By Jenny Neyman
As gold fever goes, Tom Cooper’s case was fairly low grade.
For the first few decades of his life in Alaska he was interested in going looking for it, but other things took priority — family, work and hunting for other treasures that are more easily and reliably found, like agates, crystals and the antlers and sheep horns he carves and sells.
When he finally did start prospecting in 2005, making an annual summer trip to Clark-Wiltz’s recreational mining operation at Ganes Creek 25 miles west of McGrath, using a metal detector to comb through the thousands of acres of tailings piles left by bucket-line dredges and bulldozer operations of the past, he contented himself with modest results.
“I told myself I’d rather get a little nugget a day than one big one all week,” said Cooper, who runs his Alaska Horn and Antler shop in Sterling.
Still, Cooper’s temperature would spike and symptoms would flare at the sight of fellow prospectors unearthing grape-sized-or-better glittering nuggets from the churned-up dirt, especially if it was a patch of dirt he had just left.
He’d find himself quickening his pace ahead of his fellow gold-seekers in the field,
to get first crack at a freshly bulldozed mound of tailings. If a daylong gold hunt was a bust, he’d just as soon skip dinner to keep prowling the field.
While his head whirred with strategies and estimations of likely productive locations, he’d will his metal detector to give off a strong, solid signal to tell him where to dig. And for that digging to turn up more than yet another shrapnel from an old airplane wreckage, or bullet shell, or busted debris of disintegrating mine machinery — but to be a solid, heavy, shiny hunk of gold.
July 1 was the last day of Cooper’s trip to Ganes Creek this year. He’d stayed in the field until 11:30 p.m. the night before, determined not to go back to camp empty-handed for the day, and finding only a ladybug-sized flake for his 14-plus hours in the field.
A mere hour into the next morning’s search, his detector blared at him. It’s a sound that quickens the pulse, but often also raises frustration when it’s caused by nonferrous metal other than gold.
“It was a huge signal. It sounded just like a pop can, which is real common,” Cooper said. “It was buried 2 to 3 feet. They sound so good and they’re always such a pain to dig. You end up with a lot of bullet shells, lots of old watchcases, electrical copper pieces, aluminum off a piece of machinery. There’s an old crashed airplane up there so there’s lots of pieces of aluminum on the runway.”
He shoveled down, running the detector over his tailings and over the deepening hole to make sure he didn’t miss whatever was causing the signal, since buried metal often is caked with muck and hard to distinguish.
“I just dug down and checked for the signal again and it was still just blaring at me so I dug some more,” Cooper said. “And then, all of a sudden, it was just lying there. It was a really round, well-worn rock. It didn’t look like the bedrock.”
He stooped over the hole, his hallmark green-plaid shirt and white fly-away hair tenting out like a curtain around him, peering over his glasses as he does when he needs to get a better look at something.
“I picked it up and as soon as I touched it, I knew it. I knew it was gold, no doubt,” he said.
As Cooper hefted the flat, smooth chunk that nestled perfectly in his palm, his simmering fever boiled over.
“I whooped and hollered and jumped up and down and did a little dance. I practically threw my detector off to the side,” Cooper said.
The nearest prospector in earshot teased Cooper back at camp that night for “screaming like a little girl.”
“I did,” Cooper admits. “When I finally realized what it was I went ‘Wahoo’ and started jumping up and down. He said, ‘That’s not a nugget.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ and I threw it at him. It landed right in front of him and he grabbed it and said, ‘Oh, my God.’”
Cooper didn’t have a scale in the field, and decided he couldn’t wait for the shuttle to return the prospectors to camp for dinner.
“The day had just started, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done, I’m going back to camp,’” Cooper said. “They said, ‘What? You’re doing what?’ I said, ‘How can I beat this?’ You just can’t. It’s 5.5 miles back to camp and I had to stop myself from running.”
The entire hike was filled with Cooper estimating the nugget’s weight.
“I was sure it was 5 or 6 ounces. I was hoping it was 8. On the way back I kept saying, ‘5 or 6, if it’s 8 that’d be great. Five or 6, 8 would be great,’ like I was willing it to be 8,” Cooper said.
Back in camp, the nugget got an eye-popping response from the mine operators.
Not only is the nugget big, but it is nearly solid gold. Many of the nuggets found at Ganes Creek, especially the larger ones, are gnarled, pockmarked conglomerations of gold and quartz. That doesn’t hurt the value any, but it lessens the wow factor that a smooth, shiny, solid-gold nugget presents.
“This one is so smooth it almost looks like it was cast,” Cooper said.
They put the nugget on the scale. Eight would indeed be great, but this was even better.
“It was 10.64 ounces. I was just ecstatic. Just having a hold of it was a thrill enough,
and then to get one that big in that kind of condition, I just couldn’t believe it,” Cooper said.
Gold prices have been leapfrogging since 2006, with new highs set and soon surpassed. In June, the spot price for gold reached a record $1,549 per ounce. At that price, Cooper’s nugget is worth $16,481. But larger nuggets sell for more, and Cooper has been told his could fetch as much as $25,000 to $30,000.
Not that he’s looking to sell.
“It goes in a safety deposit box. I’m going to let my kids fight over it when I die,” he said.
The most obvious distinction between Cooper and the majority of the hoards of gold prospectors throughout history is that Cooper has found success. But that’s not the biggest distinction. For many, dreams of striking it rich provide the fuel to put up with the dirty, difficult, tedious, frustrating and any-other-synonym-for-“loathsome” work that goes into searching for it.
But for Cooper, the hunt is the prize. That’s not to say he eschews money or doesn’t care about how much the nugget is worth. He’s been poor enough often enough with enough other mouths to feed to know the importance of making a living. But he’s also always valued experience higher than the payout.
Cooper, originally from New York, came to Alaska in 1972 at age 19, driving a Plymouth worth $75.
“It took me two weeks to get to Fairbanks. When I got there I sold it for 300 bucks and I thought I was the smartest guy in the world. I didn’t realize that cars would sell for twice that much then, before the pipeline days when nothing was available,” he said.
He’d dreamed of coming to Alaska even younger. As a kid, he’d hold the church door open for his siblings and mother, Norma Cooper, who is now retired from operating North Star Dance Studio next to Cooper’s rock and gift shop in Sterling. Once the family shuffled in to church, he’d close the door behind them and hightail it across the street to the drug store, to read Alaska Sportsman (the precursor to Alaska Magazine) and Arizona Highways magazines.
“I just needed to be in the wilderness,” he said. “I was determined to go to both states. It took me 25 more years to get to Arizona, and I love it there, too.”
Arriving in Fairbanks before the boom times of the oil pipeline construction, there was no work to be found.
“I walked from one end of Fairbanks to the other. I went in hair salons and dress shops, asked if I could sweep the floor, it didn’t matter. Whatever it took,” he said.
He’d lost his wallet on the trip through Canada, and with $5 to his name, 4,000 miles from home and not knowing a soul in Alaska, he met a friendly Army recruiter and enlisted. It was a good four-year stint for Cooper, all served in Alaska. He made sergeant in less than four years and had some experiences he never would have had otherwise, including serving on the Army mountain rescue team.
He climbed Mount McKinley three summers in a row, summiting two of those years. The third year his crew cleared 1,600 pounds of debris off the mountain. One of his photos of the work was his first to be published in Alaska Magazine.
Cooper’s first climb was led by mountaineer Ray Genet, the first guide on Mount McKinley. Legendary Bush pilot Don Sheldon dropped the party a half-gallon carton of ice cream at 10,000 feet.
“You wouldn’t believe how good ice cream tasted up on the glacier. You’re in amongst tons of ice and snow but it just tasted delightful,” Cooper said. “Every one of us, it was just a spoon right in the carton. And when it got down toward the end, Genet took the rest.”
When his tour was up, Cooper was ready to explore.
“When I first got out of the Army I wanted to do something different every six months,” he said.
He made good on his intentions for variety — plant manager for Seafoods of Alaska, bartender, pressman at the Cheechako News, gas station attendant, jeweler’s assistant and many more jobs that took him across the state, much of it into the wilderness.
One of his jobs was working for Basil Bolstridge across Cook Inlet.
“I’d have to stake gold claims all the way down the river, or he had others stake claims and wasn’t sure if they did it right so then he’d send me out to check them. He knew I liked being out in the woods, and bears and stuff didn’t bother me so he’d send me on these wild goose chases,” Cooper said.
A memorable escapade was on the Lewis River. Bolstridge flew over and dropped him food, but the supplies landed in the drink. Cooper chased the package three miles down the twisty, fast-flowing river before finally losing it to the current. By then Bolstridge sent a pilot to go pluck him out of the field, having spotted from his plane no less than 43 bears in the area into which Cooper had wandered.
In the early 1980s, Cooper supplemented his summer income from the fish plant by collecting antlers in the woods and selling them to a carver during the winter. That led to him learning to carve, which led to him rekindling an interest in rocks and minerals he’d had since visiting museums as a kid.
Cooper opened his shop in 1985 and has been all over the state on rock-hounding trips, collecting agates, crystals, minerals and gemstones to sell at this shop, at Fur Rendezvous and at various rock shows in Alaska and down south.
In all that time, gold sparked his interest, but never quite enough to seriously pursue it.
“As a 19-, 20-year-old you’re just surviving, you don’t have time to go do stuff like that. I never had the opportunity, or made the opportunity, until the kids were finally starting to leave,” he said. “Gold was always there. It was always something I wanted to do, but how do you divide your time up? You’ve got a couple of weeks a year and rocks are so much easier to find than gold.”
His wife, Linda, came down with gold fever in 2004 and spread the infection to him. They were at a rock show in Arizona and met a representative from Ganes Creek, who put a 30-ounce gold nugget in her hand.
“She said, ‘We’re going,’” Cooper said.
And they did, each summer starting in 2005. Cooper kept on making the yearly trip even after Linda died in 2010.
“When I got up there it was just my kind of place. Not only did we have the opportunity to find something, you have people to help you with your machine and all that, but you have 12,000 acres to walk around in with tons of old machinery to look at,” Cooper said.
Over the years he’s found 43 nuggets. Most go into the safety deposit box. Some he’s turned into pendants for necklaces, including one he gave to Donna Schwanke, owner of Donna’s Country and Victorian Gifts in Soldotna, whom he married in January. Schwanke made her first trip to Ganes Creek with Cooper this summer and was about as thrilled with her first-ever gold find, a little cornflake weighing 1/20th of an ounce, as Cooper was with his 10.64-ounce whopper.
“She got a signal and asked me to come check it for her. I did and I said, ‘Eh, it’s a
little iffy.’ She said, ‘It’s a good signal, dig it!’ So I did,” Cooper said, laughing. “All of a sudden down in the debris I spot just a little corner on this mud-colored rock. I could tell when I picked it up it had just a little bit of weight to it. I handed it to her and she looked at it, and then she started screaming.”
Visitors to Ganes Creek pay $3,000 for a week of lodging and meals at the camp, transportation to the tailings fields and the ability to keep any gold they find. With gold prices having tripled since the mine opened its recreational operation, some visitors see the booking fee as a straight financial investment. But for Cooper, the trip is his version of a vacation — exploring the wilderness, soaking in history, digging in the dirt, all with the thrill of the search.
“I go back, not to make money, I just love that whole area. Some people go to Hawaii, some people go to Alaska, some people go on a Caribbean cruise. I’d rather just go to Ganes Creek and look for nuggets,” he said.
His first couple visits to the mine site weren’t typical vacation relaxing. He was
learning how to dial in the finicky metal detectors, which can’t tell a pop can from pay dirt and can skim the edge of even a large nugget without making a peep, only for the next prospector to get lucky on a pass over the same spot.
For those with gold fever, the nuggets that sparkle the brightest are the ones someone else finds. Cooper remembers vividly the time he skipped over a wad of clay at the edge of a tailings ditch, thinking for sure there wouldn’t be any gold there, only to watch someone pull a 12-ounce nugget from that very spot a little while later. Or the time he thought he’d be smart and follow a more-experienced detector to the edge of a tailings patch and not five minutes later someone else found a 13-ounce nugget in the very row he’d just abandoned.
“I was just sick with myself. But that’s the thing, the grass always looks greener on the other side,” he said.
Now that he’s been to the other, greener pasture, with his grinning picture posted on the home page of the Ganes Creek website, details of his find lighting up chatter among the Alaska mining community, and everyone around him that day feeling sick over missing the signal he detected, Cooper can happily wander off again.
“As you go through life you have different goals. For a whole year of training for McKinley that was the goal, to summit. And then getting a really big moose. Or, I’m sure for some people, a hole in one, or first prize for a quilt or best vegetable at the Alaska (State) Fair. Finding a big nugget is one of those lofty goals that you actually reach. It’s just a thrill,” he said.
It turns out the cure for gold fever, at least for Cooper, is in enjoying the search as much as the find.
“I’ve got my big monster one now and the pressure’s off. It just feels good not to have to worry about that. I can just enjoy being out there. No matter what somebody finds around me, that’s going to be great for them,” he said.