For Recession Victims, Gold Mining Pans Out

In early December, the Discovery Channel debuted a new program, Gold Rush: Alaska, which documents the prospecting efforts of Todd Hoffman, an Oregon landing-strip owner. In its three weeks on the air, the show's ratings have steadily risen, and it's currently the top-rated prime-time series in several key demographics.

At the same time, it also provides an interesting glimpse into the history -- and future -- of gold prospecting in America.

It's not hard to see why the show has hit pay dirt: While most people tend to view prospecting as a closed chapter of America's past, some are beginning to see it as a reasonable option for unemployed workers. David Szumigala, a senior geologist for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey, offers a tantalizing guess at the mineral reserves waiting for intrepid adventurers. Based on current prices, current production and the reserves that open mines have, he estimates that Alaska has $250 billion in gold waiting to be mined.

Prospectors: "Unemployed, Steady and Hard Working"

Hoffman is probably the most prominent prospector currently trying his luck in the Klondike, but he's hardly the first. For the past few years, as the recession has driven the price of gold upward, an ever-growing army of gold seekers has gone into the field.

While prospecting rules vary from state to state, Walter Evens, retail store manager of Gold Fever Prospecting, notes that "For basic prospecting, you just need a gold pan." And many gold hunters have started with just that: "The gold is out there," Evens points out, "and people are still prospecting for it as a way to supplement their incomes."

Before going to the Klondike, Hoffman put together a team to help him set up a large-scale operation. When looking for members, he didn't have to go far: Oregon has the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the country, and several of his friends were struggling to make ends meet. When picking his fellow miners, Hoffman was practical, seeking out men who were "unemployed, steady, and hard working."

Most of the team also had experience working with heavy machinery. The exception was Jimmy Dorsey, the youngest member, but he brought other qualities to the field. "Dorsey was talented, up for an adventure and game to try new things," Hoffman remembers. "He's a cool and interesting guy."

Echoes of the Gold Rush

Another thing linking the members of the Gold Rush team is that they were all employed in industries that were savaged by the recession. Most worked in construction, which was brutalized by the foreclosure crisis. One of the few exceptions was Dorsey, but his work as a real estate agent declined with falling home sales. As for the Hoffmans, their airfield depends on disposable income, which dried up in the face of rising gas prices and unemployment.

Hoffman's team doesn't just reflect Great Recession victims: Its members are also similar to the people who made up the 1897 gold rush. Movies often portray prospectors as grizzled derelicts, but Dave Neufeld, the Yukon and Western Arctic historian for Parks Canada, argues that many were surprisingly well off. "The prospectors weren't desperately poor," he notes, "After all, you had to scrape together some money to get to Alaska, buy supplies and support yourself while you worked a claim."

Hoffman economically prepared himself for the recession: "A few years ago, I had a 4,100-square-foot house and a fancy car, but I was worried about the economy. It just didn't seem stable." To save money, he moved to a smaller house, bought the airfield and began warning his friends. "I told them to get out of their houses quickly. A tsunami was coming."

Similar Economies, Similar Depressions

When the recession hit, Hoffman began thinking about going to Alaska to mine for gold. Having prospected with his father for three seasons in the 1980s, he understood much of what the undertaking involved. Eventually, he decided that mining offered his best chance for economic stability: "I couldn't afford to do this, but I had to."

Although the 1890s miners generally had access to some money, the decision to head North wasn't taken lightly. The Yukon was a distant, treacherous place, and while the rewards were considerable, so was the danger. But for many potential prospectors, the gold fields offered their best hope for employment. As Neufeld points out: "Starting in the 1870s, there was a huge global depression, in many ways worse than the 1930s Great Depression. The consequences of the depression were far worse than what we're experiencing today."

For many gold-rush pilgrims, the U.S. and Canada were just a stepping stone on the way to the fields. "The bulk of the prospectors were from Europe," Neufeld notes. "They were a culturally diverse group." This, too, reflects today's recession realities: As in 1897, the ranks of today's unemployed are swelled with people from other countries.

Gold Rush: A Media Event

The fact that Hoffman's quest is a media event is also strangely reminiscent of the original gold rush. Neufeld points out that many newspapers covered the 1897 Klondike rush as an entertainment story. In fact, one of the most prominent chroniclers of the event was Tappan Adney, a New York sports writer who covered the rush for Harper's Weekly.

In 1897, the story sold papers; today, it racks up Nielsen ratings. Since its debut in early December, Gold Rush has broken several records, becoming the Discovery Channel's biggest premiere since 2005's The Deadliest Catch. It routinely attracts over 2 million viewers per week, swamping several network programs in terms of key demographics. On Dec. 17, the viewership soared to over 3 million people.

Hoffman offers an explanation for the show's popularity: "When you see your friends losing their houses, it shows you that something needs to be done. With the recession, there's been a wake-up call for the American working man." Hoffman thinks Gold Rush offers a promising option for workers who face unattractive, low-pay work: "We needed a dream. I think a lot of guys are watching us and wondering 'Can I do this?'"

What Happens Next?

Regardless of whether Hoffman's viewers follow him to the Klondike, there's no question that the price of gold is driving would-be prospectors into the gold fields. According to Brad Jones, director of operations for the Gold Prospectors Association of America, membership in the GPAA has risen sharply over the past few years. Gold Fever Prospecting's Evens puts it in even clearer relief: "Every time the price of gold goes up $100, 10 or 15 new people walk into my store."

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Based in the Yukon, Neufeld has watched prospecting explode as the recession wears on: "This has been going on for about five years. There are a lot of people pounding stakes in the ground." However, unlike the Hoffman group, many of the prospectors that Neufeld has observed aren't striking out on their own. "They're working at the behest of big mining companies," he notes. "The companies underwrite their prospecting costs, and cut them in for part of the profits."

As for Hoffman's team, they've finished prospecting for the year, but they plan to return in May. While their time in Alaska was often filled with tension, he emphasizes that "We turned a corner. It was strange, and it was awesome. I was able to relax around the fire with my guys."

Most important, Hoffman and his men are optimistic about the future: "We're just beginning this big journey, and we'll be back next year with a whole bunch of new surprises."
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