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

Stuart has placed 21-year-old Nigel Herfst in charge of Stuart’s 15-year-old nephew and me on the fence-building team. Both kids are in incredible shape and wield the chainsaw as easily as if it were a toy. At 38, I feel like a feeble old dog. I’m terrified of the chainsaw to boot.

It takes nearly eight days to amass the necessary logs, four more to put up the fence. But when we’re done, I feel like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. What was the point of it all?

The following day, I’m sorting hydraulic hose and storing motor oil when Stuart takes me out to the back forty, where spare machines, parts, trailers and junk vehicles are stored.

“This is like what you’ll be operating,” Stuart says, gesturing at a Hitachi EX700H.

I gawk at the huge machine. It is 150,000 pounds of earth-eating muscle, an excavator used to dump pay dirt into “the plant.” In a sluicing operation, the plant performs the same task as a dredge. Stuart’s blue beast was built to float and once did, but has since been outfitted with bulldozer tracks and is pulled from job to job, where it remains until all the pay dirt is gobbled up. The excavator keeps the plant fed while a bulldozer razes the landscape to replenish the feedstock.

Feeding the hopper—a large metal mouth at the front of the plant—with a steady supply of pay dirt is paramount. Water pumped into the plant washes the material through a trommel, a giant rotating cylinder where larger rocks are separated and ferried off the back of the plant on a large conveyor. Those rocks—tailings—continually stack up and must be periodically levelled by the dozer.

Gold is washed from the finer dirt and collected in mats called miner’s moss. More than 300 square feet of this rubber carpet is laid out in chutes flanking the plant. Because gold is 19 times heavier than water, flecks of the yellow prize are trapped in the moss while the lighter material is washed away.

Preparing for my part in this process, I take the controls of a smaller model of excavator for about 20 minutes, then survey the mess I’ve made. I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead. But if I can’t manage this, there’s not much else I can do at the mine. The pressure’s on.


JUNE 13, 2011
I miscalculate and ram the excavator’s bucket, loaded with dirt, into the big blue wash plant while Stuart and some guests stand on a large gangplank next to the conveyor. The plant shakes violently. Stuart admonishes me with a finger wag. His guests frantically reach for the railing. After they depart, a perturbed Stuart climbs aboard the Hitachi and takes over. At age 9, Stuart learned to run heavy equipment at his father’s gold mine. “Part of your job is to keep the plant filled with dirt, and not to hit the plant,” he says while offering pointers. “We used to tell operators that if they hit the plant, they’re fired. So don’t hit the plant.


Every 18 hours, we shut down for a cleanup, and gold is rinsed from the mats. One day in July, after several decent cleans, I drive a truck back to camp loaded with four 45-gallon drums containing approximately $300,000 in gold. This stuff is the “fines”; the gold finally emerges when the fines are processed back at the camp in a scaled-down, finer version of the plant.

The cut—the portion of the claim we’re working—is tens of thousands of square feet in size, sometimes hundreds of thousands, cleared in sections. Every 45 seconds I must dump a bucket, the equivalent of three yards or slightly more than 80 cubic feet of dirt, into the hopper. Dale Bulmer, operating the dozer, maintains a constant pile of pay dirt in front of me and radios me when I’m falling behind.

Dale is from Choiceland, Saskatchewan; he came to work for Stuart in 1993 at the age of 18. He’s tough as nails. When I brag to friends about my longest stretch of workdays in a row (37), I contextualize with Dale’s camp record of 102 days as proof that I work shoulder-to-shoulder with the hardest of the hard-core.

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