This is the make-or-break moment.
Nikiski's Duffy McCoy kneels in Mills Creek with a gold pan, sloshing the pay dirt from three hours of dredging. Fine sand spills over the edge leaving a smattering of fine flakes of gold. There is no mistaking the glitter.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!" says partner Mike Thomas of Sterling.
McCoy sucks the sparkles into a plastic squeeze bottle.
Thomas shovels more dirt from the sluice box into a "fast-pan," a V-shaped container with a door in the bottom. McCoy sloshes water through the box, washing the light stuff away. When just an inch or two of sand remains, he opens the door, dropping the best of the best into the big green pan. He washes the sand away, leaving more gold flakes.
After several repeats, McCoy empties the squeeze bottle, showering gold across the bottom of the pan.
"I love it," Thomas said. "For all the work it is, and shoveling all the dirt, when you get all those flakes, it's worth it. Every time I see that -- Oh man!"
McCoy and Thomas are president and vice president of the Kenai chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, a for-profit California corporation that holds mining claims at 300 sites in 49 states. It opens those to its members.
The corporation has several claims on Mills Creek, near Mile 50 on the Seward Highway, about four miles north of Summit Lake Lodge.
Just getting to them is a chore. Miners follow a muddy four-wheel-drive road a couple of miles from the highway, then ford Juneau Creek then Mills Creek -- a swift glacial river -- in pickup trucks. Mills Creek rises and falls, McCoy said.
"You can come here and cross the river, and four hours later, you can't cross it," he said.
Thomas worries when the water runs brown.
"That means that upstream, something gave way," he said. "Two days ago it turned brown and we put everything on the bank. We had a measuring rod. The water was only two-thirds of the way up it. We came back and the measuring rod was gone."
To simplify travel, McCoy and Thomas hung a bosun's chair from a steel cable stretched between two trees. They rigged ropes and pulleys to pull riders from their camp on one side of the river to the mining claims on the other.
Polly Mining Co. mined Mills Creek years ago using Native laborers hired from Seward, McCoy said. The miners washed away the banks, running the sediment through sluice boxes to separate the gold. Now, huge piles of rocks, including some several feet across, line the riverbanks.
"I have a book that says all these big rocks you see were put there by wheelbarrows," McCoy said.
He and Thomas sift the spoils of the early miners looking for the gold they missed. A little ditch channels water from the river to a hole along the bank. McCoy probes the resulting pool with the suction hose from his dredge. The roar of the river drowns the noise of the gasoline engine.
Thomas watches the outfall from the dredge hose. That dumps through a sieve to cull the larger rocks, then through a sluice box to the river. The gravel and gold settle behind baffles in the sluice box. The heavy gold sinks into the carpet that lines the floor.
"We normally don't take it apart until we see at least 10 flakes on top, because if you see 10 flakes on top, there's at least 30 flakes down below," Thomas said.
How much do the dredge and sluice box cost?
"Don't ask," said Evelyn, McCoy's wife.
McCoy said they cost around $1,400. He has not found enough gold yet to pay them off.
He pulls out a vial half-filled with gold. Half an ounce, 10 days work, he said. Gold has been trading for about $290 per ounce.
"This is a hobby. You can't get rich on this, not unless you find the mother lode. But there's always a chance," said JoAnne Fisher of Kenai, working nearby. "It's wilderness. It's fun. It's exciting. You always look under the next rock."
Thomas hauls out rocks and uses a shovel to cave the sides of the hole into the pool. He warns McCoy of a basketball-sized rock in the bank.
"That's a head-knocker," he said.
Rocks like that are the reason they abandoned the hole next door.
"Because we knew it was caving in like that. He's gotten knocked in the head a couple of times," Thomas said. "Get a load of this."
From the old hole, McCoy's head is visible through the tunnel beneath a desk-sized boulder.
"I don't stick my head down in there like he does," Thomas said. "I just reach in with my hands."
McCoy climbs out and checks the sluice box.
"Hey, look at this, Mike," he calls, holding a flake of gold on the end of his finger.
He slips that into his mouth.
"That way, I know I won't lose it," he said.
They kill the dredge, lift the baffles from the sluice box, roll up the carpet and rinse it into a bucket. McCoy pans sand from the bucket. Clouds caress the snowy peaks. A drizzle falls, and golden flakes appear through the sand.
"When I see that stuff jump up in the pan, it definitely gives me a rush," he said. "And it's nice up here. You definitely meet a lot of good people."
McCoy, 32, started prospecting more than 20 years ago with his father.
"My dad, he'd always take a gold pan when we went to the hunting camp," he said. "Dad used to pan around Golden, Colo. His father mined there all his life. The first thing I remember is leaning over a gold pan and falling into the creek. That was Caribou Creek in Resurrection Pass."
Fisher, 62, said she has been prospecting for 15 years or more. She started in Hope, where she rejected a staged set-up for tourists.
"They turned on the water and gave you a bucket of sand," she said. "I said, 'No.' So, we talked some locals into taking us (to Bear Creek.)
"The first time I went to the creek, I fell in, crossing a log," she said.
Fisher and her partner, 59-year-old Beth McLevish of Kenai, trowel gravel from the riverbank into a sluice box propped on rocks. That is less expensive than the dredge, and they still find gold. The sluice box cost about $105, McLevish said. The gold pans cost about $20 apiece. They use a trowel and clam shovel to dig, a screw driver and pry bar to move rocks.
Fisher, buried in waders and rain gear, crunches Altoid mints from a tin.
"I'm living on mints," she said. "I left all my food in the car."
She dons pink dishwashing gloves and pans sand from the sluice box.
"It's a fever," she said. "It's being out here, the sound of the creek, the wilderness."
McLevish said she has been hooked for nine years, since she found a nugget the size of her fingernail.
"JoAnne took me to Bear Creek," she said. "The very first day, I popped a nugget out of the bank. I've had the fever ever since. I think it's the idea that you can get a nugget or a little bit of gold. And where else can you get muddy and no one is going to think you're crazy? If I never even see another flake of gold again, after the first nugget, it's OK."
A Wisconsin man, who gave his name only as Dave, said he runs his dredge just an hour or two each day.
"This is work," he said. "I don't want to work. I don't want to get money like some of these other guys. I just want to have fun. I just like the outdoors, the fresh air and water. The best part is that expectation of finding a nugget big enough for jewelry, but I don't expect that."
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