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Digging for Gold

A Draft Book Chapter, Annotated


By Bill Streever

 

Writers work instinctively, at least in early drafts. With that in mind I sometimes review my own work, asking various versions of one basic question: “Why did I write it like that?”

Here, I share a few annotations addressing that basic question for the first chapter of a book project that currently rests quietly, in suspension. The book’s working title is Digging Gold: A Dark Obsession with an almost Useless Yellow Metal. Just as my bestselling book Cold was about all things cold and my award-winning book Heat was about all things hot, Gold is about all things gold. But it is also about the environmental costs of mining and the growing tendency for society to reject major resource development projects, regardless of their economic value.

Annotations similar to those that appear here could appear with a chapter from Cold or Heat. In all of my writing, the same instincts are at play. This is important. These instincts define what has been called my “signature style.” Other writers, using annotations to understand their own work, might start to recognize their own signature styles, and in so doing they might learn about themselves from themselves.

 

In Snow

 

            Gold mining, at its core, requires digging. It requires digging through loose sand. It requires digging through tightly packed soil and gravel. It requires digging through solid rock. In this case, it requires digging through twelve feet of snow.[1]

This is not loose snow, but snow turned to ice. This is snow imitating concrete. A hard blow with a heavy shovel chips away a quarter inch. A pick would be more effective, but today we have no picks. Dynamite would be a welcome commodity, but today we have no dynamite.[2]

            The three of us[3] labor in a setting that could grace the cover of a calendar. We work near the bottom of an alpine valley an hour south of Anchorage, part of what has been known, since 1896, as the Crow Creek Mine. Just upslope from our growing pit, willow thickets lay bent under the weight of snow. Twenty feet farther upslope, scattered spruce stand with drooping boughs. A few hundred feet higher, trees yield to steep open slopes. And a thousand feet up those slopes, a deep blue sky meets the sharp white peaks of mountains in winter.[4]

But make no mistake about it, the beauty of the setting is heavily tarnished by our shovels. Many mines sit in stunningly beautiful settings, but in the eyes of miners that beauty is heavily tarnished by shovels. The beauty of gold itself suffers from memories of shovels.[5]

We are not, at this moment, digging for gold.[6] Instead, we dig for a gold dredge that lies buried, we think, under these twelve feet of snow. The dredge was left here, secured to scrubby willows growing above a creek bed, as a matter of convenience. The dredge was stored here without realization that it would have to survive record snow falls.

It is a small dredge, seven feet long by four feet across, nothing more than two pontoons and a frame that holds a gasoline-powered pump and some short hoses. It is not the sort of dredge used by professional miners.[7]

And we are not professional miners. The two men who labor at my side are amateur miners. They have day jobs. Miner Sean works in an office tower and Miner Brian works in an automobile body shop. On weekends they search for and occasionally find gold. And I am not a miner at all, neither professional nor amateur, unless one counts the mining of words.[8]

Despite their amateur status, the two miners know the ground under this snow. They have mined it, on and off, for four years.

The ground under this snow, the ground on which the miners left their dredge before the snow fell, the ground that is the target of their auriferous[9] ambitions, is ground that has been mined to a fault. It is ground that has been dug up, run through a gold-trapping sluice box, and redeposited.

When the snow is gone, the now buried creek that runs next to their dredge will look like a work of nature, but it is in fact a work of man.[10] White water will flow through the creek, curving around boulders, pausing to fill gravel-bottomed pools, falling down ten foot cataracts, at times roaring and at other times gurgling, but at all times looking, to the untrained eye, perfectly natural.

In fact, the creek that was here before miners showed up in 1896, the creek that nature put here, flowed fifty feet above our heads.[11] Miners stripped away the higher ground, removing gold, and the creek landed here, beneath this snow. This creek is an artifact of mining, all of its rocks and gravel and sand deposited by miners. And yet, it remains full of gold. Or at least there remains enough gold to attract amateur miners, and to inspire them to dig for their dredge with the hope that it can be found, intact, and put to work. Because within weeks, well before all of the snow is gone, the creek will break up. Its ice will become liquid. The creek will flow again.

If things go well Miner Brian and Miner Sean[12] will be in its icy water, pushing their dredge’s suction nozzle here and there, sucking up rocks and gravel and sand, unearthing gold. They will find gold that their predecessors missed.[13]

During the California mining boom of 1849, the word “auriferous” was in common usage.[14] It meant “gold bearing.” Auriferous sand was gold bearing sand. Auriferous rock was gold bearing rock. A gold pan filled with pay dirt—the kind of dirt in which nuggets and flakes of gold abound—could be called an auriferous pan. A successful prospector would not be insulted if called an auriferous man.

Gold mining, over the millennia during which it has been practiced, has tunneled into an auriferous lexicon.[15] Dollying refers to the grinding of rock. A coyote hole is a shallow hole. A Mother Lode is a rich vein or veins of auriferous quartz. A vein is a deposit of minerals or metals that did not originate as sedimentary rock. Color could be gold that found its way from a vein into a creek bed. A portal is a mine entrance, which might lead to an adit, which is a horizontal tunnel, which might intersect a drift, which is a tunnel that follows a vein. A claim jumper is, well, a claim jumper.[16]

There is the phrase “dead time.” A successful prospector, having found a promising place to dig, would need a place to stay. He—almost invariably he—might spend a day or a few days or even a week building a tiny cabin. Those days were resented. They were of no value in that they moved no dirt. The building of a cabin might be necessary but in itself offered no possibility of color. The time spent building a cabin was dead time. The time spent hunting food, as many miners were forced to do, was dead time. The time spent caring for the pack animals and cutting firewood and cooking was dead time. The time spent digging a gold dredge out of the snow is dead time.[17]

After three hours of digging, it is no longer possible to throw snow to the top of the hole. We cut two tall steps leading out of the hole. Miner Brian in the bottom shovels snow to the first step. Miner Sean on the first step shovels snow to the second step. I shovel snow from the second step to the growing pile that surrounds the hole.[18] We occasionally change positions.

At its bottom, the hole is three feet in diameter. It is barely wide enough to operate a short-handled shovel. Standing erect at the bottom of the hole, the digger’s eye encounters a wall of snow. From outside, the digger in the bottom of the hole is entirely invisible. Conservatively, the hole is now nine feet deep.[19]

Muscles ache. Stomachs growl. We stop to eat.

Clouds blow across the sky above us. Snow flakes fall. Mountain tops disappear and reappear and disappear again. When it is clear, it is possible to count five avalanche shoots from where we stand—steep narrow gulleys on the slopes, conduits for the sudden movement of snow by the megaton.[20] One of the shoots is positioned such that it could send snow as far as our pit. If we were worriers, we might worry now about the possibility of a slide. We might worry that an avalanche, at the wrong moment, could send a wave of moving snow down a narrow shoot and into our section of the valley floor, burying our pit and our tools and ourselves.

But there is little risk. The weather conditions—cold and no more than a gentle wind and months since the last rain—favor stability. And this shoot has already shed its load at least once. Some of the snow through which we dig is avalanche snow, snow that rolled down the mountain in chunks before landing here, on top of the dredge.

The miners worry that the dredge may be ruined. Burial by falling snow would not do much damage, but burial by sliding snow could leave behind a twisted mess.

This is not just a matter of getting the dredge back up. “There’s a gold rush on,” Miner Sean says.

And from Miner Brian: “The economy is bad, and the price of gold is high. People read about gold in Alaska or they see a reality show and they head north.”

With all this interest in gold, buying parts for a damaged dredge or buying a new dredge entails a certain amount of unwanted dead time.[21] The mining season is short, bookended by snow and ice but also interrupted by high water through part of the summer. The gold itself, and the timing around the retrieval of that gold, incentivizes the miners. It incentivizes them to the point at which they are out here with shovels on a weekend day, trying to dig out a dredge that might or might not be damaged, that might or might not be entirely crushed, that might or might not even be here on this spot where the miners decided to dig.[22]

Gold today traded at $1,666.21 per troy ounce.[23] A troy ounce of gold is just under one-tenth of a cubic inch in size. In other words, a troy ounce of gold, today worth $1,666.21, is smaller than a sugar cube.

The troy ounce is slightly heavier than the standard ounce, correctly known as the avoirdupois ounce. While a standard pound weighs sixteen avoirdupois ounces, it weighs slightly less than fifteen troy ounces.

A pound of gold would form a cube of just over one inch on each side. A ton of gold—an American ton, of two thousand pounds—would form a cube of about fourteen inches on each side. Pounded into the right shape, a ton of gold would fit inside of one slightly oversized but very heavy briefcase. Its value today: $48,597,790.56.[24]

Lunch is gone and the hole in the snow beckons, but we ignore it. We rest above its mouth.

Miner Sean and Miner Brian share tales of outsiders coming into Alaska and leaving after a day or two. Some of them come here, to Crow Creek Mine, spend a couple of summer days floundering in the mud, swatting mosquitoes, and head for home. Others go elsewhere to swat mosquitoes. They go to remote locations, which, to people today, means places that cannot be accessed by road. But remoteness as defined by the presence of a road says nothing about remoteness in the eyes of miners a hundred years ago. If a river flows nearby, someone has almost certainly dug, looking for color.

More often than not, the only color they found was the blood red of swatted mosquitoes.

 Miner Sean and Miner Brian know of a man who knew of a small stream in a mountain valley with a bed of rich dirt. How he knew they did not know.[25] But they know he loaded a hundred thousand dollars worth of mining equipment into a helicopter. He flew that equipment toward that lonely mountain valley. He found his valley, but his stream was gone, buried under a land slide. He swatted a few mosquitoes and then flew out, sans equipment. He had mined a valuable lesson.

But here is a promising fact: In 2009, at least 800,000 ounces of gold were plucked from Alaska ground. At today’s price, those 800,000 ounces were worth more than a billion dollars.

A less promising fact for independent miners: almost all of that gold came from two mines, both large, both commercially run. One is an open pit mine near Fairbanks named Fort Knox. The other, also near Fairbanks, is a tunnel mine, a mine into a Mother Lode,[26] named Pogo.

 Independent miners—miners working stream beds with small dredges of the sort buried in the snow, or occasionally working with caterpillar tractors, and even more occasionally with a hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment helicoptered into a remote valley—are smaller contributors.

Most amateur miners, armed with pans and sluice boxes and sometimes small dredges, produce little more than sweat and stories and a justification for being outside. They measure annual take in pennyweight. There are twenty pennyweight in a troy ounce. A miner worth five pennyweight is worth, at today’s price, $416.65. A year’s worth of his gold, en masse, would not make an impressive wedding band.

My miners do better than most of their peers. We talk about the previous season. Between them, Miner Sean and Miner Brian put in twenty-five days of labor along this creek, sometimes together, sometimes alone, sometimes with another partner. They do not tell me exactly how much gold they retrieved, but they confess that amateur miners, working hard and working smart, on a decent claim, might take something like eight ounces of gold. From that, they would have to deduct expenses—the cost of fuel, the cost of equipment, and a one-third cut for the owners of the claim, since they do own the claim on which they work. When the books are balanced, they might have earned something under thirty dollars an hour for their labor. From the auriferous lexicon, they are “making wages.”

But this does not take into account time spent learning the trade, or shopping for dredges, or digging dredges out of the snow. And it does not take into account that my miners do not sell their gold. They keep it squirreled away. It is far too valuable to sell.[27]

Most amateur miners do not do as well as my miners for one simple reason: they do not like to dig. From an unknown author: “Who want the treasures rare, gold nuggets small and big, must search with hope and ne’er despair, then dig and dig and dig.”[28]

There is also the problem of digging in the wrong place. In 1896, the same year in which the Crow Creek Mine was discovered, prospector and miner Joseph Colin Francis Johnson, who had nothing to do with finding the Crow Creek Mine, offered sound advice about locating meaningful quantities of gold. “Where it is,” he reported, “there it is.” To which he added a few words based on personal experience: “And where it is generally, there I ain’t.”[29]

But there are stories too of big finds, of men with almost no means stumbling upon fortunes of gold.[30] In 1896, when men found gold at Crow Creek, other men found gold on the Klondike. Forty-eight years earlier, gold had been found at Sutter’s Mill, in California. Two decades before that, the rush had been to northern Georgia. Three decades before that, it had been to Cabarrus County, North Carolina.

The United States was not unique. There was the Victorian rush in 1851 in Australia, the Central Otago rush in New Zealand in 1861, the Stikine rush in 1863 in British Columbia, the Kildonnan rush in 1869 in Scotland, the Pilgrim’s Rest rush in 1873 in South Africa, the Hungen rush in 1877 in Germany, the Kakamega rush in 1932 in Kenya.[31] Miners with peripatetic tendencies had more than enough encouragement to move at the first sign of a poor pan. They could keep moving even today, to join the rush in Mongolia in 2001, in the Apuí region of Brazil in 2006, in the Peruvian Amazon or parts of Columbia or parts of Honduras within the past few years. As well as parts of Alaska.

Most of the big rushes start with the discovery of placer gold, the kind of gold found at the Crow Creek Mine, gold entrained in sand and gravel, rather than gold trapped in veins surrounded by hard rock. The word “placer,” pronounced with a short “a” and rhyming with “passer,” comes to mining from Spanish. In Spanish, it refers to shoals or banks of unconsolidated sands and gravels. In the most successful placer mines, in the rare dirt that makes up the richest of pay zones, a single shovelful of unconsolidated sand might turn up a hundred flakes and a dozen small nuggets with a value, at today’s prices, of more than a thousand dollars.[32]

And, now and then, legendary nuggets show up in placer mines. The largest nuggets tend to be named. There is the Welcome Stranger Nugget, found in Victoria, Australia, in 1869, weighing 2,316 troy ounces. There is the Hand of Faith Nugget, also from Victoria, Australia, in 1980, weighing 876 troy ounces, found by a man with a metal detector. There is the Alaska Centennial Nugget that rolled off of the dirt pile in front of a bulldozer’s blade in 1998, weighing just over 294 troy ounces. There is the Anvil Nugget, also from Alaska, found in 1903 and weighing 182 troy ounces.

But stories of rare pay dirt and legendary nuggets do not move snow.[33] Miner Brian climbs back into the hole. With an avalanche probe—a long, thin pole, like a tent pole—he pokes into the snow at the bottom of our hole. Three feet down he hits something hard. He hits what he believes to be the dredge.

We dig.

Generally speaking, today’s gold rushes are not driven by new discoveries. They are driven by hard times and high prices.

In 1850, a troy ounce of gold was worth $18.93. In 1903, it was worth $18.95. In 1931 its value dropped to $17.06. In 1934, the value of that same troy ounce jumped to $34.69, and then stayed in the mid-thirty dollar range until 1969, when it reached $40. Over the next ten years its value grew seven fold. In 1980, a troy ounce sold for $615. But then its value dropped, falling below the $300 mark in the late 1990s. And then, as other investments grew shaky, as the financial world grew volatile, as respectable middle class workers joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed, gold spiked. Gold bought for $300 an ounce in 2001 could be sold for $1,666.21 today.[34]

That sort of price jump leads to gold rushes.

Today’s gold rushes are not the only gold rushes driven by high prices and hard times. Stephen Jacy, who claimed to have twenty-one years of mining experience, published Gold Prospecting (Quartz and Placer) in 1934. It has a blue paper cover and is small enough to fit in the pocket of a pair of dungarees.[35] The first words in his book explain the gold rush of 1934: “During the current worldwide business depression, the mining industry in the United States, especially the gold and silver industry, has received a general reawakening all over the country.”

A few pages later, he discusses the price of gold, which at the time was fixed by the federal government. In 1933, the government fixed the price at $20.67 per ounce, but in 1934, the year of his little blue book, the price was set at $35.00 per ounce.

In the dark years of the Great Depression, shovels took on a certain luster.[36]

The three of us have moved between two and three tons of snow. The quantity of gold in two to three tons of snow: zero troy ounces.[37]

We persist. We chip and scrape and scoop snow. We uncover the top of a spruce sapling, buried in the snow awaiting spring, and its aroma fills the pit. We find a tangle of willow branches of the sort typical of creek banks, laid into a mat by the weight of the snow. We cut through the matt. And then, at the bottom of the pit, a shovel tip breaks into a void. Under these tons of snow lies a hollow, an open space roofed over by willow branches and snow, a subnivean void. The floor of the hollow, six inches down, is river gravel.

Crouching, I feel inside the hollow. I feel the outline of a pontoon. I feel a plastic tarp that had been thrown over the dredge before it was abandoned last autumn. I feel the edge of a metal sluice box.[38]

Recovering the dredge takes another day of digging, of tunneling back into the wall of the pit, of pulling and dragging and auriferous swearing. But in the end the pit is empty. The dredge sits on the surface of the snow.

Its pontoons are dented. Its frame is bent. Water has found its way into the engine.

The miners drag the remains of their dredge through the snow. The nearest road and the nearest truck sit half a mile downstream. There, the miners load the remains of the dredge onto the truck. They haul those remains back to Anchorage, intent on fixing the pontoons, on straightening the frame, on flushing out the engine. This dredge will never be as good as new, but it will be good enough. Soon, it will suck up sand and gravel and small rocks. And along with that sand and gravel and rock, it will suck up particles and flakes and nuggets of gold.

I am glad that we have found their dredge.[39] But I am glad, too, to have seen them work, to have talked to them, to have felt their passion for what is, in utilitarian terms, a worthless yellow metal. Today is the day that I begin to understand how the lust for gold consumes entire valleys and devastates whole watersheds. Today is the day in which I become infected with gold fever, the day in which I begin to feel the draw of the dredge and the bulldozer and the massive hydraulic shovel, the draw of anything that will help me move dirt in the search for elusive flakes and pebbles and the dreamed of fist-sized nuggets. And today is the day when I begin to think about how, here and there, society is drawing a line in the sand, saying “stop, preserve this landscape, leave this ground undisturbed, enough is enough, this gold can stay in the ground, safe and sound right where it is.”[40]


 

[1] In the first few lines, something has to grab readers—something unusual, like swimming in ice cold water (in Cold), holding the palm of the hand in a candle flame (in Heat), or digging for gold in snow.

[2] An active and almost humorous description with a certain cadence begins to establish my contract with readers, showing them that this book about science is not going to use the linear approach more typical of science writing.

[3] There are three characters in this first chapter, including the very present narrator. Some readers may not even realize how they know that there are three characters.

[4] Without telling the reader directly, I show myself as an environmentalist, a nature lover despite my shovel.

[5] I could have complained about digging, but this approach generalizes my complaints to all miners. I have never met a miner who loves his shovel.

[6] Four hundred words into the piece--far enough to have created curiosity but with luck no so far as to frustrate most readers--I disclose what we are doing here in the snow.

[7] Readers begin to learn about mining, but here I assume that most readers will have at least some knowledge of gold dredging.

[8] Breaking through the fourth wall lets readers feel a little closer to the creative process.

[9] Many readers will not know the word “auriferous.” For now, I let the context define the word, but plan to return to it within a few paragraphs.

[10] Here again, I signal my bias as an environmentalist.

[11] This statement should startle most readers.

[12] As a writer, I cannot decide if they should be consistently called “Miner Brian” and “Miner Sean,” or just “Brian” and “Sean.” For now I stick to the former, expecting an editor to weigh in at some point.

[13] Today’s readers (and at least this writer) often have short attention spans. Books compete with thousands of distractions. With that in mind, I try keep sections short and to some degree self-contained. This first section runs just over 1,000 words, and I would not want it to be any longer.

[14] In my writing, I often alternate between narrative and expository sections. I transition to this first expository section by defining “auriferous.”

[15] Readers begin to see that mining has its own language. By now, they know that this book will make them fell like insiders.

[16] Some writing is about having fun with words, entertaining both the writer and the reader.

[17] I try to tie expository sections to the narrative.

[18] As writers, we often try to minimize word count, but here I used five sentences to say “The hole is deep.” Sometimes, more words add to the story by creating images and providing details.

[19] Even though readers know the hole is deep, I do not want them to have to guess at exactly how deep it is.

[20] The word “megaton” adds emphasis and makes the description more visceral. Readers do not need to know that a megaton is a million tons. Likewise, this is no place to debate the exact weight of snow carried in a typical avalanche (although it is factually correct that a well-developed avalanche can carry more than a million tons of snow). The use of the word “megaton” adds emphasis and makes the description more visceral.

[21] Readers see the phrase “dead time” again and feel more like insiders.

[22] Here, I try to subliminally hint about the nature of gold mining. Gold, like the dredge, may or may not be where one decides to dig. This important reality will be revisited after a few more paragraphs.

[23] Back to an expository paragraph.

[24] Very few readers will follow all of these numbers, and most readers already knew that small pieces of gold are both heavy and valuable, but now they will have a stronger image.

[25] More fun with words.

[26] Readers probably had heard the phrase “Mother Lode” in the past without knowing its formal meaning, which was offered in the first expository section of the book. Reuse of the term here again helps readers feel like insiders.

[27] In other words, Miner Brian and Miner Sean are more obsessed with the hunt than with the gold itself. Gold mining in this case is not about money. And, as a larger theme in the book, gold mining in general does not make much sense in a modern economy that operates on fiat currencies and electronic exchanges of wealth.

[28] I use quotations from both obscure and well-known historical figures to add character to my books. This one, used early in the book, re-emphasizes the importance of digging.

[29] Another quotation. With luck, it will occur to some readers that we may not be digging in the right place even now, in our search for the buried dredge. But these words also bring the reader further into the world of gold mining—they have just learned a fundamental truth about gold prospecting, and they have learned it from a nineteenth century miner. Readers are beginning to feel the history.

[30] For this book to work, readers have to be infected with gold fever, which, as the book progresses, will be balanced against an understanding of the environmental damage that comes with gold mining. Here, I offer readers past gold rushes, both well-known and little known.

[31] In an early draft, I included the sentence, “There was rush after rush.” I deleted the sentence because I have already shown readers that there was rush after rush.

[32] The description of a rich shovel, followed by the description of record nuggets, fuels the gold fever that is a necessary part of this book. The fact that large nuggets have names also underscores the irrational nature of gold mining.

[33] And again, I move readers back from exposition to narrative.

[34] Here and in the next section, I introduce a few facts about the very strange economics of gold, the subject of a later chapter.

[35] Dungarees, it seems to me, are often associated with mining—tough clothes for a tough job.

[36] Shovels—I cannot let readers forget about shovels.

[37] This sentence struck me as funny, but also sad. We are not the only miners to move tons of material without finding a single flake of gold.

 

[38] Writing about the technology of gold mining without boring readers will present a challenge through the book. Here, I start to introduce readers to a simple gold dredge, but I do not want to tell too much too quickly. No part of the book should read like a manual.

[39] This is an important paragraph. Here, I am no longer dancing around with descriptions and subtle peaks into where this book is going. I break through the fourth wall again, to provide the book’s thesis statement. But I do it quickly and suddenly—quickly to avoid losing readers, suddenly to surprise them. If my timing works, readers would have been drawn to this point by the strength of the narrative and an interest in the facts presented in the expository sections, but at this point they need know where we are going. If this paragraph works, they will want to read the rest of the book, and I have at least a chance of success. If it does not work, they will put the book down, thinking that I should have written a magazine article instead of a book, and I will have failed.

[40] Somewhat suddenly, at the end of the piece, I let readers into my mind. I tell them what I am thinking and where the book is going. This might be too abrupt, but if I have done a reasonable job with my hints and foreshadowing it may be just right. Here again is a place where I will anxiously await an editor’s comments.

 

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