Narrative #2 - The Aleutians

Volcano of Gold

By: Ron Reil

This narrative is in memory of my partner and friend, Doug Harris.


My work in the Aleutians for Battle Mountain Gold Corporation included prospecting parts of the Alaska Peninsula. I became part of the project three years into a proposed five year exploration project to explore for gold on Native Indian land holdings. One of the areas that had been previously identified for further prospecting was the Canoe Bay/Mt. Dana area at the extreme southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula. In the latter half of the 1989 field season we packed up our field camp and departed Camp Quagmire on Popof Island in our Alouette A-Star helicopter, to fly the 60 miles to a bear hunter's cabin on the shore of Canoe Bay. The incidents referred to in this narrative were taken from my 1989 field journal.

In many ways things have not changed much since the gold rush days of the mid-1800s. The modern exploration geologist still uses the gold pan and shovel, and still chips rocks to inspect for the tell-tail glimmer of gold. The mule and horse have given way to the helicopter, and the can of beans to hot meals prepared by a camp cook, but the spirit is unchanged. The risks are still there as well. The Indian attacks are gone, but the very real threat of bear attack still lingers, and the even greater threat of death in a helicopter accident weighs heavily on the minds of all who do this kind of work. In Alaska, where this adventure took place, on average two geologists die in helicopter accidents for each mine that opens! We made our contribution to this grim statistic when my partner and dear freind Doug Harris, and another geologist friend, along with the pilot of the helicopter, all fell to their deaths. It was the last flight of the season when the main rotor simply came off in flight! This narrative is dedicated to Doug and the others who died that day. (Note: The person in the brown vest in the above linked picture of our helicopter is Doug Harris, and Doug's dog Diamond is on the ground waiting for a ride. Diamond was not onboard when the helicopter crashed.)

Gold in Every Pan!

As the cold and stormy Shumigan Islands' summer wore on, we all began to look forward to the coming exploration of the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula, and the Canoe Bay/Mt. Dana volcano area in particular. We had arranged to use a bear hunters' cabin on Canoe Bay during our time in the Mt. Dana area. The Canoe Bay region has one of the highest brown bear populations in the world, so the added security if the cabin would be welcome.

Everyone in our crew was heavily armed with the weapon of their choice. For those who came to the job without a weapon of their own the company provided .44 magnum revolvers. Also, we each carried a can of bear mace, an ultra powerful pepper mace that had shown good results in the past. The only problem with the mace was you had to allow the bear to get very close and personal before you were in range to use it. I carried a pistol grip stainless steel 12 gage pump shotgun. It was loaded with alternating .50 caliber sabot rounds, and 000-buck shot, the buckshot was to blind the bear. This was the recommended "medicine" for the big brownies when they decide to establish a one on one relationship with you. We soon learned that the only time we didn't want to have a round "up the spout" was when we were in the helicopter.

The thing that made the Canoe Bay area so interesting was the gold, it was everywhere! In 1987, Bill Ellis, our camp boss, lead geologist, and project manager, had first discovered "colors" on the Alaska Peninsula, and his discovery was later verified by Doug Harris during the 1988 field season. You couldn't take a pan of dirt anyplace on the southern Alaska Peninsula without turning up "colors" in the pan. This was very provocative stuff to a group of exploration geologists - where was it all coming from?

Our helicopter had been working hard for several days prior to our moving down to the cabin. It was hauling the "fly camp" gear down, and a generous supply of fuel for the helicopter as well. There are no gas stations on the southern Alaska Peninsula. In fact, there isn't much of anything but wild country, and bears by the hundreds. Our chopper pilot, Jim, counted 22 of the big bears in 15 minutes during one of his early supply flights to the cabin!

Finally the day arrived when all the supplies were at the cabin, and it was time for the four geologists, camp cook, pilot, and helicopter mechanic, to load up and fly down too. It was with some sadness that I closed up my Weatherport tent for the extended absence. I hoped it would still be in one piece when I returned. Most of my things were still in it. The tent was situated in some heavy brush, so I hoped the worst of the Aleutian storms would blow over the top. I needn't have worried as it came through fine.

One of the nice things about working in remote places like the Aleutians is that all formality soon fades away. Our pilot, Jim, had been glad to teach me how to fly the helicopter when the time allowed. I would have enjoyed taking the controls now for our 60 mile flight down to Canoe Bay, but the craft was packed, and the dual controls had been removed for convenience. During our return trip I would get to "pilot" the entire trip back to Sand Point.

Just after we took off and climbed to a comfortable altitude, we crossed onto a solid cloud cover below us. This was very unsettling since a mechanical problem could force us to descend through the clouds, possibly crashing into a mountain in the process. Technically we were breaking the law since we had very few instruments. When I commented to Jim about this, he made the observation that to obey all the rules meant that we would never get off the ground in the Aleutians, and he was right. Little did I know what I was soon going to experience on the side of a rugged and stormy volcano.

Once we crossed into the interior of the Peninsula the clouds melted away and the intense dark green of the tundra passed steadily by below us. As we flew down one exceptionally beautiful "U" shaped valley, Jim commented "I wouldn't be the least surprised to see a dinosaur grazing down there." However, it wasn't dinosaurs, but brown bears that we saw. They were everywhere! It really raised the hair on my neck as we passed over the huge beasts. I would soon be working down there alone, and the thought struck fear into my heart. I would learn that by having the helicopter make several low, slow, passes over the area I wished to work in I would have about an hour of bear free time before the brutes returned to their homes. The bears hated the noise of the helicopter, and it would be our chief defense against them.

All too soon the broad expanse of Canoe Bay came into view, and shortly the cabin, tucked into its protective niche in the coastline. We settled gently on the tundra in front of the cabin and started doing what we were being paid for. We quickly unloaded the chopper to get it on its way back to bring down the rest of the crew and supplies. More important than the geologists was the 25 year old woman, Sue, from Challis, Idaho who was our camp cook. The job would go very badly if she didn't make it in before the weather closed in for the next expected storm.

The ground in front of the cabin was piled high with the supplies that Jim had been flying in for the last few days. We had been very lucky as the weather had remained fairly calm during this period. We needed to not only get all the supplies and equipment secured, but to get the basic utilities for the cabin working. The oil stove would not light, and the water line to the cabin was broken somewhere up the mountain. We needed to find the problem and repair it. This was not a comfortable thought as the grass was higher than my head, and the recent visions of the big brownies still burned vividly in my mind.

We opened up the cabin and brought in some of the gear. We decided that I would go with one of the other geologist, Dennis, to repair the water line, while the third member of our party would stay and continue working on the supplies. The sky was becoming increasingly threatening, and we hoped to secure everything before the storm broke.

I dug into my pack for my ammo and loaded my 12 gage. The weight of it on my shoulder was a comfort as we started off into the tall grass and willow cover. I have used weapons for most of my life, but that was the first time that I felt it was necessary to keep a round chambered all the time. After an incident with three brownies the next day, my weapon would remain fully loaded for the duration of our work on the Peninsula.

We worked our way up through miserable wet mosquito infested head high grass, and then up the center of the creek, where we followed the pipe for another quarter mile to its source. We were soaked and thoroughly mosquito chewed by thousands of those famous Alaskan blood thirsty critters when we finally climbed over the last of the almost impenetrable jungle like growth and spotted the end of the pipe. The problem was very obvious when we got there. A flood had broken and displaced the inlet end of the 4 inch pipe. We had to get down into the water and move a lot of rocks to get the pipe back down where it needed to be. When it was all finished we made a hasty retreat, and breathed a big sigh of relief when we got out of the deep grass and into the clearing next to the cabin.

Soon the next chopper load of supplies and the last of our crew arrived. The roar of the gas turbine engine died away to be replaced by the intense quiet of the remote location we were in. All was well now that our cook, Sue, had arrived! She was not to be outdone by any geologist, and wore a stainless .357 magnum revolver on her hip, where it would remain for the duration of the camp. No one had any allusions about getting fresh with her! She ran the show and everyone knew it.

The Work Begins

That night we all spent time reading the various writings on the crude walls inside the cabin. Scores of hunters that had paid their $10,000 for a week long bear hunt had recorded the important facts of their kill. It was enough to make all of us give considerable thought to what we were about to do. A number of the writings testified to firing repeatedly, and solidly hitting their animal, without results. The bear just kept coming. In several cases the bears had finally dropped less than an arm length from the hunter. They were all using big caliber rifles, we had pop guns by comparison. Two of us carried shotguns, the most powerful weapons we had among us. Weren't shotguns for birds? I hoped none of us would meet a brownie up close and personal.

After dinner I took a walk along the beach which fronts the cabin. The tall "bear grass" was only a few yards to my right as I walked along and watched the salmon pooling below our little stream. They were getting ready to perform their desperate rush upstream to insure the future of their species. There were so many salmon that fishing presented no challenge at all. I tried a few casts but my interest soon waned when I couldn't retrieve the line without catching one of them. I was also a little shy about presenting my back to the bear grass. All those fish were a big lure to brownie. A short walk up the side of the stream confirmed the need for caution. Huge tracks were clearly pressed into the bank in numerous places. I suddenly felt very alone and exposed. The hair on my neck bristled, and I quickly retraced my path to the cabin. I felt a wave of relief sweep over me as it came into view.

The next morning after one of Sue's great breakfasts, we loaded up our packs for our first day chasing the mystery of all that gold. The chopper started to wind up outside so it was about time to go. I loaded my 12 gage carefully, but not chambering a round since we were going to be in the chopper in a few minutes. Jim didn't mind loaded guns, he had one in a shoulder holster too, but he didn't like looking down the bore of a weapon with a chambered shell as it was being loaded into the chopper. We all understood his position. Next to the cook the pilot was the most important person in camp.

I didn't know it, but today would be one of the best of the field season. We lifted off into early morning low clouds. We got trapped for a few minutes in a very tense "white knuckle" situation while trying to break through the cloud layer, but it worked out, and soon we were above it and headed for Mt. Dana. We steadily climbed the lower slopes of the volcano. Several hundred feet below, a line of alternating holes in the tundra came into view. When I asked what they were, my blood turned to ice when I learned it was a bear trail. The big bears walk the same trails, and in the exact same footsteps, generation after generation. They create deep "post holes" in the tundra in places. Seeing the evidence of these creatures habits shook me. The 12 gage propped between my knees seemed awfully tiny. Their trails were clearly visible from a thousand feet above them.

Jim set the chopper down on the barren tundra high on the flanks of the volcano. There was evidence of the passage of the caribou herds in their migration just weeks before. Huge antlers lay about, some bleached white, others fresh from this year's passage. We gathered several and took some pictures. We were standing on a huge "basal surge deposit" of ash and bigger ejecta, formed during the last cataclysmic eruption of the mountain. This material spread for miles in all directions from the volcano.

We fired up the A-Star again and headed on up the mountain. The rim of the crater came into view, and we floated up over the lip and then down into the deep crater. There was a spectacular crater lake within the crater. Also, at one end of the crater was one lonely caribou, a straggler from the migrations some weeks before. We circled the poor creature and then headed down to land next to the lake. The strange pastel green of the lake gave evidence of its dangerous character. This was a gas lake, not unlike the lake in Cameroon, Africa, that killed so many people when it boiled out its deadly CO2 cloud some years before. We were lucky, the wind was strong, carrying away any dangerous concentrations of gasses in the crater. When we landed we quickly discovered the deadly nature of the lake. There were many little voles and other creatures lying dead near the shore of the lake, overcome by the deadly gasses during calm weather. I tasted the water of the lake and was surprised when I found it appeared to be good to drink.

We explored the dangerous crater, sampling the rocks as we went. We saw no evidence of gold. After several hours we lifted off and continued on over the mountain to explore all sides of the dormant giant. The topography was fantastic. The volcanic hills about the volcano were very steep sided, too steep it seemed to stand up if physical laws were to be obeyed. It was a land that Hollywood would love to use for a movie backdrop for something like "The Land Before Time." The day continued to be very good by Aleutian standards with 30-40 mph winds and high overcast with occasional breaks. The temperature hovered around 45 degrees.

After a productive day, we returned to the cabin to discover that all was not well there. Sue was barricaded inside the cabin claiming that she had been "hassled" all day by a group of bears. We gave her a hard time until we walked over by the stream, and sure enough, there were the unmistakable imprints of a big sow and two cubs. The grass was just straightening up as we observed where it had been flattened by them lying on it just moments before. The roar of our chopper had driven them away as we landed. The only weapon she had available was the little .357, not much of a gun for such big critters. We continued to give her a rough time, but we all had a new respect for Sue. She had handled the situation very well. I had concern for her because I knew of a case where a bear had actually come in and carried off a camp cook with all the good smells of food on his clothes. That was not a brownie but a polar bear though.

During the next few days we explored and sampled the surrounding country around the volcano. There was indeed gold everywhere we panned. We were starting to construct a theory for the source of the gold. Even though it seemed highly unlikely, it looked as though the gold was coming out of Mt. Dana when it erupted! This had never been seen before anyplace on Earth, so we doubted our observations and deductions. The longer we looked however, the more evidence we found to support such a strange origin. It would certainly account for the great area over which the gold could be detected. It could easily travel hundreds of miles in the ash clouds.

After sampling many cross sections of the basal surge deposit we had to admit that the volcano had to be the source. What was then required was to determine if it was coming from a massive deposit of gold in the rock of the volcano that was being eroded during each eruption, or was it cognate gold from deep within the Earth. We decided to do separate traverses up the side of the mountain, mapping and sampling along each traverse. This way we might determine if the country rock in the immediate crater area was the source.

At first light we climbed into the chopper and were each dropped off at a predetermined point. We were each to climb the volcano and sample and field map the route as we climbed. My route started at an old hot spring formation with a great travertine dome where the hot water had deposited its load of carbonate over the centuries. It was a long and lonely climb. The weather was deteriorating steadily, and it gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach as the fitful blasts of wind hit me from various directions.

I climbed and sampled, mapping the strata as I went. The rock was ever changing as I climbed. It was the typical melange that is found on almost every volcano of the world. As I approached a narrow "V" shaped gully, the winds started to increase in strength. I was part way up the gully when a roar like a jet engine came from above me. I looked up to see a violent wind tearing the gully as it descended toward me. It was picking up pieces of volcanic tuff as big as baseballs and blowing them around in a violent whirlwind. My heart lodged in my throat as the monster descended on me. I threw my shotgun down and dropped on top of it, folding my arms over my head to protect it from the flying rock. I hoped that my pack would protect me and help to hold me down. The climbing was very steep at that point, and it would have been a very long fall if the wind tore me from the rock.

I looked up the gully one more time just before it hit me. I had never seen big rocks picked up and blown around before, and that was what was happening only a few yards away from me. Just as the rocks right in front of me started to lift off, I buried my face and waited for the impact. I could feel the rocks hitting my pack, but nothing hit my head or arms. It was incredibly noisy as it passed over, and then it was past and all was quiet. My heart was beating like a jack hammer, but I was otherwise untouched. I remained there for awhile, collecting my thoughts, and then got up and climbed on up the mountain.

The sky was getting heavier by the minute. It was questionable if I could reach the summit before the storm closed in. I started moving faster and doing less mapping and sampling as I climbed. Finally the summit was just ahead. There was a small terrace or shelf to cross before I reached it. When I stood up on the terrace the winds all but knocked me down. They were very fitful, blowing one direction fiercely for a few moments, then blasting in from a different direction moments later.

I reached the lip of the crater and looked down the thousand foot drop to the angry green lake below. I got out my radio and called in the chopper to try to pick me up. I could see the machine lift off far below and start the climb to my elevation. In about 10 minutes the chopper was at my level, but holding off some 1000 feet or so away to gage the wind conditions. I got on the radio and suggested that perhaps it would be better if I down climbed one to two thousand feet to get below the violent winds. Jim said that he thought he could get me, but I would have to be ready to jump aboard the instant he touched his left skid down. It would be a one skid pickup, and a very dangerous one. The shelf was not wide enough for the chopper to get any closer or it would hit the rocks with its rotor.

Jim asked me to get down on the shelf right where the left skid would touch down and be ready to jump on board. The clearance for the tail rotor was the biggest concern. If a sudden gust of wind hit, that was too strong to correct for, the tail would be blown into the rocks. The results of that happening were too terrible to consider.

I got into position as Jim started his approach. The winds were horrible, blowing fiercely one direction for a moment, then reversing and smashing in from the opposite direction. I couldn't imagine how Jim could possibly maintain control under those circumstances. As Jim approached he told me to be ready for an instant take off, and not to spend time getting in and closing the door. I understood where he was coming from, as I had no desire to die in an accident either.

Jim felt his way in, as I crouched by a rock watching him being thrown all over the place by the gusts. I suggested one last time that I down climb, but Jim was determined to pluck me off the peak. I put the radio away and secured everything for the attempt, my heart in my throat.

Jim slowly eased the A-Star in, gently touching the left skid to the rock next to me. I could see that the moment had come, so jumped for the door. I threw it open, dumped my gun and pack on the floor, and threw myself on top of them, while grabbing a seat belt strap as I did so. Jim didn't wait for another second, but threw the stick hard over and the chopper dropped instantly off the rock and banked steeply down the side of the mountain, gaining air speed with the rapid loss of altitude. I was only half into the chopper, with my lower half hanging out the door while I held on with all my strength. I was not concerned about dropping out, but was only interested in seeing us gain distance from the jagged rocks speeding by.

Jim quickly put distance between us and the mountain while I pulled myself into the machine. I finally got into a seat and secured the flight harness around me. I felt very secure and safe at that moment. I only had a short time to regain my thoughts before Jim got a call from Dennis, who was also ready for pick up. Dennis hadn't climbed to the summit as I had done, but he was in a bad location for pick up none the less. He was on the side of the mountain on a smooth, unbroken slope of about 40 degrees. There was no place around where the chopper could land with any amount of safety margin between its inboard rotor tips and the slope. Jim decided to do a hover just above the ground and let Dennis climb up from there.

Although we were over a thousand feet lower than where Jim had picked me up, the winds were still very erratic, with violent gusts from all directions. I held my breath while we eased in and held a very precarious hover, while Dennis seemed to take forever loading his gear and getting in. Finally he was aboard and we banked rapidly away from the mountain. Jim took us down to the cabin and dropped us off, then he returned for the other two geologists. Soon he was back with the rest of the crew and settled the chopper gently down in the calm air near the cabin. It was good to have everyone together safe and in one piece after such a day.

We spent another four days working the area around the volcano. There was no doubt that the source of the gold was Mt. Dana. We discussed it late into the night, but a suitable model for the processes going on beneath the volcano was not to be agreed on. The weather got much worse, and the remainder of our time at Canoe Bay was less than pleasant. When all the sampling was finally finished, we returned to Sand Point and our old Camp Quagmire. I was able to pilot the helicopter for the return trip, which was most enjoyable for me.

Battle Mountain Gold Corporation decided to keep the discovery of a volcano that erupts gold secret for another year while further evaluations were made. The deposit was finally deemed to be of insufficient quality to warrant the opening of a mine in such a remote location. If Mt. Dana were closer to civilization it would be a very big gold mine right now.

The discovery of cognate volcanic gold was finally released to the public, which caused immediate interest in volcanoes around the world. Since then a number of volcanoes have been found that have similar cognate gold in their ejecta. One of the most interesting is Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippine Islands.

After we returned to Camp Quag my field season came to a close, as I had to return to Idaho for the start of school. I did a little more work on Andronica Island, mapping and sampling, and then it was all over for the season. I was glad to fly out, and looked forward to seeing my family again after being away for so long. The funny thing was that when I landed in Boise, Idaho, the weather was cold and rainy, just like the Aleutians! It was great to be home none the less.

The End

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