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GOLD! : Prospectors Dig for Riches : 'Frontiersmen' Trek to Alaska Seeking Treasure

October 24, 1985|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — Jack Spaulding's summer vacation this year was, um, interesting. Among other things, Spaulding:

- Slept on a cot in a windowless building with a leaky roof every night for six weeks.

- Shoveled dirt and carried it around in buckets, sometimes for 11 hours a day.

- Fought off clouds of mosquitoes wherever he went.

- Sat in a bus that didn't go anywhere for 13 hours--overnight--while the temperature fell into the 30s.

Not exactly luxury living. But consider that Spaulding returned to San Diego with $244 that he didn't have when he left. In gold.

Heading North

Spaulding is among a handful of San Diegans who went gold prospecting near Nome, Alaska, this year with the Gold Prospectors Assn. of America, a Fallbrook-based organization that has property and mining claims in several Western states, including Alaska. The association offers the trips each summer, and about 350 men and women from all over the United States signed up this year, according to Stephen Teter, a spokesman for the association and editor of its monthly magazine, Gold Prospector.

The cost of the trips--about $2,000 for the first week and $1,000 for each additional week--is enough to make you realize that gold isn't only found in the ground. But Teter said the price is a bargain considering that it includes air fare, food and prospecting equipment.

"To fly up there, stake your claims and get your own food and equipment up there would cost you twice what we charge, if you went to the same area," he said. Besides, most of the people who go on the trips are not accomplished prospectors, "and you learn more about prospecting than you would in 20 years on your own."

Jack Messersmith, president of Southwest Miners and Prospectors, a San Diego group, agreed that "if you're interested in prospecting for gold, about the only way you're going to learn anything is to go with a club. People who work with gold are clannish and very secretive."

Reuben Tullis, who went to Alaska for the second time with the association this year, said that "the big advantage of going with a group like this is that you don't need to worry about housing, transportation and finding a site to prospect. About half of your time as a prospector is wasted hunting for sites" that will yield some gold.

Spaulding was also a second-time participant. "I swore after I went the first time (in 1984) that I'd never go back again, because the weather was so bad. . . . But after a year you sort of forget about all the bad stuff," said Spaulding, 60, a Linda Vista resident who retired from his job as a planning and estimating supervisor at North Island Naval Air Station five years ago.

Spaulding and Tullis, 68, a retired assistant electrical engineer for the City of San Diego, were also able to reduce the cost of a six-week trip to about $2,000 each by signing on as members of the association's "work crew." They spent three weeks working on equipment and facilities at the claim site and had three weeks for prospecting on their own.

After meeting in Nome on July 7, Tullis, Spaulding and other eager prospectors rode by bus to a river about 46 miles east. There they were supposed to be met by a truck that would take them upriver, but the truck broke down on the way and the group had to wait overnight in the bus.

"Some of the guys built a fire outside--it was cold," Spaulding recalled.

Finally, the truck arrived and took them 12 miles upriver. From there, they had to cover the last two miles into camp on foot.

"It's wild, primitive country," said Tullis, describing the treeless tundra that surrounds the association's camp on the Casadepaga River, just below the Arctic Circle. "There are no other people around. And there's no glow on the horizon at night from any city."

Hot Shower Costs $5

The association's facilities on the Casadepaga include an equipment shed, a mess hall and "condominiums"--long wooden buildings divided into cubicles that sleep six people each. Pit toilets are outside. A hot shower costs $5. There's plenty of food, but almost all of it comes out of cans or boxes. "And the mosquitoes are out all the time," Spaulding said. "Clouds of them."

So what's the attraction?

"Gold fever is catching," said Tullis, who has spent the last 10 summers prospecting in Idaho, Arizona and California. "You're always looking for something bigger and better.

"Besides, our accommodations were luxurious compared to what (prospectors during the Alaska Gold Rush) had. I saw one old shack up there that had one small room with a stove and a bunk bed. And this was some guy's year-round habitation."

Tullis, an avid reader of chroniclers of Alaskan life such as Jack London and Robert W. Service, said that one of the things he enjoyed most about the trip was the feeling that he was following in the footsteps of the old prospectors. "It gives you a sense of what the hardships of the Far North were like," he said.

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