If adventure begins where the pavement ends, then driving from the Lower 48 to the end of the Alaska Highway has to be the ultimate road trip.
And, what lies at the end of the road is a prospector’s paradise known as The Golden Heart City, about 100 miles shy of the Arctic Circle, where there is 24 hours of daylight on the summer solstice.
“I find Fairbanks to be Shangri-La,” said Craig Smith, an avid prospector who owns Pro Music Alaska, a music and mining store on the banks of the Chena River. “We’re at the end of the Alaska Highway, so you can drive here. You don’t have to take a plane, but you can fly in, too.”
Fairbanks is about 300 miles due east of Nome and about the same distance north of Anchorage.
“It can get up to 90 degrees in the summer, but usually 70 to 80,” he said. “The Interior region of Alaska is the largest gold-producing area in Alaska. There’s gold almost all over the state, but the Fairbanks area has produced more gold than anywhere else.”
So, if you’re hankerin’ for a road trip to moil for gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun, then mark Fairbanks, Alaska on your map.
But, before you pull up stakes and head north, there are a few more things you should know.
Smith likes to tell the story of the first gold discovery in the Fairbanks area by an Italian immigrant named Felice Pedroni, better known as Felix Pedro.
“The guy who discovered gold in this area—his name is Felix Pedro—and how it happened was he was up on what is now called Pedro Creek, and he shot a moose. And, when he was butchering the moose, he found a gold nugget stuck in its hoof. He backtracked to the closest stream, panned the gravels and discovered gold!” Smith said. “After that, the steamboats started coming up the Yukon River to the Tanana River and up the Chena River, and the town of Fairbanks was born.”
Deadwood Creek near Central, Alaska offers more than 36 mining claims spanning hundreds of acres that are open to members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.
Smith, who has served as the president of the Interior Alaska GPAA Chapter since its inception in 2013, knows the way there and what to expect. And, if you’re looking for prospecting advice, equipment and supplies, there’s no better friend to have near Fairbanks.
The claims are about eight miles away from the town of Central, which is 125 miles from Fairbanks. About 80 miles of the road to Central is paved and the next 45 miles is dirt.
The claims, which are all on Deadwood Creek, are listed as the Central Alaska Group in the GPAA Mining Guide, and are open to metal detecting, panning, sluicing, dredging, highbanking and trommels, Smith said.
“All of these methods have yielded gold for various people,” he said.
Prospecting began on Deadwood Creek in 1894, and from 1894 to 1906, 33,865 fine ounces of gold were mined. The stream hugs the east side of the valley with terraces on the west side. Gold can be found in the bench deposits on the west side of the creek, but the overburden is deep.
“The overburden can range from six to 20 feet to get down to bedrock in those benches,” Smith said.
In 1894, Deadwood Creek was known as Hog ’Em Creek because of the greedy nature of the creek discoverer, who attempted to claim up the whole creek under separate claims for all of his family members as well as some fictitious people. Hog ’Em Creek later became known as Deadwood Gulch and eventually as Deadwood Creek.
“The paystreak that runs through the area averages 175 feet in width,” Smith said. “The paystreak fans out as you come out of the hills.”
Though the creek was worked by a small bucket-line dredge from 1937 to 1938, there is still plenty of color to be found, Smith said.
“Back in 1896, it was said to yield two to three ounces of gold per man, per day. So, that means two to three ounces could be recovered by one man with a shovel and a sluice box in a 10-hour day,” Smith said. “And there are still virgin areas up there. They may not be as large, but they are still there.”
The overburden along Deadwood Creek ranges on average from about three to 15 feet, but there are some areas of exposed bedrock. Boulders are as much as a foot to three feet in diameter, he said.
“The bedrock is a Birch Creek Schist intruded with some granitic rocks and some mafic dikes, but mainly you’re looking at schist and granite. There are many quartz veins that contain gold. Gold is generally close to the bedrock. You can find gold three feet down into those granite cracks,” Smith said.
“The texture of gold is generally flaky and fine, but you can find half-ounce nuggets, no problem,” Smith said.
“I haven’t heard of a six-ouncer in a while, but I’ve heard of one-ounce and two-ounce nuggets. I haven’t found anything that big, but I’ve found lots of fines, flakes and small nuggets.”
And, if you’re into rockhounding and gems, you may also be in luck.
“In the gravels, you can see in the placer tourmaline, garnets, cinnabar and cassiterite and other gems,” Smith said.
North to Alaska
Smith, 49, first set foot in Alaska 30 years ago.
“I was 19 years old and I had two cents in my pocket ... that’s all I had left when I arrived in Alaska,” he said.
Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Smith studied Forestry Engineering at Paul Smith’s College, where he graduated summa cum laude, earning a scholarship to continue his studies wherever he wished. He had studied the organic side of life in forestry and decided he wanted to explore the inorganic—geophysics to be precise.
“I looked at several schools, including Harvard and Yale, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Alaska had the most money for research in geology,” he said. “Those other schools had money, but not as much as the University of Alaska.”
Smith, who had traveled to every state in the Lower 48, was intrigued by the opportunity to explore Alaska, and so he headed north.
“I came up here 30 years ago to study Geophysics at the university after finishing a Forestry Engineering degree,” Smith said.
Despite his impressive education and aptitude for higher learning, Smith soon realized that working for a big commercial outfit was not his calling.
‘You can change the world with a song’
“After college, I got a job working at a music store and then I ended up owning it,” he said. “Music is a way to cross all cultures and age groups to make a difference in the world faster. I wanted to make a difference. You can change the world with a song.”
But, music is not his only passion.
Smith admits he can barely remember a time when he didn’t have a bad case of gold fever, and has even attempted to share his affliction with his black lab, Raven.
“I’ve tried feverishly to teach her how to sniff for gold,” he said with a hearty laugh.
“Yeah, I have gold fever—no problem there. Oh yeah, and since I was pretty young,” Smith said. “I’ve been prospecting for the last 25 years. It’s just amazing when you can see a piece of gold that nobody has seen before and it shows up in the bottom of your pan.”
The first experience he had prospecting was using a Fisher Gold Bug, and his interest has grown from there.
Though Smith sometimes used to hike to various mountaintops to play his guitar, these days he’s more likely to be seen packing a gold pan to a stream. And, his fiancée, Cynthia, often accompanies him on his prospecting adventures.
Still, his passion for music remains as strong as the allure of gold.
Music and mining
While music and mining may not be the most likely blend for a business, Smith has done exactly that—combined musical instruments and mining equipment in his shop. For him, it’s perfect harmony.
Besides electric and acoustic guitars, drum sets, PA systems and music accessories, he sells mining equipment, such as Proline, Keene, Summit Mining and Jobe. He also carries Minelab and Fisher metal detectors and hopes to expand to carry Garret and White’s in the future.
Prospecting heritage and the GPAA
Smith said one of the main reasons he joined the GPAA and formed a local chapter in Fairbanks was to preserve the heritage of the prospecting lifestyle.
“I wanted to give back to the community and get more people out prospecting and educate them how to do it because it’s their right to do this,” he said.
Gold prospecting, he said, should be as common as football and baseball.
“We would not have opened the West of America if it wasn’t for gold mining, and we would not have Alaska if it wasn’t for the discovery of gold in the Yukon and then Alaska,” Smith said. “Obviously, Alaska was here and there were indigenous people, but it wouldn’t have been developed like it has been if it weren’t for the gold miners coming up here.”
Monthly GPAA chapter meetings are held at Pro Music Alaska—indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer.
“As a matter of fact, I can go grab a pan and show people gold from the river right in front of the store. It’s very fine fly poop, but it’s gold,” he said.
As president, Smith strives to make each meeting productive and worthwhile.
“There is an educational seminar at every meeting—how to metal detect, how to highbank, how to dredge, how to stake a claim, how to process concentrates and how to use Alaska Mapper,” he said
In the spirit of the ’49ers and Stampeders, Smith believes gold prospecting is an important part of North American heritage and a hands-on living legacy that should be passed down from generation to generation.
“Kids and families should be able to go out and experience what those people were doing. You’ve gotta give back in life and that’s what led me to starting the GPAA chapter. I just want to get people out and about, have some fun and keep things going for future generations,” Smith said.
That’s why he has extended an open invitation to all GPAA members to stop by his music and mining shop in Fairbanks this summer.
“If you stop in here and see me, I’ll tell you exactly where to look for gold out there,” Smith said.
“I’ll give you maps that show you where to camp, and I will orient you. I’m available all the time and I will give you personal guided information on where to go.”
Interior Alaska GPAA Chapter