posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken
I probably should have been a travel agent. I spend a lot of time planning our trips. I had Alaska guidebooks, maps, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and website printouts scattered all over the house for many months.
Of course we couldn't experience all of Alaska in three weeks, but we could sure take a good big bite out of it. Which is why we were up one morning at 5:15 to make a 6:30 departure for a van trip up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. Most of our events luckily involved more civilized hours. The paddleboat ride on the Tanana River in Fairbanks, the Alaska ferry trip to Seldovia, the afternoon catamaran rush up Prince William Sound to see a lot of glaciers and a few critters (sea otters, mostly)--all were scheduled at civilized times of the day.
So was our El Dorado Gold Mine Tour. I called this our 'trains, planes and automobiles' trip (plus boats), and the mine trip was our railroad portion. One chilly mid-morning we boarded an open narrow-gauge railroad car to learn about gold in Alaska. Early miners used steam to melt the pemafrost, allowing access to gold-bearing paydirt. They also built sluice boxes to channel stream water over gravel, and then they panned the resulting slurry until the heavy gold flakes (or sometimes nuggets) fell to the bottom.
It was a tough life, and for the most part the miners' suppliers (butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers, boardinghouse keepers, shovel sellers) were the only ones who hit the mother lode and retired rich. Some hardy folks still pan for gold on Alaska's creeks and rivers, and the process hasn't been modernized much (although they do use astroturf to catch the gravel that falls out of the sluiceboxes.)
After a demonstration of the miner's art, the whole trainload of us was turned loose to try our luck. No backbreaking labor for us, though; we were handed canvas bags of paydirt guaranteed to contain gold flecks. No icy Alaska stream, either (the piped in water was heated to nearly lukewarm), no rain running down our necks (tourist panning takes place in a covered pavillion), no squatting on a river rock (benches are provided).
We sloshed and sluiced and swirled and separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. OOH! Is that a big nugget? Nope, iron pyrites (fool's gold). A flake? (alas, mica). Our efforts were, as guaranteed, rewarded. My husband and I panned quite a few flakes of gold, and it really is bright in the bottom of the pan. The mine folks obligingly weigh each person's gold, based on that day's stock market price. Ours added up to $18; never mind that it cost us more than twice that, apiece, for the privilege. We were cleverly trooped through the gift shop, where successful panners are able to have their gold flakes turned into earrings, necklaces, tie pins, etc. There is little doubt who has the gold mine here. Still, it was more fun that I expected and I have the earrings to prove it.
What does this have to do with writing? Plenty. I realized how the process of panning gold is similar to writing, but without wading in frigid streams or sitting on muddy boulders. First, an idea (strike and claim). Sift through the paydirt (first draft). Check the pan for color (critique group). Swirl more water (later drafts). Check again for gold flakes (critique group again or maybe your agent). Slosh and swirl and sift some more, until all that remains in the pan is bright, yellow gold (finished manuscript).
May all your writing efforts be golden.