“She hasn’t even shown me any flake!”

Sensitivity disclaimer: While I will attempt to curtail excessive and overly offensive exclamations and obscenities, I have been watching a lot of Deadwood lately…

This town is built on gold -both literally and historically. Once upon a time an exhausted Italian chap by the name of Felix Pedro was down on his luck. Scrambling through the boreal forest and scouring the creeks for his fortune, he one day chanced to look south and lo, he saw evidence of a steamer coming up the river. Or so the story goes. Another damn fool –one Elbridge Truman Barnette by name- was on a fool’s errand to set up a trading post upriver but had pissed off the steamer captain one too many times. Thus, serendipitously for Signor Pedro, Barnett and supplies (with wife in tow) were unceremoniously dumped on the banks of the then little known Chena River. Or so the story goes. Pedro, desperately in need of supplies, high tails it down to said river bank. He bargains with ol’ E.T.  for a new outfit and heads back into the hills whereupon he makes a genuine strike and well the game was on.

However, scooping up nuggets from the creeks by the fistful was not the long term vision for “Fairbanks”, supposedly what Barnett named the town that he set out to create… if you believe in that sort of thing. Anyways, rather than slothfully lying around in the creeks the gold was mostly buried, scattered along the bedrock of ancient streambeds buried under layers of rock and sediment. Now, while tending fires to thaw the frozen muck so that one might then dig -and eventually crawl around in- deep, dank holes (aka drift mining shafts) might be one way to spend a Fairbanks winter, it soon lost its charm. Enter the era of industrial dredging!

Gleefully tossing aside the shovel and windlass the miners recruited enormous floating mechanical behemoths which set about to chew up pert’ near ever’ creek valley in “the country” leaving only the tailings; and their now rusting, hulking remains.To the unfamiliar, “tailings” is the technical term for the debris pile left after this sort of large scale excavation -usually associated specifically with mining; in this particular case  vast new landscapes of broken and discarded rubble piles shat out of these machines in concentric, semi-lunar, linear piles. I say landscapes earnestly, for in some parts of the state they are actually managed as “historic landscapes”, undeniable evidence of the passing of some long dead beast.

Now, I do not go out for gold mining myself, although I have given it a few half-hearted tries with the short handled shovel and prospecting pan. Not that I do not understand the desire mind you…$1700.00 dollars an ounce or whatever it is these days, but I am not a heavy equipment operator, nor have I been able to warm up to the idea of freezing my balls off standing in a creek all day. Anyways, that is beside the point. The point of all this -the nugget amidst the rubble as it were- is the legacy of the tailings. First the miners mined the gold and now the dirt workers mine the tailings -to haul around in dump trucks and sell to schleps like me. Damn fools wanting to build houses on the permafrost. So we buy the tailings that once lay underground, holding fast to their shiny treasure, to be ripped up and re-deposited in systematic earthworks (that actually can look quite intriguing from an appropriately elevated vantage point), then finally loaded into trucks and spread out across the tundra as roads, driveways, and house pads. And we thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea.


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