Dreams of Dredgin’ in Alaska

Author: BRAD JONESMonday, March 3, 2014

Dreams of Dredgin’ in Alaska

Categories: Alaska

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By Brad Jones

It’s no wonder that Gold Fever host Tom Massie often waxes philosophic about the joy of dredging for gold on Arctic Creek in Alaska. Just ask dredge masters Larry Dodge and Brian Henry at the GPAA’s Dredge Camp and they’ll tell you the feeling just can’t be beat. It’s a natural high.

Last summer, I escaped Southern California’s oppressive heat by heading to the beaches of Nome. After spending a few days at Cripple River Mining Camp, my spirit of adventure got the best of me. To make the most of the experience, I decided to venture into the hinterland. With Dodge in the lead, we set out for Dredge Camp, an eight-mile ride across the tundra on four-wheel drive ATVs.

As we left the main camp on the shores of the Bering Sea, 12 miles west of Nome near the Arctic Circle and beyond the treeline, there was nothing to obstruct our view — the Great Wide Open, spectacular, scenic and serene. The tundra was as green as an artist’s painted canvas, dotted with the vivid colors of wildflowers. The northern Pacific wind soon dissipated as we headed inland, giving the canvas the breath of life. The smell of fresh rain on the tundra flooded my senses. Yes, it was real. It was the True North that I had not seen in more than 40 years since I was a just a boy living on the coast of Hudson Bay in Canada.

Yet, this was Alaska, close to the Yukon and the poetry of Robert W. Service I had often heard on my father’s vinyl records. While I had been north, I had never set foot in the Yukon or Alaska. I have seen polar bears, seal, ptarmigan, muskoxen, beluga whales and walruses, but I had never seen the Klondike, where the Gold Rush happened. Now, I had. It was everything I had imagined — the Land of the Midnight Sun.

As we crossed rivers and streams and meandered down the muddy trail through the tundra, we came across a participant, Greg Even, who had gotten bogged down in the mud and was now stuck. He had his hand on his gun and was nervously looking around for grizzly bears as we approached. The two of us were a welcome sight and Dodge and Even quickly freed his ATV from the grips of the tundra.

After encountering an amazing sight of a skulk of foxes that had denned into a brush-covered hillside, we eventually arrived at the Dredge Camp.

“It’s probably about 45 minutes if you are taking it easy and it’s been done a lot quicker,” said Dodge, as he stepped off his quad.

We were greeted by Brian Henry, who was grateful for the fresh supplies Larry had brought from main camp and was quick to brew some coffee on the gas stove in the hooch.

Dredge Camp

Dredge Camp is tucked away in a valley where you can hear Arctic Creek babbling as if to beckon you with its gold and pristine natural splendor.

It is here than many a dredger has been born. The whole purpose of the camp is to teach participants how to use a small-scale suction-dredge to mine for gold Ñ and, of course, give them a chance to add some color to their pokes. Dredging offers a different perspective for gold prospectors who may have drywashed in the desert, used a highbanker or panned for gold along a river or stream, but have never gone underwater to search for it.

Today’s dredges are not the gargantuan wooden bucket-line dredges used in the days of old, but are much more environment-friendly, compact aluminum mini-dredges that one or two people can operate. For safety reasons, dredges are best operated by two people.

Five four-inch dredges are available for participants at the camp, which offers overnight accommodations for up to about eight people at a time. There are sleeping quarters for several more in what is known as the Blue Room.

“There is no stove in it, but the esthetics are really nice,” Dodge said.

 “It’s like being outside on a sunny day since there is a blue tarp for a roof,” Henry added.

Some participants choose to come for week, others for three days or less. It all depends on their spirit of adventure, the weather, condition of the trail and whether they are willing to give up some amenities of the main camp and venture out in a smaller group.

But those who do dare to dredge are seldom disappointed, Dodge said.

 “We teach them how to set up a dredge. They get their wetsuits on and we put them in a hole if there is one already started by someone else. They get into the water and we don’t see them for hours. They love it,” he said.

“We had a gal come up here who just wanted to experience it. I put her on my dredge and she was like a fish to water. She just loved it,” he said.

The “gal” is none other than Tessa Ray, who won an Alaska Gold Expedition trip at the Gold & Treasure Show in Puyallup, Wash.

“Then we put her on a six-inch dredge and we couldn’t get her out of the water! She was just under there loving it,” he said.

If you enjoy being around rivers and streams, don’t mind getting wet and hauling a small dredge, you may prefer dredging to other methods of  gold prospecting, Henry said.

“If you are a water person, you’ll love dredging in the water and prospecting,” Henry said.

The first lesson is getting new divers familiar with breathing through the Hookah apparatus, an air compressor that supplies air to divers, though dredgers rarely dive more than a few feet under the surface.

“Anybody can use a snorkel, but once you get comfortable underwater with the air, then it’s a whole different world down there,” he said. “You’re not thinking about breathing. You’re not thinking about anything but the nozzle and sucking up rocks and hopefully some gold! That’s what we are looking for! Yeah!”

From the moment Dodge first donned a wetsuit and tried dredging, he was hooked and has returned to the camp every year for a decade.

Besides, Dredge Camp, there are two other outer camps: Creosus and Ketchmark.

“I used to go to Ketchmark. I used to go there all the time and then a dredge crew member was driving through here going to the trommel and he said, ‘Man, you gotta try it!’”

So, the next year, I brought a wetsuit and came up as a participant. They put me on a dredge and then they let me run the 8 (eight-inch dredge) for a two-hour shift. If you did that, they would give you a Dredge Hog hat.

Corey Rudolph, one of the original prospectors who helped build the Cripple River Mining Camp out of the tundra, was a dredge master and had made it a tradition to hand out the honorary hats to anyone who could handle a two-hour stint on the eight-inch dredge, Dodge explained.

“I ran the 8 for two hours and loved it. Then, the next year I came up as a crew member. I was working at the time, so I took vacation and I could only come up for three weeks. I did that until I retired and then I got on the crew for the whole season,” Dodge said.

Dodge, 61, was an American Airlines mechanic and inspector for 23 years before taking early retirement and following his dreams. What really triggered his decision was the sudden realization that life is short Ñ and shorter for some than others.

“A good friend of mine died at 56. He was just recently retired and had everything in front of him and died. So, I figured I’m going to enjoy life while I can. My kids were all grown and out of the house. I took early retirement just so I could do this,” he said.

Dodge has never looked back and neither has Henry.

“We’ve got guys up here in their 70s like this guy, Howard Casner, who used to run the dredge crew. He was 75 and would put 60 pounds of weights on,” Dodge said.

Henry, 65, has been going to Cripple River Mining Camp since 1988. His father, Henry Henry, was an avid prospector and close friend of GPAA founder, George “Buzzard” Massie.

Henry Henry may be best known for his invention, a small-scale mining cleanup machine that uses corrugated sewer pipe as riffles. It is fondly known as the “Henry Henry Poop Tube” and is still used at the camp today.

“My dad was 83 when he died and he was up here every year, even the last year. The first year was ’88,” Henry said. “I was always on the supply crew because Dad was head of supplies. I was in the camp with him and had a great time.”

Not yet retired, Brian couldn’t make it to Alaska every season and had to stay south in California, but so far he has spent about 10 summers in Alaska.

When his father passed away, Brian continued to head north in the summer. Like Dodge, he had been to the outer camps but had never paid much attention to Dredge Camp.

Then, as fate would have it, Rudolph met his future wife, Lindsey Henry, who is Brian’s cousin. Learning that Brian is an experienced scuba diver, Rudolph invited him out to the Dredge Camp.

“That was in 2007 and I just fell in love with it. Once you get on the 8, you’re just spoiled. I have a 4 , Larry has a 4, 6s are great and we’ve got them all, but I’m telling you the 8 is like a roller coaster ride. It is the very best. So, we’d like to get it going again in the future,” Henry said.

Participants currently learn on a four-inch dredge which is recommended for beginners.

“The participants use 4s. There are a couple private 6s, but there are no 6s for the participants,” Dodge said.

Not everyone can handle the 8, he explained.

“If someone is really interested, that’s how we get crew members. They want to try it and we let them try it. We’ve had quite a few come up, get on the crew and then bust out because they couldn’t run the 8 — couldn’t get it in the water. Big guys, too. Amazing,” Dodge said.

Henry, who hails from California, is a natural in the water. He has been diving since he was 17 and often “free dives” with just a snorkel for abalone, a type of sea snail.

“It’s a West Coast thing. It’s a big mussel that is pretty good tasting. I dive for them in northern California in the ocean. I’m from Santa Rosa which is 60 miles above San Francisco and about 20 miles from Bodega Bay. We’d surf the two-foot waves at Bodega Bay.”

Tom waxes poetic

Besides dredging in Arctic Creek, Tom Massie has been known to frequent Cripple River Mining Camp’s Saloon on Friday nights after and wax poetic from time to time.

What Henry remembers most about those Friday nights is Massie reciting the poetry of Robert W. Service. One poem in particular, Spell of the Yukon, may sum it up best:

“It’s about a guy who got a bunch of gold up north,” Henry said.

“He talks about how terrible the weather is and this godforsaken country. He went back south to live the highlife, but always wanted to come back up north. It wasn’t for the gold; it was for this country — this godforsaken, ice-cold country.”

Call of the Wild

Dodge lives in Oklahoma but is originally from the east coast and his lingering accent is hard to mistake for any other than New York.

“When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I used to read a lot and I used to read the Jack London books about Alaska and that always stuck in my head,” he said.

Later, he moved to the Midwest.

“All I could do is read the magazines and look at the shows on TV ’cause I lived in Oklahoma and there’s no gold. Finally, I did the Motherlode Expedition and I met the Buzzard in ’92.”

Still, he had never been to Alaska. Almost a decade went by and Dodge kept telling himself, ‘I’m going to do it!’ ”

Not long after the dawn of the new millennium, Dodge decided there was no more time to waste.

“I came up here and I fell in love with the country and the people. It’s like a Jack London book. I’m living it — in a hooch with a woodstove and out on the tundra in the middle of Alaska — a dream come true,” Dodge said.

Henry and Dodge both spoke highly of Ralph Rogers, who was part of the dredge crew for years and has mentored many on the art of dredging.

“I’m working on Ralph’s 6-inch dredge and he is probably in the best spot for gold. I mean, there is gold all up and down this creek, but it’s fine gold and you have to punch a hole down about five feet to get to the bedrock,” Dodge said. “If you’re lucky, because you don’t know what’s down there, you can hit a pocket or a paystreak and you’ll get coarser gold, bigger gold!”

Rogers, who is also known now as the camp’s chief goldsmith and jewelry maker, has been dredging the same stretch of creek for a decade.

“I work on his dredge during the week. Ralph is real good about that. He comes up on the weekends and uses his dredge, but the rest of the time it would be sitting idle.”

Getting hooked

As much as both dredge masters like to satisfy their own gold fever, they love to sit back and watch the gold bug bite. While most greenhorns are nervous at first, it isn’t long before most learn to immerse themselves in the experience and enjoy it.

“They are kinda apprehensive and don’t know what to expect, but once they get underwater and do it, they come up with this big smile on their faces and they’re hooked. We know they are hooked because we got hooked.”

Family within a family

While it’s often said there is sense of family among gold prospectors, dredgers are a family within the family.

“That is the big deal — friends. At camp, 90 percent of the people are a real tight-knit group and it’s family. It’s been family with and without Dad. That was the thing with Dad Ñ more than anything, the love for the outdoors. And, if you want the outdoors, this is it. When you are working, you can’t do this. So, you do it when you can,” Henry said.

Dodge concurred.

“It’s like a fraternity and we just welcome another person into it. There is nothing better that seeing someone start a new part of their life,” he said.

The gold

For Dodge, finding gold is only half the fun; the other half is just being in a wetsuit underwater searching for it. To him, it’s more about pursuing his fervor for adventure than gold fever.

“For me, it’s being underwater. It’s the act of doing it, but they are both intertwined. I probably got more gold two years ago working Ralph’s 6, than I got in the whole eight years before. It’s a learning experience and I finally got on a good dredge in a good spot so I was getting more gold. That’s the first time I ever really got some gold to speak of.

“When we ran the 8 two years ago, we had four guys for the whole season and we worked all day in two-hour shifts and then you tended for another two hours for another diver. I think we got three ounces. But, when we worked with the 4 down the creek, they hit a paystreak. We did the cleanup and we ... always had nuggets,” he said.

“We had this 16-year-old kid in the miner’s moss and his whole job was picking out little pickers and all you would hear is clink, clink, clink every time he would pan out. They said we were getting a pound to two pounds of gold per week, so they were doing really well,” Dodge said.

And, of course, everyone who has ever been to Cripple River has heard about Chip Yorde’s Holy Cow! Nugget, which was featured in the January/February issue of Gold Prospectors.

“Chip, the cook, got a big one-ounce nugget that came from here,” he said.

“We do it to find gold and you always have that feeling that you might hit it rich or find a good deposit. My best year, I got an ounce-and-a-quarter and that was three weeks using Ralph’s dredge in a good area. I’ve never sold any of my gold.”

Still, gold is where you find it and no matter how knowledgeable you are about prospecting, dredgers —like all gold prospectors — cannot be certain whether they will find nuggets or come up empty-handed.

That’s just the way it is in the world of gold prospecting — sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. It’s the luck of the draw, as they say in poker, but the game is not left up to chance alone. The more you know, the better your odds will be of finding gold. In that sense, you make your own luck. And, with today’s technology — metal detectors, GPS and suction dredges — your odds just keep getting better.

Pristine beauty

“There was a big storm last week and it was just pouring rain. We were walking through the willows down to the creek to make sure one of the dredges was OK and I said, ‘Who’s got it better than us?’ Here we are out in the middle of this violent storm, wet all the way to our necks and just loving it,” Henry said.

Besides breathtaking scenery along Arctic Creek and all its pristine splendor, Dodge and Henry enjoy seeing the wildlife in Alaska.

Whether it’s foxes, moose, muskoxen or grizzlies, there is plenty of wildlife to be seen.

“One time we were sitting out on the porch at my hooch panning and talking. We heard a BOOM! BOOM! It was a moose that came running down the creek with a baby moose and a bear chasing it,” Dodge said.

Twilight trails

As I jumped on my quad to venture back to the mouth of Cripple River, I got the feeling I would return to Dredge Camp someday — possibly with a thick wetsuit and a “worse” case  of gold fever.

A few miles down the trail, a mama moose and her yearling appeared on the hillside. I stopped for a moment, shut off my engine and stood in the silent stillness to relish the spectacular sight. I caught myself glancing over my shoulder to check for bears, then grinned and headed back towards camp. In my excitement, I had missed grub time at the Grizzly Bears Chow Hall, but gladly grabbed a couple cans of beans off the shelf and headed to my hooch after a long, satisfying day on the trail.

Unforgettable adventure

Recently, I called GPAA member Tessa Ray in Auburn, Wash. and asked her about her experience.

“I was so excited, I went the first week,” she said. “It was awesome. People were so genuine and friendly.”

Besides learning how to dredge and enjoying the underwater experience, Ray went home with more than a half-ounce of gold in one week. Now, she is looking forward to the day when she can return to Cripple River and Arctic Creek with her husband, Todd, and their five-year-old daughter, Jillian, who is not yet old enough to make the trip. In the meantime, the Rays are busily prospecting and panning for gold in the Lower 48. They’ve been members for about three years and have enjoyed every minute of it.

“I have been diggin’ up here in Snoqualmie on Gold Creek,” she said.

Todd, who is vice-president of the Auburn GPAA chapter, has been teaching her more gold prospecting techniques and Ray has been avidly watching Gold Fever and Alaskan on Outdoor Channel.

“I have been watching all of the shows on TV,” she said.

Although she had been to the most northern state before going on the Alaska Gold Expedition to Cripple River, Ray had never mined for gold there and, by all accounts, it was a journey she will never forget.

“Everyone was a hoot!” she said. “It was so much fun. I had the best adventure.”

Brad Jones is the Managing Editor/Communications Director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America. He can be reached at bjones@goldprospectors.org.

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