Crouched on the silty banks of the Yukon I submerged my shallow pan full of rocks and dirt into the water. Mimicking what I’d seen in countless movies, I swilled water around the pan watching any mud and soil being carried away by the river. Eventually, larger rocks and stones tumbled out onto the riverbed until just fine sand and tiny sparkling fragments were left smeared across the bottom of the pan. I peered eagerly into the debris like a fortune-teller trying to read the tea leaves. I didn’t find any sign of my fortune. There was no gold.
It wasn’t a complete surprise. We were still some 200km downstream of the infamous Klondike goldfields that are clustered in the creeks surrounding the northern town of Dawson City in the heart of the Yukon region of Canada. Already we had travelled some 400km from our start point at the coastal town of Skagway over the border in the United States. During the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, thousands of people from across North America, and even from as afar as Europe and the UK, descended on the tiny port of Skagway hoping to travel to Dawson to find their fortunes in the newly discovered goldfields of the Klondike. Known as ‘stampeders’, many had sold everything they owned in order to take a gamble on finding gold and few had any real knowledge or experience of the complete wilderness that stood between them and distant Dawson City.
The first obstacle the hopefuls faced was the mighty coastal mountain range that towers 3,000m above the Pacific seaboard. The majority of the stampeders chose to cross the mountains using an old Native American trail called the Chilkoot Pass. Today, this route has been memorialised as a National Trail maintained jointly by the Canadians and US as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
We were filming the three-part series Operation Gold Rush for BBC History and, setting out from Skagway, we had intended to follow as closely as possible the route taken by the original 1898 stampeders. Hiking through apparently pristine forests and gradually climbing seemingly untouched glacial valleys, it was hard to visualise the tide of humanity that had flowed through this exact same landscape more than a century before. Yet, clues of the past lay everywhere. To peer into the undergrowth at any point on the trail was to stumble upon relics of the Gold Rush; rusty metal plates and tin cans messily strewn around the moss-covered remnants of a bonfire, a discarded leather shoe, a shovel hanging in a tree where its owner had stashed it, decaying wooden crates spilling sackcloth and reels of wire. We were hiking in the footsteps of ghosts.
The stampeders had been obliged by Canadian law to travel with supplies enough for a year. This equated to around a ton of goods, which is why so much of it was discarded along the way. In contrast, the equipment we carried was as light as possible including ultra-lightweight tents and sleeping bags, and minimal clothing.
By far our most important piece of kit was the can of bear spray that we were each instructed by Canadian Rangers to wear on our belts (rather than hanging it on our rucksacks). This was to ensure that the canister would be easily accessible at a moment’s notice should we need it. Bear spray is a type of pepper spray, stronger than that used for self-defence against humans. The Yukon region is home to approximately 10,000 black bears and 7,000 grizzlies, so it was important to be prepared to come across one. However, the prospect of using bear spray, which is reportedly incredibly painful if it comes into contact with human eyes, scared me more than the idea of seeing a bear in the woods.
We had to be wary of other wildlife too, particularly moose. Regrettably, there is no such thing as moose spray and the only advice we were given in the advent of a moose charge was ‘to stand behind closely spaced trees.’ I wasn’t reassured.
Soon after reaching the snowline we were faced with the crux of the trail; the Chilkoot Pass. At an elevation of 1,067m, the final slope of the pass is so steep that the stampeders nicknamed it ‘the Golden Staircase’. On the day we were to cross, the whole mountain was thickly cocooned in heavy fog. As the party strung out along the trail, the figures ahead and behind me quickly melted into the gloom which added to the eerie emptiness of a slope that had once been crowded with desperate fortune seekers, many of whom had lost their lives in the struggle. The first of our party up the trail had kicked wide steps into the snow to aide those behind. Even so, climbing the Golden Staircase was one long drudgery of forcing one step after the after. Time seemed to stand still until we reached the top of the bleak and gloomy pass, red-cheeked, muscle-sore, sweaty and panting for breath.
The border between the US and Canada runs along the top of the pass and as we descended into Canada we also left the snow behind. The trail led us to a series of long lakes which eventually drain into the mighty Yukon River that snakes all the way to Dawson. The original stampeders of 1898 razed the lakeshore forests to build rudimentary boats and rafts. We followed suit, launching a homemade boat that had been constructed elsewhere to avoid damaging the still recovering forest.
The boat was solid but extremely heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. Worse, it rose high out of the water and was completely flat-bottomed. The slightest breeze made it hard for us to gain any headway. Our hands were quickly made sore by oars roughly hewn from spruce trunks, our feet were constantly wet and our backsides became bruised by the unforgiving plank seats.
The Yukon River flows at an average speed of five to eight miles per hour. These fast-flowing waters moved us steadily through wide, braided channels scattered with islands of all sizes. The riverbanks were heavily forested with narrow, silty beaches but as we rowed ever closer to Dawson the landscape changed. Instead of rounded hills eroded by glaciation, we saw sharp ridges and deep valleys that had escaped the worst effects of the last ice age. It was here that we were more likely to find gold.
In every place we stopped I scooped a panful of dirt from the riverbank and washed the material in an eddy until I had only fine black sand. The water of the Yukon was so cold that my hands were numb within minutes as I held the pan in the flow. My panning was so slow that my knees and thighs would be screaming by the time I had washed down the material to sand and grit. Pan after pan yielded nothing, but eventually my persistence paid off. One morning something among the sand caught the light. It wasn’t just the unmistakable golden colour that set it apart, it was the fact that it glowed rather than sparkled in the sunlight. I had found my first tiny fleck of pure gold!
I was elated by my find but the flake was only the size of a sesame seed. I needed more. Gripped with gold fever as I was, it was clear that panning alone was a very inefficient process. In order to find my fortune I would have to use a scaled-up technique known as sluicing. A sluice is a board with a texture such as sackcloth, metal grills or slats attached to it. When placed into a channel, water runs over the sluice and the texture acts like an artificial riverbed forming small eddies and currents. When dirt is thrown into the sluice, the flow of water washes it and any gold gets trapped in the artificial riverbed.
Armed with a sluice, I just had to decide where to try digging. Reading the landscape and the geology to guess at the most likely spot to find gold is, in theory, very simple. In practice it is unfathomably complicated. Having arrived in Dawson, we did our best to choose the right creek for our treasure hunt and started digging.
Shovel after shovel of dirt went through our homemade sluice. After two full days of hard labour we emptied out the sluice and examined the results. Several large round flakes of gold amongst a cluster of smaller gold fragments were our reward. Taking our precious booty into Dawson to be weighed and valued I had high hopes for a modest fortune. It was a blow to learn that our 0.5 grams of gold dust was worth a little under 20 Canadian dollars – barely enough to buy lunch.
A popular consolation of the Gold Rush was that ‘the true gold is found in your heart’. Despite the lack of a bonanza, it amazed me that today it is still possible to turn up in the Yukon with very little knowledge and skill and simply dig gold straight out of the ground. That experience is treasure enough, perhaps.
TEN OF THE BEST
You might think that the only pieces of equipment you need when panning for gold are your eyes, a pan, and a big enough bag to store your new-found fortune. But as Felicity Aston discovers, it’s an activity that takes its toll on your back, knees and patience. Knee pads and wading boots are essentials, as is specialist panning equipment such as eyepieces and sluicing trays. Plus, something to deal with pesky bears…
1. Gold Pan
Klondike Special Gold Pan – £14; 300g
The matt surface of modern plastic gold pans make panning a lot easier than the metal pans of old. The green colour is also important as any gold will stand out much better against this colour. The deep ridges or ‘traps’ along the rim help to capture even the smallest fragments.
2. Magnifying Lens
TRIPLET 30x jewellers’ precision loupe – £8.99; 50g
You will definitely want to have a close up look at any gold you find. For that you will need a lens with decent magnification. They also have a metal cover so they don’t get broken or scratched.
3. Snuffer Bottle
Proline snuffer bottle – £4
These soft plastic bottles have a stiff suction tube through the cap providing an easy way to extract flakes from a pan. They come in a variety of sizes and the diameter of the suction tube can vary.
The Eldorado special sluice box – £55; 2kg
Made of durable plastic, this ready-made sluice has 35 different ridges along its length to trap any gold. Weight the sluice firmly in a water channel and pour dirt from the riverbank onto one end. Then wait for the sluice to do the the work.
5. Reference Book
Rocks and Minerals Handbook – £6; 374g
There are several types of rock and minerals that are associated with the presence of gold, so being able to spot them can help in judging where to dig. There are also rocks that can look deceptively like gold but are not. This book will help you to tell the difference.
6. Waterproof Gloves
SealSkinz Ultra Grip Gauntlets – £33; 200g
When panning in cold water, having a pair of waterproof gloves makes the experience just a little less painful. Go for warmth but remember that you need to be dextrous too. These gloves have extra long cuffs so that you are less likely to have water seeping in over your wrists.
7. Bear Spray
Counter Assault Deterrent – $50; 230g
Bear spray is illegal in the UK but can be bought from outdoor shops on arrival in the US or Canada. This top-selling brand can spray up to 30 feet for a maximum of 7.2 seconds in the favoured fog pattern. It has a robust safety system to prevent accidental use and fixes to your belt.
8. Waterproof boots
Arctic Sport Muck Boot – £99
Spending time crouched beside river banks and creek beds when panning for gold inevitably leads to cold, wet feet unless you have suitable footwear. Warm and comfortable, as well as completely waterproof, Muck Boots come highly recommended. They are tall enough to be able to wade into the shallows too.
9. Mining Trousers
Carhartt EB136 Washed-Duck Double Front Work Dungaree – £40; 407g
These work trousers don’t just make you look and feel the part, they are full of practical details to make life easier while prospecting. Constructed of tough and durable cotton, they feature multiple utility pockets, openings for knee pads and a hammer loop that doubles as a good place to hang your bear spray.
10. Knee Pads
Draper Expert Leather Knee Pads – £11
After working just one pan while crouched by the water’s edge your body will be crying out for some relief. Kneeling is an alternative and more comfortable position but sharp rocky shores are an issue for the knees. These leather knee pads are more hard-wearing than the foam alternatives and could prove to be a treasured essential.
…a screw-top vial for your gold. The old-timers used empty tin cans and homemade leather pouches called ‘pokes’ to transport their finds but you will probably want something more secure.
This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.