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How a novice miner survived a summer in the Klondike Add to ...

They’re the stars of Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush, now filming its second season. During season one, shot at a claim outside Haines, Alaska, the Oregonian cast recover just $20,000 worth of gold, about enough to keep Stuart in business for 48 hours. Having been elbowed out of Alaska, the show films in the Indian River valley under a shroud of secrecy; security guards are hired to keep people off their claim. The miners are led by Todd Hoffman, who believes the Lord intended his crew to strike it rich.

Their faith makes it possible to meet some of the miners, because Marlin McNeil, an aging prospector and miner from Oklahoma with claims scattered around Quartz Creek, moonlights as a preacher, holding Sunday services in an old two-room shack located on one of his claims. On the Sunday after Labour Day, I show up at McNeil’s last service for the season and find several of the Gold Rush crew, including Todd, in attendance.

His congregation packed into the shack, McNeil delivers a sermon drawn from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’s miraculous healing powers. The congregation plods through a few hymns before McNeil asks those in attendance what they’d like him to pray for. Todd asks for 20 more days of favourable weather for sluicing—more gold, in other words.

For the Gold Rush guys, McNeil is more than mere spiritual adviser. He provided, for the standard rate of 10% of any proceeds, the claim the Oregonians are working. The wily preacher attempts at the tail end of his service to lease them settling-pond privileges on another claim, but Todd doesn’t take him up on the offer. Outside, Gold Rush’s safety officer Jim Thurber confides they’ve found just 40 ounces of gold to date—slightly more than twice season one’s take. It’s an idiosyncratic approach to placer mining they’re pursuing; it helps that the Discovery Channel is covering their fuel bill. “If we can just get a third season, then we can start making money,” adds Jim. True, perhaps. But not from the gold mining.

Sunday service is a rare recreation. The few days we’re granted off from the mine, we pile into someone’s truck and blast into Dawson City, looking to blow off steam. We drop our money at the card tables of Diamond Tooth Gerties, the oldest gambling hall in Canada, where the thrice-nightly vaudeville show gets more ribald as the evening wears on.

For the younger guys on the crew, gambling gives way to copious drinking and late-night hot-tub parties at the Downtown Hotel. After a few weekends of watery mayhem, management wises up to our shenanigans and the tub is drained before 10 p.m. If there’s one constant through gold mining’s history in Dawson City, it’s that miners work hard and play even harder.



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SEPT. 10, 2011 The weather is turning and the leaves have gone from bright yellow to a dark golden, and now we need only a windstorm to leave the effect of a landscape waiting for snow. This mining adventure is drawing to a close, and the final push for gold is on. With most of the cuts underperforming, the plan is to drag the plant back to Ruby Creek, where the gold has been the most plentiful. By the end of September, there’s a territorial election in full swing, and the New Democrats propose ramping up the royalty tax on placer gold. Currently, and since 1906, it’s 37.5 cents per each troy ounce mined—a rate based on a $15 ounce of gold.

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On Sept. 26, Stuart hits back on local CBC Radio. He says that the government should drop the placer tax altogether, because its revenue-generating purpose was taken over long ago by the advent of progressive personal income tax.

Even with $1,600-an-ounce gold, Stuart notes, there are very few new placer miners. The rush that has so excited the territory is all about staking hard-rock claims, not placer. Sure, operators like Stuart reap millions of dollars worth of gold from scratching the hills, but the big money being generated in the Yukon is in exploration. Last year, exploration companies spent just over $300 million in the territory on goods and services, while the value of all the placer gold mined at $1,600 an ounce was worth less than $75 million.

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