How many people can say they know any real-life gold miners? I can, and recently I got to visit them at their claim in the heart of the Cariboo in Canuckistan, which is well-known for the gold rush in the late 1850s, early 1860s. Several towns grew up at that time, the most famous of these being Barkerville, close to which my friends are now mining.
You know those reality shows like Ice Road Truckers, Cake Wars or Yukon Gold? Honestly, I am not a fan. One thing they all seem to have in common is that the protagonists have to overcome several crises, usually in the middle of the programme, where the question is asked of them whether they will quit (or, even, gasp, survive) but they normally do weather the storm to fight another day. Yukon Gold, as I understand it, follows several families trying to mine gold before winter comes. They have to extract a certain amount before it gets too cold, otherwise they go bankrupt and lose everything they have, including relationships with those closest to them. The music is dramatic, the tension contrived, the denouement completely insignificant because one has no real emotional connection with the characters.
This is not the case with my friends the miners. Admittedly, I don’t know them well, but they seem like an amazingly-chilled couple, who love what they do, no matter how back-breaking the work can be. Although I always planned on visiting them at their claim when I lived here previously in 2013 and 2014, it just didn’t work out. This time I made a point to drive out along the web of dirt roads to experience something of their lifestyle.
Their mining method is called “placer mining” – which includes panning and the use of sluice boxes and jigs, as used in the big gold rushes many years ago. Now, of course, they get to use more modern equipment than the 19th Century gold-rush miners, but the techniques are pretty much the same. I won’t go into details about their operation, apart from to say that they work very hard: clearing topsoil, moving dirt, loading gravel and rocks into a screening plant back and forth all day, panning to check quality of the gravel, and removing tailings – all for a few flecks of the glittering metal. (If all of this sounds like Greek to you, you can read more about the mining method over on Wikipedia.)
And after a hard day’s work they get to enjoy the most idyllic of surroundings in each other’s company, with their two dogs. It’s this lifestyle that keeps them going (sans soundtrack) on the tough days, the stressful days where it looks like they may not find enough gold in the season, the days where equipment breaks down or the weather takes its toll. And it’s the pressure (rather than the hope of riches unspeakable) mixed with sweet times, shared memories and working towards a common goal that make their marriage what it is.
After I shot them at work they gave me a tour of their back yard, which included a stream where salmon spawn. We marvelled at the brightest, most vibrant double rainbow and I was treated to a supper of alpaca with rosé wine.
As with the reality television show, their mining season will also end soon, as the water and ground begin to freeze. And then they will pack it all up, move into town to work their “winter jobs” before starting up again at the first thaw next year. As they said to me recently, they would have it no other way.
I had been looking for eccentric characters to shoot on this trip of mine to Canuckistan. I wouldn’t call them that exactly, but this was one of my favourite shoots with one of the most engaging, interesting, down-to-earth couples I know.
And of course, on the way home I even hit a moose, which made me feel like a real Cariboo native!