically the old mine.  When things went sour with Tobe, we left Alaska in early August to return to Colorado.  However, before leaving I made the acquaintance of another Eureka miner who I'll refer to as Ernie.  Ernie actually owned the claims that Tobe leased but he had the right  to mine on one small fraction.  He was old and slow and needed help so he asked if I would join him in his mining efforts the following summer.  I agreed to his offer.

     During the fall and winter months I began building my first trommel/ wash plant, worked on developing a small stream placer in the hills above Boulder, and yearned for summer to return.  By the end of May we were once again packed up and ready to return to Fairbanks.  The trip went relatively smoothly till just past White Court, Alberta when, without any warning, the left rear of the truck dropped and with my heart in my throat I watched one wheel zip past me, cross over in front, jump a fence and careen into the field on the right.  The other wheel lay in the middle of the highway far to the rear.  Fortunately it was a fairly deserted stretch of 4 lane divided highway so no other vehicles were involved in the incident.  Upon inspection it was evident that the two wheels had been tightened together without a proper mating.  New tires had been improperly mounted by a rookie tire changer before we left and after 1500 miles of driving the wheels worked their way into proper position which caused an immediate loosening of the lug nuts.  All eight of them quickly spun free and off came the wheels.  It took a while to find 5 of the 8 nuts and with the use of a large floor jack and a Handy man jack I got us back on the road.  We tried to find three more nuts in just about every town we went through but with no success.  Yet, we made it the remaining 1500 miles on 5.

    Fairbanks was starting to look like home.  We knew our way around, had friends to stop in and see and familiar stores to shop at.  But we didn't linger long there and soon were on our way up the Elliot eager to get to mining.  The highway passes right by the valley where our claims are and we looked longingly down into its broad expanse as we continued on to Eureka.  We had met Ernie in Fox and he followed us out in his beat up old Chevy pickup.  We had come to know the Shillings pretty well and they had invited us to park our trailer at their camp on McKinley Creek.  We had access to their 24 hr. continuous generator power and John provided us with a 300 gallon tank of fine Chicago Creek water. 

    Ernie and I worked at setting up a Giant hydraulic monitor, running an 8" hose line to it from a distant pond, and getting a diesel pump operational.  We tried in vain to get his old International TD5 running, so he borrowed a dozer from a friend to push pay, clear brush and move tailings.  One day after putting in a month of hard work for Ernie, he confronted me claiming I was "stealing from the box" and that he wanted me off his claim.  First off, I would never do such a thing and secondly, there was really no "box" to steal from.  He just wanted to back out on the $1000 he owed me.  From then on we referred to him as "Crazy Ernie". 

    I had brought my unfinished trommel and all my tools, parts and such to finish it, so I got to work on it.  John had a very complete mechanic shop and was more than willing to provide me with any tool I was in need of, and within a couple of weeks it was finished.  By now Tobe and I had mended fences and he was not hesitant to ask if I could do some welding and jig work for him.  Then one day we had a surprise visit from Les Cobb.  He had heard through the grapevine of our situation of being out of work and asked if we'd be interested in joining a crew he was putting together to reopen an old mine outside of Nome.  It would be for only a month but the pay would be good and the experience invaluable.  Alethea would be the camp cook.  Of course we signed on.  We had a couple of weeks before we needed to leave for Nome so we loaded up the trommel, hitched up the Airstream and headed back to Fairbanks. It was time to begin developing our claim.

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We got permission to park the Airstream in an outlying lot of a nearby truck stop which was roughly 2 miles from where we could access the claims. The monsoon season was full on but the rain had let up briefly while we off loaded the 4 wheeler and the rest of the gear we would need work down at the old mine site. Earlier in the summer I was able to brush out an overgrown trail that ran down a long ridge and then plunged precipitously to the valley floor. The trommel along with the rest of our tools, camping equipment, pump and hoses fit nicely in a large sled I had built to haul stuff down to the mine and the Polaris had no trouble towing the load. We set up two tents, one for tools and equipment and the other to cook and sleep in. I wanted to let Alethea work the trommel and recover our first gold, so we got busy uncovering the unwashed pay gravel at the base of the gin pole. As Alethea fed the trommel, I made adjustments to the spray into both the hopper and inside the barrel. With very little tweeking I had our Eureka Gold Thief running just as I had hoped it would. Now, would it catch gold and was there any gold in the gin pole gravel? It was not easy hand shoveling the cobbles and packed gravel even after going at it with my pick mattock, and after about a half hour we couldn't stand the anticipation, so we shut off the pump and engine to do a clean up. There was a good amount of heavies in front of the riffles and a lot in the miners moss. Into the 5 gal. bucket it all went and then into my pan. A couple minutes later there was a nice line of colors in the crease. Jubilation! I left Alethea with the gold washing while I plowed into the task of cleaning out all the debris collapsed in the 6' x 6' shaft. Down a couple of feet revealed cribbing logs in various stages of decay and some were partially locked in ice. I had read about shafts being sealed off with a plug of logs, moss, and snow and I was hopeful that is what I was encountering.

Rain, rain, rain! Usually light, it was more annoying than inhibiting and our rain suits kept us dry while working.; Alethea divided her time between running the trommel and making the campsite more "homey" as women are inclined to do, especially keeping a fire going for warmth and cooking. I was so into my shaft reclamation I had to be pried away to take a lunch break. Every now and then I got sidetracked digging about in the steam shack. I was utterly fascinated with the old boiler, engine and hoist and as with the shaft I was determined to free them from their prison of ice, mud and rotted logs. At that time and still now I have the dream of rebuilding the old steam works and using them to once again to bring buckets of gold bearing gravels from 60' below to the surface to be dumped beneath the gin pole. The boiler is too far gone to use safely, but the engine and hoist need only a few minor repairs, a good greasing and they'll be good to go.

Every evening we hopped onto the 4 wheeler and made our way back up the trail to the road where the Jimmy was waiting to take us back to the trailer for the night...the night with almost no darkness. We were tired enough that that didn't pose much of a problem. But the rain, the rain lulled us to sleep but it made leaving the warmth of the trailer each morning just a little difficult. Hardy Alaskan miners just suck it up and go to it...so that's just what we did for 8 days. Then it was time to leave for Nome. Les and the rest of the Nome crew met at the airport, boarded a 16 passenger turbo prop aircraft and a few hours later we were looking out over Nome harbor at a choppy gray ocean. Before leaving for the remote mine camp, groceries had to be purchased, arrangements made for a loader and dozer to be hauled and a short tour around the fascinating and historic mining town taken. About as quickly as we had arrived, we were out of sight of Nome and on our way to our destination 80 miles to the north.

We had been forewarned that the camp was primitive, but on first sight "primitive" was a gross understatement. The eight small shacks stood out starkly against the barren rolling tundra. Three of the 6' x 10' buildings were sleeping quarters as was a larger structure on a hill above the camp. There was a cozy kitchen/dining shack, a storage building that doubled as a propane fired shower facility, and a parts shed. Rounding out the compound was the privy which had no door. The three women in the party quickly saw to it that one was made and installed. The last time the mine was in operation was in the '30's and it was a combination of drift mine and open cut. None of the drifts were still visible as the adits were long ago collapsed. The open cut was evidenced by the rusted remains of a Sauerman bucket winch deck operated by an ancient gas engine. On another ridge were four dilapidated frame buildings that had been part of the original camp but were too far gone to use in the new operation.

One of the main jobs we had was to remove any usable items from the buildings on the ridge and the grounds around them and then burn them down. It was a choice location and the new camp would eventually be relocated there. That never happened. Another job given to me was to set up a potable water supply for the camp making use of the pristine Quartz Creek. I also helped Alethea with the cooking every now and then. One of the guys started ripping and pushing frozen muck so as to get to the pay gravel beneath. The five mile long mine road off the main gravel road was in bad need of smoothing out and widening and I had the opportunity to learn to operate the large front end loader in performing that task. I must add that once I did get the loader stuck in a particularly boggy section and the dozer had to be brought out to extricate it.

It wasn't all work out in the wilds of the Seward Peninsula. We had some time to explore other nearby mining ruins, pick blueberries, wash gold with a small Gold Fields vibrating washer, photograph Musk Oxen and swat hoards of mosquitoes. One Sunday afternoon I even did a 10 mile run out to the Kugaroc River and back. Yet our time in the Nome area was cut short by an unexpected cut off of funding for the operation. As difficult as were the circumstances and living conditions at the remote camp, we were sad to have to leave so soon. The tundra had a mystical beauty and serenity that we had never experienced anywhere else in our lives and we're convinced we will return some day.

Stay tuned for more.

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   Doug had been reading my posts on the Alaska Gold Forum and contacted me off list.  He had been drift mining for the better part of 30 years out west of McGrath and thought I might appreciate some advice.  We corresponded and talked on the phone regularly for several years and from time to time Doug would get serious about coming to Fairbanks to work with me.  Research was his thing and he had been doing lots of it on my specific area, but he was just not quite convinced it was worth the effort to undertake a move.  His claims near the Innoko River were so remote that now, in his 60's, it was too difficult and too risky for him to work them.  It was not really surprising to get a call from him letting me know that he had decided to move his family to Fairbanks so he could help us develop our ground if I was ok with me.

    Our home was still in Colorado, so I wasn't able to welcome them to Fairbanks and give Doug the grand tour of my claims.  By that time, however, he already knew enough about the area that all I had to let him know was the exact place to find the trail down to the old mine.  They rented a nice cabin just north of town but Doug wanted to be down at the mine as much as possible, so he took to building a small cabin next to the shaft.  Alethea and I had cut and skidded a sizable pile of good sized black spruce logs the previous year so they were well seasoned and conveniently usable for the lower half of the cabin.  For the remainder he used dimentional lumber and plywood, some of which he salvaged from various waste transfer sites.  Doug was good at making use of reclaimed items which kept his building costs down considerably.  Aside from the cabin construction he busied himself recribbing the shaft and constructing a working deck above it.  Yet, building and rehabilitating were not his real interests.

    Doug's greatest love was prospecting, sampling and calcuating yardage, seeking to know just how much gold was there, both under ground and what was left on the surface in the tailings.  Much of his time was spent exploring the valley floor searching for evidence of prospect shafts from long ago.  He knew what to look for and his efforts were rewarded numerous times.  When he could, he would take the 4 wheeler out, but he also brought with him a couple of snow machines that were equally employed on boggy ground as well as on snow.  Those machines enabled him to haul 5 gallon pails of tailings from the prospect sites back to camp where they were more conveniently washed for evidence of gold.  From time to time Doug would call or write to inform me of his findings.  Sometimes he was excited and quite optimistic about the mine's potential.  Other times I got the impression he was ready to pack it up and go home.  But he stayed on. 

    I had built a steam generator which Doug fine tuned for use in removing the ice from the shaft.  Steam thawing was how he mined all his life so he was expert at it.  He'd let a 10' long pipe work it's way down into the ice and allow it to steam out a large pocket then move it over and repeat the process.  When enough melt water had accumulated he'd pump it out but use some to generate more steam.  I was always eager to get reports on how deep he'd gotten in the shaft.  For me, the big goal was to get down to bed rock, open up the drifts and resume mining where the old timers had left off.  I envisioned finding rooms carved out of the gravel with tools and coats and gloves and gizmos left behind by the miners a hundred years ago.  At the headwall I imagined finding nuggets lying on the bed rock that they hadn't yet picked up.  Ahhh, dreams; they're what keep us plugging away at reality!  [did I just coin a classic line?]

   By late spring of 2012 I had to get up to Alaska, even if just for a short time, to see the progress first hand.  You might have caught that Doug and I still had never met face to face, even after 5 years of acquaintance.  By now we were talking  partnership so that made it even more imperative that I make a trip up there, so I booked a flight in early June with the intent to stay a week.

    All the cheap flights into Fairbanks are "red eye", so it was probably 1am when I arrived, still light, but the airport was quiet except for scurry of the passengers on my flight picking up their luggage.  Doug said he'd be waiting for me but I didn't know who to look for.  I had seen photos of his son, his dogs, the new cabin and the glaciered creek, but none of Doug.  After nearly everyone had cleared out of the baggage claim area I noticed a gray bearded chap dressed in gray work shirt and pants, a baseball cap and staring as though he were also looking for someone.  I walked up and asked him if he was Doug.  He was.

The mine was 25 miles from the airport but the time passed quickly as it does when you're getting to know someone new.  At the trail head we unloaded my duffle and some groceries Doug had bought in town into an aluminum sled hitched to a Scandic snow machine and off we went into the half light.   Ten minutes later we were down at camp.  Doug hurriedly showed me around, pointed out the bedroom, usually used by his son, that would be my quarters and we bid each other good night.

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  Doug's a good cook; he has lots of experience.  The coffee pot was staying warm on the wood stove when I walked into the main part of the cabin that doubled as a kitchen and Doug's bunk space.  He fixed us scrambled eggs, bacon and toast and I couldn't have wanted for a better way to begin the day.  Next he took me on a tour of the immediate area pointing out this discovery and that head scratcher of a situation he'd uncovered, literally.  One prospect shaft and accompanying gravel pile he'd located about 1/4 mile downstream from camp, he had named Baker Dump and put in a fair amount of time assessing it's potential.  I was eager to do some work so Doug turned me loose washing pay using the elevated sluice he had set up.  As I recall, I put through about eight 5 gallon buckets.  Later on we weighed the gold I found and Doug did his calculations...30 yards to an ounce [i believe it was], not mind blowing by any stretch, but good enough to make it worth mining.

   I've been a trail runner for many years so I'm not averse to striking out over the countryside on foot.  This was my first opportunity to really explore my ground unhindered by snow cover or incessant rain.  Doug had written that the dam I built while Alethea and I were last there had been taken out by heavy rains.  I had to check it out to determine if there was any possibility of rebuilding what was left.  There was nothing left.  I proceeded up valley looking for other prospect shafts he had found but I was unsuccessful.  Doug had clued me in on what to look for when searching for prospects.  He said when you see clumps of birches, maybe even just one out where there is typically just low shrubs, grasses and black spruce, that is a likely indication of a prospect shaft.  Birches grow well on gravel.

   The following day I let Doug know I was going out for an extended foray down valley and then up an adjoining creek that also ran through my claim blocks.  So far Doug had not found indication of any sort of mining activity on that fork, nor was there any historical record of such unlike the right fork where the old mine was located.  That didn't keep me from looking.  After several false hopes, isolated birches here and there, I was beginning to think the old timers somehow felt the valley wasn't worth prospecting or they were too busy mining decent gold nearby.  A half mile up from the junction of the two drainages I spotted several birch along with a couple good sized spruce and hurried over to them.  Unlike a good prospector I hadn't brought a shovel with me, though I did have my pan and a hunting knife.  I stuck the knife in the thin moss [another indicator of a prospect] and felt and heard the sound of gravel.  My excitement level was high but it shot through the roof as I washed a pan full in a nearby pool.  It was unmistakable...there was gold!  I didn't have any means of getting the flakes out of the pan nor any bottle to put them in, so I just added more gravel from another part of the mound and washed that.  There was more gold!  And if there was gold at that location, there would absolutely be gold all the way down the valley.  I still had one more thing to do at the new site and that was to find the shaft.  I spotted some water at the edge of the birch mound surrounded by blueberry bushes and poked a stick down into the hole.  It took the whole 3 feet and I hit something hard and flat...ice.  I'd found the shaft.  It was time to head back.  With pan in hand, careful not to trip and lose its contents, I fairly ran the mile or so back to camp.  Now Doug is not one to show a lot of emotion even when it comes to gold; he's seen so much of it in his lifetime, but I think he was pretty darned happy to see what I had uncovered.  I don't remember much more about the remainder of my week in Fairbanks other than I did get to meet Doug's wife and a few other miner friends of his who frequented the local watering hole and fine eatery, the Turtle Club.  The experience was fuel enough to last me on through the following months till we were able to return again to open our new site...Cobb Prospect, named in memory of our friend and bigger than life Alaskan, Les Cobb,who had recently died in a tragic accident while guiding a black bear hunt.

    Stay with me.

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I was lucky enough to get into this adventure in it's early stages. I had read Arctic Homestead also and Lester Cobb had left Colorado from Longmont Colorado. 5 miles down the road from me and one of my neighbors had been one of his friends. In 2006 I made a pilgramage to Lost Creek with an invitation from Mark Exeter. We actually stayed in the cabin Lester built in the book for a week. I didn't run into kurt then. I did a couple of years later when I took these pictures. I met John Schilling there also. In fact, the year after Kurt's trip to Nome. I was to follow up to the claim. A friend and I went to Nome and no one else was able to make it. The problem with that was they were to have made all of the arrangements. We got there with nothing prepared. See http://golddredgervideo.com/alaska2008/cleanupmusicvideo.wmv http://golddredgervideo.com/alaska2008/nomebeach.wmv http://golddredgervideo.com/alaska2008/tentfever.wmv and http://golddredgervideo.com/alaska2008/2008part3.wmv for the explanations. John Schilling saved me from the wilderness god's and drove me to Fairbanks.


I've posted these before but I will again since they fit into Kurt's story.





If I'm not mistaken, here's Kurt welding on Tobbies jig.







Heres the trommel.





More of the plant.




Jig on the left, trommel on the right



The jig and Tobbie.



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Doug and I drew up and signed a partnership agreement before I left to return to Colorado.  I felt honored to have a seasoned Alaska miner working in close association with me, a relative novice, and was confident we would share a promising future with my 440 acres of ground.  But once again I had to leave my on again off again life as a miner/prospector and resume my trade of furniture restorer back in the lower 48.

   In and around my furniture work I made time to take on mine related projects.  The first was to complete an improved version of the Eureka Gold Thief trommel/wash plant.  Next was some site work on a placer operation I had going on up in the hills above Boulder.  A few hundred yards from the placer was an old hard rock adit that was blocked by a massive collapse at the entrance.  Word was that a couple of miners were taking out decent ore about 10 years previous when the rock fall occurred and prevented them from continuing, so they abandoned the claim.  I had recently purchased a medium sized electric jack hammer to use up in Alaska and I was eager to try it out.  What better way than to bust up all that rock blocking the adit, no matter that some of the boulders were as big as a pick up truck.  I brought in a generator, and a few hand tools and went at it like John Henry.  In about a week I was standing at the open entrance to the mine wondering what possible riches might still be recovered from that mysterious recess in the mountain.  It wouldn't be till later in the summer that I'd venture into the mine accompanied by a good friend and fellow miner.  What we found is a story in itself that I will not get into at this time.

    Nearly every time Doug and I talked the subject of drilling and sampling the claims would come up.  It had to be done sooner or later and better sooner, so I was always on the look out for an inexpensive auger or cable tool rig.  I found one on Craigslist...north of San Francisco, an old truck mounted 5" hollow stem auger and it was cheap.  A deposit held it till a friend and I were able to drive out there to haul it away.  We spent two days disassembling and cutting apart the mast and frame, loaded the old International truck on a trailer, stowed all the augers and parts in Ed's big school bus and headed back east. 

    Summer of 2012 couldn't have arrived soon enough.  In the spring we had sold the Airstream and replaced it with a smaller, newer, and lighter trailer partly because I knew the Dodge would be carrying an extra heavy cargo in all the drill parts.  I even added air suspension bladders to help with the load.  By mid June we were on the road once again.  Only two problems had to be dealt with on the journey...the hot water heater in the trailer rusted through and had to be replaced and the overdrive switch in the Dodge decided to malfunction and was also replaced. The remainder of the trip was pleasantly uneventful but, as usual, filled with anticipation.

    Back on our claims the first order of business was to clear a place to park the trailer.  We had chosen a fairly flat piece of ground but it was covered with burned slash compliments of the State's clear cutting of selected patches of land.  Removing all the charred logs and limbs was a dirty business but Alethea and I got it done and the trailer set and blocked by evening.  One advantage of being parked at the edge of a clear cut is that we had an unobstructed  view down into our valley with the lovely rolling hills off in the distance.

    The next day was taken up with shopping, setting up internet service, picking up water at the Fox Spring, and making our campsite more livable.  With a 3500 watt Honda generator dragged into the brush 100' from the trailer and connected up with a long extension cord, we were up town. 

    Doug had taken on a prospecting job out on the Yukon that required him being away from camp for most of the summer and fall, so we were on our own with not much of a plan.  Before Doug left he introduced us to a fellow named Al who owned minable land near Fox on Engineer Creek.  Al needed some help setting up a wash plant so we agreed to give him a hand.  We did what we could at that time and as we were right there on some supposedly good gold ground, asked Al if we could run some dirt through to test our little trommel.  He was fine with that and wanted to see it in operation.  But we wanted to be working our claim, not another miner's.

    Part of our ground has hard rock potential and Doug was able to acquire a proton magnetometer on loan to help determine what was going on beneath all that moss.  The device had a case of electronics and meters that hung at my waist and a long aluminum pole that was the antenna and transmitter.  I would walk 50', press a button, take a reading  and record it in a log book.  In this manner I slogged up hill and down in the foot deep, rain soaked moss.  After a couple hours of noting almost no variation in the readings, the exercise grew more than tedious.  I was not a little discouraged.  Doug didn't want me to work in the big shaft.  It was too dangerous.  There was really no gold to wash by the gin pole.  He had worked that ground pretty thoroughly.  The only thing I could think of was to go to work on the Cobb Prospect.   The Polaris 4 wheeler had been disassembled to have the transmission repaired so we had no transportation other than our feet.  But I did have a sled to haul stuff in, so we loaded up the trommel and hoses and we dragged and pushed the load the near 3/4 mile across the rough, tussock covered valley to Cobb.  It took several trips to bring in what we needed to get a start which included a pump, pick and shovels, chainsaw, cans of gas, an axe, mosquito coils and food and water.   We picked a good spot to set up the trommel, connected up the pump and hoses by a small pond and proceeded to clear the brush and moss off the gravel pile.  After uncovering just a few square feet I couldn't resist filling my pan and taking it over to the pond to wash.  To my utter astonishment there was not just flakes but some very nice pickers gleaming in the sun.  Alethea had already begun stringing up a temporary tarp shelter and putting in a fire ring of the cobbles I was uncovering in large quantity.  Seeing the gold, she left off the domestic chores and turned her attention to running the trommel.  The first cleanup after about a half hour of running showed enough gold to convince us that Cobb prospect was worthy of developing.  It was at least promising enough to warrant getting down to bed rock to determine what the original prospectors had discovered.  So I got to work opening up the old shaft.

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   There was no indication of the size of the shaft judging from what could be seen on the surface.  With pick and shovel I removed moss, brush, and rotten cribbing till I had uncovered an area roughly 4' x 7'.  All the old cribbing that was exposed to the air or melt water crumbed readily and was easily removed.  Any that remained below the frost line and in the ice was in nearly as good condition as when it was initially put in place by the old timers.  But it was necessary that I replace the top 4 feet with new logs.  That was my first cribbing job.  I cut and dragged 4"- 5" diameter black spruce to the shaft site, sized and notched them with a chainsaw and axe and spiked them in place.  For a novice the project went smoothly and ended up looking pretty respectable.  That done, I put my electric jackhammer to work on the ice, but it was rough going with all the debris in the way.  For the first 6 feet of digging, chopping and jackhammering I was able to hand toss everything up and out of the shaft, but when that became too difficult I had to come up with a dumping system.  Some spruce poles nailed and lashed with wire, a sheet of heavy plastic, a couple of small pulleys, some rope and a heavy duty plastic bin served to fill the bill.  I could hoist up three or 4 bins of ice and muck before the plastic slide would jam up and I'd have to climb out and free it up.  Sections of aluminum ladder were wired together as needed to get to the surface.  Of course, the deeper I went the more difficult it was to hoist and dump successfully.  At first I was using 1/4" nylon rope which got to really wearing on my hands.  Fortunately, I had a 100' length of 1/2" climbing rope I could use.  However, it was too large diameter for the small pulleys.  I priced new larger pulleys in Fairbanks but they were too pricey, so I purchased two 6" rubber tired wheels and made my own using pieces of aluminum ladder rail, bolts and bailing wire.  I made a groove in each wheel with my angle grinder [smelly!!!], assembled them, fixed the rope in place and voila, I had a very slick, easy to pull, double line hoist. 

   While I jackhammered and hoisted ice, Alethea worked the trommel washing gold bearing gravel that had been hoisted and stacked by the first prospectors.  From time to time I'd come out of the shaft and uncover more gravel and shovel it into a pile for her to run.  We were continually amazed at how much pay had been dumped and not washed.  It appeared there was an area that was specifically for really "hot" pay as it was nearest the pond where it could be washed easily and it was also large in diameter and in depth.   We wanted the entire prospect site to be cleared off so, as much as we wanted to concentrate on just the richest area, I cleared off the brush and moss to expose all the gravel.  Virtually all that was hoisted by the old timers had at least some gold in it.  That was very encouraging.  Often we would speculate on just what had taken place a hundred years ago at Cobb Prospect.  My theory was and continues to be, that the old timers found such good gold on bed rock that they washed only the richest pay, took a nice poke full of nuggets and coarse gold and left what remained to be cleaned up when they returned.  I surmise WW1 kept them from returning.  It was evident that they didn't actually "work" the shaft and drift; there was just not enough gravel up top to indicate that.  They apparently chose a fortuitous place to sink a prospect shaft and hit gold almost immediately upon reaching bed rock.

    The summer was passing by quickly.  Blueberries and pinkish orange salmon berries were ripening rapidly and the hottest days of the mining season were past.  One day we got a call that our house in Colorado, which was listed for sale, had a buyer and we needed to return to deal with that and to find another house to buy.  We moved out, put our possessions in storage and found another home to purchase.  It would take a month for the closing to take place so it was decided to put Alethea up in an extended stay hotel and I would return to Alaska for a final push to finish out the season.

    Doug was still out on the Yukon so I was on my own.  There were some advantages to being by myself; I could come and go as I pleased and work without any distractions.  But I also realized that without anyone nearby to assist if there was trouble, I would have to more careful not to put myself in harm's way.  I had a tested system in place that allowed me to work at a regular pace without too much disruption and was approaching the 20' level in the shaft.  I usually didn't quit work till around 8:30 when it started getting dark.  It felt good to get out of the heavy rain suit, cover the shaft, hop on the Bravo snow machine and race down the trail illuminated by the headlight towards camp.  I always cooked a good meal no matter that I was dead tired and after the dishes were washed I kept my eye lids propped open long enough to get in a call to Alethea and play a couple of games of solitaire on the laptop.  The first hours of sleep were always good but all the strain on my arms from hoisting all day took it's toll on the tendons in my wrist.  At first it was just some numbness, then tingling and then just outright pain in my thumb and several fingers.  Every night it was the same and it was getting to me.  Something had to change.

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I don't mind hard work.  In fact, sometimes that harder it is the more I enjoy it.  But I don't relish pain and outright suffering.  I often think that is why I work myself so hard; small doses of pain over time raise my overall pain threshold.  When it gets to hurting real bad I throw in the towel without much fuss, and I was just about to that point with my throbbing hand and sleepless nights.  What saved me was all that disappeared shortly after arising and getting on with the day.  Oh, yes, I was loving the work but knowing I had to endure another horrendous night was wearing me down. 

   There's something in the human genome that drives us to seek easier, more efficient and even more enjoyable ways of doing whatever task is at hand and in that I am no different.  It's almost incongruous, though, for me, who loves to do it the hard way to also be inventive.  I am constantly looking for ways to do a job faster and with less effort.  As a kid I used to dream up and even draw on paper gadgets and devices to use mechanical advantage to perform an operation.  My first invention from the early 50's...I was in 5th grade... came after riding in a friend's father's little 1949 VW.  I had never changed a tire but had probably seen it done thought it looked like hard work jacking up a car [we had bumper jacks in those days], even a little "Beetle".  Using my innate artistic ability I drew out the plans for pneumatic lifting devices beside each wheel that could be operated independently by the push of a button to raise whichever corner of the car had to be raised to replace a flat.  I believe some European car manufacturer came out with such a system many years later.

   To get back at the problem at hand...my hand, to be exact, I needed some mechanical advantage to get those heavy buckets of ice up and out of the shaft.  It doesn't take too much smarts to come up with the idea of a winch and I did have one of those, a little 12 volt Superwinch off my 4 wheeler.  I removed the pulley system and mounted the winch along with a 12 car battery on a platform on the spruce pole headframe.  With some heavy duty 10 ga electrical cable I was able to rudimentarily but effectively make a switch by crossing wires to change the polarity of the motor to either raise or lower the bucket from down in the shaft.  It was pretty rube goldberg but it worked and it saved my hand for the remainder of the few days I had left.

    Freeze up had begun.  I arrived at Cobb one morning to find 1/2" of ice on the little ponds and I realized it was time to shut the operation down for the winter.  With some planks and poles I nailed together a cover for the shaft over which I laid a tarp secured with rocks.  The trommel also was tarped and secured with bungi cords.  Lastly the  10' x 10' "shed in a box" shelter I had erected when I first arrived  had to come down; it wouldn't have been able to withstand the build up of snow.  The tent had been a blessing when it  rained or snowed.  Even with it's sloppy muck and moss floor I could go in, turn on the propane heater and in a few minutes I'd be warm as toast. But now the muck was getting solidified once again and I was able to place all my bins of tools and equipment without them sinking down several inches.  With the tent/shed down I started up the Bravo and bid farewell to Cobb prospect till spring.

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I can't believe it....I just spent over an hour and a half writing the next episode, hit the wrong key and it all just vanished.  I could almost cry!  I'll redo it soon, but if anyone knows of some "weird trick" to recover the lost post, please let me know.

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