Gold Rush Alaska and Us
Last Friday my husband and I figured we'd watch Gold Rush Alaska before the high school basketball game. We’d missed an episode, but nothing had changed. The miners were still losing 1000 dollars a day. Their equipment still didn't work. They still argued. They still almost got killed. They still forgot to buy gas. They were not having any fun. Winter was closing in (in August) so they had to leave soon.We weren’t really paying close attention until about halfway through the episode, when the owner of the claim (he gets 20% of the take) showed up and was not happy. There was a meeting in the camp office. Right away we snapped to attention. "Hey, where did they get the furniture?" There were new modern upholstered recliners in the cabin. "From Miles!" My husband said. "Dennis sold those guys some furniture." We looked for a sign or something, like "Shop Miles for Smiles" painted on the wall, an indication that the friendly local furniture store owner had been there, but didn't see it. I was suddenly so sad. Dennis had died skiing the week before. He didn't get to see his big moment on TV. He had rented his lodge on the Klehini River to the Alaska Gold Rush crew, the ones who wrote the script and filmed the show. He had a ball with them. No doubt he hoped they'd be successful, both in the mining and on TV. (And really, you cannot separate the two. Would the Hoffmans be in Haines without a film crew?) Dennis liked to see folks come to Haines to make a good life. He helped more than a few, from the church people from back east who started a farming faith community near Porcupine to hippie carpenters. Dennis was an upholsterer when he arrived from California in a dune buggy in 1973. By the time he died he was selling carpet and appliances and building log homes. It was his Alaskan dream to live here. The reason Greg Bigsby took Dorsey fishing commercially for salmon was not for the money or the fame of a few moments on TV. It was because he wanted to share his good life in Haines with the world. Stories about finding a home in Alaska are much more appealing to Alaskans than stories about making money off our resources and leaving with a duffle bag of cash. Taking all you can seasonally and heading south is equally frowned upon by the year-rounders. The successful old miner across the river from the Hoffman's, John Schnabel, spent a lifetime in the timber industry before turning to gold mining in his retirement. John told me years ago that he mines not for the gold, but because he likes the challenge mentally and physically of finding and extracting it. The real gold to be found in the north, if you are clever and lucky enough to make a living here, has nothing to do with a big bank account, and everything to do with what Klondike stampeder Robert Service learned when he tried gold mining over a hundred years ago.
The Spell of the Yukon
I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth—and I’m one.
You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.
I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.
The summer—no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.
They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite—
So me for the Yukon once more.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.