Panners battle for gold in the Klondike

DAWSON CITY At the sound of the starting signal, a silence fell over the competition area. All that could be heard was the swishing of water and…


At the sound of the starting signal, a silence fell over the competition area.

All that could be heard was the swishing of water and the crackle of gravel as it poured into the pans.

The churning pans made me think of a school of piranhas thrashing about in the water at the smell of blood.

Then the crowd broke into chants and cheers as they encouraged their favourite panners. By the end of the week, hundreds of onlookers were cheering their favourites.

When each panner had recovered their gold, placed it in the vial and sealed it closed with the cork, they held their pan high into the air to signal their time, shouting loudly to ensure the timekeepers caught the gesture. And it was over very quickly because these were the fastest panners in the world.

More than 350 competitors from 20 countries converged on Dawson for the week-long event from August 20th to 26th for the World Goldpanning Championship .

The youngest was only 23 months old. The eldest celebrated his 77th birthday during the week.

One panner was competing with a prosthetic arm; another was legally blind. They all share a common passion for panning gold.

Before the competition started, I talked to some of the panners about their prospects in the event, which was organized by the Klondike Visitors Association and supported by nearly 40 other sponsors.

Ulla Kallander-Karlsson, from Sweden, confessed that she had never won a major title, either national or world. She had placed second, losing out by two seconds on more than one occasion.

She said that she had won a competition once in one minute and 13 seconds.

Kallander-Karlsson said that if the dirt was of the right consistency, then a one-minute pan was possible. In Dawson, the dirt was right for that, but another competitor told me that fast dirt makes it easier to lose your flakes, so there is a trade-off.

Was Dawson City going to produce a one-minute pan? Would someone at this competition walk away with the reputation as the Roger Bannister of the gold panning world?

The concept behind the event is quite simple: in each heat, the panners must recover a given number of tiny flakes from a five gallon bucket of specially prepared dirt.

Only the chief judge knows before the heat starts how many flakes there are in each bucket. Whoever recovers all the flakes in the fastest time wins. The prize at stake: the gold medal and an ounce of Klondike gold

It is glory, not money that drives the hundreds of competitors who converged on Dawson last week. The gold panning community is a unique universe in which the panners travel to all corners of the globe to prove their prowess in recovering flakes of gold as small as .5 mm.

The competition is held annually in a different country. It has been held in Australia, South Africa, Japan, the United States, and all over Europe. Dawson has hosted the events four times (1984,1990,1996 2007), more than any other country except Finland.

The panners told me that they start saving up to come to Dawson City years before the actual event. I asked why.

Dawson City has universal appeal to gold panners, they told me, because it is an area where gold mining still goes on today.

They also come because of the history. Many of the competitors told me about their links to the gold rush. Pirjo Muotkajarvi, this year’s Finnish women’s champion, told me of her great uncle Herman, who died in Fairbanks in the early 1900s.

He left a small inheritance, she said, and the family in Finland didn’t know what to do with the money, so they stayed drunk for three months, and then were poor again.

Then there were the Johnsson Brothers (Joutsen in Finnish), who returned to Finland with a fortune. When these bachelor miners died, they left a large sum of money to a Finnish University.

Ken Karlsson from Sweden also told me stories of the Scandinavian connections to the Klondike.

There is much historical information if you can read Swedish. He promised to send me some information, and I vowed to learn enough Swedish to read the material.

Everyone seemed to remember the great reindeer caper of 1898 (Yukon News, June 1). The level of awareness of our history held by the competitors was impressive.

My volunteer job the championship was master of ceremonies. This entailed making announcements, introducing the events, starting each heat, and urging the competitors to the competition to keep the competition on schedule.

The real challenge was to successfully identify them and call out their names correctly.

Each language is different: the “J” in Scandinavian countries sounds like a “Y”, while in Spain, it sounds like “H.”

The “G” in Dutch sounds rather like you’re clearing your throat, and the “S” in German sometimes sounds like “SH.”

For three days, I mispronounced one competitor’s name, faithfully introducing him as “numbskull,” until he graciously told me the correct pronunciation.

I managed to handle the names reasonably well and in the end, many of the competitors and one broadcaster from Finland told me I did a good job.

I tried to imagine a job going from one event to another hiring out as an emcee introducing the competitors, but decided I’d have better luck staying home and pursuing history.

As the week progressed, the competitors were narrowed down to the fastest and the best until the finals took place on Sunday, August 26th.

A number of Canadians made it through to the final heats, including Noreen Sailor of Dawson City, who placed in the finals of both the veterans and women’s events.

Sunday afternoon, the bleachers were full, and the crowd crushed up against the fence surrounding the competition area.

Fans from Finland and Sweden chanted in counterpoint while the Poles, the Swiss, the Americans and the Canadians all injected howls of support for their favourite competitors.

The atmosphere was electric as the final heats commenced. Everyone was intensely focused.

If they panned too slow to recover all of the flakes in their dirt, their time would not be good enough. If they panned too fast, they risked losing flakes. Whose strategy would win?

In the men’s event, the heat was completed in blazing time. Ken Karlsson finished in one minute, eight seconds, but did he recover all his flakes?

All the men were finished in under three minutes, a speed that boggles the imagination.

The women’s heat was completed almost as quickly as the men’s. Was Ulla Kalander-Karlsson to be crowned the new champion rather than bride’s maid?

Would Noreen Sailor succeed in capturing the title of champion?

The Finns are considered the best panners in the world. Would they sweep all of the final events?

A young panner from South Africa, Surprise Thulelo, had been panning with confidence all week. Would he be the new junior champion?

Would the Finns win the team event as they had three of the last four years?

Back in 1896, could the prospectors panning waters of the creeks of the Klondike have imagined that some day panning would be elevated to such a competitive level?

The Results:

Children under 11: Ryley Love-Moore (Canada) recovered all eight flakes in 05:41.7

Juniors 15 and under: Jon Rossi (Finland) recovered all eight flakes in 04:27.5

Traditional Pan: Venla Karkola (Finland) recovered nine flakes in 05:00.4

Veterans (Age 60+): Antti Seppala (Finland) recovered all 12 flakes in  01:45.8

Proficient Men: Veikko Karanen (Finland) recovered all nine flakes in 01:15.0

Proficient Women: Ulla Kalander-Karlsson (Sweden) recovered all 11 flakes in 01:42.0

National Team (five-member): Great Britain recovered all 19 flakes in 13:12.6