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PUBLISHED: 9:28 AM on Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Fortune of fun in Gold Creek

Photo by Rosie Milligan
  A man pans for gold at Gold Creek.
Gold and its promise of overnight riches and outdoor adventure brought scores of Americans to Alaska more than a century ago.

The town of Juneau turned into an overnight miner's camp in 1887 when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris struck gold in Gold Creek. A decade later, prospectors found gold nearby in Canada's Yukon Territory setting off the Klondike Gold Rush. Jack London captured the frenzy in the Call of the Wild: "Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland."

Skyrocketing gold prices in the past two years have captivated the financial world, just as they did in Jack London's time. Earlier this week, the price of an ounce of gold was going for about $625, up from about $250 five years ago.

Truth be told: You're not going to make a fortune searching a Juneau creek with a pan and a shovel, but you're going to have fun, and, if you pick the right place, you'll find something yellow and glittering. Just ask Renee Hughes, manager of the Last Chance Mining Museum.

"There was a film crew here a while back and I told them I could find gold in five minutes. They doubted me so we went down to the creek and in less than five minutes, I had found them some gold," she said.

At the end of Basin Road, the Last Chance Mining Museum overlooks Gold Creek. It occupies an historic compressor building once owned by the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company, which closed in 1944. At the time the price of an ounce of gold in the U.S. was 35 dollars. In its 13th year, the museum houses an interesting collection of hard rock mining tools and equipment, maps, and photographs. It also sells panning kits, which include a black plastic pan, a vial and a suction device to draw up flecks.


Photo by Rosie Milligan
  A family pans for gold at Gold Creek as part of an excursion with Alaska Travel Adventures.
Local tour operator Alaska Travel Adventures brings about 16,000 people to pan for gold in Gold Creek every summer. The company's hour and a half tour includes a nice history of gold in Juneau, and a tutorial on how to pan. John Severin, who works as a tour guide for the company on summer weekends says some people get hooked on panning after finding their first gold.

"It's like finding money in a parking lot. It's emotional, humans are naturally attracted to gold," he said.

Jerry Harmon and his wife Beverly started AJ Mine/Gastineau Mill Enterprises in Thane six years ago. Jerry Harmon says searching for gold is like a treasure hunt.

"When you go into a creek and you've never been there before and you start moving rocks around, there's always that excitement of finding your first piece of gold," he said."

The Harmons offer an underground mining tour. The entrance to their site is a few miles past the cruise ship docks. Visitors travel about a quarter of a mile up Mt. Roberts via a steep one-lane dirt road to massive cement ruins of the Gastineau Mine. Rusted "man cars," which once carried miners underground, huge drills and other ghostly equipment lines the route and recalls the words of Canadian poet Robert Service: I scrabbled and mucked like a slave, Was it famine or scurvy-I fought it; I hurled my youth into a grave.

The tour travels to the ore crushing plant and conveyer tunnel. Outfitted with hardhats, visitors watch demonstrations of old gold mining equipment. The tour culminates with a gold panning session.

Recreational prospectors can pan for gold in Juneau without taking a tour. Gold Creek by the bridge to the Last Chance Mining Museum is a good place to look. Local experts also recommend checking out Sheep Creek on Thane Road, Bullion Creek in the Treadwell Mine area and Eagle, Nugget and Salmon Creeks off Egan Drive.

If after panning for gold flecks in Juneau's creek beds, you find you want to spend time looking for something bigger, there are camps around the state set up for vacationing and weekend prospectors. Ganes Creek, outside of McGrath, promotes itself as the place to find nuggets. For more information check out http://www.clark-wiltz.com/. The Gold Prospectors Association of America (www.goldprospectors.org) runs an eight-week summer camp on the Cripple River outside Nome. Visitors stay in rustic accommodations, eat in a chow hall, and spend a lot of time looking for gold. Each week organizers tally up findings and participants for that week split the collective treasure. Organizers say it's fully booked this year, but they're taking reservations for 2007.


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