Dredging for gold may be banned in California, but it’s thriving in Alaska according to Shingle Springs resident, Mike Cookson.
Cookson, a retired timber faller, has dredged for gold as a hobby over the last 30 years in different parts of California.
Now he’s dredging off Nome, Alaska with the help of his son, brother and two other partners, and working on turning a hobby into a paying business.
At 67, he says he’s one of the older guys up there. He and his son did their first foray into Bering Sea dredging in June. Just back from that trip, he’s getting ready to return to Nome and work until the ocean starts freezing over, which he said would probably be in October.
He and his partners spent three months and $8,000 building their dredge boat and then shipped it to Nome. When they first arrived in June, they spent their nights at a motel. The cost soon forced them into sleeping in tents. But that didn’t work with nothing to shelter them from the blistering cold wind. So they shipped a 40-by-8-foot container to a camp established for dredgers and set up housekeeping in it.
While sparse, it now contains cots, heating and cooking facilities, and their equipment. Porta potties and outdoor shower facilities complete the roughing it experience in the camp with 50 other dredgers.
Cookson said June was a bad time for dredging because of the weather and they hope to get in more days when they go back. He said they found seven to nine ounces of gold this trip which roughly covered the cost of the dredger and their container home away from home.
Unlike California, Alaska encourages gold mining and has set up a dredging recreational area that Cookson said was roughly a half mile wide and two to three miles long. The remainder of the area is leased out for millions of dollars with the gold scooped up by dredgers that are up to seven stories high.
“Alaska is open to dredging because they make lots of money from it,” he said. ”There’s literally a gold rush in town.”
Cookson’s dredge boat has a long vacuum tube to suction up the gold. A diver takes the tube down to a maximum of 20 feet and vacuums the bottom of the ocean. Warm water is circulated through the suit to keep the diver from freezing. The concentrate is then brought to shore and processed to separate the flakes of gold from the sand.
Cookson said all five partners are experienced divers and he has three or four certifications as a diver himself. “There are Navy seals and all kinds of ex-military divers up there too,” he said.
Cookson said the gold they are vacuuming up is a result of glaciers melting in the ocean. All the rivers emptying into the sea also carry gold which is why people can find gold on the beaches as well.
“Put a shovel into the sand and you’ll find gold. The trick is to find enough to pay for your trouble,” he said.
Life in the dredger camp is pretty wide open with miners there from all parts of the United States and as far away as Cambodia. Activity takes place during the day and throughout much of the night. Cookson captures much of this in his blogsite at ca2ak4au.blogspot.com.
A rugged and tough environment, Cookson said the camp is full of “alpha males.” “They are the kind of guys who say I’m going to make it happen. They love the competition and know there are no guarantees. It’s risky and a personal challenge for any of us.”