By Garret Romaine
Ever since the show’s debut late in 2010, I’ve done my best to carve out some TV time on Friday nights for GOLD RUSH: ALASKA on the Discovery Channel. The 10-part series follows six guys from Sandy, Oregon who cast caution to the wind and head off to Alaska to set up a full-sized, big-time gold placer operation.
It’s got to be the dream of just about every GPAA member to do what these guys did. They’ve got a really inspired setup – the oldest guy, white-haired Jack Hoffman, has run a small mine before, with his son and crew boss Todd Hoffman. The Hoffmans are bankrolling the operation, and they’ve added a solid mechanic, a safety lead, equipment operators, and assorted labor to go with a pair of big excavators, a dump truck, a front-end loader, and a full wash plant with a shaker, trommel, and jig. This isn’t me with a spiral pan out crevicing for a weekend – this is the real deal.
Figure 1. Todd Hoffman, left, supervising his father operating one of the big excavators.
Figure 2. Todd Hoffman, left, and Jack Hoffman, right, had worked a gold mine near Fairbanks in the early 1980s.
I was hooked before the first episode ended, and I’ve followed them on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/goldrushalaska) and on the Discovery Channel at http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/gold-rush-alaska/. I even checked out the scuttlebutt at the Discovery Channel forums at http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/cfrm/f/76419268601.
The team set up at Porcupine, Alaska, an abandoned town in the southern panhandle region. Anxious to learn everything I could, I checked US Geological Survey Professional Paper 610:
“The Porcupine district is ….along Porcupine Creek, a tributary of the Klehini River. Productive gravels were discovered in 1898 along Porcupine Creek and its tributaries (Wright, 1904, p. 12) The era of greatest activity was from 1900 to 1906, when about $100,000 in gold per year was produced. Between 1915 and 1917, hydraulic equipment was installed which accounted for a brief rejuvenation of the district (Eakin, 1918b, p. 99) …Total production for the district through 1959 is 53,250 ounces, all from placers.”
I found Porcupine at www.geocommunicator.gov, and pinpointed the town’s GPS coordinates: 59.420095, -136.238997. Next, I turned to www.mindat.org and got more information about Porcupine Creek (http://www.mindat.org/loc-199458.html):
Figure 3. Porcupine is the red dot on the highway west of Klukwan
“Production: The estimated total production from the Porcupine Mining Area from 1898 to 1985, including Christmas (SK062), Nugget (SK048), Porcupine (SK041), Cahoon (SK044), and McKinley (SK046) Creeks, is 79,650 troy ounces of gold. From 1898 to 1906, there were small manual operations producing as much as 9,000 troy ounces per year that were destroyed by flooding in 1906. From 1907 to 1915, mining by the Porcupine Gold Company was conducted using a flume constructed one mile below the junction with McKinley Creek. Production averaged 3,000 troy ounces of gold per year, until the flume was destroyed by a flood in 1915. From 1916 to 1918, the old flume was repaired and a new flume was built. Over 6,000 troy ounces of gold was produced during this period. The flumes were destroyed in the flood of September, 1918. Porcupine Gold Mines, which later became Alaska Sunshine Gold Mining Company, took over in 1926. In 1928, they completed a flume that originated on Porcupine Creek 0.5 miles above the junction with McKinley Creek and bridged McKinley Creek. Mining commenced in 1929 but closed at the end of the season due to poor returns. After much additional exploration, mining began again in 1935. Work continued into 1936 when the bridge over McKinley Creek was destroyed by a rock slide. As of 1986, there had been only minor, sporadic production since World War II. During times of high gold prices in the 1970's and early 1980's, some mechanized mining was conducted (Hoekzema and others, 1986).”
Figure 4. Topo map from GeoCommunicator showing the site of Porcupine, where the Hoffmans set up their mine.
Just before the final episodes ran, I tracked Todd down through his Facebook page and set up a phone interview. The Q&A transcript follows:
MTI: First off, congratulations on a great show. It’s been so compelling to watch.
TH: Thanks. We really appreciate everybody that’s watching it. We just made it into the top 25 cable shows, right below SpongeBob….(laughs)
MTI: There probably isn’t a single GPAA member who wouldn’t have traded places with you guys up there in Alaska. Tell us about the origins of this idea to start a gold mine in Alaska - was it something your dad Jack always talked about?
TH: My dad came to me when I was 15, in 1983, 1984. That was the last gold rush, gold tipped the scales at about $800 an ounce, coming out of the Carter years. So my dad came home and said we ought go gold mining. I said, that sounds awesome, but can you still do that? We made up our own plant, home-made. It had a potato digger belt – you don’t see that very often. It was kind of a neat way to wash dirt and move out the rocks. We built that, got a Case loader, got a D8 cat with a ripper, replaced the undercarriage on the Cat and put it on a train and sent it to Alaska. We mined in the 80’s for two seasons out of Fairbanks. I always knew it was something we could do. So, when gold started taking off, you know, and I’m watching what’s going on in the world, I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s time.’ But geez, I can barely do this, maybe I can turn it into a show and get some of my fuel paid. That’s pretty much it – that’s the whole premise of what we did.
MTI: So you had done this before. You weren’t a complete novice.
TH: We didn’t do it real successfully before. We had mined, and we had gotten enough to basically break even. But some of our friends did really well. I’ve seen it happen. I knew it was possible. I’d seen things a lot of guys never get to see. And I never forgot it. Some of the best times of my life were up there. There were several mines on our creek. I actually think GPAA now owns the claim. I think it’s one of your group. And I actually know where the gold is on the claim. (Laughs) I can’t remember the name. It’s up out of Circle Hot Springs.
MTI: How did you pick Porcupine Creek? Was it someplace, or someone, you knew from your past?
TH: I went up on a fact-finding mission, and I looked at all kinds of mines. I knew that getting back into the business, plus coming up there with all the cheap equipment that I had, it was going to take me a long time to get everything running. It wouldn’t if I had a half million dollars to plunk down on a high-end system. But I didn’t –I’ m bringing a bunch of home-made stuff. So I knew we were going to have issues and stuff like that. So I had to pick an area that had a longer mining season than just the average 60-75 days. And Southeast Alaska has a season that goes almost 4 months. We started in snow and ended in snow. Plus I found this mine that I believe was pretty lucrative. It had this great history, all the way up the creek. That’s why we plunked down there. Plus, you know Schnabel there across the creek, was pretty open to having us and was really gracious with us. We actually became pretty close with him and his family, and his grandson Parker.
MTI: Tell us about the inspiration behind your wash plant – was it even an option to buy machinery already in Alaska, or did it just pencil out to make more sense by barging it all up there?
TH: Really, you don’t want to buy too much stuff already up north, because it’s pretty hammered on. It’s always better to buy down here, in the Portland-Seattle area., and then have it shipped up by barge, because you can still find a decent piece of equipment for cheap and have it shipped up there. But you get up there, it adds 20-30%, and the equipment is really beat up. They hammer stuff pretty hard up there.
MTI: Attacking that claim with a big wash plant meant it was going to take a long time to get going. Did anyone have a dredge or high-banker operating in the background? Even a sluice box would have been worth setting up just to prospect the bucket loads you were bringing up. Or were you convinced that the only way to succeed was to go big, so you didn’t even consider smaller gear?
TH: Everything was in the bigger equipment. The majority of miners are like your folks, with the high bankers and stuff like that. I believe that gold will keep climbing, and staying in that recreational capacity is going to be pretty crucial in the next few years. I really do. Because you have a minimal investment, you can move around, you can do it on your own, you don’t have the headaches of a commercial setup. But we just stuck with what we had.
MTI: Designating a safety officer was sheer genius – most of our members have watched a placer gold camp quickly pile up broken parts, used hoses, spare gold pans, and more . Your camp stayed fairly neat, and I saw spray paint on the ground, grates blocking the trammel, and safety vests everywhere. Whose idea was that to designate a leader for safety issues?
TH: Actually Thurber and Greg had safety backgrounds. Thurber is a safety officer at his construction company. He was a natural fit. Plus, you just have to have a designated safety officer. You also have to have a basic safety plan. So we did. When my daughter had her seizure, we were able to take care of her. The production crew also had a safety plan. They had repeaters, and we were able to communicate with the hospital. We took our tailings and used them to make our roads better. When we got there, it was just a mess. So we moved stuff around, all our roads were graveled, and it was pretty nice. We tried to keep it pretty decent. That’s just how we do stuff. We do the best we can.
MTI: Getting a mine going while the cameras are rolling must have been a challenge, especially since mining and “bad hair days” go together really well. Did you just adjust after awhile?
TH: Yeah, you just kind of get used to it. Almost like they’re not there. But you have to know who you are. I’m just kind of an overweight kid with a dream. So it doesn’t bother me a whole lot. When you get upset and you swear, that’s something I’m not proud of, and something I’m working on, ‘cuz you don’t want that. We know families are watching our show, and we keep that at a minimum. Of course, with television, you know they want maximum drama, but to be honest with you, we’re just trying to get our job done the best we can. It is weird having a camera on you the whole time, but after awhile you get used to it.
MTI: One of my favorite episodes was when everybody, including women and teenagers, started panning concentrates. It seemed like a lot of community spirit, everyone is in this together. Was that pretty satisfying for you, too?
TH: I was a little nervous, because when you had kids panning, you know…but my dad had showed them how to pan, and to be honest, I think I was in the wrong. Because, I was a kid, and I was panning, and that meant a lot to me, to be panning out some concentrates, that I’d be trusted to do something like that. In the end, aren’t we trying to pass on something great to our kids and our families? There’s nothing more pure than panning gold out of the ground that you’ve just dug up.
MTI: Wave tables aren’t all that complicated – I’ve seen them work. Did you ever figure out what you were doing wrong with that equipment, or was it just that there wasn’t enough gold in those early buckets of concentrates?
TH: You know, I personally don’t like them…I’ve seen better ways of doing that. But you know what? What do I know ? I’ve known guys who swear by them. But a lot of those guys have them mounted really solid in their basement. And they’ve got the material sized out really well – they’ve got the mesh sized out just right. I’m no professional – I’ve seen the extruder table that’s made by MSI Mining [http://msi-mining.com –ed] – the guy that designed that, I know him, and he is a meticulous builder, and so that extruder table is a pretty neat system. But you know, I’m like everyone else, I’m still learning. After you pull your concentrate out of your sluice box, I like to work them through a small hand jig first, to get it down to a finer concentrate. I used to actually build them when I was younger, when I was 15, 16. I sold them to the miners up in Alaska. I didn’t sell a lot of them – I think I made six of them, but they all worked really well. One of them was still going 10-15 years later, someone was still using it. That was really cool, seeing it still going.
MTI: Most of our members can only dream of digging a hole visible by earth satellite, but you guys had two excavators, pumps, and all the other equipment necessary to reach deep bedrock. In the last show I saw, there were some giant-sized boulders coming up out of the ground. Describe your efforts as you got closer and closer to the bottom of the hole.
TH: (sighs) There are other areas that are a lot easier to mine. You’re better off in an area that’s maybe 10, 15, 20 feet deep. The thing is with this one, according to what we’ve all figured out, there’s a waterfall there. And we don’t know how deep that bedrock is there. But we know there’s gold on the top, and over the years it’s sifted down to this glory hole. The problem is, like you’ve seen with Schnabel, that hole could be 100 feet deep – we don’t’ know. It’s a risk. We gauged it at 40 feet deep, so you’re really taking a risk on something like that. I wouldn’t suggest doing that. I would suggest finding a mine that has coarse gold that is not very deep – 10-15 feet to bedrock, where you can work the bedrock and follow the pay streak right up the hillside. So that’s my advice.
MTI: I pulled some of the early mining reports for Porcupine Creek, and at one point, they built a 20-foot wide flume and just put the creek in the flume, to get it out of the way basically. Did you look at those old reports?
TH: Oh, yeah. The history on that creek was incredible. The amount of gold they pulled out of there was just astronomical. And they moved the creek, a one- or two-mile flume. It was going above their head, and they’re down in the creek bed mining, dry. The problem is that the valley there has so much snow, and it can back up, and create these flash floods down through there. And it blew out this million-dollar flume they built. If you look at the old pictures it was incredible, the amount of manpower they put into that flume. We’re living on the town site. There were almost a thousand people, 500-1000 people, living at Porcupine, right there on the property. So, it has a lot of incredible history.
MTI: One thing about mining is that when you’re starting out, you learn a lot every day. A whole season is like a university degree. Plus, once you get a good case of gold fever, it’s hard to shake. Has it been announced yet if you’re going back for another summer?
TH: I am putting all my stuff together to go back. I don’t know if Discovery Channel is going to tag along again. A couple things I want to say for your members, though. A lot of the larger mines, and people up there, they don’t really want more people coming up and doing what we’re doing. They would rather that a lot of the recreational guys stay down in the lower 48. But don’t let that be a discouragement to you. Alaska is part of the US, and you have every right to put a group of guys together and do what we did. Now, having said that, it isn’t easy, and you have to do a lot of paperwork and go through the proper channels. You have to have some wherewithal to make it work. That’s what we’re trying to do is help some different groups prepare and figure out how to make that happen. That’s going to be a service I will provide in the future to help those guys go after it. Don’t get discouraged when you hear professional miners say mean things about us. Don’t worry about us. It didn’t discourage me – I don’t give a rip. The mining associations aren’t really for the little guys – they’re for the big guys. You’re not going to get a lot of help from them. GPAA has been very aggressive – you guys have done a great job working for your base. So keep up the good work.
MTI: Have you been a GPAA member in the past?
TH: You know what, I think my Dad was. For many years, I just kind of forgot about gold mining. I always looked back with fond memories, but you grow up and get married and have kids – I don’t even know where the time went. I haven’t had a lot of time to go out and do stuff like that. So, it’s kind of re-sparked the dream for my father and myself, and all these guys. Now there’s a lot of people out there watching us make mistakes, but also do some good things. They’re learning about sluice boxes, they’re learning about gold pans. There are a lot of equipment companies, like White’s Metal Detectors [http://whiteselectronics.com – ed] , that are selling a lot more stuff now. And hopefully you guys get new members, because there’s safety in numbers. I don’t care if you’re big or small, the more people involved in it, that’s how we’re going to protect the freedom to do it.
Eakin, H.M., 1919, The Porcupine gold placer district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 699, 29 p.
Koschmann, A.H., and Bergendahl, M.H., 1968, Principal gold producing districts of the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 610, 283 p.
Wright, C.W., 1904, The Porcupine placer district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 236, 35 p.