Nome, Alaska: There’s gold on that ther beach!

Nome, Alaska was incorporated as a town in 1901, because of a gold rush. In the late 1800s, gold was discovered in the mountains around Nome; in the early 1900s, more gold was discovered in the sand on the edge of the Bering Sea.

There’s still lots of gold in Nome. While there’s no longer a full-on gold rush, there’s still considerable gold mining around Nome, and some of its beaches are designated for “recreational mining.”

For three months out of the year, Nome’s beaches are home to the strangest temporary communities you will find outside Burning Man. But these are not well-off techie hipsters who take drugs and dance around a giant fire. They’re folks from Canada and the United States who head up to Nome, where they set up tents and build makeshift houses from reclaimed materials (shipping pallets, old signs, and whatever else they can find) to spend the summer months sifting the beach sand for gold.

There are all kinds of rules on recreational gold mining. Each “claim” is at most 75 feet wide; claims are temporary and evaporate at the end of the season or when you move off the beach; there’s a limit of 40 ounces of gold per person or group per year, which is about $52,000 worth at current market prices. There are limits on the equipment that can be used.

The people who do this are a really interesting bunch. We talked to several folks on the beach, most of whom come up year after year to look for gold. The people we met were friendly and outgoing, willing to show us their equipment and talk about their favorite techniques. Most were cagey about the amount of gold they find every year, but my impression was they generally tend to get about the 40-ounce limit.

Or at least that’s what they declare at the end of the season.

There’s industrial-scale mining as well, but to me, the hobbyist mining is absolutely fascinating.

Summer in Nome is strange: the sun barely ever sets (it’s a little freaky to go outside at midnight and see the sun still high in the sky), so the beach miners tend to work whenever they are awake and sleep whenever they’re tired–there seems to be little in the way of set schedules. The temperature was pleasant while we were there, though apparently near-constant light rain and occasional storms are normal during parts of the summer. It is still Alaska, which means the environment is still hostile enough to produce the occasional odd survival event without warning; as a result, the community tends to be close-knit, with everyone watching out for everyone else…interesting to see in folks who are prone to say they enjoy doing this every year at least partly to get away from other people.

The sand on the beach looks like this. The red color apparently indicates rich gold-bearing sand.

I’m actually considering going up there next year and spending the summer living on the beach panning for gold. Not because I expect to find any or to strike it rich, mind, but simply for the experience of it. It would make one hell of a “how I spent my summer vacation” story! In fact, Eve has suggested I do a Kickstarter to get the equipment I need, with the goal of producing a coffee-table book about the experience and the folks who do it. (There are rumors the state will not be permitting hobbyist mining on the beach next year, though these rumors seem to have been circulating for years–one person we talked to said he heard the same thing several years back when he did it for the first time.)

Back when the 1940s and 1950s, it was common to mine for gold using enormous dredging machines like this one, now in ruins and slowly crumbling into the tundra:

These gigantic hulks are dotted all over the landscape around Nome. They were expensive to build and ship, and woefully inefficient–at best, they might recover 40% of the gold from the sand. In fact, the tailings left behind by these old machines are being mined again with more efficient techniques, and the amount of gold left in them is quite high.

I’m not sure I want to be doing this, but I am very sure I want to have done it. The book that would come out of this experience would be amazing.

Nome, Alaska: Ruins of the White Alice facility

There’s a mountain overlooking Nome. It’s called Anvil Mountain, and on that mountain is a kind of monument to the Cold War. You can see it from just about anywhere in town. These four enormous antennas squat over the landscape, a silent testament to the money and lives squandered on endless political bickering.

When I saw them, I had to check them out.

These four antennas are part of the old “White Alice” system, a communication system that was part of the old Distant Early Warning radar installation all along Alaska, constantly searching the sky for signs of Russian bombers sneaking over the Arctic and heading across Canada toward the United States.

The system was designed in the 1950s, when fear of the Commies was really starting to gain traction. The Distant Early Warning line was a set of remote high-powered radar facilities all along Alaska, but the designers had a problem. Alaska is huge. If you count the string of islands that extends from its western edge, many of which were home to DEW radar, Alaska is about the same distance stem to stern as the distance from California to New York.

And there are no roads, no telephone lines, and no power lines. Even today, there is no way to get to Nome by road; roads linking it to the rest of Alaska simply do not exist. You get in and out by air or barge, and that’s it.

The radar stations along the DEW line needed to be able to talk to command and control centers. Normal radio wouldn’t work; Alaska is so large that the curve of the earth renders line-of-sight radio unworkable.

So the Air Force came up with an idea: troposphere scattering. Basically, they decided to use enormous antennas pointed at the horizon to blast an immensely powerful radio signal, so strong it would bounce and scatter from the upper layers of the atmosphere, reaching stations beyond the curve of the earth.

The system was code-named “White Alice” and was built at enormous cost in the 1950s and operated through the 1970s, when satellite communication made it obsolete. By the time it was decommissioned, there were 71 of these stations, including the one on Anvil Mountain.

Eve and I borrowed a 4×4 and drove up the mountain. The facility is surrounded by a chain-link fence that has long since been pulled down and yanked apart in places. An ancient, battered sign warns trespassers that it’s a restricted area; the locals seem to use it for target practice.

The White Alice installations were powered by enormous diesel generators. Each of the four antennas at a facility consumed up to 10 KW of power; the generators provided power for the transmitters, the living quarters, and small line-of-site microwave dishes that provided short-range communication.

Most of the White Alice facilities have been completely dismantled. Several of them are toxic waste sites, as diesel fuel and other contaminants have been dumped all over the place.

When the Anvil Mountain White Alice facility was decommissioned, the residents of Nome asked the Corps of Engineers to leave the four big antennas. Everything else is gone.

These antennas are huge–about five stories tall.

Cost overruns, under-engineered specifications, and overly optimistic maintenance projections made the White Alice project run ten times over budget. Most of the materials to build the installations–hundreds of tons of equipment for each one–were shipped to remote mountain peaks by dogsled. Airbases were constructed at many of the sites to get fuel, people, and supplies in and out. Technicians worked at these sites year round, facing minus 30 degree weather or worse during the winter.

We went up twice, once during the afternoon and once at 1:30 in the morning to watch the simultaneous sunrise and sunset. I can only imagine how miserable it must have been to work here; in the middle of one of the warmest summers on record, when Nome was facing over-70-degree weather, it was cold and windy on top of the mountain. Winter, when the sun hardly comes up, must have been brutal.

I used my smartphone to take a panorama showing the whole installation from the very peak of Anvil Mountain. Click to embiggen!

Nome, Alaska: The Last Train to Nowhere

As the result of a lengthy and somewhat improbable series of events, I’m in Nome, Alaska with my sweetie Eve, working on another book.

A few days back, we took a drive on the one road that goes through Nome. Nome is inaccessible by car; the only road links it to the nearby towns of Council and Teller.

If you drive out toward Council, a trip I recommend only during the summer and then only in a large 4WD vehicle, about twenty miles from Nome you’ll come across the long-deserted ghost town of Solomon, a leftover from the gold rush in the early 1900s. Near Solomon, you’ll find what’s left of a failed attempt to bring rail service to Nome.

In 1903, an enterprising group of people formed a company to build a railroad to serve the gold mines near Solomon. They bought a bunch of secondhand elevated railway engines from New York City and hauled them up to Nome by barge.

In 1907, a storm washed out the one rail bridge between Solomon and Nome, leaving the trains stranded on the edge of the water. The company folded and simply walked away, leaving the trains where they were, to quietly rust away into the tundra.

That seems to be a common theme in Alaska. The landscape is dotted with abandoned mining equipment, wrecked construction vehicles, and huge pieces of machinery simply left where they were when they became inoperable.

The locals call this steam engine graveyard “The Last Train to Nowhere.”

Even during the summer, it’s cold and windy here. The train never was reliable under the best of circumstances, so it’s no surprise there was no effort to replace it.