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Inspired by 'Bering Sea Gold,' potential prospectors eye Alaska

Ben Anderson
Bering Sea Gold photo

People who want to earn a fortune mining gold have long been drawn to Alaska in hopes of making their dreams come true, but a recent spate of reality shows, "Gold Rush: Alaska" and "Bering Sea Gold," have sparked renewed interest in mining and prospecting. Some who watch the finale of "Bering Sea Gold" on Friday night may find themselves looking north for more gold-mining experience -- this time in real life instead of reality TV. 

But there are a lot of reasons that the dream of gold in the Last Frontier is not one to be taken lightly, and state officials are trying to remind potential prospectors struck with gold fever that mining is no simple proposition.

In the early part of the 20th century, thousands of get-rich-quickers descended on the Northwest Alaska town of Nome, hoping to hit it big in the midst of a gold rush prompted by an offshore strike in the shallow waters of the Bering Sea. The population swelled to about 20,000 with a tent city, pitched on the beach and populated by "prospectors, gamblers, claim jumpers, saloon keepers and prostitutes."

By 1910, the rush had died down and Nome's population had leveled off to less than 3,000. Today, it sits at about 3,700. Those longtime residents of Nome would likely prefer to avoid another population boom like the one in the early 1900s -- not that there's enough gold to go around nowadays, anyway.

With the sudden resurgence of interest in Alaska gold, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources included a disclaimer on its homepage redirecting anyone curious about mining for gold in Nome to a notice informing them that there are no offshore mining leases currently available in the city.

"The DNR had an offshore lease sale at Nome last fall in 2011," the notice reads. "The Discovery Channel was at the Lease Sale. The DNR will likely not have another lease sale offshore of Nome until these leases expire in 2021. Gold claims cannot be acquired offshore of Nome, only leases in specific areas are ever issued."

According to Kerwin Krause, manager of the Division of Mining, Land and Water with the DNR, the office has been fielding a large number of calls from curious fortune-seekers, typically on Mondays since the show airs on Friday evenings. The number of callers inspired by "Bering Sea Gold" declined from several dozen per day when the series first began, Krause said.

"That's kind of tapered off," he said. "We had altogether, I would say, several hundred inquiries when the program first aired."

Krause said that many of the people calling have numerous misconceptions about mining for gold in Alaska, in particular the fact that there are no more leases for sale. Krause said that only a few tracts aren't locked into a single owner for the 10-year lease period, expiring in 2021.

"We had several bidders who we deemed not to be qualified, so there was an appeal associated with that." he said. "There were 84 tracts that we had in the lease sale, and approximately 12 of those are in limbo (while they are appealed)."

Mostly, DNR has been urging people to do more research before "jumping in with both feet," Krause said.

"People have been checking things out, you know, there's a lot to look at," he said. "Acquiring a right to get the permits, the associated costs of getting everything up there -- a lot of people don't have a clue as to what type of mining apparatus they'd like to employ and how to go about it."

It's a risky proposition. Over the years, Krause said, there have been a lot of people approaching it in the same way who've lost a lot of money and had little or no success actually mining for gold.

DNR isn't alone fielding calls, either. Alaska Mining and Diving, which sells mining and other outdoor recreational equipment, has a similar redirect from its homepage with a wealth of information for the gold fevered. There are also numerous threads in the Alaska Mining and Diving Forums that specifically address those whose interest has been piqued by reality TV.

Fittingly, the expert advice there provides a reality check for wannabe miners.

"Many people show up here with good river dredges, but the dredge can't handle the ocean and they either fail or have much fewer dredging days," one Nome gold miner says in this thread. "People that don't do their research rarely do well here. Most first year dredgers get less than 1 (ounce Troy) the whole summer. The ones that spend less than $20K tend to do better than the ones that spend over $200k for their first year."

DNR doesn't keep statistics on how much gold miners pull out of the ground or the seabeds -- such information is voluntary. Perhaps it goes back to the original gold rush days when a successful claim was something to be coveted and protected. Whatever the reason, Krause said it's difficult to determine how well a single miner might be doing.

Additionally, the price of gold, which has been rising for several years now, has made mining more lucrative even for small amounts. As of Friday afternoon, gold was selling for a whopping $1,659 per ounce. That, Krause said, has improved profit margins for miners and led to increased interest -- and was part of what spawned last summer's lease sale.

"We suspect that some guys are doing pretty well who have been there several years and have fine-tuned their operation to the point where they're making a profit," Krause said.

Others may not be doing quite as well, though, and that's evident even from watching "Bering Sea Gold." The show's website keeps a running tally of how much the miners have made so far in the series, and the discrepancy between the more skilled miners versus the less experienced is wide. Through seven episodes of the show, one crew had pulled in a whopping 600 ounces of gold, equivalent to more than $1 million. On the other end of the spectrum was a mining outfit that collected less than an ounce of gold, or about $1,200 worth.

But that high price of gold is likely enough to lure some people who want to throw caution to the wind and show up in Nome, like the old days, hoping to make their fortune. Krause said DNR hopes to have an agent in Nome monitoring activity this summer, something the agency has never had in the past.

Meanwhile, those who have a gold itch that just can't be scratched and want to gain experience in mining can apply for a seasonal position with a larger gold mining operation like NovaGold, which has numerous land-based holdings in Alaska, though there are no guarantees of employment.

There are also two recreational mining areas with restrictions on what kind of equipment can be used. Plans are in the works for a public campground this coming summer, which would be another first for Nome. Krause said that some people who come up for the summers bring their equipment in a 20-foot trailer, then spend the season living in it.

There are properties for anyone who longs for more creature comfort, though this latter-day gold rush is affecting the real estate market as well. Melissa Ford, a Realtor in Nome, said she's received numerous calls from interested prospectors. Ford said Nome's rental market is already tight because of a hospital construction project currently under way in the city.

Some people suggest they'd be willing to live in a bus, just like one of the "Bering Sea Gold" miners. Ford described such a living situation as "totally illegal."

Others might be more interested in long-term investments, though. Ford said she'd sold seven residential lots to buyers who hadn't even visited, pre-purchase.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com