Growing Up Alaska: The Gold Nugget

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to know the hard labor of working on a gold mine. It is what my family did for many years, both in Alaska and the Yukon. I was fortunate to be included, despite my young age, in the family business. We found gold and we had hard times, but the following story is about none of those, yet it is an experience that changed my life.

When my family worked in Canada, just outside of Dawson City, the regulations there limited the amount and kind of work that I could do on the gold mine. This gave me a lot of free time which I spent much exploring the area around the mine or helping out wherever I could that wasn’t designated as “work.”

One of those things that I did was volunteer at a roadside gold panning business. For $5 you could get a pan full of dirt from the mine on the property and you could pan until you found gold. For $10 you could get a five gallon bucket of dirt and keep all that you find. And then for $25, you could pan all day.

The dirt was either overburden or tailings left from the old dredges. There wasn’t much gold in it and most tourists left with a small vial and smile of their memory of panning a dollar or two of gold in the legendary Klondike.

I was demonstrating panning when a large class A motorhome pulled up along with a smaller RV and a car. People began to pile out, stretching their legs and wandering about. There had to be nearly 20 of them and the last of them to unload from the motorhome was an elderly man in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank.

The man was in his late 80s and the owner of the mine talked with him. It turned out that the man had dreamt of coming to the Klondike since he was a kid. He’d even gone as far as running away from home to follow his uncle who’d come north to the goldfields, only to be brought home by railroad workers.

The owner was so moved by his story that he told the whole family that they could pan until each of them found gold. Within minutes, gold pans were loaded with dirt from the pay pile and all twenty family members were crowded around the panning stations.

The youngest in the family, all kids, quickly went through their pans and, not finding gold, ran to the pay pile to refill. Seeing that they weren’t going to follow directions on how to pan, I focused on the adults who had all gathered around the large water trough. They were laughing and pointing as some of them found some small flakes of gold.

I passed out vials and started helping the old man and his daughter settle the pan into the water. With his wheel chair and feeble hands, he struggled to get near the trough, so I guided him to the demonstration trough which was narrower and set up on a table, allowing him to get his legs under it.

He beamed as we lowered his pan in. We washed the rocks and I helped pick out the larger material. Once we had the material down to about a third of the pan, I left his daughter and a couple of others with him to check that everyone had a vial to put their gold in.

I was handing out vials when I heard the old man’s daughter scream. It raised the hair on my arms and I ran as quickly as my rubber boots would allow to the panning station where the family was gathered around the old man. They all had hands on him and my immediate thought was that he was having a heart attack or seizure.

His daughter stood upright at the sound of my boots, but it wasn’t fear in her eyes that I saw, but a huge grin.

As I approached, the group parted and the old man was shaking and pointing to his gold pan which two other people were holding to keep him from dropping it. In the bottom of the pan sat a nugget about the size of the tip of your pinky.

“Is it real?” one of the family members asked.

“I think it is iron pyrite,” another responded.

I stared down at the pan before pushing the nugget over. I was down at eye level with the old man who’s eyes were still wide with excitement. “It’s real!” I declared.

The commotion brought the mine owner out of his office where he was taking payment from other groups. When he spotted the nugget, his jaw nearly hit the ground. His land wasn’t known nuggets.

“Do I get to keep it,” the old man said as his shock wore off.

All eyes turned to the owner who could only nod. He quickly recovered and said, “You’re going to need a bigger bottle. Let me grab one and get my camera.”

The news of the nugget quickly spread and people gathered around. The sight of the nugget sent many running, old and young alike, to the pay pile. The old man continued to beam and show people his treasure while his daughter laughed and cried over him.

The owner returned with a larger vial and his camera. Many pictures were taken over the next hour before the family piled back into their caravan and headed on into Dawson City.

When my family returned to Dawson City the next mining season, we moved our operation to a different area and I didn’t get a chance to volunteer at the panning station, but my dad stopped in one day to talk the claim owner.

Seeing me, the claim owner waved me into his office and showed me a Christmas card he’d received from the family. It showed them gathered around the old man who wore a gold nugget necklace. They said that they had plans to return this summer if they could and thanked the owner and myself for making their dad’s dream come true.

The claim owner also showed me a letter that he had received from the daughter a few months later telling him that her dad had passed away. She let him know how much the nugget had meant to her dad and how much joy it had brought him as he showed it to everyone he’d met and told them about his adventure to the Klondike.

They had planned to bury him with his nugget, but had decided instead to send it back to the claim owner so it could return home to the Klondike, where they new their father would want it.

The claim owner had placed the picture of the old man with his nugget necklace and story into a shadow box that he had on display for the tourists to see.

I don’t know what happened to that nugget, but I do know that it changed many people’s lives and could never be valued in ounces.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
   It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
   So much as just finding the gold. -Excerpt from the Spell of the Yukon, by Robert Service

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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