May is one of the most important months of the season for a Bering Sea Gold miner, as Memorial Day (roughly-speaking) marks the full start of summer. And if you want to make it in this business, you better be ready then.
On May 1st you’re already getting 17 hours of daylight, and it never gets any darker than nautical twilight. We won’t see true darkness this far north until September 3rd at 2:49 AM.
Even if the temperature isn’t much warmer than the low 40s – all the sunlight starts to melt the snow and ice rapidly, and “breakup season” is in full swing in Western Alaska. That doesn’t mean couples are separating – it means blue skies, 40-degree weather and rapidly melting Bering Sea ice.
First you just see cracks of blue on the horizon when you look south. The first signs of ocean poking through the frozen wasteland of the Bering Sea. Then it starts to break up closer to shore and the beach gets revealed.
One day a strong north wind blows it all out and the water practically looks workable, but the harbor remains frozen.
The Snake River cuts a blue fresh path through the harbor ice. You start to see water pooling on top of the ice in various spots and then it melts from the inside of the harbor to the outside.
Close to the end of May the last stubborn ice blocks cling to the shadowy nooks under the docks, and one day the harbormaster drops the floating docks in the water. If you aren’t in the water in 24 hours you start losing money every day.
What’s the rush?
The biggest limiting factor of days on the water each summer is weather. Not breakdowns, or bad crew, or hangovers. It’s common only to get 50-60 good weather days in a season, and 25%-40% of those could easily be in June, with only a few good days a month between July and October.
Bering Sea Gold doesn’t show our pre-season work because of the filming schedule. There’s only a small window of time between when the snow melts away and you can work on your dredge, skiff, connex, and shop – and when you actually start mining.
What needs to be done?
A million things need to be done:
- Motor oil and gear oil change on outboards – 2 on the dredge, 1 on the skiff
- Oil change on generators
- Oil change on Cummins 4bt
- Oil change on the trucks
- Replacing zincs on outboards
- Replace lower unit on skiff
- Pontoon doctoring (flotation foam, crack repair, bilge, etc.)
- Mining taxes and permit paperwork
- New fuel separators on compressor, outboards
- Inspect and re-wrap the umbilical
- Replacing bad wiring, fuel line
- Replacing rusted air components like throttle control valve on diver, air throttle on the cummins, etc.
- Patching holes in the jet and flare
- Usually one major upgrade on the dredge – this season it’s rebuilding the anchoring system
- Install a new air reserve tank
- Ordering backup parts (pump parts, alternator, foot valve hose, pulleys and valves for air system etc.)
- New expanded metal for the sluice box
- Acquiring new, useful infrastructure like trailers, fuel tanks, etc.
- Procure a million small things like baby soap, vickys, anti-seize, hatch covers
- Improvements to shop, home, and crew quarters
Each one of these projects requires some combination of research, procurement, logistics, and then the actual work of doing it. In some ways pre-season starts in January, as you look to procure the biggest and most vital components early.
Money is flowing out at record levels right when the tax bill comes in, and the need to get on the gold becomes more acute every day.
How do you get this all done? You rely on your crew. Hopefully you have reliable and competent guys. If someone fell through in the annual “duffle bag shuffle” of the divers switching dredges you might need to scramble to get another diver or a tender last-minute.
It’s expected for crew to pitch in for 7-14 days of pre-season work as part of the job, so everyone has some skin in the game spending time and effort getting the dredge ready to work.
But your crew members also have camps that were destroyed by wind and ice over the winter, and you’re competing with their living situation for attention in the first week they’re in town.
Splashing the Boat
What seems like an impossible lift always seems to get done in the end. You always seem to finish about 75% of your projects and deem the other 25% inessential to the season. When you have one day left and a choice to make the really important tasks (i.e. fixing the air system) always rise to the top and the less important projects (i.e. replacing funky metal in the sluice box) get kicked down the road.
The Eroica doesn’t have a trailer, it has some dollies that the pontoons rest on, and it’s a slow nerve-wracking trip with a loader to the boat ramp to get her in the water. Someone always has to get wet to get in the water and take the dollies off.
When the ice goes out early the ramp is usually open since a lot of dredgers are still in the middle of shore projects. When the ice goes out late the ramp is swamped with impatient miners, and you might only have the chance to splash the boat at some insane hour at night.
When the boat gets splashed it’s time for a quick cigar before systems checks. It’s a little strange to celebrate a victory when the real work hasn’t yet begun, but in this business you take your victories where you can get them.
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