Thursday, July 22, 2010

Road Trip 2010: Day 43 (Still) Fairbanks

This morning we all boarded a bus to take us Gold mining at the El Dorado Gold Mine. It’s a working mine that makes its money from a pretty rich vein of placer gold and an even richer vein of summer tourists.

When you arrive at the mine—located to the north of Fairbanks in Fox—you get on a narrow gauge train where Conductor Earl Hughes entertains with a few Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton songs before you head off for a quick tour that demonstrates the gold mining methods used at the turn of the century when the rush was on. The train takes you into a tunnel cut into permafrost where you hear from a miner about how they would locate a likely looking spot on the hillside, take a bore sample (either by driving a pipe or digging a vertical shaft) and, if they found some pay dirt, “dig” horizontally through the permafrost using steam. Back on the surface, you got a demonstration of how they would take the pay dirt from the earth and mound it into a massive pile of frozen muck all winter long. Then, once the ice melted, they would use the stream and creek water, gushing though gravity fed pipes, to wash the muck for the real deal—GOLD!

I hear the train a comin', a comin' round the bend...

Earl Hughes, conductor, entertainer

Down in a drift mine beneath/within the permafrost.

Solitary miner on along the creeks searches for his Bonanza

Using steam to do the work.

The boiler (the Dragon since it consumes so much wood--a cord a day!) and the engine (Donkey because it works only when it wants and is stubborn as hell!) were used in several ways. Steam from the boiler melted permafrost below so it could be dug out. The donkey hauled muck from down in the shaft to the heap all winter.

Disembarking from the train, you sit around a modern sluice box and get another demonstration of how they enrich their pay dirt today. Then a section of the sluice box is opened and the enriched pay dirt put into several pans which the current staff—high school students for the most part—demonstrate how to pan for gold.

The REAL gold mine!

Today, it's a matter of size. Bigger tools (like the backhoe) allow for bigger sluice boxes.

Modern sluice box

Still, the sluice only concentrates the pay dirt. It doesn't wash it clean completely. Some form of panning still needs to get done.

Concentrating the pay dirt in a sluice

Owners and one hired hand (the youngster) dish out the knowledge.

Then it’s your turn. You pick up your personal poke of enriched pay dirt and try your hand at washing it until you’ve got nothing but 21 karat gold. (If your pan comes up empty, they’ll even give you a second bag. They guarantee that you will find some gold! Of course they do. They want to sell you a locket to keep it in.) I barely managed to get enough gold flakes to NOT qualify for a second poke. Terry did slightly better in her pan and we pooled ours together to be assayed. We were told that we had about $10 worth of gold. (You can figure out how much that was if you remember that gold is currently about $1185 an ounce.) Terry spent $70 on a chain and locket to put our bonanza in and I through in another $6 for a hat pin, so the El Dorado did very, very well by us despite providing “free” coffee and cookies.

Bruce, Sue, Gene, Peggy and Terry prepare to try their luck.

Sue's pan shows some color.

Earl plays some Orange Blossom Special as we depart.

Terry's haul from the El Dorado

Putting it into perspective....

After our period of panning and shopping, we reboarded the train for a very short ride back to the parking lot and our waiting bus; which then took us over to the Alyeska Pipeline Visitors’ Center a few short miles on the road back toward Fairbanks. A few minutes there to learn about the use of pigs in the pipeline and we headed back to the campground in time for lunch and a free afternoon.

Essentially, a pig is a device sent through the pipe to either clean it out or detect flaws in the pipe and welding joints.

Pig in a pipe.

The Alyeska Pipeline (a bit further north than the road out of Valdez)

Terry and I finished a quick cup-o-noodles and drove off into Fairbanks to visit the Mushers’ Museum on 5th and Cushman, Then west to the store on University and College Avenues called Inua to see if they had raw qiviut (musk ox fur). Then we thought to visit Creamer’s Fields and do some bird watching. Unfortunately, while making the trip from the Mushers’ Museum to Inua along Airport Way, the skies opened up and it began to pour. When we turned north on University and got to College, the roads were dry, however and it looked like we had seen the last of the rain. Once in the Visitors’ Center at Creamer’s Field, it began to drizzle and then really pour. After waiting half an hour for it to stop—and watching several folks who had been on the trail come back all soaking wet—we decided to call it a day and headed back to the campground.

And I didn't take one photo! I figure I'll take enough tomorrow.

Besides, Terry and I have a separate tour (Arctic Circle Native Culture Adventure run by Northern Alaska Tour Company ) that starts over near the airport tomorrow at 5 AM and runs for God knows how long. First we drive north and across the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot. Then we fly even further north to Anaktuvak Pass in the Brooks Mountain Range before we fly back to Fairbanks. (Coldfoot alone is some 250 miles north of Fairbanks.) Our trip will take us on to the Dalton Highway and across the Yukon River. They estimate that we will return to Fairbanks around 8 PM.

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