Panning for Gold and Other Tourist Adventures in Fairbanks

Last weekend we decided to take a day to explore Fairbanks, AK as tourists before the season ends. In late September cruise ships stop running to Alaska and just about everything that is tourist related shuts down. So we picked our top three seasonal activities and made a day of it: El Dorado Gold Mine, Pioneer Park, and the Discovery Riverboat  Tour.

El Dorado Gold Mine is hokey and touristy but also really fun. You arrive at an old fashion train station that takes you on a very short ride to see the history of gold mining in Alaska, complete with a guitar playing guide (also the fiddle on the way back) and actors recreating the various mining scenes at each stop. We saw examples of permafrost tunnels used to find underground veins of gold, steam run engines used to spray high powered water at dirt to help separate the gold, and an example of a “sourdough” miner. A single miner who sets up camp along a river and tries to pan his own gold. Our guide told us that they were called sourdough miners because they were sour that they didn’t have any dough. (He had some pretty good jokes and stories.) But the best parts of the tour were seeing the sluice box in action and the chance to pan our own gold.

The sluice box is a grated trough that collects heavier items out of the pay dirt as it is sent down with a high volume of water. Creating the right grade and angles for the metal to catch the gold are important elements in the construction of a good sluice box. The sluice at this mine was at ground level and ran about 50 yards at a gentle grade. Empty it looks like a giant ladder, but when they release the water and start dumping in the dirt it looks like a rushing stream. After the dirt is run they collect what has been gathered and pan it for gold. The woman giving the demonstration, who is also the owner and a 5th generation miner, made it look so easy (it isn’t!) when she was panning. She was funny and had a good sense of showmanship. She even wore a huge gold nugget around her neck (about the size of a little red potato). After the demonstration she sent us off to pan our own gold!

Each person was given a poke sack (a small bag of dirt), a metal pan, and a trough of heated water to pan in. It looks just like in the movies except the pan is heavy and it is hard to get the right sloshing motion. But we had a lot of fun doing it. In the end, we both struck gold! I collect $9 worth of gold, and Lucas collected $30 worth. Not bad for about ten minutes. It gave us a touch of “gold fever,” and we spent the rest of the afternoon shaking our loot around to remind ourselves about the treasure.

After panning for gold, we went to Pioneer Park. Another super touristy area in Fairbanks, but it did have a neat old train car from 1921, an old sternwheeler boat, and an interesting musk ox exhibit in the art gallery (see pictures below). Most of Pioneer park is little shops in old log cabins. It is also home to a pretty famous salmon bake that we did not have a chance to try.

Our final stop of the day was the Discovery Riverboat tour. The boat itself was one of the neatest parts of this trip. It is an old sternwheeler, which used to be one of the main ways to ship cargo in Alaska. People up here say that without it, Alaska would not have been able to develop in those early days. The benefit of a boat like this with its huge paddle wheel is the ability to travel in very low levels of water. For a boat this large it is pretty amazing. We traveled down the Chena River, a wide, flat, shallow body of water with low grassy banks. During the trip we saw a float plane take off and land. The most amazing part was the short space they needed to do this, about 100 yards. Along the river we saw several homes with boats and planes in their slips or backyards, crazy, but air is a major form of travel up here with so many cities and towns unreachable by road. My favorite place on the tour was the late Susan Butcher’s kennel. She was a four-time Iditarod champion. Her husband and two daughters still run the kennel with well over 100 dogs. The dogs were so cute. They got really excited when her husband hooked up eight of the dogs for a training run. In the summer they train using a four-wheeler instead of a sled. These dogs love to run! After the kennel we made a stop and got off the boat at the Chena Indian Village, a replica of an Athabascan Indian village at different times in history. We saw traditional homes, fishing camps, clothes, and hunting tools. The fish wheel was one of my favorite parts. It is turned by the water and scoops up salmon and collects them for the fisherman. It is still an effective way to catch fish today.

It was a great day, and we are looking forward to more Fairbanks adventures!


2 Comments on “Panning for Gold and Other Tourist Adventures in Fairbanks”

  1. tommy tubbs says:

    Im here till may1 st waiting on my so to get back from deployment.From Arkasas wondering about trying to pan for sume gold.Also is there any type of permit?Where would be a good place to go try a hand at this time of year.


    • At this time of year I don’t think anyone is panning for gold. It is still too cold. I don’t think most mines start until late May or early June. But you could ask around. We panned at a mine operated for tourists so we didn’t need permits or anything like that, but if you wanted to do it on your own I am sure you would need one.


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