The call of the gold: George Abermeth, Dawson City, Yukon

Text: Bernadette Calonego

Lesson 1 for wannabe gold miners: You need a great hat and muscular arms. Just like George Abermeth.  And it helps if your mother is a German baroness. Enlarge image Lesson 1 for wannabe gold miners: You need a great hat and muscular arms. Just like George Abermeth. And it helps if your mother is a German baroness. (© Margot C. Grant) When George Abermeth found gold for the first time in the Yukon, his joy was short-lived. A man came by and said: “You are drilling on my property.” It turned out, the man was right. But George is not a man who is easily fazed. “We went 100 feet over”, he says, “and we started drilling again, and low and behold, we still found gold. That was a huge relief!”

No, you are wrong; this is not coffee grounds mixed with bird seed. The yellow stuff is gold!  And I can assure you, George Abermeth will get that gold out of there, all of it. Enlarge image No, you are wrong; this is not coffee grounds mixed with bird seed. The yellow stuff is gold! And I can assure you, George Abermeth will get that gold out of there, all of it. (© Margot C. Grant) George drove furtively to Dawson City, showed the gold he had found to a friend who said: “This is good land, take it.” And George went out and staked his claims in 1990. That is how he became the owner of several gold mines in the Yukon. And that is, according to him, how George Abermeth became very wealthy.

His parents got lucky, too. They emigrated from post-war Germany – from a town called Auerbach near Stuttgart, to be precise - to Canada in 1951. “My father, an engineer and commoner, married my mother who was a baroness”, George tells me. “I was born in Germany and six years old when we emigrated. My mother told me that I was the only person on the ship that took us across the ocean who did not get seasick.”

  George Abermeth (left) with two employees at one of his gold mines in the Yukon. The black thing that the men are hugging is where the black sand is separated from the gold. It is called clean up jig. But you probably know that already from the reality shows on the Discovery Channel. Enlarge image George Abermeth (left) with two employees at one of his gold mines in the Yukon. The black thing that the men are hugging is where the black sand is separated from the gold. It is called clean up jig. But you probably know that already from the reality shows on the Discovery Channel. (© Margot C. Grant) Somehow the males in George`s family are not put off by dirt. His father shovelled coals first in Hamilton, Ontario. Then the family settled in Vancouver where George`s dad did quality control in a pipe manufacturing business. His mother went to university to have her German teaching degree “canadianized”.

Now I tell you a secret. George`s real name is in fact Björn. But on his first day at school, the teacher said that nobody could pronounce Björn in Canada. She called the boy from Germany John. Later, he resorted to his second name George. Periodically, these name changes create problems for Björn/John/George. “I still have problems today with my pension and my pilot`s licence because they took the name from my birth certificate and not from my passport”, says George.

Lesson 2 in becoming a gold miner in the Yukon: Here you see George Abermeth cleaning the sluice box which separates the gold and the black sand from the gravel. Please bring your oldest clothes with you and don`t mind broken finger nails. Enlarge image Lesson 2 in becoming a gold miner in the Yukon: Here you see George Abermeth cleaning the sluice box which separates the gold and the black sand from the gravel. Please bring your oldest clothes with you and don`t mind broken finger nails. (© Margot C. Grant) Like father like son: George became a civil engineer and – after graduating from BCIT [British Columbia Institute of Technology] in 1969 – headed instantly to “the True North Strong and Free”. Mind you, by that time, George had already contracted the bug as a student during a summer job in a placer gold mine in Likely (British Columbia). Off he goes, building railway bridges, part of a big expansion program to open up the North.

He also helped to build hydro power lines for the Mica dam in Northern B.C. Then, he bought a “water taxi/tag barge operation” on the Queen Charlotte Islands, officially called Haida Gwaii. And there, he and his partner also developed a logging business which started to falter because of government regulations.

Just bear with me - that is when we finally get to the gold.

You would think that being a gold miner would be adventurous enough and George would not think of going to Las Vegas and get a 165 miles/hour- ride on a race track. Well, think again... Enlarge image You would think that being a gold miner would be adventurous enough and George would not think of going to Las Vegas and get a 165 miles/hour- ride on a race track. Well, think again... (© George Abermeth) One of his clients went mining to the Yukon and invited George. And, as the lore goes, this client sat at the table when George enters the room. And there (have you got the camera`s rolling, folks?) “this guy is sitting in front of bags and bags of gold”. That is how George remembers it. And he is thinking: “Why I am staying on the Charlottes and not looking for gold in the Yukon?” Good question, which I could ask myself, too. Why am I writing this and not looking for gold in I-don`t-care-where?

You know, gold can be glamorous – just not when you dig it out of the dirt. Here is the sluice plant again. Please note: Sluice, not juice. Enlarge image You know, gold can be glamorous – just not when you dig it out of the dirt. Here is the sluice plant again. Please note: Sluice, not juice. (© Margot C. Grant) Anyway, George being George replaced thoughts by action. (Good move, George, I should try that, too.) He bought a truck, a 16-wheeler, and some mining equipment for 60,000 dollars. That was in 1990, mind you. Then he had to go to driving school again, so that he would be allowed to drive the 16-wheeler with air brakes. I realize that the path to gold is plastered with challenges. And air brakes. By the way, George already owned an airplane, a Cessna 185. And then he bought a drill rig.

Maybe, gold mining is not for me, after all, with all these expensive investments. I better stick to doing interviews.

So I proceed to asking George Abermeth some Curious and Crucial Questions:

George, would you give me a job in your mining camp in the Yukon?

This is George Abermeth`s private swimming pool. It is actually one of the settlement pools with dirty water from the gold mining operation. The water has to be settled for environmental protection. That means, the fish are protected, not George. Enlarge image This is George Abermeth`s private swimming pool. It is actually one of the settlement pools with dirty water from the gold mining operation. The water has to be settled for environmental protection. That means, the fish are protected, not George. (© Margot C. Grant) Yes, but you must be prepared to work 12 hours a day, like all of us, every day from May 23 until early September. We had a 60-year old woman who made breakfast in the morning, and then she operated the excavator that feeds the dirt into the sluice. And at night she cooked supper.

How much would you pay me?

350 dollars per day, and you would get benefits, too. But you would have to put up with three men, myself included, an outhouse instead of an indoor washroom, a shower in a shack and a kitchen in a mobile home. It takes 2 hours to get from our bush camp to Dawson City. But we also have satellite TV in the camp.

And bears?

According to George, the Golden Rule for Miners goes like this: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” For women, this rule obviously does not apply. So women, go ahead and make the rules! Enlarge image According to George, the Golden Rule for Miners goes like this: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” For women, this rule obviously does not apply. So women, go ahead and make the rules! (© Margot C. Grant) Yes, lots of grizzly bears. Last year, a bear came into the camp. Fortunately, nobody was there. The bear tore up my employee`s bedding and he broke into the cooking shack and ate all the beef stew in the slow cooker.

What are the chances for me to strike it rich like you?   

Well, I became a millionaire in five years. My partner and I, we were called the wonder boys in Dawson`s mining community. We started digging in 1990, about 80 kilometers outside of Dawson City.

So practically, how does placer mining work?

Placer means not attached to material. When I started out, I bought a drill rig and went out drilling, 28 feet deep into the ground. You take the dirt out of the hole and you wash it in a gold pan. I still remember the first day when it happened: There was actually gold in the pan!

George with his motorhome, traveling across the continent, looking for... I don`t know what, to tell you the truth, but certainly not for gold! Enlarge image George with his motorhome, traveling across the continent, looking for... I don`t know what, to tell you the truth, but certainly not for gold! (© Margot C. Grant) Oh, this is like in the movies! Did you live happily ever after?

You know, business goes up and it goes down. Boom and bust. I lost a bunch of money in 2002. The gold price sank while the operating costs rose. I said: “I will only go mining again when the price per ounce will go up to 1000 dollar.”

And did it – and did you?

I went back to the Yukon in 2009 when the price was at 900 dollars an ounce. I was bored and it looked pretty good. Now I have made tons of money and I want to sell the two larger mines and keep the smaller mine. I would play at the small mine which is about five miles away, and help the owner of the larger mines if he needs consulting work. Do you want to buy them?

Who? Me? Unfortunately, I don`t have 1.4 million dollars. Did you ever get married?

George with his boat in Vancouver. Now I have given you the scoop about how Canadian gold miners spend their holidays. Enlarge image George with his boat in Vancouver. Now I have given you the scoop about how Canadian gold miners spend their holidays. (© George Abermeth) I was married once, for a year and a half. It is not easy for a miner to stay married when he spends so many months in the bush. But in the winter, I like traveling. I was in countries like New Zealand, Indonesia and Bali. I also have a boat.

What do you need a boat for – you already have an airplane!

I go sport fishing. In mid-September, the salmon is running in the Capilano River in British Columbia. When I catch a nice fish, it is almost like hitting a gold mine!

One last question: Can you remember what you did on the day when the Berlin Wall was destroyed (November 9, 1989)?

I have been very “Canadianized” and not very aware of international politics. I do not recall any special celebrations. I would like to say that I went immediately to visit my mother and celebrated with a toast of one or maybe three "Benedictines", which was our family`s "stadtratsitzung" [literally “city council meeting”] liquor. 

Have a look at George`s website:
www.woundedmoosemine.com

George Abermeth

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Bernadette Calonego, author of immigrant portraits

Bernadette Calonego

Most of our immigrant portraits are written by Bernadette Calonego, a freelance Canada correspondent for European German-language newspapers. Writing about German immigrants in Canada made me realise to what extent they helped to shape this country – and still do," she says.