Growing Up Alaska: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

As a kid growing up in a mining family I did all kinds of jobs on the mine. I ran heavy equipment, did clean ups and served as a Gopher. That is what my dad said when he told me to “Go for this…” or Go for that…” But the job I did most frequently was man the sluice box.

It doesn’t matter where you are on the mine, it is a dangerous place. We did what we could to keep us safe, but accidents always happen.

This particular summer I was working on a Pearson Box which had a loading area with punch plate, two side runs for fine material and a center run for large material. My job was to keep the water flow even and dirty. Clean water will remove the material and wash the gold down the box, so I had to keep a steady flow going while making sure the big material didn’t clog up the middle chute.

Working the sluice box was hard work and monotonous. Turn the flag for a dump, check the wash, pull the rocks, check the runs; then repeat. All the while, I have to deal with cold water spraying on me and the elements to my back that either made me on the verge of hypothermia or baking.

We’d purchased a larger loader that would help us move more material since we were also running a rocker box next to me which I didn’t have to pay much attention to it since it moved much slower than my box. The problem with the new loader is that had a lot more horsepower and was slabbing the bedrock which was jamming up my sluice runs.

These rocks could be up to four feet by three feet wide and up to a foot thick. My middle chute was only two and a half feet wide, so when one of these slabs ended up in my box, I would have to stand them up on their sides and roll them down the box. If they weren’t round, I would have to wrestle them onto the top of the middle chute and use pry bars to push them down to the end.

I had to do this quickly to keep a good flow of water and material down the side chutes where we caught most of the gold.

One day I got a large slab that was kind of in an almond shape. It was nearly five feet in length and was almost four feet at its widest. Luckily, it landed right in the middle of the loading area on it side, so I began moving it before the dirt washed away around it.

I got it into the middle chute, but because of its shape, it didn’t roll well, so I tried to pry it out to slide it down, but it was too heavy and oblong. I flipped it over the narrow end and the large end rolled easily and I got it about halfway down the chute when another rock got wedged under it.

I pried and prodded and even took a sledge hammer to it, but it didn’t want to move. I had one pry bar stuck on one side, propping up the rock, while I pried from the other. Rocks got wedged underneath and kept it upright, so I decided to cross over to other side and try prying from there.

The #1 rule when moving a rock like this is to never be below it. I was so frustrated that the rock was stuck, I ignored that run and crossed over below it using the jammed pry bar as a support as I crossed.

I heard it before I realized what was happening; dirt had slide down the loading chute sending a new pile of rocks down the middle chute. All that weight suddenly dislodged the slab and it rolled.

I tried to get out of the way, but fell backwards into the chute and it rolled down on my leg. Smaller rocks coursed around it and pelted me as the larger slab slowly rolled down, pinning my left leg just below the knee. I tried to slide back and when I did, the rock rolled even more and one of the pry bars worked free and came crashing down.

I covered my head and fell backwards into the chute as the pry bar clanged off the side of the chute before sliding away and off the end. Luckily the chute had protected me, but in the process, I had wedged myself in as I was pushed backwards down the chute a few feet.

The slab had also rolled and was now wedged agains my leg above the knee.

I struggled to pull free and the rock only rolled a little farther and I could feel it digging in and threatening to crush my leg. The slab had also turned crossways in the box stopping the flow of rocks and water which meant that all that pressure was building up with only my leg in the way.

Slowly, the rock and I would inch down the box, the slab no longer rolling but sliding along under the pressure of tons of rocks behind it. This was going to end badly. The rock would either roll and crush me or push me off the end for a fifteen foot fall onto a pile of rock with tons more rocks cascading down on me.

Then I heard them.

My dad had been driving out to the pit and had seen me fall. At the same time, the loader operator feeding the box had decided to come and check on me since it had been a couple of minutes since I turned the flag for a new dump. The mechanic riding with my dad had run to shut off the pump while the other two came down to free me.

It took both of them to lift the rock off of me and we were all surprised that I was able to get up from that. I was cold and numb, but otherwise okay.

I was supposed to end my shift in a half an hour anyways, so my dad sent me back to camp while they shoveled out the box.

My leg was numb and my back hurt, so I took a hot shower and after dinner, went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I crawled out of bed and fell face first onto the floor.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. My left leg had swollen so much that my sweats were tight. Despite the lack of pain, the receptors in my brain told me I was hurt and I nearly passed out.

I pulled myself to the trailer door and after flailing to get it open, I called for help. Dad found me and got me back into bed before calling for help.

Terry, one of our operators and a trained physical therapists, came to check on me. We iced down my back and the swelling went away before I was taken to see a doctor. X-rays revealed I had compressed three of my vertebrae in my lower back.

I didn’t work the sluice for the last two weeks of the season and for the next few months would often wake up with my legs tingling or numb, though that eventually stopped.

I was lucky that day.

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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