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Them Thar Hills : PIONEERING ON THE YUKON: 1892-1917 By Anna DeGraf Edited by Roger S. Brown : (Archon Books/Shoe String Press, P.O. Box 4327, Hamden, CT 06514, (203) 248-6307: $19.50; 126 pp., illustrated) : ARCTIC SCHOOL TEACHER: Kulukak, Alaska, 1931-1933: By Abbie Morgan Madenwald (University of Oklahoma Press: $19.95; 196 pp., illustrated)

April 04, 1993|Roger Welsch | Welsch is a correspondent/commentator on the CBS news show "Sunday Morning."

Actually, I should be reviewing "Klondike: The Chicago Record's Book for Gold Seekers," published in 1897, because that's the Arctic adventure book I grew up with 50 years ago. I have no idea how the book came to be in our carefully unadventurous Midwestern home, but there it was, and I darn near memorized it before I moved on to "Treasure Island" and the South Seas. To this day I can tell you how to build a sluice box or cradle, I can tell you how to extract mercury from a gold amalgam (hold it in a shovel over a fire--and I wonder how many miners died of mercury poisoning from that bit of misinformation), and how many pounds of bacon (200), boxes of matches (60) and pounds of oakum (10, whatever oakum is) a man needs to survive a year in the gold fields.

On the other hand, I can't tell you how many times in my dreams I harnessed my dogs for that trip to stake my claim, drove off claim jumpers, and thought up ingenious places to conceal my canvas bag-- large canvas bag--of nuggets. God, it was wonderful to be out there challenging the elements, utterly independent and yet inevitably linked with my good-hearted comrades in the camp. My mother tells me that some mornings after I had spent an evening with "Klondike," I woke up with frostbitten toes. Those pages prepared me for great adventure and gave me confidence that I would have been a wonderfully successful pioneer. Yessir, that was the kind of fantasy from which comes the best reality.

Fifteen years ago a friend and I were driving some back roads near Breckenridge, Colo.; I was playing tourist and he was my host. We were looking at the impressive remnants of huge gold-processing barges that had been used to mine the streams of the area (and, incidentally, almost reduce it to a wasteland in the process). On a narrow dirt road, miles from anywhere, we came upon a lone figure in rags, trudging his way with a back pack. We hadn't seen anything remotely representing civilization for an hour and this road wasn't getting any better, so I asked my pal, "Who do you suppose that guy is and where is he going?"

My friend eased on his brakes, saying, "I've run into this guy before. He's a gold prospector, lives back here in a little shack, walks into town once a month or so for supplies. He never asks for anything, but when I run across him, I give him a ride. Interesting character."

We rolled to a stop and the ragged figure on the road walked easily up to us, obviously willing to accept a ride but in no way indicating that he needed a ride. I moved to the center of the truck's cab and the prospector--surprisingly young, now that I saw him up close--crawled in beside me. "How's it going?" I asked.

"Just fine, Professor Welsch," he said.

"Flabbergasted" isn't enough to cover my astonishment. To make a long story short, it turned out that he had been a student of mine years before, had gone into the business world upon graduation, hated every minute of it, dived out, apprenticed himself to a Wyoming prospector and became a gold-panner himself, which he had now been for nearly a decade.

We took him to his tiny trailer-cabin, about the size of two refrigerators. He had a bed, a wall of books, a few clothes and a small stove. Outside, he had a small sluice box, some pans and buckets. We spent the rest of the day with him as he told us of his life--some years he made $400, some $12,000. He showed us small vials of "wire gold," and nuggets that had enough weight to them that they had heft and lay heavy in the hand. He threw a shovelful of gravel from a nearby creek into his sluice box, showed us how to use a pan, and helped us wield tweezers to pick the thin strands of gold from the black sand.

It was not a year before I was back to his cabin to spend a couple days, trying my hand at making my own fortune panning gold. When the stint was over, I was cold, sore from bending and kneeling, tired, dirty and about 37 cents richer. But you know, my lust for the thrill of gold--not just some thing for nothing, but gold for nothing--was not in the least diminished.

I ran into the same guy a couple months ago; he has returned to the less romantic world of business. I said that I had always hoped to spend another couple of weeks with him sometime, trying our hand at the sluice box again, but now that he was a three-piece-suit man. . . . He stopped me in mid-sentence. All I had to do, he assured me, was say the word and he would throw all we needed into his pickup and within hours we could be cold and wet and tired again, and--who knows?--maybe rich.

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