Steve Phillips Alaska Journal - Summer 2015
For 20+ years Steve Phillips has been going to Nome Alaska each summer as a gold prospector, miner and dredger. He keeps a journal for his granddaughter, Emily, & calls it "Emily’s Book". He has now published this dive journal, containing 200 pages of info and over 200 photos. Contact Steve at 205-672-9310, or firstname.lastname@example.org for your copy. Here is the 2015 edition.
Steve Phillips Diving for Gold in Nome Alaska 2015 - Year 23
(hold your mouse over the picture for a brief description)
It's been a long day. Jimmie Eckroth and I left Birmingham yesterday about noon and we've been going ever since. It is now midnight of the next day and we are in my cabin seven miles out West Beach in Nome Alaska. This is my 23rd year in a row to spend my summer dredging for gold up here. We arrived in Nome at noon today and started getting my vehicles running. I have seven ATVs and Polaris six wheel Rangers. We have two fixed up and running now and will get to the others as more people come and we need them. The most constant thing each year is fixing. Fixing broken vehicles, fixing broken stuff in camp and then starting to fix dredges. Then the next day comes and we do it again. We fixed two tires today that had holes and just aired up the rest. My newest Ranger that is only one year old was running loud and overheating. It was so hot it melted the seat. Jimmie replaced what we call donuts in the exhaust system. I stock spares for just about everything on dredges and vehicles. He cut his hand and arm up replacing the parts. The Ranger runs good now until the next time which will be soon when something else breaks. The cabin was in good shape and we only had to spend five or six hours cleaning and fixing. Lots more time will be spent on the cabin. No damage from bears this year. We got drinking water in town and Penny river water for showers and washing dishes . Bought a few hundred dollars worth of gasoline, and it is a little cheaper this year, only $5.50 a gallon. bought food at Hanson's, prices were high, but this is a gold town and everything is flown in. Prices have always been high in a gold town and that's okay with me. You just have to find more gold than you spend. Most people don't. When we rode down to the Penny River to get water, we saw two baby seals on the beach. They were very small and I don't expect either to survive. Their mother is probably dead. I've seen many seals over the years on the beach missing their heads. I assume orcas are killing them. We usually see many whales early in the summer. Tomorrow we will start getting the first dredge working so Jimmie can get in the sea within a couple of days. My second dredge will be got ready in a few more days. Jimmie is the most important to get out working. He is much younger and stronger than me and needs to find lots of gold for him and to help pay my expenses. It's half past midnight now, and of course it's still daylight outside. This part of summer, it doesn't get totally dark at all. I'm tired, goodnight.
Yesterday we worked all day on
Jimmie's dredge. One of the Honda pumps didn't run good until we changed the
carburetor. The first two outboard motors have issues that we couldn't fix so I
will work on them in camp in a few days. I have eight outboard motors, so we got
one of the others, and now his dredge is ready to go out today.
I haven't written in my journal
for awhile because my mind has been elsewhere. It is very difficult this year
for all miners working in Nome. The city government, the gold company (Nome
Gold), and the Eskimo corporation are each causing nightmares for miners. Add to
that about a dozen government agencies that want to show that they exist and
have power, and you realize Nome is not a good place to be this summer. Ever
since I arrived this year I have each day been trying to buy some land outside
of Nome to store my equipment during the winter. I have offered to buy six
different properties and each time failed until the last one. The real estate
agent operated unethically three times and told the nearby land owners that a
miner was buying next to them, and let them kill my purchase and them buy the
land. This is not ethical behavior and would not be tolerated in the lower 48,
but this is Nome and I don't have time to straighten out petty crooks. I think I
have bought 3 1/2 acres about seven miles from Nome for $35,000. This is not
gold bearing land, has no trees, and requires an expensive pad and road to be
built before I can even store my equipment there. There's no price like Nome.
The weather has turned cold and windy so Jimmie has only been able to dredge
about 16 hours so far. My second dredge is ready to go in the water now and I
will use it. I will be teaching a 21year old Russian boy named Sasha to dredge.
He has been coming to Nome for four summers and has enough experience that I
think he can do good with my help. He is a good kid who doesn't drink and has
excellent manners. He seems to be willing to work and I like him. We had a
miners meeting in town today where just miners got together and voiced our
grievances about all the harassment we are getting from all agencies and their
petty and useless edits that they gave us at the other miners meeting a few days
ago. At that meeting there were about 200 miners listening to about a dozen
different agencies tell us about all their rules and regulations concerning
mining something that none of them do or know anything about. None of the miners
were allowed to speak except one loudmouth redneck from Alabama who butted in.
That would be me. I'm just too old and too Southern to be dictated to by people
who are supposed to be working for me. Anyway, just like Scarlet said, tomorrow
is another day. I hope the waves, the wind, and the government parasites let up.
We are finally getting down to
dredging. The weather is good now and waves are down. Yesterday I went out with
Sasha and I dredged a couple of hours and found little to no gold,but did
succeed in exhausting myself. I am too old for ocean dredging. I think I can do
fine in creeks and rivers. Sasha is learning fast and he dredged a couple hours
yesterday and found a little gold. Jimmie and I are most concerned with keeping
Sasha safe. A 21 year old boy is just that. Today I did nothing but go to town
and goof off. I didn't fix any of the broken stuff on my dredge that broke
yesterday. My 6 inch suction hose broke in half and must be repaired and put
back in the jet. My 13 hp Honda failed to start after 2 dives and I did
everything I could while out and couldn't get fire to the spark plug. It either
has a problem with the magneto or wiring. We have my third dredge working now
and it is for Sasha. Jimmie and Sasha dredged long hours today on the two
dredges. Jimmie dredged 7 hours and Sasha 5. Sasha is learning our ways pretty
fast, but we will keep our boot up his butt for awhile. They both found pretty
good gold. I cooked steak, baked potato, and rice for supper.
Don Sublett came up Sunday from
Birmingham. He will be here goofing off with me for a few weeks. He and I fixed
the busted suction hose on my dredge, then tackled the 13 HP Honda engine on one
of my pumps. It gave no spark and I tried everything I knew and finally had to
replace the magneto. It works now. Yesterday one of Sasha's engines gave it up.
It is in terrible shape from several years of salt water use. His water heater
was shot and the thin metal housing of the Honda engine was disintegrating. I
junked it out and we set up a new one for him. The waves are coming up now and
Jimmie and Sasha are only getting a few hours in each day or none. Jimmie did a
clean up and panned out 6 1/2 oz. for the time up here so far. Sasha only had
about 1 1/2 oz.
Today the Polaris 500 tore up a
drive belt. Don and I replaced it. I picked up Spencer and my granddaughter
Emily. Emily will be up for a few weeks and Spence for two months. Hopefully we
will have three dredges out tomorrow, and hope for a long period of dredging
Yesterday we had a problem more
serious than most. Emily was sick and throwing up. The rest of us had headaches
and were dizzy. During the night the propane refrigerator was putting out too
much carbon monoxide and poisoned us. Emily and Jimmie were the sickest so I
carried them to the GPAA camp at Cripple River and got my friends Carol Wolfe
and Ron McKee to work on them. They are the medics for the gold camp. The
treatment was pure oxygen for about an hour and they were much better. Spence
worked on the refrigerator and better vented it. I bought a couple of carbon
monoxide sensors and no one is sick this morning. The waves came up Again so no
ocean dredging. I continue to have trouble with vehicles. Yesterday the newest
Ranger was making a grinding noise and we found out the oil had leaked out from
a loose oil filter. It is now in the shop at Morgan's.
This story will be continued. We have three more months in Nome and gold is coming in better now and maybe our problems will ease up.
This morning I got up about 4:30 and had coffee, whiskey, and cigar before anyone else wakes up. I stoked up the wood stove to chase the chill. Everything is good. Yesterday we took the used 3/4 ton pick up truck that I bought a couple days ago from Vern Adkinson and loaded 3 ATV's on to my 16' worn out trailer and hauled them to a small mountain near Arctic Creek. The trailer is falling apart, but still did the job. They saw a falcon flying around the cliff. Don and I stayed in the truck to stay warm. Emily is doing fine up here, no whining or bellyaching. She is the best female I have had in my camp. Jano gave me a 20' container and it was hauled to the land I bought. I need to get my other container hauled over there. Today the waves are up again, so no gold coming in, only money going out. Today we will start moving stuff out to the land I bought. The other guys are starting to stir now, so I better quit writing and start cooking pancakes for Emy.
This past week the weather & waves have been good, so the dredges were able to operate. Routine repairs to vehicles & dredges each day. Sasha did a cleanup of his concentrates from the last 30 hours of dredging and found 7 1/4 oz gold. This was mostly fine gold and not much coarse. He averaged 1/4 oz for each hour underwater, and that is really good since the gold is much harder to find than it was a couple of years ago. Dredging days with little to no gold are common now. Emily has been playing with seals on the beach some this week. Don't get too close, they bite.
Spencer, Jimmie, and Sasha have been getting a lot of dredging in this week. Breakdowns continue each day, especially on our Rangers and ATV's. All three of my Polaris Rangers have major problems that we can't fix ourselves. The oil leaked out of the 2014 Ranger 6x6 and caused serious engine troubles. It has all kinds of electronic sensors built in, but no form of oil gauge or protective sensor. I wish Honda made a 6x6, but they don't. Even our little pump engines have low oil sensors and will stop the engine before damage. The 2011 Ranger 6x6 has a damaged transmission and we are getting it swapped out with the transmission that is in my 2008 Ranger 6x6 that already has a destroyed engine. Needless to say, we are very hard on these vehicles that are not really designed for serious use and certainly not around salt water and sand. If we only used our equipment inland and in and around fresh water our problems would not be very much. Eventually I hope we work more inland and get away from the sea, the salt, and the government regulators. This week Jimmie has been harassed by Dept. of Natural Resources employee two different days, and prevented from dredging both days. You would think these people who we pay would be here to help and assist us, but that is not how it works in our world. After my 69 years I have figured out that if someone is employed by any government agency that their purpose in life is to harass, hurt, and hinder the public. I have no use for them. Gold is a more pleasant subject, and we are finding good gold now, not nearly enough to cover even half of what I've spent this summer in Nome. We hope for good weather so we can dredge and find lots of yellow gold. I will be going home for a few days to take my granddaughter home, but I will return to Nome as soon as I can. Our season is half over.
I went home for a week to escort my granddaughter. She had a great time up here, and I expect her back each year. I have four granddaughters and Emily tells me that she is the closest thing I've got to a grandson, and she is right. This morning I got up about 4:30 and made coffee. I poured in a couple fingers of drinking whiskey as a sweetener and I got a little melancholy thinking about how much I like being here. I teared up a little when I started thinking about my Daddy and how much he would he would like to be here, and how much I wish I could have shown him the Alaska I know. He loved to fish, but never saw a salmon. I would love to have him here at my cabin and fix him biscuits, sausage gravy and eggs like I cooked this morning. He would love the cabin and the idea of roughing it up here, although we are not really roughing it at all. I personally don't care to fish, but Daddy loved fishing. He would get so excited just catching bream or crappie all day. What if he could catch about a dozen big salmon. He's been gone about 20 years now, and anybody reading what I write should spend more time with their mom or dad if they are lucky enough to still have them. On my music machine up here I have a couple thousand old country songs, but today as most days I just play about 50 Kitty Wells songs from the 1950's. She sings like my wife, and makes me even more melancholy.
The weather is better now, and dredging is getting better for my guys. Spence, Jimmie, and Sasha are each dredging 5 or 6 hours underwater each day now and finding better gold. Breakdowns continue , but have eased up some. My expenses have been very high, and I doubt that I break even for the year, but really I don't much care. Life is good.
Spence and Jimmie have been able to get dredging time a few days this week and they tell me the gold is better. Spence found a 3.6 pennyweight nugget yesterday.
Jimmie and Spence have dredged the last 5 days, and are now finding good gold each day. We need it. About 90 percent of all dredges up here never dredge. They wait for perfect weather and visibility. The waves and wind are up this morning so we are going to our inland claims about 60 miles from Nome.
We are at the Casadepaga River now at my Monument camp. We hauled one 6x6 Ranger and a loaded trailer on our big trailer and the Yamaha ATV in the bed of the truck. We brought lots of equipment to leave here and 35 gallons of gas. Spence and Jimmie went fishing in the river and caught about a dozen Dolly Varden and Grayling. They kept enough to feed us tonight. The water in all creeks and rivers is very low this year and will limit what kind of gold prospecting we can do. The camp is in pretty good shape this year, and only one part of one cabin had been invaded by animals. I think it was just foxes. No bear damage this year. We traveled around several miles of this area and spent some time exploring an old abandoned bucket line dredge on lower Willow Creek near one of my claims. Relics are all over the interior areas. They fished some more and turned all loose. We set up a new small high banker right in front of our cabins and shoveled into it for less than two hours. It worked good and we found good color. Not much gold in weight, but more than you would find in a couple days in the lower 48. We didn't prospect any but just started digging in an existing hole. I'm sure gold is on all my claims. I have 200 acres of claims. We only stayed two nights and are back in our West Beach cabin now. The waves are up so no dredging for a few days. Jimmie is panning out his gold from the last few weeks. I cooked fajitas for supper and ate too much. It was good. I started this day off before they got up with whiskey in my coffee, and I'm finishing tonight with whiskey in my coffee. Not an everyday deal, but it is a some days deal. Wild Turkey is hard to beat.
I feel a little melancholy this morning. I am very impressed with my guys. They are special. Yesterday Spence had a broken 6 inch hose while he was out. He called me and luckily I had the generator running so my phone worked. He told me to bring the generator and grinder so we could repair his hose &I reinstall it. I was eager to get out of the cabin and be involved with our great adventure. We repaired the damage and got him back out. He got 5 hours underwater. Jimmie had a broken pull start assembly that could not be repaired, with a broken spring. Instead of quitting as most people would have done, he cranked one engine, then removed the assembly and put it on the broke engine. He cranked it and left both engines running all day. Jimmie got 6 hours underwater. Most dredgers would have quit for the day over either of these problems, if they got out at all. Sasha must not have had any bad problems, and he was able to get 9 1/2 hours underwater. I am very proud of my guys. The weather is good now and we hope to be able to make up for some of the lost time of the last two months. Pancakes, bacon, & eggs for breakfast.
Robert Service wrote the best poems about miners and Alaska, but I don't think he ever wrote one about the guys who just won't quit. He should have. Then again, he didn't know my guys.
Whitecaps and whiskey. I got up about 4:00 and it's dark now, not like early in summer. Wind and waves are up so I flavored my coffee with a little Turkey. I'll fix breakfast in awhile, and get Spence & Jimmie up. Listening to Kitty Wells on the music maker. Yesterday the boys worked on a couple 9hp Hondas that have failed to work. I got the air compressor and rebuilt the reed valves so it gives good breathing air now. The engines are a different story, and continue to befuddle us. The boys took one totally apart so they could examine the internal guts to try and find the cause of the ailment. The diagnosis is that we don't have a clue. I panned out Spence's gold from the last several weeks, and he had pretty good gold, over 10 ozs. Sasha also did a clean up and his was awful. He didn't find enough to pay for gas. It takes years to learn how to track gold and prospect on the bottom. Spence has been coming up here since he was 15, and he is pushing 40 now. Sasha came out here yesterday and managed to crash his ATV into a log on the beach. He tore up the ATV and himself. He looks like he was in a bar fight and lost. His head and eyes are all swollen and cut up. He took one of our steaks and stuck it on his face for an hour or two to try to preserve his prettiness. I told him to just man up and hurt for a couple weeks. I wouldn't let him take the cellophane wrapper off our steak so he couldn't foul our meat. Jimmie and Spence loaded the busted ATV into the bed of our truck and hauled it and Sasha back into town. Our two Honda engines didn't get fixed due to the interruption.
The weather is bad for dredging. Spence and Jimmie are working on three Honda 9 HP engines. They replaced the piston and rings, and got rid of a bind that was causing trouble in one of them. Another we have been working on for a couple weeks. It runs only slow. I think the governor mechanism doesn't work. They washed out all the oil with gasoline, and will see if that helps. The third one is seized up and has been for a year or so. They just got the first one back together, and I hear it running. Good.
Two days ago Spencer rode the Yamaha ATV to go dredge and crashed. He didn't hit a rock or log, but the nut came off the steering arm and allowed the left front wheel to flop over, and then the A-arm broke which collapsed the left front and flipped the ATV. It landed on top of Spence and crushed him into the sand and rocks. Luckily he was not hurt badly. I took him to the hospital and he was x-rayed and checked out for a couple hours. Nothing is broken, just strained and bruised. He is just laying around for a few days now and will go home on Thursday. The weather is turning bad today and we expect a pretty big storm this week.
The cabin is trembling and has been for a day and night. The winds are up to about 40 miles an hour. The seas are high and the beach is mostly gone. I hope our three dredges have survived in town. We pulled them up to the tundra on Sunday, and tied them to whatever could be found. The storm is pretty bad, but I've seen much worse in some years. All part of the adventure. Alaska can be easy or rough depending on how long you stay. It beats watching golf on TV. Spencer & Jimmie are out riding ATVs in the storm to try and find a dead walrus washed in on the beach. They took knives, an axe, and hammer to use to remove the head.
Spencer went home two days ago, so just Jimmie and me for the next few weeks. This morning the waves were down and it looked like Jimmie would finally get to dredge. It was cold and ice had formed on water in pans at cabin. Normally it isn't this cold until the end of September. Jimmie had to work on one of the dredge pumps and by the time everything was working the wind has picked up again, so no dredging. Yesterday Jimmie replaced a starter and clutch assembly on the Polaris 500 ATV. Spencer replaced a bendix in one of the Polaris 400 ATV's just before he left. I will not be getting the parts for the crashed Yamaha until I go home. We will fix it next year. Most people suffer from frustration and despair from all the constant breakdowns and repairs. I've been in the repair business for all of my adult life, so to me it is just another day. I must admit that I prefer for people to hire and pay me rather than me paying. I am lucky that Jimmie and Spence do the repairs on most everything. I can still figure out what is wrong and help people by telling them how to fix something. However, my right hand still does not work well enough for me to do much with tools as I once could. The best age to be up here, and really able to do what is needed is 30 to 60 years old. Younger than 30 guys are really pathetic unless they grew up with a father who is a mechanic, and made them learn. Young guys can break everything well, but can fix nothing.
We have had good weather for the last two days and expect more dredging days this week. It is changing toward winter fast now. The leaves have turned yellow and the fireweed is dying. Jimmie and Sasha are putting in longer hours in the water trying to get gold. Today I am going to help Jimmie with problems on his dredge. The water heater is causing trouble, and either burns him or is too cold. We also are replacing two tires on the red Ranger. Morgan's has still not fixed my green Ranger. Hunting season has started, so all of the mechanics have gone hunting, so no repairs until they kill their moose. Earlier in the summer the mechanics all left to go fishing. I'm sure this is strange to outsiders, but I understand. Fishing and hunting are not just a sport here, it is their life. They must harvest the fish & game just as a farmer will harvest his crop.
The weather is really good now for dredging. Yesterday I helped Jimmie repair problems on his dredge. He had a problem with the heaters for hot water in his suit. We found the water line and two heater coils were partially stopped up. He was not using a filter and sand and debris had built up causing several other problems. We took apart the heaters and beat out the coils. We replaced part of the water line. We also had compressor problems and ended up breaking a Gast compressor. We took another one off of the unused dredge. We also replaced a fan belt on the compressor and a water pump seal on one of the pumps. He also had a leak on one of the pressure hoses and we put a splice in it. This all took us four hours. Jimmie then went out dredging for five hours underwater. I replaced two tires on the red Ranger. Sasha and Jimmie are both getting good gold now, and we hope the weather will allow a few more days to work.
We have had several good days of dredging and today the waves picked up again, so no dredging. Jimmie and I repaired a 13 HP pump and winterized it for storage. We took the pumps and outboards of Spencer's dredge and carried them to our containers. My truck broke down and had to be towed back to town for repairs. I think it has a bad alternator and a couple other problems. Luckily we got back the 2014 Ranger that has been in the shop for 2 1/2 months. I replaced a coil in one of Sasha's water heaters on his dredge. Sasha did a cleanup and panned the gold out. He had a little over 4 ounces.
I'm cold. It's 10:30 AM and the sun is up and warming the tundra now. The water in pans outside is all frozen. The Huggies in the outhouse are frozen solid. That was a first for me. I'm sitting by a Little Buddy propane heater and the wood stove is burning wood. I'm still cold. We're going to have to gather and cut some more firewood. They will be dredging in a couple hours, but first the hot water lines must be thawed out and ice removed. We hope for a few more dredge days, then we get the camp ready & leave. I have arranged to have my cabin moved after we leave to the land I bought. $4000.00 is what moving the cabin costs, and I think that is a good deal. Both of my Polaris Rangers are back in the repair shop, so we are counting on the truck for many chores now. Hauling stuff to the new property and having to stay in town at the beach to haul in the dredges each night. Other than being cold each morning, the weather is real good and seas are good. This will probably be Jimmie's and Sasha's best month.
I was loading a big heavy wooden spool in the bed of the truck when the tailgate fell off and sent me and the spool on a fall to the ground. Luckily I didn't land on anything that would puncture me and just heard and felt some crickin and popping in my bones. Nothing broke I hope but will be sore for awhile.
Yesterday was a beautiful day in the afternoon. The morning was freezing with a low of 18 degrees in Nome. After Jimmie and Sasha were able to thaw out their hot water lines the dredges went out. This was their last day of dredging this year, and they got about 3 hours each before they went up Snake River in fresh water to wash off the salt from the dredges. We hauled the dredges out, and plan to disassemble them today and winterize the pumps and outboards. We will haul them on a trailer to our land. Jimmie was only in the water 3 hours , but he had a very good day dredging. He hit a small hot spot that was loaded with red sand and lots of gold. He found several ounces. It is storming this morning.
Jimmie and I will be going home to Alabama on Monday. The dredges are all put away now. We have still a good bit of work here getting cabin ready to move to our property. Jimmie will be replacing a CV boot and a wheel bearing on a Polaris 400 ATV today, and I will be packing cabin stuff up for the move. The gold mining is all done for us this year. The weather was not good and our production was low. Our dredges only found 86 oz. and my part will only pay about half of what I spent. Of course that includes the land purchase, so if I take that out I broke even. We spent four months on a great Alaska adventure, and I have no complaints or regrets. Jimmie , as always has been wonderful and looked out for the old man. We are making our plans for next year when we will probably find a hundred pounds of gold.
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