For several seasons on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch," executive producer Thom Beers has followed fishermen as they pull living gold in the form of king and snow crab from the waters of Alaska's Bering Sea, braving the fierce storms and frigid temperatures of autumn and winter in search of profit.
Starting Friday, Jan. 27, Beers' new Discovery series, "Bering Sea Gold," follows treasure seekers of a different kind as they hunt for actual gold, deposited over millions of years on the sea floor by glaciers in the waters off Nome. They individually designed and built floating mining rigs, ranging from a tiny modified skiff to an 80-foot-long dredger that paddles itself out to sea using a backhoe.
"It's coming out from the glaciers," says Beers, "just rolling out there. The glaciers have done all the work for you. The runoff has done most of the work for you. Off of Nome, it's just sitting there in that water."
The goal is to dig up or suck up chunks of sea floor and send them through wash plants and filters in hopes of sorting heavy gold from lighter rocks and sand. With the price of gold -- at this writing -- north of $1,500 an ounce, even a little of the precious metal yields a lot of cash.
Unlike the crabbers, the miners work in the summer months, the only time of year when the ocean isn't covered in ice. But that doesn't mean it's time for flip-flops and surfboards in a city where summer temperatures average in the 50s. And the miners aren't spending their off hours lounging in swanky beachside digs.
"You've got to love a season," Beers says. "I know there's a beginning, a middle and an end. As soon as that bay starts to freeze up, they're done. You've only got basically 10 weeks, if you're lucky, to get out there and find that gold.
"So these guys, they're doing whatever they can, all night long, all day long. Remember, it's 24 hours of the sun; they can work 25 hours straight. If they're on the gold, they're on it, and it's frickin' cold and miserable. These guys are living on beaches and in sheds and shacks.
"The weather is a huge problem up there. Even though it's summer, storms come into that area. You're lucky to get calm seas maybe a day a week, so it's not like you're doing 24 hours a day every day. They get rained out constantly; they get winded out; they get stormed out.
"It's brutal, but it's all for the gold, baby, going for the gold."Out of the dozens of dredges working in the area, Beers and his team focus on four:
The Christine Rose: Three times larger than any other craft in the area, former land-based miner Steve Pomrenke has essentially put a terrestrial gold-mining operation to sea. His son, Shawn, captains the vessel and operates the backhoe, which scoops up sea floor (when it's not paddling, substituting for the craft's nonfunctional propellers) and feeds the dirt into the floating wash plant.
The Clark: Zeke Tenhoff, a 24-year-old Nome native, captains his 20-foot rig, powered by a car engine, with the help of childhood friend and aspiring opera singer Emily Riedel, 23. Aiming to pay off $100,000 in hospital bills, Tenhoff dives to the bottom and sucks up his material with a vacuum hose, sometimes for hours at a time, kept warm by hot water pumped into his wet suit.
The Sluicey: Former social worker Ian Foster has bet his life savings on this barely two-seater skiff, only to arrive and find it underwater. He calls on experienced dredger Scott Foster (no relation) to keep his dreams afloat.
The Wild Ranger: Retired military man Vernon Adkison owns this diver-operated dredger, but the captain is rookie Scott Meisterheim, who owes enough in back child support to potentially land him in jail. Of course, after working with eccentric deckhand Steve Riedel, Emily's father, who lives in an old school bus, jail may not seem so bad.
But unlike the Bering Sea in crab season, falling into the water doesn't mean instant hypothermia, so apparently two "Deadliest Catch" brothers are eager to try their hands at gold mining.
"The Hillstrands (brothers Johnathan and Andy, co-captains of the Time Bandit) want to go there," Beers says. "They have been dying to go to Nome to do this, so we're probably going to do a little special with them.
"It's a hoot, man. It's just hard work, believe me, but it's not much harder than crab fishing. It's time-consuming, and it's a lot of work. And it's pretty darn dangerous.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times