Anyone who has visited one of the Yukon’s placer mines knows they can be noisy places.
On any given day, one might hear the sounds of machinery buzzing and equipment such as bulldozers, backhoes, water pumps, power generators and sluice plants.
Even when the working day is over, the steady hum of the power generator breaks the stillness of most summer evenings.
But not for the Fellers family of Dawson City.
Their Kirkman Creek placer mine is as active and noisy as any other mine during the day, but, after hours, they can fully enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
It’s one of the benefits of the solar-power system they began using 15 years ago.
“We started using solar power in 1990,” says Wendy Fellers.
“For many years before that, we’d used fuel-burning generators, but we wanted to find another way to provide power at our camp without the noise and expense of burning fuel. We’re very happy with the results.”
The Fellers family has been placer mining since 1974, so 32-year-old Will Fellers grew up with it.
He now mines with his parents Wendy and Joe. He can remember the difference it made when they switched to solar power.
“We used to keep the power generator at a distance from camp,” he says. “But you could still hear it pounding away at night. One of my earliest childhood memories is going to shut off the generator at night and running back to camp in the dark. Since we installed solar power, we can sit outside in the evenings and enjoy the serenity of the outdoors. You can’t put a price on that.”
The Fellers family also says that the switch to solar power has saved them money. Their mine is 169 kilometres upriver, or south, from Dawson City.
Getting there involves either a half-hour flight or a four-hour boat trip from Dawson.
Will, who is a pilot, can fly in some supplies, while Wendy and Joe bring in other items by boat. Harnessing the power of the sun means they need to bring in far less fuel.
“There was an initial capital cost when we first set up the solar power system,” says Will.
“But the cost of moving freight to our camp is very high and bringing in diesel fuel for the generators is expensive. Over time, we’ve saved a lot of money by using solar power.”
“The system has paid for itself many times over,” agrees Wendy. Solar power has provided energy for a variety of their needs, including lights, power tools, the TV, the radiophone and the satellite telephone.
The Fellers have been so happy with their solar energy system that they expanded it last summer to better serve the three trailer homes they maintain at the site.
A power generator is still kept for backup, especially during the darker months or the seasons with more rain, but the Fellers require hundreds of gallons less fuel for it than before.
The Fellers have also found other ways to make the best use of the resources they have at their remote location.
“We set up a sawmill at the mine, which is mostly run by my dad,” says Will.
“We salvage and use any larger trees that must be cut down. We’ve built porches, additions and even a two-storey log cabin.”
All of this allows the Fellers family to enjoy the solitude of their placer mining lifestyle.
But, despite their remote location, life at Kirkman Creek is not lonely.
“We get to spend a lot of time together with family,” says Wendy. “Right now, we’re mining together with Will and his wife Melanie, and we’re able to have their two sons around for most of the summer.
“In the past, we’ve also mined with Will’s older brother J.J. In fact, we had all four of our grandsons living at the mine during their younger years, which was wonderful.”
While Will and J.J. were growing up, Wendy says there were lots of opportunities for a good family life.
“When the weather was nice and the mining was going well, we could take time to do things together, like fishing, hunting, picnicking, or swimming in the river.”
The Fellers also occasionally enjoy social events with their placer mining neighbours, such as a barbecue or an evening of skeet shooting.
“It’s a great way to raise your family, and you can be your own boss,” says Wendy.
After growing up with placer mining, Will was pretty sure he wanted to stay with it. “I remember helping out when I was just a kid, sitting around the kitchen table cleaning gold. As I got older, I took on more, and by the time I was 15, I was a full-fledged member of the team. I love the lifestyle, being outdoors and living in remote locations.”
When placer mining finishes for the season, the Fellers family moves back to Dawson City, where they keep busy with a long list of community activities.
Both Wendy and Will sit on the board of the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association and help with various Association activities.
Wendy’s pet project over the past few years has been fundraising, including a dinner and auction during the annual Dawson City Gold Show. Will serves on both the local snowmobile club and the renewable resources council.
The Fellers donate four ounces of placer gold to the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race every year.
The gold is used to reward the first musher to reach Dawson City.
They’ve also made donations to the Ski-Doo club races, the horse show and the Dawson City Ski Hill.
For these community activities, and their long history of successful placer mining,
Wendy and Joe Fellers were named the 2005 Miners of the Year by the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association.
“It was a big surprise and a huge honour,” says Wendy. She modestly adds, “I’m not sure why we got it.”
With the beginning of the 2006 mining season upon them, the Fellers, like other placer miners, are turning their attention away from Dawson City and toward their mine.
They’ll be certain to work their fair share of long days in the summer ahead.
But in the evenings, thanks to their innovative use of solar power, they’ll relax in the unbroken quiet of the wilderness around them.