My first night in Dawson (before riding up the Dempster), I had camped beside some people who were working a claim located about ninety minutes drive out of town (and nearly inaccessible at that). They are in the process of trying to reach bedrock so they can discover if there is enough gold at current prices to actually establish a mine. When I expressed interest in coming out to see what they were working on they referred me to a more established operation that was sure to be more appropriate for my level of interest. I questioned a few other people in town and was referred to the same operation.
Goldbottom Creek, I am told, is about an hour’s drive out of town along Hunker Creek Road. I check the time and find there is more than enough time to get there but not enough to see both the Goldbottom operation and the Number 4 Dredge out on Bonanza Creek. I recall reading in one of my books about a disillusioned miner from the 1898 gold rush hiking out of Dawson and up the Midnight Dome, looking sadly down on the city of dreams that “left so many unfulfilled.” The Midnight Dome….I think I saw a road for that close to my campground…..and off I go.
The road up the Midnight Dome leaves from the main road just east of Dawson, winds through a large lot subdivision and ends up atop a hill overlooking the city and Yukon River Valley. The road up is flawless asphalt with beautiful twists and peg scraping turns. This is unquestionably a road that can not be missed if you are in the area on a motorcycle. It is short but sweet – I ride up and down a few times just because it is so much fun. The vista from the top is very helpful for putting the geography of the goldfields into perspective. Facing south I look over Dawson to my right and can look up the Yukon River at the bend miners would float around on their final approach into the Klondike. To the southeast I can see straight down Bonanza Creek and off to the east I can trace the Klondike River almost out to where Hunker Creek joins it. For those who don’t know the story, the biggest finds were on Bonanza Creek and the discovery was made by a couple of people who had just been visiting a long-time prospector over on Hunker Creek days before they struck it rich. There was some tension in the visit and although the two creeks are not far apart, the long-time prospector was never told what he was missing until it was too late to stake anything.
I ponder that start to the gold rush as I drop off the Midnight Dome and ride up the valley to the east. Hunker Creek Road is a winding dirt, gravel and sand road that takes me up to the Goldbottom mine located at the confluence of Hunker and Goldbottom creeks.
I’m still about 20 minutes early for the tour but a young lady comes out of one of the ramshackle buildings and gives me a short overview on the gold panning process so that I can play in the dirt and water while I wait for the official tour to begin. I find out that she is a local girl who has just graduated from high school and will be off to college in the fall. She is the daughter of the mine owner and has been teaching tourists to pan for gold since she was six years old (“they listen now better than they used to” she tells me). Her dad took over the mine operation from her grandfather who had been working it since the early 1950s and her grandmother is still actively leading tours through the operation. The bigger surprise comes when I discover that her grandmother spends winters in my hometown and is good friends with a few of my friends.
It is a small group of three that tour the mine and learn about the mining process. Our tour guide is also a young local girl who does a great job of explaining the mining process including the bureaucratic parts pertaining to registering a claim, proving it and working it. She tells us this operation has to recover at least one ounce per hour to break even and much of the land in this area is now being mined for at least the third time. As I listen to her explanations, watch the equipment working and think about the prospectors I was camped beside that first night in Dawson I am struck by the amount of work and capital it takes to establish and maintain a mine in this area. I didn’t see a lot of new shiny equipment around so I suspect the margins are pretty thin in this business.
The innate optimism and inner strength a person must have to be successful as a fledgling operator in this business is absolutely astonishing. I think about all the pitfalls and disappointments that are bound to occur but I don’t see despair in the faces of those who are working away their dreams (despite the small returns).
Holding the “miners plight” in context, my mind turns to a common misunderstanding of mental health. It is not unusual when a person is depressed, that they are encouraged to “buck up” and “let’s go do something fun to cheer you up”. These approaches are seen as being all that is needed for a cure. To be consistent with that understanding, all these miners would be in a constant state of clinical depression. The optimism these miners have, despite the hard work and low returns is a testament to the fact that clinical depression is not caused by bad or sad things happening and it can not be cured by funny jokes and circus clowns. I don’t think we (society) know all of the things that contribute to clinical depression, nor do we know what things contribute to a cure. What I do know is that whenever new discoveries are being made (just like a gold rush), the greatest advancements occur when people talk about what is going on. So it is with mental health and depression, if we talk about it more, we will learn more and the people who need help will be more likely to get help.
The tour is over, I have a great visit with Rona Millar, the lady who spends her winters in my home town and I head south on my motorcycle to ride the “Goldfields Loop”. On my motorcycle or any dual sport bike, this is a great ride. During the gold rush these creeks were populated by thousands of people. The Bonanza Creek was the richest but there was gold on Hunker Creek, Quartz Creek, Sulphur Creek and Dominion Creek. All of these creeks have their headwaters in an area that came to be known as “King Solomon’s Dome.” For many years, miners thought the mother lode of the gold in all the creeks lay in hidden in “King Solomon’s Dome – the mountain in the centre of the five rich gold bearing creeks. Today there are roads through out this area and the mountainsides are scarred with exploration trails and channels of years gone by. The ride down Hunker Creek to King Solomon’s Dome and back up Bonanza Creek is about a 90 km loop. I ride up to the top of the Dome (where a microwave tower now stands – sign at the bottom says the road is not maintained, use at your own risk). The road is rough and steep but my 650 manages very well. At the top I dismount and walk around the summit viewing each creek radiating out like spokes from a central hub. It is easy to see how this hill would be suspected of holding a mother lode.
I ride down the steep little hill and turn the bike out toward Bonanza Creek. The road descends rather steeply and I travel quite a distance further than I thought I should. I seem to be a little further south….the map and my GPS are in a bit of disagreement. I end up in the middle of a fairly active mine site and think I may be lost. Well, I know how to get back to where I was, but not how to get to where I want to be which is on Bonanza Creek. I find someone to talk to and they confirm that I missed a directional sign. I ride back toward King Solomon’s Dome and out to Bonanza Creek, Gold Dredge # 4 and Discovery Claim.
As I approach the Dredge, I can see it is closed for the day. This was not high on my priority list although it would be interesting to go through. I ride further down the road to Discover Claim and see Parks Canada has created a very informative walking path through the area with informational panels. I park my bike and walk over to the creek where the first discovery was made. I wonder how much this area has changed and what it really looked like 104 years ago when George Carmacks dipped his pan into the water washing out those first nuggets. The area looks pristine and natural now but I know the land has been mined at least three times since that day.
As I turn and think about walking further down the path, the sky opens releasing a torrent of rain. I head back to my bike and ride into town for supper.
Tonight I’ll eat out. I’ve seen the gold fields and I head over to the Eldorado Hotel. Rona had told me the Eldorado was the local hangout and I had to go there just to experience it.
The meal in the bar is great. Sitting beside a geologist who is there to get away from the tourists as well we listen to a group of young workers in the corner talking about the “rush” that is going on and we talk about the challenges of a career that keeps you away from home. His wife’s daughter is going through a really tough time and he is very concerned about the potential outcomes and the impact that could have on his wife. We talk about my travel plans and found out that when I intend to be at the end of the Canol Road, he wouldn’t be far away and maybe he’d pop over and say hello from the helicopter.
It is a great evening and over too soon but I have to pack to leave the next day and he needs to get in touch with his family to see how things are going. As I ride out to the campground I think about how the mining business has changed over the years and how Dawson has changed from a mining town to a tourist town – the miners don’t really belong here anymore but there is still a booming business going on for them. Tomorrow I head up over the Top of the World Highway….I hope the weather will clear.