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Lethbridge Herald Newspaper Archives

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Lethbridge Herald, The (Newspaper) - February 22, 1975, Lethbridge, Alberta tains remain the same regardless of how much gold you get out. So you keep checking the ground you're mining. Mike squats at the edge of a water puddle swishing a shovelful of paydirt in his gold pan. In the back- ground, a line of rusting 12-inch pipe emerges from down in the valley, car- rying water from Hunker Creek up the hill to where Benny directs a high- pressure jet of chilling water onto the cliff opposite him. It eats away at Dago Hill, thawing the permafrost until the hill peels off chunk by chunk and crashes to the ground. From there, the thick soupy mixture of gold-bearing dirt and gravel is bull- dozed to the mouth of the sluicebox and washed over it into the valley below. The rocks and stones tumble through, sounding like the steel ball in a roulette wheel, and the gold re- mains in the sluicebox. But it's only every couple of weeks, when the flow of water is stopped and the gold con- centrate panned out, that a miner finds out if his biweekly gamble has paid off. It's not the same as working for union scale, but for Mike Stutter, "It's not knowing what's in the hill that's half the fun." The other half is being your own boss and knowing that the gold you get is all yours. Few people working the Klondike came here for the same reason. Some did it during the Depression out of desperation, others are fulfilling a life- long dream to mine gold. Almost all shared a common ignorance of how it was done when they started out, but not for long. "You learn a lot very Mike says. "You learn from the old-timers who are always willing to give you advice, and you leam a lot of things you'd never know otherwise: how to repair equipment, to weld, to lay pipe." If anyone does get rich it won't be just because of the price of gold. In- flation, ever restless, has never stop- ped nipping at the miners' heels. From 1934 to 1972, the price of an ounce of gold remained fixed by a central banks' agreement at near the mark; in 1972 the US government pulled out at the agreement and the price of gold floated free. The com- pelling facts of life are simple: in the years that the price of gold remained fixed, the prices of nothing else did. A bulldozer that cost in 1941 was going for in 1972. That explains why most of the ma- chines in the Klondike are virtually museum pieces. H also explains a defensive attitude when you suggest the miners are getting rich with gold at an ounce. "A lot of things can go ex- plains Mike. There may be equipment breakdowns, or the season will be too short, or just when everything else is right, the ground begins to run thin. "You always have your Mike points out, "and if we have a good year, it may mean a chance for 14 itttitmt MnnMt. n. ws Marian Schmidt (second from right, top) and Francois Perrot (bottom) have Klondike fever, but it is more for the love of the man for gold. the family to travel and see some of Canada. But I'd never retire. There's enough gold here to last another 20 years, and thaf s all I want." By and large, placer miners are an amiable and effusive group who'll talk about their work, show off their operations and even let the occasional visitor try a pan or two in their creeks. But swing the topic around to how much they make, and the silence of the Klondike Valley descends like a damper. The miner knows how much he takes from his sluicebox, but no one else does. Not the mint, which refines the gold; not the mining recorder's off ke, which keeps track of gold leav- ing the territory to levy a royalty on it, and least of all the tax man. Tucked right in there with the gamble of mining gold is the option of selling only as much as you want or need to. If you need to pay the bills this year, thafs all you have to sell. The rest will keep very nicely over the winter in the bank, or in bottles and jars stashed away in the pantry or down in the cellar. When the price goes up or when you need some ready cash, haul out the scales and weigh out the amount you want. Art Fry, though, rarely has that option. A grizzled, amiable man in his 60s, he's struggled to keep his wife and five kids going ever since he quit the Yukon Consolidated Cold Com- pany in 1954. He'd had enough of bosses and decided to mine for himself. The price of that independence was many winters spent janitoring at the Dawson .City Elementary and High School, where he also taught boxing. Art is something of a throwback the kind of guy you'd expect to have met during the gold rush days, with possibly this exception: he likes to share his gold. When his boxing students needed money to travel to a competition in Alaska, Art offered a couple of ounces of gold as a raffle prize; and when a young girl he knew didn't have enough money for the bicycle she wanted, he let her pan in his claim until she made up the difference. Gold can make little dreams like that come true. Right now, he's working on The Big One Bonanza Creek, just feet upcreek from the very spot where Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie found that first gold nugget which exploded in the gold rush of '98. Back then, a town sprang up just about where Art now works his claim. Grande Forks it was called, with four hotels, three churches, and people. Art pulls down a weathered map of the townsite from his roof- beam, and points out past his window to the hill where it stood. All you can see are a few ragged firs and birches and a lot of scruffy underbrush. But Art sets Grande Forks, rising up on that very spot again, and he would like others to see it too. Paradoxically, Art isn't turned on by the gold itself. He's amused at its fantastic price, and the people who go glassy-eyed over it. "A long time from he predicts, "people are going to look back and wonder what kind of idiots worked these Klondike gold fields. We dig up the gold, refine it, melt it into bricks, then bury it again in some and he laughs. But there it at least one miner who still gets excited over the gold. Follow a road past Art Fry's Bonanza claim, up a steep, ever-narrowing dirt road until you think you've made a mistake. A little further along you'll find Victoria Creek, and Francois Perrot's claim. He's almost 70, balding, a small man who's still as vigorous as the day he hit Canada in the spring of 1925, off the boat from Brittany. He logged in Quebec, then on the Prairies and beat the Depres- sion by turning to gold mining in 1931. "I never been on relief all through the he asserts proudly. "When I couldn't pan for gold no more, I took up trapping." That was in 1938. He teamed up with another Frenchman on the Prai- ries Eugene Leseux and together they mined and trapped their way around Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon, returning to the gold creeks for good in 1954. Francois loves gold mining from one end to the other, and leseux had the real thing: gold fever. "He loved to see that Fran- cois exclaims. "Oh, he'd get excited when he panned." One season they took pan after pan of paydirt to sample the ground and never got a good one. Francois grimaces. "My part- ner he was disgusted! And then, at clean-up, there was over 300 ounces of gold... he was tickled to death. He loved to see that gold." His partner died in 1966, and Fran- ?ois continues on alone. "I don't get he insists. "When you got lots to do you don't get lonely." He loves the woods and the peace and all the things he can do, like making things in his well-equipped and immaculate machine shop. His tools are housed better than he is: home for Francois is a plywood shack Conjinued ;