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Travel / Adventure / Nonfiction
Wanderlusting: A Collection of Travel Stories by Gary McWilliams
ISBN number: 978-0-578-07507-5    LCCN: 2011924970

BOBBY WENT BACK

Pretty much forgotten, the following episode, which occurred my second year in Alaska, was recently returned to memory's surface by a fisherman friend as we talked about the old-time gold mining on Prince of Wales Island. The fisherman recalled a scene he observed, twenty-some years prior, in Craig's old Hill Bar. He described seeing a man showing off a jelly-jar full of gold fines. The man poured the gold onto the bar for all to have a close look. He insisted it was all from Prince of Wales. "Funny thing," the fisherman continued, "it did not have the tumbled, water-worn look of placer gold. I worked on a dredge up North one summer. I know what placer gold looks like. Instead, it was all in very fine particles. Not rounded at all."

I asked—a light bulb coming on—"Do you remember what the guy looked like.

"Yeah," the fisherman returned, "Young, tall fella. Skinny."

* * *

I thought I heard a knock at the door. A weak, hesitant tapping, it sounded of indecision. I climbed the steps to the wheelhouse from the for'c'le, where I had been lying down, and observed a lanky young man pacing the dock. He had a white, five-gallon bucket in hand, obviously heavy. He said he had heard that I knew gold. I affirmed that I had been around it some and asked what I could do for him. Tilting the bucket forward so I could see its contents—little crumbles of rocks—he asked if I would take a look.

The rock looked right, the perfect host for gold: quartz and pyrite. The pyrite was heavily oxidized so all was a rusty mess—it could have been a bucket of nails left out for years in the rain. I washed several of the bigger pieces, broke them to expose fresh stone, scrutinized them with my ten-power loupe. I saw no gold. But the rock looked so right that I suggested further investigation. At that time, I carried aboard, just for this purpose, a heavy cast-iron mortal and pestle. I dug them out of stowage and instructed the young man to crush a portion of his rock into a very fine powder, to knock again when it was flour fine. An hour later, he returned to show me a pound or so of well pulverized rock. I then gave him my gold pan and a quick demonstration of its use.

A crisp, sharp rap brought me to the door a third time. The young man was now excited. And with reason, he had a nice tail of gold in the pan. Bobby obviously knew very little about gold, or prospecting, or mining but here he was with this rich ore. Certainly, I was curious. He volunteered that it came from Prince of Wales Island. Then—to my surprise—he offered to show me exactly where it came from.

I had the impression that Bobby was totally bereft of funds and could not afford the ferry to get back to the island. Other than a free ride home—about a six hour trip in the Hyak—I was not sure what he wanted: a free appraisal of the site, advice about small-scale mining and milling, a partner? I suspect that he did not know what he wanted. He said he had a truck at the dock in Hollis and that we could drive to the site from there. He asked if I had a flash light. I told that I did, and that I had a miner's hard hat with a carbide light too.

The site, only a mile away from the dock in Hollis, was an old abandoned mine. Its portal, caved or blasted shut, allowed no entry. Bobby said he entered another way. We scrambled up the hillside directly above the portal to the hole he had located. From its location and small diameter, it had to have been a ventilation shaft for the tunnel beneath. Bobby had a rope tied to a tree. Grabbing the rope, he said "Follow me." He lowered himself into the dark.

We repelled about twenty feet, came to an old ladder, and took that the rest of the way down to a tunnel. Altogether, it might have been a hundred feet. We followed the tunnel a short distance to its end. Old mining tools—drill steels, sledge hammers, picks and shovels—shovels laying about, just as if the old-timers who left them assumed they were coming back the next day. Bobby pointed to a three-foot wide rusty quartz seam and said he scraped his sample from there. The old-timers, before they walked out, were plainly mining this seam. Who knows why they did not go back.

Judging by his sample, the gold was certainly there. The ore could be brought out in small quantities by bucket and windless, and the gold easily extracted with mercury and a ball mill. I contemplated the possibilities, but there was one rather large and looming issue. Likely, I figured, this old mine, closed or not, was still under claim. After we climbed back out, I told Bobby I wanted to poke around in the nearby woods. I found what I expected—claim posts (used to demarcate the corners of an active mining claim). I informed Bobby of their presence, and just what they meant, and thanked him for showing me the place. I never went back, nor did I ever see the young man again.

* * *

I asked my fisherman friend if he would remember the fella's name if he heard it. He responded "Don't know, might." "Was it Bobby?" "Yeah, that was it."

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Copyright © 2011 by Gary McWilliams
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