Never ask a placer miner about his gold.
He won’t tell you anything.
“You don’t get what you want, but you get what you need,” said Bonanza Creek miner Doug Jackson, when asked about his weekly earnings.
“If the bills are paid and you have a few extra dollars, then you’ve done extremely well.”
Perched on a mound of dirt with sides carved away by years of mining, sits a 100-year-old cabin worthy of a Jim Robb sketch.
Jackson still lives in it in during mining season, although, even after ducking inside, it’s hard to tell.
There’s a nudie calendar behind the door, some grungy blankets on a couch that looks as old as the cabin, and a pile of rusting buckets and scrap metal at the foot of the bed.
“The coldest it ever got while I was living in here was minus 53 Fahrenheit,” said Jackson.
“And I had to wake up every three hours to load that woodstove.”
Jackson, who grew up in northern Alberta, was a fledgling pilot in the Northwest Territories before moving to Dawson in ’91 to start mining.
Shortly after moving onto his American Hill claim, Jackson met Jim Archibald — “one of the last of the old timers.”
And after becoming friends, the two men realized they’d grown up in Albertan towns that were only 24 kilometres apart.
“Doug and I get along, but both of us have our own ideas of how to mine,” said Archibald with a chuckle.
“And whether it’s upside down or backwards, we both still make money.”
Archibald staked his claim on Bonanza Creek in ‘62.
He’s been mining ever since.
And he doesn’t plan to stop.
“He’ll be standing in the sluice box and you’ll have to pry the nugget out of his dying hand,” said Jackson with a smile.
“Ever since I was 12 years old I wanted to be a gold miner,” said Archibald, who’s now 67.
“I’ve been here 46 years and I still look forward to going mining every morning.”
Further up the road, after making a couple of turns and fording a few creeks, Archibald’s colourful settlement becomes visible atop French Hill.
“This section is the richest part of the creek,” said Archibald, pointing up the valley.
The oldtimers panned 450,000 ounces of gold by hand in this area, he said.
“And the biggest nugget ever found in the Yukon was discovered here — 85 ounces and 16 pennyweight.”
After dishing out some homemade berry pie — the reason Jackson comes to visit, apparently — Archibald hauled out an old, 1906 map of the area.
Pointing at his claim, he explained that the mother lode is under French Hill, where his house sits.
But right now, he’s mining on the creek.
“I’m here for the long haul,” said Archibald.
“Not the short haul where you just snipe the best and go.”
Archibald figures he’ll be on the creek for another five years, then move up the valley for another 15, before finally getting to the hill where he believes most of the gold is.
“Mining’s like farming, everything should be done right,” said Jackson.
And if Archibald started mining the mother lode right now, he would be dumping dirt on top of areas where there still might be some gold.
“Gold can make you crazy,” said Archibald.
“And you have to look at it as a job — don’t take it too serious or it’ll eat you alive.”
Back in the ‘80s, when gold was $1,000 an ounce, there were at least 40 placer miners on Bonanza Creek, he said.
“But now there’s only five of us.”
Gold is currently $650 an ounce.
“So, a third of an ounce of gold pays for a barrel of fuel,” said Archibald.
Besides fuel, placer miners must pay to keep their machinery running and some of Jackson’s equipment is older than he is.
“My dozer helped build the Alaska Highway,” he said.
He also has a loader, a backhoe, a trammel and sluice deck.
After finishing his piece of pie, Jackson pulled a small coffee jar from his coat.
Flakes of gold and little bits of magnetite filled a quarter of it.
Archibald lugged out his old manual scale and the men weighed Jackson’s “holiday money.”
He was hoping for 10 ounces, but the scale balanced out at six and a half.
“Maybe I’ll make it to Carmacks this winter,” said Jackson with a laugh.
Just before leaving, Archibald pulled out a map he drew up of French Hill in 1898.
“There were 50 claims on this hill back then,” he said.
Out behind his shed, he pointed out the tumbled remains of an old cabin.
“The miner who lived there is still around,” said Archibald.
“He died in 1954, but he came to the door last October.”
Archibald, who lives alone, was sitting on the couch watching TV when he heard someone knocking.
He yelled for them to come in, but they just kept knocking.
“Finally, I figured I’d scare them, so I crept up to the door and opened it fast,” he said.
But there was no one there.
“And I was the one that got scared.”
Like Archibald, Jackson lives alone.
“Not too many women put up with this,” he said with a smile.
“But if you have a full belly and a warm roof, what else do you need?”
“Doug will find out he’s not going to do anything else,” said Archibald.
“He’s always going to be mining, whether he makes money or not.”
“It calls you,” said Jackson.
“It’s always called me.”