Maxim Does “Gold Rush”

We sent our man more than 2,000 miles north to hunt for pay dirt and glory holes. It wasn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds.

Whoever said, “Beer before liquor, never sicker,” never tried “beer before liquor, before a day at the mine.” I’m definitely sicker, and we’re not even there yet.

“There” is Scribner Creek, a gold-mining claim two hours outside Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, about 1,200 miles north of the contiguous United States. The drive from Dawson to Scribner is a solid two hours of breathtaking views: spruce trees, mountains, foxes, grouse, the occasional porcupine. It would all add up to a very life-affirming experience if I weren’t so terminally hung over. But I’m not here to bitch and moan. I’m here to shadow Parker Schnabel, the boss at Scribner Creek, and learn about the treasure that’s captivated men since the dawn of time—men like Bilbo Baggins, Scrooge McDuck, Trinidad James, and now me.

“Morning, sunshine!” A dirty hand with an extended middle finger peeks from a hole in a gargantuan machine. After miles of dirt roads and mining sites both active and long abandoned, we’ve made it. The machine is a wash plant. The finger is Parker’s. Excuse his manners. Miners don’t have courteous reputations to begin with, but Parker, an entrepreneur, reality star on Discovery’s Gold Rush, and miner for more than a decade, has just turned 19. Like many people his age, Parker left home after high school for bigger and better things. But Parker’s journey has nothing to do with college, the service, or booze-packing across Europe.

Since Parker became a regular subject on Gold Rush three years ago, viewership has grown from 3.33 million to 4.46 mil­-lion, and his gold hauls have gone from 35 ounces in Season 2 to 192 in Season 3 (from about $48,000 to $270,000). These are not numbers to sneeze at, but with ma­chin­ery that can set one back six figures, Parker knew that a sustainable profit margin would require more serious mining. So he left his three-mine hometown of Haines, Alaska and set out for Dawson, the site of the last great gold rush. Here the Klondike Mining District has more than 100 operating mines and, just last year, yielded Gold Rush’s flagship crew, the Hoffmans, an 803-ounce season.

“Fucker!” With a grin on his face and a hammer in the hand that wasn’t just flipping me off, Parker slides out of the mammoth, dust-colored wash plant to greet us. A lanky 6’2″, he’s dressed in the only clothes I see him wear for two days: dusty black work pants, a green earth day T-shirt (less dust, more irony), and Osiris skate shoes.

The wash plant looks ready to transform into a Decepticon at any moment, but it’s really a good guy, consuming pay dirt and sorting it into rocks, gravel, and eventually—hopefully—gold. When it’s working, that is. Parker’s been here for an hour and a half replacing a faulty screen, which means he woke up to leave Dawson almost four hours ago. Which I wouldn’t be so ashamed of if he were some uncorrupted teenager who’d just gotten a full night’s sleep. But 19 is the legal drinking age in most Canadian provinces, and this punk is the reason I’ve got this damn headache.

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Sixteen hours earlier, and moments after we meet, Parker dismisses my first question. We’re at Klondike Kate’s, a steak house in Dawson, for his birthday dinner, and I’m wondering what to order. Without looking up from his menu, he mumbles, “Don’t ask a gold miner what to eat.” He orders wine for the table and a steak, medium rare. As it seems that’s the closest thing to a suggestion I’m going to get, I follow suit. I wonder if Parker’s curtness is a result of reality-TV ego till a Swiss tourist approaches our table asking for an autograph. Parker warmly shakes the guy’s hand and offers to have John, the grandfather who taught him everything, sign as well. Of course. Parker’s not a dick. He’s just a 19-year-old being questioned by a strange adult. I’d hate me, too.

He may get more screen time than Grandpa, especially since moving away from Haines for Season 4, but Parker knows who the fan favorite is: “People don’t ask me how I am or how my mining season is. They ask how my grandpa is.” And he’s happy to give up the spotlight to the 93-year-old. When John retired from the logging business, he wanted to keep busy in a way that might offer his children and grandchildren a skill set to keep them ahead of the curve from a young age. “My brother was going up to the mine, and I would visit with my mom or dad. But my grandpa told me I wasn’t allowed to go up there on my own until I was out of diapers. So the next week I showed up, dropped my pants, and said, ‘Look, Grandpa, no diapers.’ ”

To employ a word from Parker’s age bracket—though one I never hear him utter—he’s been operating with the same “swag” ever since. It was swag when he stumbled onto Gold Rush at 16 by schooling the Hoffman crew on their own machinery. It is swag when, ready for a break from my questions, he tops off my Malbec to the brim. “I’m turning the tables,” he says.

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

My hangover subsides, and my sense of humor begins to return just in time for Parker’s jokes. “Good thing I don’t have a hot date tonight.” He’s talking into a camera as he sprays himself with gravel, cleaning out one of the wash plant’s many tubes. Then, to the cameraman twice his age, he deadpans, “Sorry, Gary. I forgot about our date tonight.” We’ve been on-site for an hour, but Parker’s golden one-liners are the closest I’ve come to seeing the shiny stuff.

Just after noon, thanks to Parker’s handiwork, the wash plant fires back up and the claim begins to buzz. Even with an eight-man camera crew on-site, Parker appears to run a tight ship, as he and every other miner here are on a deadline. With temperatures below freezing much of the year, permafrost and frozen water sources limit the mining season to about 150 days between April and September.

Always keeping busy, Parker hops in his dozer to gather dirt for the excavator. Which loads dirt into the dump truck. Which dumps dirt near the loader. And then, poof! The dirt becomes gold. Just kidding. The loader loads the same boring dirt into the wash plant. Parker sums up the entire process thusly: “I’m not a gold miner. I’m a dirt farmer.”

I pass some time sorting through the pay dirt by hand since I’m not allowed to touch any of the machines, but hunching over to inspect rock after rock for imaginary gold flecks does a number on my hangover, and I realize that if we don’t find gold soon, I might just puke. (To be fair, puking may be in the cards regardless of today’s haul.)

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Gold, after all, built Dawson City. When the Klondike gold rush began in 1896, this juncture of the Klondike and Yukon rivers grew from a settlement of First Nations, the native people of Canada, to a short-lived boomtown of approximately 40,000. Today a year-round population of less than 1,500 remains, but outside of tourism, mining is still the top industry—an estimated 1.25 million pounds of gold has been removed from the area since Dawson’s inception.

Here’s another figure: 11. The number of watering holes in Dawson isn’t remark­able until you consider that the “city” is only six unpaved blocks by 12. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a trendy mixology bar, but what these joints lack in artisanal bitters they make up for in character.

Take, for instance, the Downtown Hotel and its Sourtoe cocktail, made with a very real, slightly decomposed human toe. To become an official member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, plop the toe into any drink, down it, and, as the saying goes, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” Parker figures it’s a must-try for any visitor looking for the true Dawson experience. Surprisingly, I heard the same thing from a customs agent upon entering Canada, and who am I to defy an officer of the law? Double whiskey Sourtoe tasting notes: oak, hint of vanilla, wave of athlete’s foot. (Shortly after my trip, the Downtown made international news when a patron intentionally swallowed the toe and was charged $500 for the misdeed. The bar suspiciously had a backup on deck.)

As we continue to barhop under the bright 9 p.m. sun (at the 64th parallel, dusk doesn’t begin to set until midnight during the summer months), I discover another eccentricity: Each bar in Dawson, as well as most others throughout the Yukon Territory and Alaska, has a large bell attached to a rope just begging to be yanked. In gold rush days, when—or if—a miner had a particularly good haul, he could ring the bell to signal the good news and buy a round for the bar. I haven’t seen gold, let alone found any for myself, but I’m pretty sure I can expense this.

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

“You wanted gold? Twenty-two ounces!” Finally! Parker, fresh off his stint on the dozer, shows me a container the size of a pill bottle and dumps the contents into a green-ridged bowl, the type used for panning. We’re rich! “I counted every flake.” Eh, it’s still cool. I prod a few flakes and ask what the prop­er technique is for touching the gold. “There’s nothing proper about gold mining.” But he eyes my hands. “Did you eat anything sticky lately?” Wish I’d thought of that.

I can’t blame him for being vigilant, considering this year’s stakes. “Bottom line: If this season isn’t a success, I most likely won’t be gold-mining.” Before Parker left Haines, his parents and grandpa gave him a mason jar topped off with 100 ounces of gold to finance this endeavor, but the money had to come from somewhere relatively important to a young adult. “They said, ‘This money was set aside for you to go to college. But you’re a big boy—you can figure out what to do with it.’ Hopefully, I don’t piss it all away.” The fact that a 19-year-old is aware of, let alone concerned by, the financial burden his parents have incurred for his future indicates a calculated maturity uncharacteristic of people his age. It’s a maturity he expertly hides during our night on the town.

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

“City boy!” Parker calls me this a couple of times during my visit. Earlier I stuttered when trying to describe a truck—“City boy doesn’t know his trucks!”—and now I’ve asked what’s on tap at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Dawson’s only casino. All the beers in Dawson are Klondike-inspired—Chilkoot, Kokanee, and Ice Fog, named after a mountain pass, a glacier, and a type of fog so cold it is literally composed of ice crystals. But if there was ever a place to simply order “a cold one,” it’s this love child of your high school auditorium and an Atlantic City casino. I grab the closest thing to a Coors (Kokanee) and hang by the blackjack table while a string of tourist fans fawn over Parker.

The nanoscopic population of Dawson shields him from many of the dangers of being in the public eye, but he still senses the exposure. “Some people I have good conversations with who I would never meet otherwise, and other people are interrupting a dinner or an important conversation, but I have to suck it up and deal with it.” What about girls? He considers this. “It’s helped a few times. Other times it just makes me question motives. Why is this cute young girl dating a smelly, old, inconsiderate gold miner?” He backtracks and shrugs. “I’m not old.”

“There’s some color in the sluice box!” This box is dirt’s last stop before leaving the wash plant. It contains the machine’s gold-capturing mechanisms, and today they’ve captured gold! I start to climb onto the row of chutes, but Parker stops me. “No reporters in my sluice box. But I’m accepting bribes.” Though I’m fairly certain this rule was made up on the spot, I offer that, if he ever visits L.A., I can introduce him to a Maxim model. Surprisingly, he stands firm. I up the ante. “Twins?”

The sluice box of a wash plant is a tidy metaphor for gold mining: messy, rickety, and unapologetically filled with dirt. But unlike every other step in the process, it shows the product of this brute-force endeavor: gold. It’s the reason we’re all here—the miners, the TV crew, Trinidad James, and myself.

And while gold is never a bad thing, Parker’s reserved relief is a reminder of how imperfect and unpredictable this job can be. “The ground is just really inconsistent,” he vents. “It’s hard to spend a couple million bucks when you don’t know if you’re gonna get it back. That’s the bottom line. It’s just high-risk.”

Photographed by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

With stressors like that, it’s no surprise these miners play so hard at night, but it’s 2 a.m. at Gertie’s and I’m ready to hit the hay. We’re getting up at seven to set out for the mine, and, after all, I don’t want to be hung over. Parker, on the other hand, sips a Red Bull, trying to sober up. Not driving, I hope? “Oh, no! I’m not driving anything. Well…maybe her.” He indicates a girl across the casino floor. As there’s no bigger cock-block than a drunk guy with a tape recorder, I bid him good night and stumble three blocks (nearly a third of the city!) to the hotel.

So by my calculations, this young man worked a full day, barking orders and operating heavy machinery, hosting his grandpa and smiling for cameras, on a whopping one to two hours of sleep. Is it worth it? “There’s a lot of opportunity. I enjoy being up here, and maybe I’ll do it until I retire, like my grandpa.” It’s the type of introspection that makes you remember the boss of Scribner Creek and forget the kid at the casino trying to score. Until I wish him luck and ask if he has any questions for me. He smiles.

“What are those twins’ names?”

Photos by Phil Chin | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013