High prices and reality TV start another Nome gold rush

Tyler Rhodes/For the Journal

NOME — For what seems like the 40th day in a row, wind-blown rain pelts the streets and buildings of Nome while large surf pounds beaches that normally see only modest waves.

On a calmer day, an army of floating contraptions would be scattered across the swath of sea fronting Nome. Tethered to each craft, divers would normally be plying the ocean floor for gold.

On this blustery Saturday in mid-August, however, the divers are all on land and the hodge-podge flotilla of vessels are nearly stacked on top of each other in Nome’s harbor as they wait out the storm. Several weeks of rainy and windy weather has foiled many camping trips and outdoor projects on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Perhaps none are as frustrated, however, as the large contingent of men in Nome who are counting on calm waters so they can seek their paychecks from the seabed.

This summer has drawn to Nome an unusually large number of miners who operate ocean-going dredges of varying shapes, sizes and seaworthiness. The vessels range from small platforms just big enough to hold a dredge pump to crafts that look like houseboats. Some are pleasure boats repurposed for mining while many others appear to owe their existence to a trip to the scrapyard.

But they all have one thing in common: they are designed to allow a diver to essentially vacuum gold off the floor of the Bering Sea.

The new arrivals to Nome have invested heavily to get themselves and their dredges here to take a stab at striking it rich. Every day of bad weather is a missed chance to recoup those expenses—building a dredge is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars—not to mention making any sort of profit.

A mass of miners

The number of dredges working off of Nome’s beaches has steadily increased over the past few years as gold prices took a steep climb and have remained well above the $1,000-per-ounce mark amid worldwide financial turmoil. As of Aug. 18, Nome Harbormaster Joy Baker reported a total of 81 ocean-going dredges in the City of Nome’s port.

But gold prices alone did not spur the modern-day rush Nome has seen this year. The deluge of dredgers in 2012 can be traced to one of the best current mediums of advertising — reality television.

Whether they have prospected for years or had only previously searched for gold in a jewelry store, nearly every newly arrived miner cites the Discovery Channel program Bering Sea Gold as the spark that set them on a course for Nome. The reality series chronicling the exploits of dredge operations in Nome began airing in January to an audience of more than 3.5 million viewers. Almost immediately the calls and e-mails asking how to get in on the rush began pouring into the city and visitor’s bureau offices.

The program’s winter airing gave the newest crop of gold-seekers time to plot a new adventure in the north. It also gave the City of Nome and other entities the opportunity to gird themselves for the influx.

“We prepared heavily for the miners’ arrival,” said Nome’s City Manager Josie Bahnke.

Working with state and federal agencies, the city developed plans to try and avoid conflicts at the port, minimize impacts on city services, and provide miners with information on everything from permits and regulations to the location of grocery stores and accommodations.

Perhaps one of the largest factors in easing the impacts of a crush of new arrivals — many of whom stepped off the jet with not much more than a tent and a sense of adventure — was the creation of a camp on the outskirts of town.

Nome Gold Alaska Corp. developed the campsite on its land just to the west of Nome, providing sanitation and trash services. The camp echoes Nome’s beginnings when at the turn of the last century a flood of gold-seekers descended on the Bering Sea beaches, erected a tent city and chased fortune.

“The camp has worked out well,” Bahnke said.

The organized site has served a vital need. Even if many of the miners had wanted to rent a house or apartment, lodging has been squeezed tight in Nome for months. Nome has been bustling with construction activity on a new hospital, an elder-care facility, and road and airport work, all of which putting accommodations at a premium, if they are available at all.

Living the dream...in a tent

One of the inhabitants of this latest version of Nome’s tent city is 24-year-old Dale Wyant. After seeing Bering Sea Gold he decided to give Nome a try for himself.

“I sold my house and spent all my money,” he said.

The proceeds from selling the house went into a dredge and travel to Nome.

Still dressed in his blue work coveralls, Wyant chatted about his adventure as he and dozens of fellow miners — newcomers and veterans, alike — were enjoying the dry confines of Nome’s Old St. Joe’s Hall Aug. 18. Gold-buyer General Refining Corp. was hosting an appreciation dinner for a packed house.

Like many of the miners new to town this year, Wyant came with some skills already in his pocket.

“I’ve always had a gold dredge,” he said.

Even though his previous dredging experience was land-based, Wyant’s transition to the Bering Sea has gone well. He arrived in Nome on July 1 a few weeks ahead of his dredge and equipment. In that downtime, he worked on a fellow miner’s dredge and learned how to dive.

Others who have come to Nome this year have extensive diving backgrounds. Ted Danger — yes, that is his real name — hails from San Francisco but has spent years diving for lucrative sea cucumbers off Kodiak Island.

While the sea cucumbers may be more of a sure bet for income, Danger said he couldn’t resist the lure of gold.

“There’s more potential here,” he said. He said he and his partner, Zack Hammond, have had a good season so far with the dredge Mrs. Rumpelstiltskin.

Not all who have plied the waters this summer have hit paydirt. As the summer draws down, postings have appeared on message boards around Nome listing dredges and equipment for sale as some pack up and head for home. Others are pressing on, however, still hoping to see that first payday.

Such is the case for Mark Wideman, who voyaged with his 19-year-old son from the surf and sun of Kauai, Hawaii, to the less-than-tropical beaches of Nome. With signs of fall starting to creep into view, Wideman has yet to get a full day of dredging in this season.

“I can’t claim anything (gold) yet, but that’s OK. It will happen when it happens,” he said. “We just need more nozzle-time now.”

Wideman’s roadblocks have mostly been mechanical in nature. Dredge construction took much longer than anticipated and his first days out on the water were mostly spent tweaking systems and parts to get it to work properly. Despite all this, he has maintained a hang-loose attitude so far.

“I’m here for the experience. I need adventure,” he said. “I didn’t come here to stress.”

Nome bustles...for better and worse

The influx of so many new people in town has not come without pressure on the city’s infrastructure and services. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Port of Nome.

It’s approaching 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and Harbormaster Baker is still trying to get out of the office for the weekend. It likely won’t be long before she’s back at her desk.

“It’s been crowded at the harbor,” she said, offering what may be the understatement of the summer.

When the weather whips up the waves, as it was this Saturday afternoon, the port becomes a very popular place with dredges, fishing boats and other vessels retreating to the harbor for safety. More than half of the 150 vessels at the port are dredges.

“When the weather is decent and more than half the dredges are out working, it’s not bad,” Baker said.

But decent weather has been scarce the past few weeks, meaning there is little to no room at the inn. Many dredges are stacked tightly next to each other at anchor, and some have been moving farther and farther up the port-adjacent Snake River to find a spot to park. Baker said there are designs already in place for expanding the port, but like with all big projects it’s a question of resources.

“It’s all about funding,” she said.

The main impacts Baker has seen at the port this year are not necessarily specific to miners, but are those that come with having more traffic and use in general.

“Anytime you get a whole bunch of vessels in a small facility, there are the dribbles and the spills,” she said. “That has increased this year, and we’re trying to keep a handle on it.”

In addition to the port, City Manager Bahnke said the uptick in population this summer in Nome has made itself felt in other departments.

“At the beginning of the season, cabs were dropping people off at City Hall because they just didn’t know where to go or how to get permits,” she said.

In addition to playing the role of welcoming committee, Bahnke said the boom has resulted in more patrons at the museum and library, and a small bump in search and rescue activity.

“The building inspector has seen a lot of impact,” she said. “That may seem funny, but there have been questions over whether people are squatting in town or questions over tents on the beach.”

Bahnke is quick to point out that the influx of people, and the resulting impacts, are not all due to miners. In addition to the prospectors, a large contingent of construction works have also been in Nome for a wide range of building and repair projects.

Nome Police Chief John Papasodora echoed the same sentiments, noting upticks in calls and certain offenses like DUIs this summer. He said the increased activity for his department can be seen as a result of more people in general, regardless of what they came to Nome to do.

“We are not seeing specialized activity for mining,” Papasodora said, crediting Baker’s work at the port and the state Department of Natural Resources hiring a Nome citizen to act as a local agent.

On the upside for the city, Bahnke said she is anticipating strong numbers when the sales tax revenues from June and July are reported in the coming weeks. She noted that, in general, having more activity in Nome is a positive.

“There has been a lot of increased interest from around the state and world about Nome, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Nome Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Barb Nickels agrees. She noted that much of the apprehension experienced in Nome prior to the mining season has been for naught.

“Despite the fear that everyone had, it’s been a very nice summer of meeting people from all over through the visitor center and the chamber—people who have spent their money in town,” she said.

Nickels said that businesses selling hardware and the safety gear required for the vessels appear to have benefitted along with those catering to the general needs like food and supplies.

“The city’s tax coffers are growing. Many local merchants are doing well,” she said.

Those merchants are likely taking stock of what sold well this year just as the city and port are examining what may need to be tweaked to make for a smooth season next year. From all indications, a large number of the new miners will return as veterans next year with a whole new crop of gold-seekers in tow.

“With the amount I have invested, I need to come back next year,” said the eager, first-season miner Wyant. “But I will not be living in a tent; I will tell you that.”

Updated: 
11/11/2016 - 10:43am

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