Disclaimer: Jacki Michels says that her husband truly has a heart of gold and she is sure he would rescue her from any bear, be it brown or be it black. She further asserts that any heart failures caused by the discovery of unusually large nuggets in the Kenai/Anchorage area are indeed not her fault.
Forty days and 40 nights (at least) of packing, planning, poring over maps and praying for a forecast slightly more cheerful than “partly cloudy and unbearably breezy with a slight chance of hail in the afternoon followed by subarctic evening temperatures” before our family even began our great adventure into the wilderness.
The object of this game was to seek gold in the rugged Alaska Bush. The men, (my husband and brother-in-law) had bought all manner of gold-seeking equipment: two metal detectors, high bankers, pumps, hoses, shovels, picks, a dredging and sluicing something or another, as well as several old-fashioned gold pans. Even my son, Patrick, was well grubstaked with a modest assortment of sand pails, plastic shovels, his very own gold pan and a Tonka 350 horsepower backhoe for heavy excavating jobs.
Me? I packed the coolers and armed myself with a shotgun and enough bug spray to last until armageddon. I also brought a generous chow to toilet paper ratio, water, soap and a large assortment of first aid supplies. My mission was to keep us all from starving to death or coming down with some sort of mysterious plague.
To prevent Bush fever (a phenomena similar to cabin fever as it is induced by mind-numbing boredom) I also brought along a few craft supplies. Maybe I would make a small birch basket? Into my pack went the leather punch, some pretty thread, and, oh, maybe I would embellish the edges of my baskets with a little of that pretty golden-toned paint ... .
We left early on a sunshiny June day. After a long drive and a longer hike, our camp was set up and the guys were ready and eager to scale the side of that yonder hill. It’s not hard to get a visual on this one the guys looked like those brave explorer statues as they pointed to the great expanse of ... NO WAY! I’m supposed to climb up that?
The first few feet of the trail should have tipped us off that this was going to be no ordinary trip. Just to the left of the trail was the biggest pile of oh my! That couldn’t be ... bear scat! Scat was way too a polite a word for this enormous, shiny, wet, fresh pile of brown, mushy, scary, poopoo, if I ever saw one and I never saw anything like this before. I muttered something about a big hairybrown person-eating bear.
“Guys? Guys look at this. Hey, guys!” Of course, they were already way ahead of me.
When I caught up I was bursting to tell themabout my discovery. My husband waved me offlike one of the thousands of nasty horseflies that suddenly seemed to be swarming everywhere.
“Don’t worry, honey,” he crooned. “We have the dogs and you have your new shotgun. Besides, there seems to be a few other prospectors about,” he said while pointing toseveral blurry forms in the distance,
Great. The way my husband sees it, the bears have a smorgasbord and I get the right to bear arms since the Guys had their arms busy hauling up all that gold-seeking junk I mean, supplies.
Now, a funny thing happens when a woman is left stranded on the side of a mountain. OK, we were not that far up, but besides having an irrational fear of big, flesh-eating bears, I have a silly little hang-up about looking over the edge of a huge hill, down at a rushing steam and not thinking about horror stories like how the Dead Horse Trail in Skagway got its name, or how I could administer first aid ... . You get the idea.
So, I sat at the edge and fretted. I fretted so much that I carved the bark off an old dead birch tree and was putting some finishing highlights of paint on my second basket when my son brought me an intriguing specimen of quartz.
Humm. I wonder ... and with a bold splash of Venetian gold I’ll be darned if it didn’t look just right, too. Then it happened, I had another one of those naughty, enormously entertaining ideas.
My son helpedas wegathered as many of those little quartz stones aswe could find, and, oh yes, a few of the very little flat black ones, too, especially if they’re not perfect ... .
Oh man, did I run with it.
“Now, sssh,” I instructed my son, “Don’t tell Papa or Uncle Matt, we want to surprise them.”
Carefully we creptdown all 30 feet of sheer craggy mountainside and made our way to the stream. There we laid out our gems carefully into a small pan and set it near the sluice.
Then I saw this really, really, really BIG rock. We went right to work on it.
I was impressed with how huge some of the prospectors’ eyes got as they casually walked by. One old sourdough offered to run his gold detector over our lode, and boy was he was impressed! After he left I read the paint label closely. I’ll be darned, Metallic Venetian Gold, well allrighty then, they must have used real metal.
It was fun to see the guys’ faces light up when my son and I excitedly called for them toinspect our find, but being seasoned gold diggers, they quickly called our bluff.
On the return trip Patrick and I were in the lead. I got a large charge out of telling my son the story of Hansel and Gretel as we made our way back to camp. Since we didn’t have breadcrumbs, we used the little shiny rocks instead. I got a bit of sadistic satisfaction imagining the temporary thrill some poor prospector would get when he (or she) found a tid-bit of gold right on the path.
And the bear scat? Patrick and I decided to investigate the poo more closely. It was still wet-looking, however, upon suspicious inspection we concluded that matter that doesn’t smell like poo or act like poo (Pat poked a stick in and some of the shiny fell off, revealing insulating spray foam) is probably not poo. Rather, it’s probably poo designed to scare off potential prospectors.
When the guys caught up they suddenly seemed quite concerned about bears. We never did get around to telling the guys about the other paint job.
The moral of the story: All articles that coruscate with resplendence are not truly auriferous.
Jacki Michels is a freelance writer who lives in Soldotna.
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