Gold Rush Alaska, A Local Review

The first episode of ten in the first TV series to be filmed in Haines  wasn't as bad as we had expected. Haines looked good,  and the only local guy in it, truck driver Donny Braaten, represented us well.   Last summer the Discovery Channel filmed the Hoffman family and friends from Sandy, Oregon attempting to gold mine in Haines, up near the former (and long gone) gold rush town of Porcupine, about thirty miles out the road from Main Street on the Porcupine River. They set up camp on a claim across the creek from 90-year-old John Schnabel 's Big Nugget mine with, it seems, more hope of striking media gold than the real thing. We watched the show with his son Roger and Roger's wife Nancy, (who are our daughter JJ's godparents) Krista, a reporter for the Chilkat Valley News, Pizza Joe, and Kim, a longtime resident who runs a daycare. It was about 10 degrees and blowing snow, but my husband grilled moose burgers on the back porch.

The first episode began with the down-and-out Oregonians selling everything to strike it rich in the Alaskan wilderness that is our backyard. Selling everything involves liquidating a private airport that is apparently bigger than the only airport in Haines, and nets them enough cash to buy serious industrial mining equipment, (they will not be gold-panning on bended knee) including an excavator, dump truck, power plant, trailer homes, pick-up trucks, four-wheelers, and a loader, that all together probably cost as much as a small island in the Caribbean. 

In the opening hype the miners declare the claim is a prospector's dream, with "millions of dollars" in gold for the picking, they guess a cool 15 million will be theirs. Here Roger says, "My Dad's been looking for the mother-lode for thirty years and hasn't found it yet." When they move the Alaska bound machinery on the lowboys the excavator hits a parked car. We laugh. Roger, who owns a construction and road building company is appalled. When they say they need to buy bear guns, (they bring 45!)  "The bigger the better" because "not having a gun is suicide up there," I thought, don't tell them half the women in town pick blueberries at Porcupine with grandmas and babies and nothing more than a few gentle dogs and a boom box playing show-tunes. Pizza Joe, whose cabin is on a remote ridge overlooking Porcupine said that when he first moved out there he was told he should have a bear gun, so he bought a .44 magnum. "I never saw any bears, and I was afraid I'd shoot myself, so I got rid of it." An electric fence keeps bears from my chicken coop.

 I'll skip the too long drive to meet the Alaska bound barge and the caravan up the Alcan Highway. Things picked up when we saw familiar country. "Hey, that's the pass" Roger said, pointing to the snow covered peaks between a ribbon of highway on a bluebird spring day. (The Chilkat Pass is between Haines Junction Yukon Territory and Haines, Alaska.) "Isn't that beautiful?" The show got interesting again when they arrived at the Steel Bridge over the Klehini River. Then, our man Donny Braaten, who grew up here and now has teens in school himself, was on TV. We cheered. He works for Roger and was driving one of his  trucks towing the trailer-load of mining equipment over the bridge. "Who knew Donny would be a movie star?" Nancy said. He was so calm, brave, and sure. He smiled just enough to be friendly. He definitely played the strong and silent type,  especially in contrast to the miners. They "bleeped", groaned, and hid their faces in their hands, writhing with such agony and that you'd think the bridge would collapse and all would be lost before the show began. (The Steel Bridge is so sound school buses and tour buses travel over it regularly.) After all the high drama there was much man-hugging and more "bleeping."  That's when Roger said, "They made Donny go back and do it again." That's right. Donny drove all that stuff back over the bridge and crossed it again, so they could have more film. When the miners plowed the excavator right into the river rather than risk the scary bridge everyone talked at once. "They can't do that, can they?"  "Where's LCC (the local environmental organization) when you need them?" (It is illegal to cross a salmon stream.) "There's salmon in there." "The bridge could hold that machine." When they picked up the guy who had been driving ahead of them in the river (another no-no) in the four-wheeled Mule with the bucket of the excavator the tone changed. "Someone could get killed," "They are really crazy." "What are they doing?" Luckily there was a commercial and we calmed down. The hour was almost up. They managed to drive the sizable convoy down Porcupine Road and easily roll over the very small bridge to their claim with no drama at all and without showing the Schnabel's substantial log cabin and gold mining operation in the background, which was too bad, we had hoped to see John welcoming them to the neighborhood. The last line, delivered as the Hoffmans and friends look out across the melting spring snow to the mountains- "It's beautiful here, I've never seen anything like it"-- was greeted with applause.  That much about Gold Rush Alaska is true. The best part of the show, we agreed, was the scenery. But we are biased. Like all good drama,  Gold Rush Alaska managed to make folks who know better willingly suspend disbelief. (Or perhaps we never believed there was anything "real" about the show except Haines in the first place. Perhaps even the river crossing was as staged as the bridge crossing.) Kim summed up our reaction best when she said, "That was entertaining. But what are other people thinking?" I'm sure we'll find out sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we have a date to watch episode 2.




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