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Search For Gold In Alaska


On those seldom-seen days in this region when the sun comes out, the inside passage of Alaska displays rare vistas that have been obscured by fog for weeks. Rainfall reaches 200 inches in some years. Sunny days thus would prompt me to lock the doors to the Alaska Territorial Assay Office and to venture alone into the far wilderness in my boat at high speed in my life-long search for gold.

Earlier years had been spent preparing for the quest, studying and working at the assaying, mining, and metallurgy of the precious metal in well-known mines and colleges of the American West. Alaska's frontier became the forge which shaped my skills and individuality. The challenge to produce something useful to society from untouched regions went hand in hand with a concern for the undefended vastness and the impact mining activity might have on its grandeur.

My boat trip led from Ketchikan to all the land I could quickly reach by water. The arc of blue sky above me, the green adorning the land around me, the silvery darkness of the sea split by the arrow of the boat's white wake, lured me far from my home port. The forests I reached had no human footprints or memory of them. Deer and black bear roamed these woods. The gray wolf was present but seldom seen. Sounds were of wind whistling through tall treetops, of water rushing to reach the sea, of the loon's cry from its watery home, and of waves lapping against rocky beaches.

My only companion on these journeys was Duke, a Mackenzie husky of unfettered eagerness. With the boat beached or anchored nearby, Duke and I examined the exposed geology and rock along the shoreline. Inland exploration was hampered by the thick carpet of muskeg covering everything, including rock outcrops. The muskeg was a dense tangle of roots, vines, plants, bushes, leaves, and evergreen needles.

The banner year, the year of my find, was one of gradual, step-by-step success. The first indication was a pathfinder to gold rather than the mineral itself. I found pieces and chunks of white quartz on one bank of a river flowing into the salt water. Little vugs in the whiteness had a story to tell of former occupants long oxidized out of existence, departed metallic compounds often found with gold.

A mile into the Sitka spruce rain forest from the river, through devil' s club thorny growth and fallen five-foot-thick rotting trees, I found pieces of native gold lying on the rock shelf beside a log-cluttered stream. The loose nuggets and flakes had washed down from the hillside or from upstream. Pieces of accompanying white quartz identical to those along the river let me know a vein existed someplace between the two waterways.

That was also the day the new outboard engine froze tight with a mechanical defect on the way out of my wilderness inlet. The boat was protected from the open sea, but we were without any means of going on from our extremely remote region. A wait for rescue by air, perhaps late the next day, was the only option. I paddled to shore using a cabin seat and tied up in darkness at high tide to a shoreline tree.

There were no night air flights. All aircraft were float planes and no waterway had lights. But at ten that night I heard, for the first time in Alaska bush after dark, a small-engine plane.

It flew directly toward me like an arrow from heaven, wing lights dimly visible. I had a three-cell flashlight and signaled three bursts repeatedly into the blackness. He circled. I continued flashing as he came down to land on the ocean water in the dark and taxied to my beached boat. The door flew open. Standing on the passenger-side float I lifted Duke into the cabin and followed to see a friendly pilot and a man on a stretcher in back. It was a mercy flight to Ketchikan General Hospital from a village on the Canadian border. Fifteen minutes later we landed on the sea beside the city in the gray haze of the city lights along the docks. I towed my cruiser into town the next day with a friend's boat and replaced the engine with two new ones. That was the only caution. The memory of gold lying exposed in sight was so stimulating that sunlight was no longer a condition required for the trip across the water. My mind seemed to be a one-way boulevard going directly to the gold, with return an afterthought. Sleep was difficult on those nights when I couldn't get my mind away from the thought of a basketball-size collection of gold pieces worth a million dollars.

The true search was for the source, the mother lode up the hill or upstream from the gold flakes that classically wash down into the placer. The lode might contain gold worth millions, or tens or even hundreds of millions. But there was nothing to see except the bed of the thick, green forest. I criss-crossed the area through, under, and over every conceivable impasse, but found not a single window through the muskeg into white quartz terra firma.

Time after time, from the dry safety of civilization, I sped across the turbulent ocean to the discovery. During twenty-foot tides and with the Tongass Trading Company tidebook in my shirt pocket, I still let my boat get stranded on the beach or far out from shore rather than leave the search to reposition the anchor. One day the tide came in so far I had to either swim in the ice-cold water for my boat rope or wait hours for it to appear as the tide went out.

One evening I was still in the forest when the sky went black. I had a headlamp with a belt battery and Duke was running ahead in the beam as we climbed through the wet, dense growth and rock cliffs toward the boat. We were still a thousand feet from shore when the lamp bulb suddenly burned out. The darkness was total. It wasn't possible to proceed. Duke sat between my feet. Daylight was nine hours away, and there would be deep concern in the city if I wasn't back in two hours. On impulse, I reached up to the light banded on my head and snapped my thumb on the glass lens. The burned filament connected, welded, and gave forth a white light. It wasn't something I'd learned or ever heard of doing. We moved on instantly.

There seemed to be guidance, though nothing was expected. In my optimistic reach beyond prudence, I tested it. There was no limit. Every accident had an instant reprieve. Every mistake was corrected without loss. Every problem had a solution just behind it.

I was in the best world.

The last day was the day of the symbol. Paths had been beaten into the forest floor by my many trips. The endless months of searching seemed to be futile. On this day I was near the crest of the hill between the river and the stream, still looking for the quartz vein, when I saw a recent tree fall. Extremely large trees are sometimes blown down during storms. The entire root system comes up as the tree goes down. This was such a tree. The roots with dirt still clinging to them rose fifteen feet straight into the air, a thick mass of brown muskeg torn out of the ground draped across the trunk. I clambered up the broken, jutting roots to stand near the top and get a good look at the surroundings -- more of the same. I looked down at the huge hole the roots came out of.

There before me, in full sight, was the completely exposed white quartz vein!

Gold metal was visible on the surface in a series of small patches and a few big ones. It was rich, incredibly rich. The quartz vein was wide and as white as milk. I held onto the roots tightly as my legs lost their strength and the air whooshed from my lungs at the shock. The surface beneath the muskeg on each side of the vein had to be almost paved with gold pieces broken out of the rock during millions of freeze-thaw cycles while the lighter rock washed away. I climbed down into the hole and chipped the quartz around one of the large pieces of gold until it broke free. That gold, saved for thirty years, is in the wedding rings of my children.

It was time to think. I could almost hear the melange of familiar sounds coming from gigantic diesel trucks, buzzing chain saws, chattering air drills, crashing trees, rock crushers, huge bulldozers, and thundering ball mills.

This earth shudder had not reached my Alaska.
On the way out I was walking beside the stream, deep in thought, when two bald eagles glided into my region. They were looking for salmon in the shallow waters. Both of the eagles were huge, with seven-foot wingspans, the female as usual somewhat larger. The male spiraled above me, white-crowned head fastened to the search. I sat on the gravel bank beside the heavy growth to watch. Suddenly the female changed her search pattern and flew toward the river. The male descended majestically in a wide circle to seek a perch.

In the stillness of midday, the eagle settled on a top spruce branch, gripping it so tightly with encircled talons that shreds of bark came whispering down through the foliage to settle like rain on the muskeg below. He turned to look for his mate, and let out a great cry that pierced to the very backbone of my soul -- KAAAAAA!!!

At that instant I became aware, suddenly and with vibrant force, of the embrace in which I existed, of the extensions granted my incautious life, of the conclusion to my quest.

Finding the gold had been a joyous shock, a moment of pure exhilaration. Whatever the gold orebody was worth I was prepared to spend in the next few minutes to purchase peace for this part of the best world. The months of looking for the gold were tokens of life's labor at learning the truth. I had just seen and heard that all of earth's objects, not only gold, were precious.

The cry of the eagle was holistically the ever-new and eternal purity in all the things its sound touched . How simple the lesson, a mere drop of truth in an ocean of ambition, a quick sight and sound symbolizing not just nature but the inside of all that exists.
 
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Published in The Chrysalis Reader, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386

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