You are hereDavid Likins, Coffee With A Gold Miner

David Likins, Coffee With A Gold Miner

By John Locke - Posted on 10 October 1997

I admit it. I am a coffee snob. After two years in Seattle, the thought of drinking instant coffee, or anything from a can makes me shudder. So when the crustiest, meanest, most ornery gold miner on the Fortymile river invited us into his cabin for a cup, I nearly opted for tea. I glanced around his kitchen, looking for a can of Folgers, and not seeing one, decided to risk it for the sake of courtesy.

A suction dredge in operation Beaver pelts hung in front of the cabin, and caribou and moose hides adorned the inside. His linoleum floor was spotless. An opening in the back wall between a television and a narrow bookshelf led to the back room with a double bed on a pedestal. Novels and books about Alaskan history filled the bookcase to the ceiling. Next to it was a gun rack with a couple of rifles and a shotgun. In the middle of the floor was a trapdoor, leading to his pantry. Over the entrance to the cabin hung an assault rifle, hidden in the shadows but easy to reach in a hurry.

I looked again at our host, who was reaching into a cupboard. "So this is the infamous David Likins," I thought to myself. The kettle was already on the stove, and I waited to see what kind of coffee he would pull out. His brown hair was gathered into a pony tail that did not quite control its desire to fan in all directions. His beard was silvered and larger than his face. But his eyes, guarded with wariness, glowed with an intelligence and knowing that invited respect. Out of the cupboard came a sack of beans that smelled like they had come straight from Columbia. Behind it came a gourmet french press. It was dainty in this rough man's hands, but somehow it underscored the sophistication in his eyes, and fitted completely.

"If you want to live in the bush in Alaska," he told us, "you can do three things: you can fish, you can trap, or you can mine. I've done all three." David Likins was born and raised in Juneau. He commercial fished in southeast Alaska until he went to Vietnam. When he returned, three years later, the fisheries had gone to a limited-entry permit system, and he could no longer fish. So in 1972 he moved to Maiden Bench, an abandoned claim on the Fortymile river that was first established in 1887. He's lived there ever since, mining in the summer, and trapping in the winter.

At one time or another, the entire river has been mined--but you would never know by floating it. The place feels wild, untouched, until you wander the valleys and find old machinery and abandoned cabins. Today, with better technology and more effective techniques, miners salvage flecks of gold that the bucket dredges and hand-dug holes missed decades ago.

A Brief History Mining History in the Forty Mile
Prospectors first arrived in the Fortymile in the 1880s. The town of Fortymile took its name because it was forty miles down the Yukon river from Fort Reliance, the earliest trading post in the entire region. On September 7, 1886, Howard Franklin found gold about thirty miles up the Fortymile river, at Franklin Creek, "but not the Franklin Creek you passed upriver," Likins told us. "The original Franklin Creek is Moose Creek on your map." Prospectors throughout the region rushed to the river. On the eve of the Klondike Stampede, in 1896, Fortymile was the largest town on the Yukon. More than a thousand people provided services for several hundred others living and mining up its many tributaries. But then came the Klondike gold strike, and the town emptied overnight.
A few miners continued to live and work the Fortymile river. Some were happy where they were, making enough to keep going, while others settled there on their way to the Klondike. Unlike the Klondike, with its mother lodes, and rich, uneven deposits, gold in the Fortymile drainage was scattered evenly throughout. So while nobody has struck it rich there, just about everybody who has worked steadily has earned enough to survive, and keep going. That productivity has made Fortymile one of the oldest continuously mined rivers in Alaska.
For several decades, large mining corporations such as the Fairbanks Exploration company ran bucket dredging operations, scooping out most of the river to sluice the gold from the gravel. In the late thirties, however, economics made it unprofitable for such large-scale operations, and since then only individuals and families have mined there.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, the Fortymile again filled with gold-seekers hoping to strike it rich, when the price of gold reached over $800 an ounce. "When we first arrived here, in 1983, the river was a mess," Pat Scofield told me. "There was garbage everywhere, and all these people that were just out to get rich kind of trashed the place." But since then, when the price of gold dropped back to the $300 range, the place has thinned out, and those who remain and the staff of the BLM have cleaned most of the trash out. Scofield thought it was ironic that the trash from the early miners was considered antique, and protected under the Antiquities Act. "In fifty years, my trash will be antique, and of historic interest," he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The method of choice is the suction dredge, a floating vacuum cleaner. Likins has two: a tiny five inch dredge, manufactured commercially, and a thirteen inch dredge of his own construction. On the day of our visit, both dredges were sitting on the shore, out of the water.

Likins showed us his thirteen inch dredge. "It's the largest dredge on the river," he said, explaining that the size referred to the width of the opening of the hose. The dredge itself is a small platform sitting on two bus-length iron pontoons, with a sluice running out the back. It looked like a rusty relic from decades ago, but it functions perfectly.

Two gas powered pumps draw water through separate hoses, and join with the main hose at the front of the dredge, creating enough suction to sweep up the rocks and gold at the bottom of the river. The main hose empties at the top of the sluice, and gold falls out in the first riffle. Most Fortymile gold is very fine, and falls through the grate, collecting on a section of Astroturf underneath.

Somebody needs to guide the hose by hand. And that means diving. A large fraction of a suction-dredge miner's life is spent underwater in cold rivers. A belt from Likins's right pump runs his air compressor, which provides him air through a long, sinuous hose. Another hose feeds water warmed by a Paloma heater to his wetsuit. "The fuel tank for the left pump is smaller. When I notice the dredge sucking with less power, [I know] it's time to come up." It's a warning signal that ensures he can keep breathing as he surfaces. Underwater, he wears enough weight to hold him down in the current, and he digs with the dredge hose through the gravel to the bedrock. "The gold settles at a forty five degree angle," he told us.

The gold appears in trails, streaks within the river bed. The river bed itself is fluid, slowly flowing downriver over the years, and gold, being so much heavier than all the other rocks around it, gradually sinks to the bedrock. The miners have to dig underneath the top layers to reach the gold, and once they find a streak, they work up and downriver from it. They can see the little bits of gold as they dig, but it's easy to get fooled, and find the sluice empty when they thought they had something, or find gold they never saw.

One advantage of suction dredging is that the miners extract the gold as they go, and so it produces a steady flow of income. There are around 40 active dredging operations on the 392-mile river system, most of them small operations clustered around the town of Chicken. In 1981 Congress declared the Fortymile a National Wild and Scenic River, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. "We're being managed out of existence," Likins told me. The miners find an ally in the State of Alaska's Division of Mining, which has continued issuing permits for mining the river bed, claiming that the federal government has no jurisdiction over the river, since it is a navigable water. But the BLM restricts use of the shore, issuing "long-term camping" permits to regulate the miners' small cabins, and controlling fuel and dredge storage.

Likins, however, spends more of his time working his "cat" mine than dredging. Since he was mining there before it became a Wild and Scenic River, he was grandfathered in, and can continue working the bench on which he lives, and remain in his cabin. Using two ancient Caterpillars, a 1937 D-7 and a 1951 D-8, he works the whole summer pushing gravel up into huge ramps. During the last couple of weeks before freeze-up, he sluices the piles and finds out how well he did for the season.

When winter arrives, the river gets quiet. Nearly all the dredgers leave for the season. Many go to Fairbanks, or Tok, to winter jobs. Some, like Pat and Eva Scofield, make jewelry using the nuggets they have found during the summer. A miner named Ed spends his winters living on a sailboat in San Francisco Bay. Other miners work for mining companies elsewhere in the state, or hold down office jobs. Likins and his girlfriend settle in and enjoy the solitude and beauty of the wilderness. When the rivers have frozen solid and snow blankets the country, he sets up and runs a trapline.

The Fortymile is quiet and peaceful until February, when the Yukon Quest dog sled race passes through. Suddenly, Likins's place fills with mushers taking a break on their thousand mile journey. He's known many of the mushers for years, and even ran the race one winter.

When break-up arrives, it's time for Likins to get back to work. His ancient equipment extracts just enough gold for him to get by. "I've lost everything twice," he told us, as he poured rich coffee from his french press and refilled it in an elaborate plunging sequence, eventually filling the seven mugs with a hearty, rich brew.

The last time he lost everything was in 1990. Likins made national news when he brought a giant dredge up from New Zealand. A lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency and American Rivers stopped him from using it. A November 1993 Audubon article complained that it "was capable of processing 2,000 cubic yards of river gravel a day and ... would have violated noise-pollution standards even in New York City." The lawsuit completely surprised Likins. New Zealand has some of the toughest environmental standards in the world, and according to Likins, they allow this dredge "because it is so environmentally sound. It has zero discharge--it has a self-contained holding pond and uses the same water over and over again." Likins won the lawsuit, but not before losing the dredge to the bank.

"I was a charter member of Greenpeace, back when they started up in 1971," Likins told us, as we sipped the best coffee we'd had for a week. He was involved in their nascent campaign to stop the United States' nuclear testing on Amchitka Island, in the Aleutians. His love for the river, and the place he calls home, exuded from every motion. He was comfortable, relaxed. I had a momentary vision of him in a city, and got the immediate sense that he would be a caged wolf, edgy and uncomfortable. "I'm a subsistence miner," said the operator of the largest mining operation on the Fortymile. "I mine so that I can eat."