Emily Riedel wants you to know, ice mining sucks.
In most jobs, there is at least one part, one thing that people don’t like doing. For gold miners in Nome, Alaska, that thing is ice mining.
Fans of Bering Sea Gold have probably noticed that the show is pretty vague when it comes to the actual timing and length of the ice mining season. It’s currently the end of January and our favorite miners still aren’t on the ice. Emily was kind enough to answer some questions to help give a better understanding of the ice mining season and what it’s really like.
The reason for the late winter start is miners and their crews have to wait until the ice is at least 3 feet thick before it’s safe to bring all their heavy gear, snow machines (snow mobiles to us in the lower 48) and shacks out on the ice without fear of falling through. According to the star miner, “Sometimes the ice doesn’t form up until early to mid February and sometimes it doesn’t form up at all. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened in the 10 years that we’ve been doing it.”. Even then, there are still numerous dangers when it comes to mining for gold under the ice. “There are zones out on the ice where leads form, that’s where the ice pack is breaking apart in some of the areas, so you have to be cautious that you’re not on the south side of those leads. You could get stranded out there or lose your equipment. Otherwise the ice that we’re working on is generally pretty thick.“ Since the sea ice floats on the surface of the ocean, it moves around in the wind as storms pass by. In the Bering Sea storms usually occur every three to five days. Even though the ice looks solid, this constant shifting and moving is what causes the leads to form, turning what once looked like a solid spot into a floating iceberg headed for Russia.
Sea ice begins forming in the northern Bering Sea as late as November, as the ocean reaches a temperature of 36°F but this year Nome Harbor started freezing in October. Ice may remain into June of the following year in some parts.That doesn’t mean the miners are working on the ice until June.
“The Department of Natural Resources cuts us off on April 15th. Miners kept pushing it until mid to late May, the ice would break up and they’d lose equipment or have to be rescued with helicopters.” she explained. To keep miners struck with gold fever safe, the DNR strictly enforces the April 15th cut off date.
If the dangers on top of the ice weren’t enough there are even more things that could go wrong under the ice. Diving for gold isn’t what anyone would call a safe job – it’s dangerous in the best conditions. Add freezing temperatures to that, and at least 3 feet of ice above you and divers are facing major new dangers. Hypothermia is a major issue due to almost-freezing water temperatures and keeping equipment running, in often below zero weather, are only a few of the problems the crews face. The show has shown us time and again how risky it is.
“We have to deal with air line freezes, regulator freezes, hot and cold combos create a lot of moisture in your air line, over time your air line starts to build up ice and it can freeze on you. Sometimes, it’s a cumulative effect – and sometimes a chunk of ice can come loose and jam your regulator and cut off a diver’s air supply in an instant. Your regulator can clog up with ice and freeze, it’s a delicate system of rubber valves, opening and closing, which is susceptible to freezing. The best thing to do is find a way to keep your air warm. One way we do this is by running our air line through a hose where we’re running our hot water so the air is always warm. When you’re diving you can get a sudden regulator freeze and have to do an emergency ascent, that isn’t fun for anyone.” Emily explained.
With water temperatures about 30°F, it’s up to divers to determine when they’ve had enough diving for the day. As long as their equipment is running smoothly under the ice and above, they can spend all day sucking up, hopefully, gold rich paydirt. But, if you’re not on the gold, you have to move and that is an ordeal that takes a lot of time.
“When you’re on a boat and want to move, you just pull anchor and motor over, it doesn’t take a lot of time at all. When you’re on the ice that’s like the whole day or two, disassembling equipment, moving equipment, setting up again.” She added, “It’s just a time suck.”
She further went into how the risks versus rewards were not the same in ice mining as in the summer season, “The benefits of ice mining are not quite outweighed by the torture that is ice mining. The sheer logistics make it so much more difficult, it’s less profitable. It’s cold, it gets dark earlier, it just sucks.”
The weather–have we mentioned how bad the weather truly is? Below zero temperatures, blizzards, sub zero wind chills, white out conditions, these are all a regular occurance miners have to deal with when it comes to the ice mining season. The average temperature during the season is in the single digits, add in the windchill and that can feel around a bone-freezing -20°F at times.
Emily recalled the time she was ice mining at Bluff as one of her more memorable moments. “There was a lot of winter time camping, I had a generator I brought out with me, I had a heater and a hot plate in my tent. It would be so cold I’d have them both on, on high, and a couple sleeping bags and I would still be so cold.”
“When you’re traveling down to Bluff, it’s like 70 miles down the coast, you have to go through this area, it’s like a death tunnel. A lot of people get stuck there or hypothermic because all of a sudden you’re in this space where the mountains fall away, you’re completely exposed [to the north wind]. That was the first time I had ever gotten frostbite. I was on my snow machine going through that. They call it the ‘blow hole,’ I think, which is appropriate because it’s a hole and it blows. It’s super exposed with this incredibly intense windchill. If you get stuck there you can definitely die depending on the weather conditions. You have to go through there for the Iditarod so a lot of the Mushers know that as a super dangerous spot on the trail.”
Despite all the things that can, and do, go wrong with ice mining, each year the miners are still out there, hoping to hit a pay streak to make all their suffering worth it in the end.
Luckily, for us, we don’t have to suffer with them to get our hands on some real Nome gold. You can order certified-authentic paydirt mined by Emily’s team on the Eroica right here on Bering Sea Paydirt and get your hands on some real Bering Sea gold (guaranteed in every bag!), without the risk of frostbite.
While it looks cool to us viewers, watching from our couches in our warm, cozy homes, Emily summed it up best for those who are out there working in those conditions, “Ice mining just sucks.”
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