Three summers ago, friend Charlie and his Lady Elaine stopped by our Yukon Outpost in late September. They had packed up their gear from their Anchorage, Alaska summer post and headed south down the Alaska Highway. Our Outpost is two good days of driving from Anchorage and they had stopped to rest and wait for us to get out stuff together and the Outpost zipped up so we could join in a two-vehicle caravan  down the Alaska Highway.

As I busied myself packing boxes and carrying them to the truck, Charlie dug into their packed Subaru until he came up with a pair of official tin pans to use for panning gold. He was aghast, that over the span of eighteen months of living in the Yukon, that I hadn’t even tried panning for gold from the rocky and gravel stretches of the river.

The Watson River passes less than 20 steps from our Outpost. While I had not put any effort into looking for gold, I had garnered other river riches. We pulled thousands of gallons of sweet tasting water from its waters. Some folks drive their trucks to the bridge upriver from us and pump water into holding tanks to take home. I remember approaching them and asking, “Why this water?” The reverent reply was a simple, “It’s magic.” I’ll go with that.  So I am twice blessed by drinking and bathing in this water as it saves me about $120 per delivery of water from Glacier Water out of Whitehorse. I might spend slightly more in changing my water filters more frequently but I’ve learned that I can pump the cleanest of water by simply putting the intake into a submerged five-gallon bucket.

Every day, during the ice-free seasons we basked in the constant lively music of the rapids. Some would argue that a third treasure we have secured is that our well-being has been mightily improved living in such close proximity to the floods of negative ions. I need to look into that claim.

These riches are unknown to my tax accountant.  Imagine the fiscal hassles that would arise if I started pulling gold from the river. Taxes are one thing, but I’m a non-resident, an alien living in Canada and I suspect I would have to hire a cadre of lawyers and accountants to deal with the ball and chain of found gold.

Nearly a century ago the Whitehorse newspaper carried a headline that read something like, “Gold Found on the Watson River!” Then back some thirty years ago, Mt.Skukum Mine started extracting gold from their mine about 35 miles down at the end of the dead end of the road, the Annie Lake Road, the same road we use to get to get to our place. Over the course of three decades of roller coasting gold prices, the mine has been in operation on an on-again, off-again pattern.

Charlie frowned and left me to my packing and he headed to the river’s edge with his gold pan. Fifteen minutes hadn’t passed and I heard an excited Charlie throw open the door and yell, “Tom! Tom!Hurry up! I’ve got color!” Now he was not talking about the Indian summer tan he was working on, no, he was using the old gold panning parlance that simply means that he has some shine in the bottom of his pan.

Charlie has been a working colleague and dear friend for over thirty years so I know him very well. And I know he has a keen propensity to embellish. But my packing was forgotten and I joined the mini-gold stampede. Actually we made our way across the river and set up panning in a sandy backwater where floodwaters swirl in a massive eddy. In the fall the eddy has long disappeared and the waters have dropped leaving a bench of deposited sand and gravel.  I felt fairly smug for having evaluated water hydrology and sediment deposition to stake our claim here. Our informal staking involved setting folding chairs over our panning spots. I brought a book just in case it got slow. Charlie was on fire. I admired his determination as he picked out tiny gold grains from the sand with a tweezers and placed them carefully in one of his old pill bottles.

Two hours passed.  Charlie made the call to pull stakes. I had nearly finished two chapters of my book. It was time to cross back across the river to the Outpost and fetch another more reliably secured Yukon product – a bottle of Yukon Brewery Lead Dog Ale. I peered into the bottom of Charlie’s pharmaceutical gold poke to check out his plunder. He sighed, “I might have enough to buy a Big Mac.” Like I said he embellishes.

In the last two weeks we decided to make one more mountain trek before we headed south for home in Minnesota. It took us nearly eight hours to ascend and descend Mt. Perkins. On the way up were in short sleeves walking beneath a gilded ceiling of aspen and willow. The glow around us made the climb easier as it distracted us from our increased rates of breathing and hearts beating.  Perkins has a deceptive manner in that it has a half dozen false summits. So as you climb, you think you are seeing the top and the goal of your hike. But, no, as you crest each rise you discover there are more summits above. By the time we got to the third summit from the top, we had put on additional layers and were wading through stretches of snow. Finally we got to the top and though the blasts of cold winds provoked me into tugging a pair of gloves on and hurried me to take photos and leave. Before leaving the top, I peered over the rocky edge and spied several flows of real gold. Far below me, a thin stream of golden willow leaves followed the track of an avalanche chute before spilling out at the base of the mountain in a bright run out of a golden fan.

When winter’s snows are loosened on a mountain they often spill down between rock ridges. By the time these snow trains reach the treeline, they easily whisk away trees and vegetation. In the spring these treeless areas catch sunlight and encourage new vegetation and these areas often attract wildlife like sheep, moose and grizzly bears, which like to feed on the vegetation.

Two days after that rigorous climb, we pulled away from the Outpost to begin the long drive home. Another summer passed without me wetting my gold panning receptacle. But on this trip we marveled at the gilded mountainsides.  We have made this fall migration three times now and while not statistically valid, I would vouch that if you want to hit spellbinding sunny autumn golden colors with washes of plum alpine groundcover, you need to pan on the last week of September. Or would that be “plan” on the last week of September?

There’s gold, it’s haunting and haunting;

It’s luring me on a of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, borad land ‘way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

-from the Spell of the Yukon by Robert Service

Filed under: Uncategorized